There’s a lot happening in the world of Netflix, which is about as surprising a thing to say as noticing the sky is blue. But I’m specifically talking about video game adaptations. 2019 alone has been full of announcements from Netflix concerning video game projects, including adaptations of The Witcher, Castlevania, The Division, and even Cuphead, which is the most recent one. Each of these projects have either started, been in production, or are still in the works, but all of them have been receiving a lot of attention. On the other side, Hollywood is still struggling to get things right, several decades of attempts later. So with its focus on smaller scale projects with talented creatives and the model that fuels those sorts of projects, is Netflix going to become a haven for good video game adaptations that blockbuster cinema can’t?
There have been countless Hollywood-level failures in the realm of video game adaptations. Ever since the 90s, we’ve seen big Hollywood adaptations of Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros., Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, and so many more. And pretty much all of them have been bad movies. Yes, even Mortal Kombat, which many fans have been ardent apologists for, is pretty bad in a lot of ways despite its corny charm. While there have been a few successes, such as the multi-billion-dollar Resident Evil film franchise, a flick of actual cinematic high quality has evaded us. Detective Pikachu from Lionsgate was a pretty solid movie, especially something made from Japanese source material and made for a wide range of audience members. But it’s a goofy kids’ movie at the end of the day, which means it’s full of safe, easy filmmaking and storytelling techniques. That’s fine, but it’s like fast food.
Several more video game movies are in production. For example, Naughty Dog’s big properties, Uncharted and The Last of Us, will both be hitting theaters… at some point in time. Metal Gear Solid is getting a treatment from a popular, up and coming director, and of course we have everyone’s favorite blue punching bag, Sonic the Hedgehog. Capcom’s Monster Hunter is being adapted by the same dude who helmed Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, and Mega Man has a far-off treatment in some stage of production. Nobody knows what to expect from any of these, save for Sonic the Hedgehog which actually has a trailer and a tangible release date. It’s, well, there’s been some drama.
On the Netflix side, the Castlevania series has been a huge standout. Even without the video game license, the animation quality is superb on a level you don’t often see outside of big-budget anime series. The writing starts out a little rough in the first season, but once the second gets going it turns into a fantastic, character-driven adaptation of Castlevania III. The series was so well-received it seemed to stir activity from Konami, which dropped a few high quality re-releases of classic Castlevania games. Meanwhile, several shows such as The Witcher and The Cuphead Show have been announced, both with the sort of people who need to be involved with high-quality projects running the shows.
At the same time, Netflix has been under fire recently for some of its questionable decisions around how it treats its own content. Internal documentation noting that many shows are deliberately cancelled after two seasons due to audience data and creator pay was leaked, and caused a ripple of distaste for the company. It seems like Netflix may be slipping into an algorithm-based system that prefers stats-driven content over quality-driven movement, which never works out for anyone involved.
For now, the world of video game adaptations still feels like the wild west, despite these things being made since the early 90s. Hollywood has had plenty of opportunities and bungled almost all of them, meanwhile Netflix is looking to start shooting some big guns. But Netflix isn’t without problems of its own, that could result in new shows being compromised before they even get started. Ultimately, as members of the audience the best thing we can do is support the things we like, and the creators who make those things. The platform and branding that controls the budgets are far less relevant.