By Peter Allen Clark
Does a video game television show stand a chance with modern audiences?
The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 6 that Netflix is working on a Legend of Zelda television show. While the article’s only source is “a person familiar with the matter”, it still opens the question of how well such a show would fare in today’s modern high expectations and the history of poor video game translations.
As it currently stands, productions trying to bring video game property into theaters or onto televisions have not met with much widespread critical acclaim, and few have found steady audiences.
Small screen for sub-super shows
Wikipedia’s list of televions shows adapted from video games is pretty darn big. It contains 108 animated and 12 live action shows produced from the late 1980s to the current day.
It shouldn’t come as any real surprised that the whole idea kicked off from the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which brought a suite of various games-based shows to 1989, including the original Legend of Zelda show.
Judging from the variety of shows that have appeared over the years, many of them tried to capture the popularity of specific gaming trends and market them to children. This includes the ongoing animated franchise of Angry Birds.
But from the 2001 Parappa The Rappa show to 2004’s Viewtiful Joe series, the list of produced programs spans a wide swath across the history of video games. And though studios continue to pay for development, the vast majority of these shows seem to have little staying power.
One of the odder ventures, especially one to end up with three seasons, had to be the Canadian 1990 take on the 1987 adventure game Maniac Mansion. Esteemed comic Eugene Levy created the television show and game developer LucasArts contributed, at least partly, in its development.
If one obvious success story exists in the many television shows based off video games, Pokémon takes the prize. With almost 900 episodes, 18 movies and two spin-offs under its Snorlax-sized belt, the series has run since 1997 and has considerably impacted the continued popularity of the games’ Nintendo-exclusive franchise. By rebooting the series every time developer Game Freak puts out a new game, and extending the brand with the long-lasting trading card game, the Pokémon television show seems to have no problem gaining continued audiences for the time being.
Pokémon aside, the very fact that so many animated shows, aimed at children, continue to be made must speak to their relative business success. If studios did not see some small return on investment, the long list might look a little more like the one detailing game-based movies.
Not-so-sterling silver screen
The list of video game based movies fared worse in terms of audience and acceptance, except for two notable exceptions.
Of the sad collection of those 28 films, 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within received the highest Rottentomatoes.com rating with 44 percent.
Since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. movie, critics have largely panned movies made from video games. That movie only pulled in $8.5 million on its first weekend.
That problem has not existed for the Resident Evil franchise. Churning out five movies since the original in 2002, it has performed pretty well, even though it never won the heart of critical acclaim (The original film scored the highest on Rotten Tomatoes with 33 percent). Overall the franchise has raked in over $914 million with a sixth movie on the way this year.
The other notable exception to the seeming movie curse is Forward Unto Dawn.
The 2012 Halo series, meant to be watched as a long film, set the benchmark for critical and audience praise of a video game property shifting into another medium. Since critical sites list it as both a movie and a television show, no firm Rotten Tomatoes score exists that would put it above other movies — the audience rating sits at 69 percent.
As it seeks writers to work on the Legend of Zelda show, the mysterious Netflix person describes it as “Game of Thrones” for a family audience. If the history of video games shows/movies says anything, it’s that you are more likely to have success and longevity with kids programming.
Again, all of the Zelda television news should be taken with the smallest grain of salt. Even the Wall Street Journal piece said, “It’s also possible that Netflix or Nintendo will kill the project before it gets off the ground.”
Even if nothing comes of it, Netflix won’t be the last to dabble in the depths of gaming’s intellectual properties.
This tragic trajectory of translations will follow any project that attempts to bring video games to the small or silver screen. And who knows, maybe Netflix’s reported Zelda show will be more Pokémon than Maniac Mansion.