How Ocean Software Finally Made Movie-Licence Video Games Worth Playing
For years, games based on films were shit. But then came quite the sea change.
Ocean's 'RoboCop' made the move from movie to arcades to home ports look smoother than the officer in question's wipe-clean dress sense
There is a prevailing theory that films based on video games tend to be pretty bad, and it's not hard to see why. Guilty pleasure indulgences such as Mortal Kombat notwithstanding, video game movies just never seem to have caught a break in the same way as, say, comic book movies or, to a lesser extent, fantasy cinema in the post-Peter Jackson era.
For the longest time, licensed games also held a certain stigma regarding their quality, considered cheap and cynical cash-ins meted out as marketing tools for the latest summer blockbusters. There are exceptions, of course: the 1997 N64 classic GoldenEye 007 took its time, arriving nearly two years after its cinema namesake. Notably, Black Ops Entertainment tried to follow Rare's example, releasing Bond game Tomorrow Never Dies on the PlayStation two years after the film came out, but it failed to replicate Rare's success with GoldenEye, and played like an utter dog.
Perhaps the golden years for the movie-to-game adaptation came between the mid-1980s to early 1990s, thanks to the efforts of one Manchester-based developer and publisher, Ocean Software. At the time of the company's founding, licensed games were generally expected to be dross. The major culprit in the manifesting of this impression was Atari's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which they paid over $23 million for the rights to – but the 1982 game it sold poorly enough for thousands of copies to find themselves in a New Mexico landfill, a story that's since become much more than merely an industry legend.
Ocean turned this reputation around by bringing a degree of quality to movie tie-ins that had only rarely been seen before. It didn't really matter that the gameplay in the studio's games tended to be pretty basic, as they burned into the memory like few games of their era. I can remember loving every stilted side-scrolling second.
It's the same story with kids now. My nephew, who is becoming quite keen on video games, enjoys playing the odd Mario title with his dad, but still spends most of his gaming time divided between LEGO Marvel Super Heroes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. It doesn't concern him that the Turtles game got a roasting from critics who'd probably rather see children playing something like Ico – kids love to see their heroes, and be them, on screen, almost regardless of how the game in question plays. And Ocean cleverly tapped into that feeling.
Company founders David Ward and Jon Woods didn't initially set out to become the de facto industry names for licensed game publishing however, and they did produce several original IPs throughout their 14-year tenure, one of the best being the classic Spectrum title Head Over Heels. Chris Wilkins, who wrote The History of Ocean Software, as well as The Story of the ZX Spectrum In Pixels, claims that some of his personal favourites from Ocean's catalogue include these early non-movie-based Spectrum games, and he says that the experience of purchasing them induces nostalgic memories.
"I loved the early games of Ocean, the likes of Hunchback, Daley Thompson's Decathlon and Kong (basically a ZX Spectrum copy of arcade hit Donkey Kong)," Chris tells me. "These were the games that could be found on the shelves of Boots and WHSmith at the time I first owned a Spectrum, and the covers by Bob Wakelin would entice you to buy the game.
"Thankfully with most of the Ocean games, the gamble of buying a game by its cover paid off. Many QuickShot joysticks were broken playing Daley Thompson's Decathlon – Ocean Software effectively brought the arcade game Track & Field into the bedrooms of us teenagers."
My personal experience of Ocean games is slightly different to Chris's – I was perhaps too young for the Spectrum era, but became familiar with Ocean by playing their games with my older brothers on both the Atari ST and Amiga in the early 1990s, then a year or two later on the Sega Mega Drive, which was my first proper console.
Batman, based on Tim Burton's 1989 film, was a massive hit on home computer platforms, and later consoles. At the time it was the most aggressively marketed movie in cinema history, and Ocean's game featured their hallmark side-scrolling action, but also included the novelty of levels where you could drive the Batmobile and fly the Batwing.
Ocean's Batman was a heady mix of a Streets of Rage-style brawl 'em up, Out Run and After Burner – but it had Batman in it, which automatically made it the coolest shit kids of my age had ever seen. The feted Rocksteady Studios couldn't bring the Batmobile to its Arkham series until the games went new-gen-only with this summer's Arkham Knight. Ocean let you have it in the second level.
The company had first seen the potential in licensed games in 1985, and set about turning ultraviolent action movies of the era into kid-friendly side-scrollers, achieving perhaps their first major success just before Batman's release when they ported Data East's arcade smash RoboCop. Given the limitations of home systems at the time, the plot of the movie wasn't about to be followed with absolute accuracy, but the critics all agreed that Ocean's RoboCop was a hit. The director of the satirical sci-fi movie, Paul Verhoeven, might've chuckled at the necessary sanitising of his treatise on American cultural attitudes to violence and the media, which ultimately expanded into toys and a cartoon, but the sales spoke for themselves: the ZX Spectrum version of RoboCop remained amongst the system's highest sellers for two solid years.
A TV advert for the home versions of Ocean's 'RoboCop'
"Ocean invented the movie licence, and RoboCop was one of their biggest selling titles along with Platoon," says Wilkins. "There were some stinkers released as well – Total Recall, Cobra and the infamous Hudson Hawk spring to mind."
Chris's mention of Platoon and Hudson Hawk brings back some good memories. Licensed games tend to be better nowadays in a technical sense, but to my mind, they are pretty conservative endeavours. One of my favourite things about Ocean's licensed games was how they managed to find existing material and adapt it, no matter how unlikely the source.
Among the weird and wonderful oddities bulking up Ocean's softography are an adaptation of Fritz the Cat animator Ralph Bakshi's flop Cool World; an Addams Family game devoted to Pugsley; and a non-canon sequel to Jurassic Park entitled Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues, which played similarly to the SNES version of Alien³. Even Brian De Palma gangster classic The Untouchables proved it was anything but, getting the patented Ocean side-scrolling treatment in 1989.
I ask Chris if he feels that licenced games have improved since the heyday of Ocean Software: "These days it can still be hit and miss, so in my opinion nothing has really changed. At least now the character you play in the game does tend to look like the person playing the character in the movie."
All this nostalgia giving you the munchies? We've got something for that.
While I actually do feel games based on movies have substantially improved over time – The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Spider-Man 2 and The Warriors are all major turning points of the sixth console generation – I also think it is too easy to look back on an 8- and 16bit generation mired in absolutely awful games and have a dig at Ocean. Their games were cool at the time because nobody knew any better (even Hudson Hawk got 82 percent in Zzap!64), and to this day still hold a certain nostalgic charm.
Ocean laid the framework for what is now a modern renaissance for quality video game adaptations of television and movie properties. Telltale Games are winning plaudits for their spins on water cooler series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead; Rocksteady's Arkham games are action-adventure pinnacles; Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor delivered a gritty spin on The Lord of the Rings; and the LEGO and Disney Infinity games are as enjoyably polished as the toys and franchises that spawned them.
After 14 years' worth of indelible gaming memories, it is only appropriate that Ocean bowed out with one last trip to the movies. Mission: Impossible for the Nintendo 64 was the final title to bear the Ocean name before the company's eventual rebranding, following purchase by French publisher Infogrames in 1998. It distinguished itself as something of a progenitor to the sandbox stealth of the Hitman series (particularly in its use of disguises), emphasising a cautious approach. I recall being excited as a kid by previews of the game, even thinking that it looked like a worthy rival to GoldenEye. But in the end Mission: Impossible was not well received, apparently overwhelmed by the weight of its own ambition. In this regard, it proved to be a fitting footnote for Ocean itself.
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