Television has always been there for us, whether for simple after-school entertainment or as an electronic babysitter. Of course, TV’s also been there to watch and play our beloved video games, so it isn’t far-fetched to believe it’s a good idea to combine TV and games, kind of like peanut butter and jelly, or Eddie Winslow and Steve Urkel. Video games and TV just seem like they should be a winning combination. They aren’t. In fact, TV-based games almost universally suck. This is something to keep in mind as the New Xbox Experience rolls out next week and we see the return of video game “game shows,” this time with Avatars.
Back in the day, TV-based games seemed promising. When I was seven years old, I picked up a copy of the game Airwolf, a favorite-show-meets-video-game marriage made in Heaven. Here was a game based on a TV show about a helicopter that could be disguised as a civilization chopper even as it was souped-up with guns, missiles and Ernest Borgnine. The plot wasn’t important; the show was basically Knight Rider in the air and without “the Hoff.” Stuff blew up, dogfights were cool, and the complete package should have rocked my socks. In reality, playing the game felt like being sucker-punched by grandma.
Airwolf on the NES had players flying around a tiny map and rescuing hostages while planes shot at you. The game reminded me of Top Gun, but boring and bland. The only time it picked up was when you had to rush out of the combat zone with planes hot on your tail. Where was the dodging in and out of valleys? Where were the gunfights that rivaled Hollywood’s biggest films? Airwolf let Baby Birdman down in a big way, and TV-based games have continued to do so since that day. Even Ren & Stimpy for the SNES was like being curb-stomped by a bully at school, then having your lunch shoved down your pants. The artwork was spot on, and the sense of humor was there, but the gameplay stunk. Looking back at these experiences, I now realize that TV-based games are merely cash grabs meant to capitalize on gullible kids.
The lone exception was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise that — in the late 80s and early 90s — somehow made it near impossible for developers to create a bad game. The TV show was awesome, and the games seemed to capture the fun of the show. This was a license that seemed fool proof.
Like all cash grabs, though, even TMNT’s glory run ended. Then came the tournament fighters and the mess of a Power Rangers title, and we entered a horrid time for TV-based games. Home Improvement? Rocko’s Modern Life? Real Monsters? The list went on and on; even games based on game shows sucked. Why would there be a game based on Survivor and Fear Factor, let alone Jackass? The minute we see the digital adventures of Sex and City and Two and a Half Men, we’re all doomed.
Yet as we head into the new Xbox Experience, all is not lost. A couple of years ago, with the bitter taste of bad TV games behind me, a game based on the show “24” was announced. I felt simultaneous joy and fear; what if they made the great Jack Bauer suck? Could there be forgiveness? Or, what if they nailed it? Those were all big ifs, but if history was any indication, the game had two decks of cards already stacked against it.
What I got that day was part fan service and part reassurance that — at least this time — the developers listened to fans. The “24” game had all the elements I wanted: voice acting from the show, the exploration of a plot hole from seasons 2 and 3, naked Mandy, and my personal savior, Jack Bauer. It was a TV game that did not suck, and even better, it took itself seriously. This TV-based game managed to do well in many respects, something I had not seen since TMNT back in the 90s.
A TV show can make a great game universe to play in for a few hours, but it takes the right developer to embrace the core of a TV show and deliver an experience that captures its magic. The Heroes game might be cool if done right, and the Star Trek MMO looks promising as well. Clearly all TV games aren’t created equal, nor are all TV games crap. As we enter a new era of Avatar-based game shows on Xbox Live Primetime, it’s my sincere hope that developers will take TV licenses and focus on making good games that happen to be cash grabs, not the other way around. Until then, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to watch Heroes and some re-runs of “Press your Luck.”
Mike Dodd is co-founder and host of
This Week in Geek, an international radio show and podcast and a place where gamers and “geeks like us” can chill.