When it comes to adapting a video game into a full TV show or movie, certain creative liberties are expected. After all, animation studios are taking a quick, simple, self-contained premise (chomping yellow circle-man eats pills, runs from ghosts, eats the fruit, swallows ghost, repeat) and attempting to turn it into a complete 11 minute, 22 minute, or hell, even 90 minute cartoon. Not an easy task- which, unfortunately, is often reflected in both the writing and visual quality of the shows.
Early video game cartoons were shaky at times; the whole game industry was basically new. The people writing these shows were often retired sitcom writers who clearly weren’t fans of games, or industry writers that farted out episodes on a dozen different shows at the same time. Expanding on a game universe was a confusing notion, and it reflected in the strange and disjointed adventures our favorite characters were sent on. But from a fan perspective, we were just starved for content. And when anything video game related showed up on TV…well…we were stoked and ready to eat it up. Even if certain details were added, deleted, or just ignoring the source material all together. Such as when…
1: The Super Mario cartoons made up details that people still fight over today
While Mario’s heritage, place of birth, and job have been the subject of arguments since the birth of the internet, (true fact, really) many people are still left confused. Message boards like this Reddit thread, these poor, confused folks on Yahoo Questions, or even these nice people lurking Game FAQ’s message board still question the whole “Italian-American Plumber from Brooklyn” angle. In fact, some people aren’t quite sure where this information came from. Miyamoto himself? An obscure game manual? There’s even a Wiki page that puts the blame on the 1989 American cartoon show produced by DIC. And as someone old enough to remember when this trash was on TV, I can attest to some of the strange details.
I wish Princess Toadstool’s incorrect name and red hair was the biggest problem in the series. And despite the argument of “Did Miyamoto make him a plumber, who says, he’s Italian, etc.” you have to remember- this is the same TV franchise that claimed the Koopalings as Koopa’s kids, decided to pair Yoshi up with a Cave-boy, made Mario and Luigi sing “Patty-cake, Patty-cake, Pasta-Man! Gimme Pasta power as fast as you can!” and forced a Milli-Vanilli obsession on the Mushroom Kingdom. Call the audience crazy, but none of us can remember that happening when Mario was warping his way through sewer pipes.
2: The Legend of Zelda turned Elfin Heroes into Saved by the Bell Extras
The year, 1989. The format, a 13-episode cartoon series starting our favorite elfin explorer, packaged along with the Super Mario Bros. Super Show. What could have been a dynamic, action filled cartoon about heroic bravery where the male and female protagonist stood on equal footing can be summed up in four words.
My everything hurts. You know a series is terrible when the horrible, embarrassing Philips CD-I games are more loyal than this. Let’s move on.
3: Mega Man couldn’t figure out how he wanted to exist on TV
At a time when Captain N the Game Master was ruining video game characters, and two different Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons from DIC were chowing down on chili dogs, it’s easy to forget how many versions of Mega Man existed on TV in the 90s.
Speaking of Captain N, let’s keep it chronological and start from there. The show aired in 1989 and shoved a bunch of popular Nintendo characters into a vague storyline about a teenaged boy named Kevin who gets sucked into VideoLand (through his TV) and needs to save people from an insulting version of Mother Brain, the villain from Metroid. One of these characters in the crew was Mega Man. All the characters are unrecognizable from the source material, and the designs are upsetting, to say the least. But do you remember what they did to Mega Man? That’s right- he straight says Mega-Hi. Mega-yes. Mega-no. Mega…damnit.
Moving on to 1993- there was an OVA (original video animation) produced in Japan…starring who else? Mega Man! Originally called Rock Man, a 3-part video series called Upon a Star was released. It looked amazing! It looked turbo! It looked just like the Capcom games! But…it was educational propaganda wearing a Mega Man mask. Produced by the Japan Center for Intercultural Communications, the short series features Mega Man jumping out of a little boy’s Famicom system and, in a nutshell, learning about the Japanese people celebrate certain holidays. This video series, according the fan lore, remained in hiding until 2002, when it surfaced on the internet.
It’s also rumored that the Japanese Mega Man OVA was a test pilot for what would become the American Mega Man series, which aired on TV in 1994. As the urban legend goes, there were two versions of Mega Man produced. One was faithful to the game, and one was…well…a teenaged robot boy with attitude. A sales pitch video trailer found its way online, depicting high quality Japanese animation, but focus groups at the time preferred the hyper-Americanized version of Mega Man that aired on TV for a brief period, from September 1994-December 1995, likely cancelled due to budget constraints. But just saying…go ahead and re-watch that American Mega Man opening. That animation is top-shelf badass. If the rest of the show was anything like that opening sequence, I’d have probably picked the American version over the Japanese one, too. But in typical fashion, the actual series looks nothing like that sweet, robotic skeleton opening.
So…with all that being said…who’s excited for the 2017 Cartoon Network reboot?!
4: Dark Stalkers, according to America, needed to be funny
There’s just some franchises that confuse the powers that be- the executives see the material, decide there’s money to be made with certain audiences, and execute it in such a way that they either A: Don’t care what the fans think, or B: Have no idea that these properties even have fans.
As much as I wanted to throw Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm under the bus, I had to appreciate two things about it. That primarily, while the Fatalities and Brutalities are missing, the show has an aesthetic that reminds me of the X-Men cartoon, which I find charming. And second, the ambiance is at least correct, the characters partake in fights, and the character designs are at least recognizable to their video game counterparts. And I love Mortal Kombat a lot. Therefore, it survives to fight another day.
I wish the same could be said about the American Dark Stalkers cartoon. Based on the 1994 Japanese Capcom game Vampire: The Night Warriors, its gameplay was very similar to Street Fighter. There was a 4-part Japanese OVA that was readily available at my local Blockbuster Videos and it was some of my first exposure to anime. I didn’t really understand what I was watching at the time, having no previous context, but I liked what I saw. The characters were muscled and sexy, the men glared, and the women had big boobs. It was just about everything a thirteen-year-old could hope for. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found out that this American version existed too.
I’m not even sure what to make of this 1995 conundrum. The series only lasted 13 episodes, and talk about giving the finger to the source material. The violence and sexuality were toned down. The dialogue was corny, the complex backstories were gone, and the main protagonist is a human boy named Harry, an original character created specifically for the show. What a treat- and if you need any more convincing that this show was bogus, take a look at the Japanese designs versus the American ones that’s available on YouTube. It’s enough to make you laugh or shudder, whichever emotion is up to the task first.
5: Dragon’s Lair got the Ruby-Spears treatment…and it’s such a bummer
Part He-Man and part Scooby-Doo, the Dragon’s Lair cartoon is pure awful. Airing from 1984-1985, this 13-episode series suffers many of the same embarrassing, cheap problems as Ruby-Spears’ other video game cartoons. But there’s one defining difference that separates Dragon’s Lair from many other cartoons of this era- it barely moves.
For those who aren’t familiar, Dragon’s Lair was an early choose-your-own-adventure laser disc game, released in arcades in 1983. The story was about Dirk the Daring, a knight attempting to rescue Princess Daphne from a dragon who has locked her away in a wizard’s castle. It’s a simple, but classic premise- something fantasy novels and heavy metal are made from. The game had notably over the top deaths where Dirk turned into a pile of bones, fire, electrocution, explosions…you name it! And even more spectacular, the bright and dynamic animation was done by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth’s team. It was pretty spectacular stuff, and most definitely cinema quality.
So as for the cartoon series, at least it attempted to stay loyal by having characters turn into piles of bones, and leave cliffhangers before commercial breaks, leaving the audience to see what happens to Dirk. So that’s where it’s somewhat loyal to the video game. But muddled and flat doesn’t begin to describe this series. And as previously mentioned, like much cheap television animation at the time, it doesn’t move. The humor is little more than slapstick, and the design is reminiscent of a 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Overall, an embarrassment to the franchise.
So, what’s your favorite bad video game adaptation? Was it Donkey Kong Country, with its slow-moving, creepy early CGI? Or something more recent like the Ratchet and Clank movie that looked good, but had the narrative set up of a 90s John Hughes flick? Me personally- I’m still waiting for Totally Rad to get turned into a Netflix series. Here’s hoping.