News: Full-Motion-Video Classics Become the Next Great Game Adaptations

(Hollywood, California) No longer the beeps and bloops of Pac-Man, video games are growing up. Cable and streaming services, emboldened by HBO’s critically lauded The Last of Us, are hoping to find similar success by adapting games that already mix in the magic of movies and TV: they're the full-motion-video masterpieces of the 1990s. 

"With its harrowing vision of everyday people struggling to survive in the face of a devastating apocalypse, The Last of Us represents a new apex for video games and great original stories in general," said Gregor Madison, a pop-culture critic who also believes that The Walking Dead invented zombies and that Harry Potter was the first ever fiction about a wizard school. “Audiences want to see more of that, so studios are seeking out the finest games to adapt for TV.”

A second season of The Last of Us is already on the way, but HBO hopes to deliver another game-inspired and binge-worthy series while fans wait: Night Trap, based on Sega’s 1992 FMV adventure game, premieres this summer. The series explores a house full of young women menaced by vampire-like creatures called Augurs, with Scarlett Johansson starring as agent Kelli Medd and Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement just to take on the role of Commander Simms. 

“You usually don’t think of video games as having actual stories,” said Randy Evans, lead writer for the Night Trap series. "Most of them are just dots on the screen. But there was a whole variety of these amazing full motion games in the 1990s that brought together movies and video games in amazing ways.” 

Night Trap is only the first of several Sega FMV games optioned by studios and streaming services. Apple TV recently announced a Sewer Shark limited series starring John C. McGinley as Ghost, while Hulu is currently developing an original movie based on the zombie-filled Corpse Killer

Not to be outdone, Netflix revealed plans to adapt a number of FMV games, including the cyberpunk thriller Burn Cycle, the monster-themed horror tale It Came From the Desert, and the surreal action saga Duelin’ Firemen.

If audiences like what they see, there’s plenty to feed future series. The FMV genre enjoyed its heyday on consoles like the Sega CD and Panasonic 3DO during the mid-1990s, when developers used the then-new CD format to create entire games with footage of live actors. Though some derided these games for their crude production values and limited interactivity, many in the entertainment world now see them as the ancestors of modern high-budget titles like The Last of Us—and perhaps their successors as well. 

“This forward-looking full-motion-video stuff was the closest that video games ever got to quality television until The Last of Us came along,” explained Netflix producer Terry Stein. “My daughter told me about this game called Undertale that seems to be popular with a lot of kids. But when you look at it, there's nothing to work with. The graphics are all just these pixels. Nothing looks real. The main character, you know, the hero of the story, doesn't even have a name."

Stein instead decided to adapt a standout of the FMV era: the rollicking and risqué comedy Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. Netflix has already renewed it for a second season. 

Indeed, a popular video game doesn’t necessarily make for good TV. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series was long known for its cinematic sequences, but when Starz producer Jayden Morgen dove deep into the company’s catalog, the pick of the litter was obvious: the 1997 adventure game Another Mind.

“Final Fantasy might work as a video game,” Morgen said, “But we wanted something that could deliver the impact of truly good television, with real actors that rise above that whole cartoony kiddie pool of most games.” 

Other studios are willing to take a few risks when it comes to adapting full-motion-video games. Amazon Prime has optioned several 1980s FMV games that employ animated footage instead of real-life actors: the mystic fantasy Strahl, the post-apocalyptic revenge tale Road Avenger, and the whimsical sci-fi adventure Time Gal.

"It might be hard to adapt a video game that doesn't slavishly reproduce the atmosphere of a routine prestige television series or an Oscar-bait film," admitted Crystal Meyer, director of the Time Gal series. "But I think we can pull it off with a great cast, great storytelling, and the appropriate level of contempt for the source material." 

Even so, the current trend of studios sifting out the best and brightest of video games has some hiccups—or glitches, perhaps. Netflix recently canceled plans for a series based on the 2018 cinematic adventure game Detroit: Become Human due to what an anonymous source describes as "the amateurish source material."

Journey to the Center of Wurm

Those of cynical mindset could deem Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth a messy game, but they’d be wrong. At the very least it’s several messy games combined into one, a multi-genre hybrid that delivers shooting stages, side-scroller levels, unique first-person boss battles, and through it all the story of a spirited lady protagonist named Moby. 

 

Well, that’s what the manual calls her. See? There’s something charmingly odd about the low-key chauvinism of labeling her a “lady protagonist,” perhaps in testament to how few games in the Nintendo Entertainment System's library actually have women in lead roles. However, there’s more to Moby and Wurm itself.

For starters, they’re both ambitious. Our green-haired heroine captains a tunneling craft called the VZR-5, drilling deep into the earth in a search for previous VZR expeditions—and, in particular, her boyfriend Ziggy (possibly named after the David Bowie album and probably not the bulbous-nosed comic character). She stumbles into a complicated subterranean war between the remnants of ancient kingdoms who somehow combine every major mythic lost civilization into a single tale.

And Wurm winds her journey across four types of levels. The VZR flies through caverns in horizontal stages as well as vertically scrolling ones, while Moby ventures out of the ship to wander ruins and tunnels sparsely populated by beasts. Each chapter showcases a clash between the VZR and a large monster, which requires Moby to talk to the crew for hints and “possibility” points while dodging and shooting down the creature’s attacks. And there’s a little tedium in every format: the VZR shooter levels are simple, the on-foot stages have little variety in their enemies, and the boss battles involve a lot of seemingly pointless chatter and awkward aiming.

Yet it’s a fascinating game in full, as each piece of Wurm has its layers. The shooter levels may not be very complex in their design, but they let the VZR transform into different forms that gain new weapons, abilities, or just better fuel rates. A depleting energy meter keeps Moby’s crew from being too cautious, and a regenerating energy shield makes their ship vulnerable only when it takes damage rapidly. That balancing act lifts the stages beyond the typical NES shooter.

Moby’s side-scrolling forays are simpler in their demands: she explores, she jumps, she kicks, and she wields a handgun with a limited ammo supply. Yet the stages she wanders are intriguing sights, with their random backdrops of ancient ruins and empty caverns, and the subtle colors mix well with a soundtrack that’s bubbly, sharp, and just a little haunting.


And the first-person battles with massive creatures? True, Moby spends a lot of time chatting repetitively with crew members who try to puzzle out a creature’s weakness and raise that possibility percentage to a hundred, at which point a single shot brings down your foe. However, there’s some personality in the conversations (including a Helen Keller reference you might not expect) and a share of twists along the way as the boss lineup expands to an organic-mechanical creation and a face-off with Moby's own ship. Wurm’s plot twists aren’t elaborate, but they’re plentiful for a title from 1991. If there’s ever a dull point in the story or the gameplay, there’s always something new right ahead.

Moby herself shows the same variety. She’s seemingly pulled straight from an outlandish 1980s anime OVA, sashaying through hostile terrain in epaulets and a battle leotard while the rest of her crew wears sensible jumpsuits, but she’s a surprisingly resolute main character for an NES game. Wurm lets her face trepidations, grieve her losses, marvel over discoveries, brim with vengeful fury, and, even taunt arrogant underworld rulers. It’s no competition for our modern array of complex heroes showing us all that games are serious entertainment (and don’t you forget it), but for an era when video games had threadbare premises and silent heroes, Moby certainly gets her moments. The best ones come when she’s sassing monstrous thugs who, apparently shocked at the idea of NES-era protagonists with actual personalities, can only muster retorts of “Whaat!”

Wurm stands alone, though it bears more than a faint resemblance to Vic Tokai’s original Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. Moby doesn’t seduce secret agents in hotels or snipe Hitler’s pickled brain, but her sprite has a similar soft-edged look, and her game has similar diversity (though she moves much faster and smoother than Duke Togo). That’s no accident, as designer Shouichi “Angela” Yoshikawa was the driving force behind both games. Together with producer Hiroshi Kazama and developer Cyclone System, Yoshikawa drew inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lost in Space, and Cyborg 009, casting a web wide enough that Wurm never feels bluntly derivative of one particular source

Yoshikawa even maintained a website all about Wurm. It’s apparently lost now, but there’s still a great in-depth interview at the GDRI. Even without the creator’s site, Wurm has steadily gained a better reputation, evolving from a possible “kusoge” to an expensive Famicom title and, I hope, a genuine cult favorite. Is it just the plucky lady protagonist? Perhaps that’s part of it, but Wurm offers more than that. There’s a vision behind it, an inspired tone that comes from a creator believing in their creation and overseeing it every step of the way. Heck, Yoshikawa even did the localization!

I was harsh toward Wurm when I wrote about it for GameSetWatch many years ago, citing its jumbled approach and frequently empty stages. Yet I’ve come around, and now I count it among my favorite NES titles. The gameplay mixture is enticing, the vacant side-scrolling levels evoke mystery in ways I never noticed before, and Moby sticks around in memory after most protagonists (gentleman or lady) fade away. I had yet to realize that it doesn’t matter if games are critically, objectively good, if such a thing even exists. All that matters is whether they’re interesting or not. And Wurm is.

Bunny Girls Interrupted

The Playboy bunny girl costume is an unavoidable fixture of sexist pop culture—and a persistent one in video games. Showing women in rabbit ears and scant corsets isn’t just for pandering fighting games like Dead or Alive and Variable Geo; the practices arises in Emerald Dragon, Lunar: Eternal Blue, Super Robot Wars Original Generation, several Dragon Quests, and so forth. And in that warren of rabbit-girl getups there’s an equally varied history of how publishers censored them. 

One example lies in Heavyweight Championship Boxing, an early Game Boy outing from Tonkin House and the furtively prolific developer Tose. It’s an ambitious but clumsy game with only a few dabs of personality; there’s a nice soundtrack to bounce everything along, and I salute the Tose graphic designer who put extra effort into making the obligatory ring girl a vision of ‘80s anime style.

There’s even a hint of Haruhiko Mikimoto about her, as though Minmay from Macross is working boxing matches after her experimental prog-industrial album failed to chart or to pacify a fleet of grouchy alien giants.

The original Japanese game, titled Boxing with the refreshing directness of an early Game Boy release, had a few more details. The ring girl sports rabbit ears and stand-alone shirt cuffs, and there’s a bonus code that lets players confirm that she’s also wearing the fishnets typical of a woman promoting Playboy-brand objectification. Activision took these details out of the game’s North American release, presumably for the same precautions that led the publishers to rename characters like “Mai Taison.”

Most North American game publishers of the era, however, were not so skittish. If some games removed bunny girl depictions they were expunged entirely, presumably more for their suggestive nature than legal concerns. Other games showed no concern. For example, the waitresses of Casino Kid still sport their bunny ears, albeit only in portraits that would draw neither lawyers nor complaints of risqué content.

Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting, a light-game from Nintendo themselves, goes further when depicting shooting-gallery hostess Trixie in a bunny girl outfit throughout the game. This wasn’t a case of the Japanese release’s design choices slipping through, either, since Barker Bill was released only in North America and Europe.

Then there’s the most prominent bunny girl in video games: Rami from the Keio Flying Squadron series. She goes through two games thwarting the monstrous forces of a tanuki despot (a raccoon if you’re playing the localized Sega CD game), all while wearing a distinct Playboy bunny outfit.

JVC changed nothing about Rami’s outfit for Keio Flying Squadron’s North American release. Indeed, magazine spots even play it up, encouraging the reader to “strap on your bunny ears and save the world.” The Sega Saturn sequel skipped the Western hemisphere, but the European version of Keio Flying Squadron 2 features Rami and her bunny attire on the cover, as though in open defiance of any Playboy attorneys who might spot it.

It seems that bunny girl outfits aren’t much of a legal hurdle after all. They appear in anime from FLCL to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to something called Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, and no one seems to mind in the international market. Gainax’s original Daicon IV convention promo has a famous depiction of a bunny girl heroine who flies through undisguised depictions of everything from Golden Bat villains to Star Wars ships. And there she’s probably the least of the short film’s gleeful copyright infringements.

Playboy-style bunny costumes, as far as they appear in Japanese media, are such a cliché that any legal challenges would be closing the barn door well after the cows left. Or shutting the pen after the rabbits hopped out. Or changing Playboy club standards after the waitresses all quit in protest over the outfits they had to wear.

Yet Activision and Tose might not have been entirely overcautious in excising the ring girl’s bunny garb in Heavyweight Championship Boxing. In 2020 Playboy sued costume manufacturer Fashion Nova for “disregarding trademark protections” with a line of bunny outfits. One can only hope they won’t go after Nintendo, or else we might never see a revival of Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting.