Before high-res graphics, volumetric lighting, and real-time weather engines, video games relied on a bit more imagination. They had to establish atmosphere with extremely limited hardware. One of the easiest ways to do this was to piggyback on established cultural iconography, usually popular or cult films.
In many ways, the 3D gaming renaissance that we experienced in the late 90s mirrors the special effects boom of the late 70s. Films like Jaws and Star Wars gave audiences fantastic visions and horrific nightmares that boggled the mind, leading to the era of the “blockbuster”.
These movies made a huge impact on gamers and designers alike, and frothed up the creative juices when it came to artistic direction. Here are some of the movies that influenced video games from the very start…
Conan the Barbarian
While the Conan series was as guided by dark fantasy tropes as it helped establish them, the first two Conan the Barbarian films helped bring all the filthy fun of sweaty sword cleaving to the big screen.
Immediate offspring comes to mind like the Gauntlet, Wizards and Warriors, and Golden Axe series, but the film also helped color fantasy tropes in RPGs of all shapes and sizes. Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and even The Elder Scrolls all owe parentage to an impossible-to-understand shirtless Shwarzenegger. He also provided Fabio with a little bit of work, which is always nice.
After being accused of assassinating a messianic gang leader, a small group of underdogs has to fight their way through various themed gangs on the way back to their hideout. This film was notable for its anarchic brawl scenes and for the creative costumes worn by each faction.
This film obviously influenced the beat-em-up genre, especially the Technos Double Dragon and Kunio-Kun series, including the US localization River City Ransom. This type of game really shot off in the 90s with Capcom’s arcade hit Final Fight and the Genesis’s venerable Streets of Rage series. Even games with licenses like Spiderman: Maximum Carnage clearly steered the more generic enemies in the direction of The Warriors by giving them gimmicky but memorable styles.
The idea of scrapping with enemies before being allowed to progress was a winning formula for games, even if it did make for a kind of stiff movie.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
While the first Rambo movie was a poignant commentary on the treatment of Vietnam veterans, the second was an all-out action fantasy for anyone with testosterone or the desire to become a one-person army.
John Rambo is contracted by his mentor and former commanding officer to infiltrate a lingering Viet-Cong outpost and document the existence of POWs still imprisoned. Johnny naturally decides to take matters into his own hands, and despite a betrayal by his operations leader manages to mow down enough Vietnamese and Russians to populate a large concert venue.
This movie was a game design goldmine. One hero single-handedly guns down anyone in his path on his quest for vengeance, or justice, or… something. The point is that people are shot and no one stands a chance as long as you keep mashing the “fire” button. Games like Contra, Ikari Warriors, and the Metal Slug series all have their roots in John Rambo’s patriotic genocide of people born on the wrong side of history.
Michael Mann’s breathtaking heist film brought the crime genre into the modern era. Crisp cinematography brought out the bleak cityscapes of modern urban sprawl, peppered with neon streetlights and skyscrapers.
The airy feeling between assault rifle blasts in addition to the violent firefights that spilled into the streets all echo recent crime-oriented sandbox games, especially Grand Theft Auto 4 and 5. The film’s flashy but sparse imagery and hyper-realistic depiction of violence clearly drove art direction at Rockstar towards an understated but still affecting style.
These are the movies that every horror/space sci-fi anything cribs from. Dead Space notably comes to mind, with its terrifying monsters and claustrophobic corridors. Doom before that borrows the space Marine and quasi-futuristic but still brutal-as-hell weapons. Going back even further, games like Contra and R-Type often culminated in a gross, organic-looking alien environment where you had to kill a grotesque creature to save your own skin. Halo also looked to Aliens for it’s pulse rifle and minimalist radar device.
The Starcraft series almost feels like an expansion of the Aliens universe. You get the gritty space marines, and mutant, insectoid, hive-minded creatures. The Terran dropship unit perfectly mimics the female aviator-sporting pilot character from the beginning of the film, even quoting some of her lines when prompted to move.
As for the original Alien, this film’s less action-oriented and more ambient pacing was the impetus for the original Metroid and its subsequent sequels. The moody, bizarre environments echo the planet the ship lands on in the first part. The dragon-like enemy ridley’s design is clearly influenced by the xenomorph, not to mention that the name is a direct homage to director Ridley Scott.
If further proof is needed, consider the end sequence where the ship is set to self-destruct and the hero must make their exciting escape to a smaller ship.
A young, green clad forest person must use magic and cunning to rescue a beautiful, pale-skinned princess from a powerfully evil horned monster in order to save the kingdom. Sound familiar? There is debate about whether the Legend of Zelda team saw the 1985 film still early enough in development to strongly color the game’s direction, but I feel like the visual evidence speaks for itself.
As for later titles in the series, The Ocarina of Time development team straight-up admitted that they ran with the analogy. Link, like Tom Cruise’s character, is warned of impending doom by a fairy. Also, both characters encounter an enormous tree as the first harbinger of their quest.
Finally, the scene at the end of the film where Cruise must arrange mirrors and shields to shine a light into the Tim Curry devil character’s lair screams of Ocarina‘s light-based puzzles. I practically heard the Zelda “secret chime” in my head when Cruise’s plan comes to fruition and the beam hits Curry right in the face.
While Ridley Scott’s fantasy film Legend didn’t add a whole lot that’s new to the fantasy genre, the extremely simplified and polarized nature of the conflict distills the essence of fantasy video games. The focus on puzzles and simple combat also definitely reminds me of the first Zelda game as much as the later ones.
Big Trouble in Little China
The chop-socky mass melee quality of this film is hard to miss, further solidifying the beat-em-up genre. Games like Streets of Rage take cues from the film’s tendency to escalate situations and enemy types into more fantastical elements as the story goes on. The adventurous tone of the film takes dips into dark comedy and even occasionally horror, a trait seen in games like Okami and Skyrim.
More than anything on this list, though, this movie is straight up ripped off by one of the most successful American video game franchises of all time, Mortal Kombat. While Enter the Dragon arguably influenced the fighting game genre more than any other film, the characters of Raiden and Shang Tsung are so transparently the same as their counterparts in Big Trouble that when I was a kid, the connection blew my mind.
The relationship between Big Trouble in Little China and several video games helped me instantly fall in love with an already incredible film. Watching it every time makes me wish I could keep the feeling of fun adventure going forever, a factor that’s rare in games but still accessible every once in a blue moon.
I know I left a bunch of potential titles off of this list, but these are just some of my favorites! Let me know the ones I missed (like Blade Runner, which has waaaay too many examples) in the comments and I’ll probably do a follow-up sometime!