Why Aren't There More Video Game-Based Anime?
by Justin Sevakis,
I was recently thinking about some of the old shows I used to watch as a kid and I remembered that Nintendo made an anime adaptation of their character Kirby called Kirby: Right Back At Ya! I remember back in the 1990'sand early 2000's it seemed like every fighting videogame franchise from Streetfighter, King of Fighters, Tekken, and Darkstalkers got an anime adaptation. But it seems like in the last 10 years we have not seen a major videogame property get a movie or tv series. Seriously if Nintendo announced a Legend of Zelda movie or anime series tomorrow, I guarantee it would be a money printing machine no matter how paint by numbers the plot. Of the handful of adaptations, I have seen in recent years it is always some niche, not AAA title like Hyperdimension Neptunia or Danganronpa. The only one I can think of is Resident Evil, but those were direct to video 3D-CG movies. Why has there not been many AAA videogame adaptations been adapted to anime since the early 2000's?
What ARE the top game titles these days? If you're talking about the US, they're really not the sort of things that most people would think to make anime of. Last year, the top grossing video games in the US included Destiny 2, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands, NBA 2K18, Madden NFL 18, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Grand Theft Auto V, For Honor, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Europe had a similar lineup, except with a lot more FIFA.
Anime, and Western cartoon adaptations, were made back in the 80s and 90s because Japan dominated video games, video games were mostly seen as being for kids, and animated shows were really good marketing for kids' properties. Video games were all about characters that easily translated to animated form: characters like Sonic, Mario, and even the Street Fighter II characters.
If you go back and watch most of those shows as an adult -- both the American and the Japanese ones -- the vast majority of them are pretty terrible. The games they were based on often barely had a plot, so the animated versions became exercises in parading every playable character on screen and giving them something to do, rather than telling a story. Longer kid-oriented TV series occasionally had fun with the premise, but the vast majority of them were mind candy at best.
Did you ever see the various fighting game OVAs that came out in the 90s? Sure, the Street Fighter II animated movie was pretty cool, and Fatal Fury had its moments... But there was also Battle Arena Toshinden, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, The Art of Fighting, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and the other Street Fighter II anime. Some of those were mildly amusing (especially dubbed, in the case of Virtua Fighter), but nobody would mistake them for quality. Other game genres didn't escape unscathed either. Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Panzer Dragoon, Salamander, Wizardry... even the rare Super Mario Brothers OVA are all barely remembered today, and for good reason.
As games got more technologically advanced, they became much better at telling stories by themselves, and now the level of detail in your average PS4 game is far better than what most TV anime could handle. There's simply not a need for an anime of most games -- the lore is already spelled out well enough in the games themselves. Anime versions of most game characters would be simpler looking, by virtue of being line art rather than super detailed 3D figures. It's a nice aesthetic, but it's debatable whether people want that from these characters.
But more importantly, anime and games grew apart. The average gamer is now 35, and marketing to them does not involve animated series (unless you're specifically trying to target otaku). The most popular games are not of an aesthetic that would easily translate to anime. And most of the big hits aren't Japanese to begin with.
Japan still has a taste for more anime-flavored gaming. Its top 10 last year included Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon, Splatoon 2, Dragon Quest XI for 3DS, Monster Hunter XX, Dragon Quest XI for PS4, Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WIld, Pokémon Sun/Moon and Super Mario Maker.
Nintendo is pretty controlling with their characters, and doesn't attempt to adapt them into other mediums. (I guess approving something like the live action Mario Bros. movie is a mistake you only make once.) But aside from that, most of the big franchises over there have been animated at some point. Pokémon is the anime that will seemingly never stop. Devil May Cry's anime adaptation came out in 2007, Monster Hunter Stories: Ride On came out in 2016. There's also been the various Persona anime, Tales Of ____ anime, and franchises like Fate, where both game and anime are somewhat intertwined and live beside each other.
But overall, what you're seeing is video games moving away from the sort of thing that would lend itself towards anime, in general.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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