by Andrew Heinzman on
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Back in the 90s and 2000s, “licensed game” was shorthand for “cheap junk made to get money from suckers,” with only a few standout exceptions like Goldeneye. But that’s changed: now there are plenty of great games built on the backs of successful movies, TV shows, and comics.
These games are obviously great for fans, who’ve either had to suffer through mediocre-at-best titles from the NES through PS2 eras or just go without. But they also make excellent gifts, since it’s hard to know what a gamer will like. If you know someone’s a fan of an established franchise, odds are great that they’ll get some enjoyment playing through them on a console or PC.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the best licensed games ever—hit-and-miss as they tend to be, that would be way too long. These are the best available on the current and previous generations of consoles (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii U and Xbox One/PS4/Switch). If you know someone who’s a fan of any of the following shows or movies, you should be able to find a physical or digital copy of these games with ease.
Note: some of the trailer videos below are very definitely Not Safe For Work.
Despite no less than three different movie franchises featuring Spider-Man in the last decade, all made with at least some input from Sony, this game isn’t based on any of them. It tells its own story, though a lot of familiar faces show up, and doesn’t get bogged down with continuity.
While the PS4-exclusive Spider-Man is a pretty decent open-world action game, what it really nails is the travel mechanics: fluid, physical web-swinging through Manhattan skyscrapers has never been so much fun. This game strikes an excellent balance between giving you just enough control to make you feel like a superhero, and guiding you just enough to keep you from breaking the fantasy. It’s the first worthwhile Spider-Man game since the original PlayStation version way back in 2000.
The original Batman: Arkham Asylum arguably kicked off an era of high-quality licensed games. The sequel Arkham City opened things up, with a huge section of Gotham for the Dark Knight to prowl through and a much wider cast of interesting villains.
The counter-based combat was both progressive and influential—a lot of games have copied its approach since—and the stealth and investigation elements feel compelling, too. Stalking bad guys, figuring out the interesting boss battles, and seeking out innumerable Batman Easter eggs is incredibly satisfying. It doesn’t hurt that the voice cast is mostly a reunion from the much-loved 90s cartoon. Arkham City spawned two more sequels, Origins and Knight, neither of which lived up to this series high point.
There have been more games about the iconic Dragon Ball anime series than even the fans can keep track of, but this 2D fighter is far and away the best. Dragon Ball FighterZ is developed by Arc System Works, makers of the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fighters, and it shows. Not only is the combat fast, complex, and surprisingly beginner-friendly, the 3D graphics do an amazing job of recreating the look and feel of the animated shows.
Fan favorites from the Dragon Ball Z era are the main highlights, but there’s an original (non-canon, of course) story campaign that brings in the series’ biggest villains to take on a new member of the Android family. Fans will get a special kick out of choosing the right fighters with the right stages, triggering special moves that re-enact the biggest battles of the shows in eye-popping 3D.
This classic anime series hasn’t had a huge presence on either western TV screens or modern consoles, but SEGA seemed to think it was the right time to bring it back. Fist of the North Star is basically Mad Max meets Yojimbo, following a ridiculously powerful martial artist as he seeks revenge in a nuclear wasteland.
The PS4 exclusive Lost Paradise adapts the story with the engine and mechanics of SEGA’s Yakuza series, mixing technical martial arts with exploration of a living, breathing city. The show is pretty insane in terms of story, and that translates well into the sometimes-goofy Yakuza gameplay setup: you might be punching punks so hard their heads explode, then ten minutes later, employing master martial arts skills to mix the perfect drink.
Written and produced by the same two guys who’ve been making South Park for 20 years, The Stick of Truth is both an extended original story following the show’s foul-mouthed boys and an exhaustive trip through its own history and minutia.
With 2D graphics that perfectly emulate the animation of the TV show, the game plays out like an old-school SNES RPG, complete with turn-based combat and character leveling. Not that any game on Super NES every had scenes of [CENSORED] [CENSORED] a [CENSORED] while their [CENSORED] watched with a [CENSORED] [CENSORED] on his [CENSORED]. Um, did we mention this game isn’t for kids? The sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole (see what they did there), is more of the same formula with a superhero theme instead of fantasy.
The Marvel vs. Capcom series of fighters has been one of the most reliable exceptions to the “licensed games are crap” rule, maybe because Capcom decided to elevate its own fighting game characters to fight on the same roster. Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite combines the incredibly complex 2D fighting mechanics of classics in the genre with a new 3D graphics engine and a dimension-straddling story blowing the canon of both companies to smithereens.
Fans of MVC3 probably won’t like the smaller list of fighters, but newcomers will appreciate the more friendly tag-team mechanics and over-the-top combo moves. While the game’s Marvel heroes come explicitly from the comics, you’ll see plenty of influence from the popular movies, too. And where else can you see the knight from Ghosts N Goblins team up with Black Panther to punch Hawkeye through a building?
The Alien franchise has been host to some truly terrible video games—Colonial Marines makes Alien: Covenant look like a masterpiece. But Isolation takes it back to its roots: straight-up horror. This game stars Amanda, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, searching to retrieve the flight recorder from the ship in the original movie.
Unlike many of the more action-oriented Alien games, this one has just one Xenomorph, which is nigh-invulnerable and completely terrifying. Players will have to rely on stealth and spatial awareness to avoid being eaten. The retro-futuristic look of the game’s environments and technology nail the feel of the best Alien movies while telling a surprisingly compelling original story. Just be aware of Isolation’s very intentional placement in the survival-horror genre: players hoping to spend most of their time looking down the barrel of a machine gun or stomping around in a power loader might be in for a shock.
What can you do to make a game out of a series that’s either a) over a decade old or b) starring tiny guys who prefer not to fight? Make up your own story, of course! Shadow of Mordor is an original story taking place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, starring a Gondorian ranger possessed by an undead elf.
Tolkien purists might scoff at the liberties taken with the settings and characters and the outlandish abilities of the protagonist (apparently having a dead elf in your head makes you into a super-psychic-ghost-ninja), but the battle and parkour mechanics are certainly worth it.
What’s even more compelling is the Nemesis system: as you fight an enormous army of orcs, their captains will learn from you, adapt to you, and taunt you every time they kill you and rise up through their ranks. Eventually, you can recruit your own orcs and build up your own army to challenge Sauron. The more recent sequel, Shadow of War, is also quite good, but you’ll want to start with Shadow of Mordor to learn the mechanics and catch up on the story so far.
The insanely violent world of the Berserk anime and Koei-Tecmo’s kill-a-thousand-soldiers-in-a-single-level Dynasty Warriors games are two great tastes that taste great together. Fans of the over-the-top series haven’t had a whole lot to choose from on the way of quality games, so giving the Warriors series a coat of anime paint really works.
In Berserk and the Band of the Hawk you’ll play as series protagonist Guts, as he swings his unwieldy sword through hordes of medieval demons, covering the classic Golden Age and Falcon of the Millennium Empire story arcs. Hack-and-slash combat was never a more appropriate term, as Guts and his friends cut their way through hundreds of enemies at a time. Take note, this one really is for mega-fans: it includes hours of dialogue and 2D animated cutscenes, but Japanese voices (from the recent reboot actors) and subtitles only for other languages.
Superhero punch-ups aren’t anything new to video games—see Marvel vs. Capcom above—but DC’s gang spent decades without a good one until this one came along. 2D fighter Injustice: Gods Among Us (that’s 2D gameplay, the graphics are full 3D) comes from NetherRealm, developer of the latest Mortal Kombat games. So it has a pedigree for both solid punchy-kicky mechanics and ridiculous amounts of spectacle. The gist is that it’s an alternate universe where Superman turns evil, broadly splitting the heroes of the DC universe into two factions, and not necessarily along traditional lines.
As expected, the one-on-one fights feel a lot like the later Mortal Kombat games, with some sci-fi wizardry taking the place of the cringe-inducing gore in those titles. The story’s actually pretty good—especially if you’re still recovering from Dawn of Justice—and the roster is a who’s who of the biggest figures in DC’s lore. To continue the story with some more obscure fighters (and some rather unfortunate pay-to-win mechanics), you can pick up the sequel Injustice 2.
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