Video game movie adaptations often struggle with multiple compounding issues: what’s the best way to translate the free-form experiential nature of games and their memorable moments to the big screen, how important is the story? How can you even condense whatever story there is, regardless of it’s quality, into a one hour 40 minute run-time? Does any of this even make sense to a new audience (the people dragged to the cinema by the fans) to justify its sizable budget? Where do you make compromises? How many Bison Dollars will this film cost?
The 90s struggled with a series of ‘failed’ video game movie ventures, a fact that those who remember it so we don’t have to will never let us forget. Alongside Street Fighter there was Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Brothers, and later in the 2000s, spoiled as we were, we got gems like Silent Hill. Critically panned and usually met with lukewarm reception at best, the most these films could hope for was the long-term embrace of nostalgic fans looking for a cult classic. Street Fighter in particular is regarded as somehow tragic for the fact that it was the last film in the career of the late Raul Julia, despite him clearly having plenty of fun with his character and being the highlight of the entire production.
Perhaps it was a case of people growing fatigued with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s screen presence, as by Street Fighter‘s release his mere presence had become a living action movie trope. Yet, despite being critically panned on reception and being loathed by audiences for it’s ‘misuse’ of the property, it has genuinely stood the test of time as one of the best game-to-film representations out there.
Is it campy? Yes. Shlocky? Absolutely. Does it diverge from how we typically think of the implied universe of Street Fighter? Sure, but it knows it and relishes in the difference. It’s a film that knows how to capture the attention of audiences who have little to no familiarity with the video game, yet makes full use of the vivid cast of characters that the franchise was well-known for. It manages to pull off what Mortal Kombat couldn’t, memorable character design. The entire ensemble is etched into my mind’s eye clear as day without straying too far from the heroes and villains they’re based upon. Even with their relatively simple arcs, they’re fully fleshed out human beings with motivations and personalities instead of just flat archetypes thrown into pivotally bizzare situations.
Street Fighter works extremely hard to establish a ‘believable’ pseudo real-world framing and pays the price for it up-front with notably slow pacing, but the pay-off is incredibly worthwhile and the narrative beats of every character’s development come across as grounded in part because of that slow build-up. It’s once again something Mortal Kombat failed to offer despite trying to frequently allude to such ambitions. It’s an approach that stands in stark contrast to adaptions like the Super Mario Brothers movie, which, rather than try to play the game of a ‘believable’ real world setting, sprinted proudly into the horizon of the avant garde, opting for a ridiculous dino-cyberpunk subterranean city, leaving the film as a unique time capsule of camp 90s fun, something never quite replicated since, for better or worse
No matter how you feel about the quality of these productions, they’re all exceptionally memorable works of art that stand in a class of their own, even across vast spans of time. The same cannot be said for Tekken (2009) which stuck to playing the premise straight as a gritty MMA tournament flick, missing out on the weirdness potential of cashing in on characters like Kuma or King. Unlike Tekken, Street Fighter, despite working exceptionally hard to establish a realistic framework, did not shy away from tackling the weird backstory of why Blanka was a strangely hulk-esque mutant. So much of what determines whether these productions work or not is a matter of heart and a creative team that can successfully translate what’s recognizable without losing or damaging the charm.
Yet, by contrast, the Silent Hill film was generally well received by audiences and adored for finally ‘getting it right’, but I would argue this is not the case and that Silent Hill is, despite being one of my favorite video game films, a failure. It nails the atmosphere, it has incredible practical and special effects, it has wonderful set design and even re-uses much of the game’s original score, yet it tampers endlessly with core elements of the lore in a way that robs those very moments of their significance. What does Pyramid Head represent? He’s recognizable, that’s it. What do the nurses represent? They look cool. A box-art approach that hits familiar pastiches knowing that they’ll hook the audience, and a let down for a franchise fundamentally built on notions of subtle Jungian psychology (much like the original Persona games) yet all of which is generally absent from the film. Gorgeous choreography and incredible costuming can never cover up the gaping holes left in the plot by the end of the film- not because the story isn’t good, but because it feels like fan-service in a reprehensible way instead of an endearingly wholesome one.
Street Fighter doesn’t have much of a visible story, so by filling in the gaps with an awkward screenplay you’re still working in a positive space where you can creatively riff off the core aesthetics without harming the premise. If you told someone the games are set after the film, it would come across as something fairly plausible given where the narrative leaves off- every character has met each other, they’ve bonded, they’ve now dispersed and built up rivalries and meaningful connections that justify their proximity. It’s a world-building deep dive instead of simply culture fracking an existing body of work. In this it feels complimentary to Street Fighter, almost like a companion piece, instead of working against it.
Silent Hill struggles with itself, fighting back the parts of the franchise it does and does not find acceptable, thus contributing to the bizarre cross-studio feedback loop that ultimately caused the series to implode in on itself. Homecoming is a solid game with solid influences that builds on narrative ground broken by the film, but it’s a rather strange follow-up that failed to appease the fans by vaulting the high bar Team Silent set prior. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat suffered no such fate, with the latter even pulling heavily on it’s cinematic counterpart for the story mode that was eventually added to the single-player component, going so far as to feature the likeness of the actor who played Shang Tsung to reprise the role.
Street Fighter manages to effectively hit all the story beats it needs to, providing plausible justification for every character’s personality and presentation. M. Bison feels like whatever he was originally intended to be, because it’s genuinely unlikely that the character’s backstory was particularly fleshed out at inception other than the idea that he looked cool and made the roster more varied. M. Bison isn’t made worse for his backstory in the film, he’s made better, both through his writing and Raul’s incredible screen presence.
Video game films are not a bad idea, they’re just historically hard to pull off, yet Street Fighter came incredibly close despite having the odds stacked against it. In the future we’re likely to see more game adaptions, but it’s hard to say if they’ll have the surreal affectionate tone that this one did or be pulled off with nearly the same finesse. It’s arguable that we’ll see more films inspired by games indirectly instead of being derived from them, because now that cutscenes have such remarkable fidelity and sprawling narratives, games have blurred the lines distinguishing them from movies.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice