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A Super Mario World Apart – Comparing American and Japanese Video Game Movies

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The other day I watched Resident Evil: Degeneration — Japan’s CG adaptation of the venerable game franchise — and I realized that video game movies produced by Westerners tend to be more bombastic, more loose with the source material and, ultimately, less beloved than the ones produced by Eastern countries. “An interesting thought,” you might say, “but you can’t really compare the two filmmaking styles unless you find both Japanese and American adaptations of the same video game.”

“Ho,” I say, “I’ve found several that fit just such a category.” Read on.

Super Mario Bros. (1993) vs. Super Mario Bros: Great Mission to Rescue Peach! (1986)
Mario-America-125.jpgThough now admirable in a whimsical, quasi-ironic sort of way, the U.S.-produced Super Mario Bros. movie was nothing short of reviled when it hit theaters. The press hated it, fans of the game hated it — heck, even the actors hated it. Blame the bare-bones plot — “Bowser kidnapped the princess, get her back” — that couldn’t sustain itself, or the characters, whose cartoonish charm was immediately lost in the switch to live-action. Blame Bob Hoskins, who, fantastic as he was, just couldn’t balance out the presence of John Leguizamo. Just don’t blame the source material.


The 1986 Japanese anime Super Mario Bros: Great Mission to Rescue Peach! manages to be more watchable, more charming, and far less wince-inducing than the American adaptation. Though you’d be hard-pressed to qualify Great Mission as anything but shallow children’s entertainment, it’s still a heck of a lot more endearing than the American version. The characters are actually cute, rather than terrifying, and the reach of the intensely minimalist story never exceeds its grasp, or the audience’s attention span. True, the entire plot is spelled out in its title, but the flick is a full half-hour shorter than the American version — even if you don’t end up liking either, you’ll suffer much less with the Japanese version.

Plus, you can watch the anime for free on YouTube.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) vs. Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2005)
Final-Fantasy-America-125.jpgSo much as mention this incredibly expensive box-office bomb and financiers around the world will start sweating. Spirits Within was projected to be a true epic, a movie that would revolutionize the industry through its fantastic storyline and incredible lifelike characters. (The studio, Square, even had plans to turn the protagonist, Aki Ross, into a virtual actress whose model would appear in subsequent movies and games playing different roles.) But when it came out, the joint American/Japanese production lost $94 million and nearly bankrupted Square. Its poorly translated dialogue and generic plot failed to impress audiences in either the U.S. or Japan, and it’d be four years until Square (now Square Enix) would make another Final Fantasy flick — this time without help from the West.


Advent Children didn’t have a much stronger story than Spirits Within, but it fared a hell of a lot better financially. Why? Well, where the American-produced Fantasy tried to create a new story and universe from the ground up, Advent Children writer Kazushige Nojima simply wrote an extended sequel to Final Fantasy VII, (very) arguably the most popular game in recent history. Sure, the entire movie was really just one massive fan-wanking excuse to bring everyone’s favorite characters back together and put them in overblown fight scenes with no context or reason, but hey — it worked.

Resident Evil (2002) vs. Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008)
Resident-Evil-America-125.jpgPaul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil movies are the cinematic equivalent of Doritos: They taste awful, inflict bodily harm, and cost money — but people keep buying them. For whatever reason, the first flick grossed over a hundred million dollars and spawned two sequels, each less related to the source material than the one that preceded it. They’re all terrific financial successes, and yet not one of the three movies has ever scored with the critics, who were usually only slightly more appalled at the material than fans of the games.


Enter Resident Evil: Degeneration. A fully computer-generated installment, Degeneration didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it’s still a lot easier to love than Paul WS Anderson’s Romero ripoffery. Taking place between the fourth and fifth games, Degeneration is arguably just as much of a fan wank as Final Fantasy: Advent Children, albeit with more undead and fewer giant swords. Yes, it’s really just an excuse to get Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield to reunite for the first time since Resident Evil 2. Yes, the dialogue is atrocious. Yes, it’s loud and stupid and thrillingly violent. But for all the meandering subplots and weird dialogue in Degeneration, at least viewers can assure themselves they’ve gotten a legitimate Resident Evil experience.

House of the Dead (2003) vs. …
The Western world created a House of the Dead movie, and let Uwe Boll direct it. Japan never made any movies based on the House of the Dead franchise, and thus, as a country, spared itself the collective shame of being compared to, or even tangentially related to something Uwe Boll created. And isn’t that the greatest compliment you could ever pay their efforts in adapting video games?

But what do you think? Have I misjudged some of these American movies? Can you think of any other Japanese/American crossover franchises?

Anthony Burch is the features editor for and the co-writer and director of the video series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He recently completed Runner, his first art game.

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