Licensing has always been a bit of a joke in the games industry. Movies based on games almost always suck, and a lot of games based on movies, comics, and TV shows don’t fare much better. A lot, but not all; not by a long shot. So many licensed games do fare better; there is a surprising amount of exceptions to the rule, and these are 10 that aren’t just good licensed games but legitimately great video games in their own right. In fact, there are so many worthy licensed games that picking 10 is surprisingly tough. And so, a few beloved older 2D platformers like Aladdin, DuckTales, and The Lion King had to be cut. Sorry.
The Licensed Games that Made the Cut
Batman: Arkham Asylum
While not based on any specific Batman movie, or even a particular arc in the comics, Batman: Arkham Asylum is nonetheless a DC licensed game and one of the finest video games of the last console generation. This game took a combat style that had become popularized by Ubisoft games like Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed and perfected it. It took the campy and eccentric rogues gallery from the Batman mythology, gave them pitch-perfect character designs and voice acting, and let them loose in a world oozing with aesthetic beauty and atmosphere. This game is perfect.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie
In the running for longest and most overblown video game title ever, this tie-in to the also underrated Peter Jackson film from 2005 was a criminally overlooked gem of a game. It roughly follows the plot of the movie and puts players in the shoes/fur of Jack (Adrien Brody’s character) and the monstrous ape King Kong himself. The gameplay for both is solid, with a lot of Kong’s levels having you face off against vicious dinosaurs in dynamic fights where jaws are broken. The game still looks great, and it had a lot of fun gimmicks, like the lack of a HUD meaning you had to manually check how much ammo your gun had with the press of a button and a neat animation. A delightful, clever, and underrated game.
Until two years ago, this spot would have been given to Spider-Man 2 for the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube. But that game has been dethroned by the near flawless Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac. Similar to Batman: Arkham Asylum, this game is not based on a movie or comic directly. Rather, it carves out its own story and has fun rewriting a few origin stories here and there. It tweaks a few villains and characters and gifts us with a mature but imperfect Peter Parker (voice by the legendary Yuri Lowenthal). This game is made perfect by its mechanics, which encourage experimental combat with myriad gadgets and a hundred approaches to each encounter, as well as web-swinging that gives you such a rush of adrenaline that fast travel becomes redundant.
It’s a testament to this game’s quality that it sits on a list populated by quality AAA licensed games from the current and previous console generations, where we’ve seen so many improvements to most video games in terms of combing out the jank. Goldeneye 007 doesn’t have all that much jank. It’s a classic shooter with movement mechanics and fluid shooting gameplay that still holds up today. The 007 soundtrack is gorgeous, the levels are labyrinthine and varied, and I’m willing to bet that anyone who still owns a working N64 pulls this game out at parties, even over the big guns of today like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Here’s another game from generations past that holds up today. Maybe not in terms of its gameplay or its graphics (KOTOR was blocky even for its time) but in the way it tells a complex story that warrants more than one playthrough. KOTOR redefined the western RPG and was a precursor to one of the biggest video game trilogies of the last generation: Mass Effect. The fact that a Star Wars licensed game can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with an original IP as beloved and finely crafted as Mass Effect (granted, they were developed by the same studio) is a testament to the potential of a good licensed game.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
This game represented such a glorious return to form for the Star Wars license in video games that, even though it’s only a few months old at the time of writing, it has earned itself a spot on this list. Jedi: Fallen Order makes a concerted effort to slot itself into the current Star Wars canon, which could have come off as awkward, but it doesn’t. It’s a story with heart, spilling over with ingenuity. This game has taken elements of the metroidvania and soulslike genres, as well as action titles like Uncharted and Tomb Raider, to create something beautiful, polished, and surprisingly mechanically deep. It knows the fun of wielding a lightsaber; it knows the importance of that Star Wars aesthetic and tone; it’s fun but dark, cheesy but serious. It works as part of the canon, and it is an intensely fun action-adventure game from start to end.
It might seem a little weird to have Kingdom Hearts here, given that it isn’t licensed from one particular property. Rather, if you think about it, Kingdom Hearts is the mother of all licensed games. On paper, a game made by Squaresoft (as it was at the time) that’s populated by hundreds of Disney character—that also retells the stories of a selection of beloved Disney animated movies but with a story about hearts and keys shoehorned in—sounds like a recipe for disaster at best. In actuality, it turned out to be one of the best games on the PS2 and a risk very much worth taking. It’s one of this writer’s favorite video games of all time, and it spawned a beloved, if convoluted, series of colorful and charming action RPGs.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead
Telltale Games are, unfortunately, no longer with us in their original form, and their popularity dwindled with their final few releases. But their legacy was cemented by their licensed game The Walking Dead, which created a fantastic tie-in story to the beloved comic book series. This game will go down in history for how it revitalized and rejuvenated the classic adventure game genre, which had been almost dead for too many years. This clever, beautifully voice-acted, gorgeously drawn and animated game is a masterpiece of its form, taking The Walking Dead license and doing something very special with it.
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
What Telltale’s The Walking Dead did for the adventure game genre, Scott Pilgrim vs The World did for the beat ‘em up genre, albeit on a much smaller scale. This game never reached the same heights for a number of reasons, but it was nonetheless a critical darling that tied into the release of Edgar Wright’s movie and leaned into the aesthetics and tone of the comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It was a colorful, tightly designed, beautifully animated indie beat ‘em up, of a quality unseen in that genre for years and years. Games like this—games that are unconcerned with the lack of vitality in their genre but go ahead and be the best that they can be—they’re the ones we remember.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
What often sees a licensed game succeed is its approach. With a few exceptions, like the aforementioned Spider-Man 2 and King Kong, most licensed games that stand out as successes in their own right are the ones that take a license and create their own story within that world, rather than retelling the story of a movie or TV show to the point of redundancy. South Park: The Stick of Truth is one of the best examples of this. It’s a game that takes the voice acting, the memes and tropes, and even the unique art and aesthetics of South Park and builds a unique RPG experience within that world. Its comedy is a little base, but it definitely manages to recreate the style and feel of South Park in a fun and original RPG.