In response to the Need For Speed film that came out last week, our resident film editor Dan Cohen wrote an excellent Pop-Ed discussing why there aren’t good video game films. It really is a harsh truth about both industries. Video games and movies are incredible forms of entertainment, obviously, but when they come together something happens that makes one plus one equal absolute shit. A film based on a video game or a video game based on a film tend to fail in equal measure. The general consensus of Need for Speed is that this latest video game adaptation is no different. While Dan used Need for Speed to discuss the film side of video game adaptations, I’m going to focus on the source material itself in this week’s Remembering the Classics. It also helps that the Need for Speed film just happens to be based on the 7th best selling game franchise of all time. (To reduce confusion, I feel the need to specify that all mentions of the franchise’s title will reference the game series and not the film from this moment onward).
The racing genre of video gaming is probably one of the oldest genres on the market. Atari’s Space Race in 1973 started it off back when arcade machines were rising in popularity. By the time The Need for Speed came out in 1994 for 3DO interactive (and later for DOS, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn), gamers already had their pick of the litter. So in order to make The Need for Speed something worth buying, Electronic Arts wanted to make it as realistic as possible. They did this by partnering with Road & Track Magazine, an automotive publication that provided valuable insight into how vehicles sound and accurate vehicle commentary. You could race on a total of seven tracks with eight cars to choose from including the Porsche 911 Carrera and the Lamborghini Diablo VT. At certain points throughout a race, police cruisers will be dispatched to chase you down and you have to avoid them at all costs. Critics praised the attention to detail and realism, giving EA the perfect excuse to follow this 1994 hit with 19 more titles and counting.
It goes without saying that video game genres have become very diluted over the years. For the ill informed, many different titles from the same genre can end up looking identical. When you consider racing in particular, it’s hard to fault someone for confusing a Need for Speed title with other popular franchises like Gran Turismo, Burnout, and Forza Motorsport to name a few. Basically unless the game in question is Mario Kart, nearly all modern racing games will look the same to the untrained eye. Yet when you look deeper with each individual title, you’ll see what makes them different. Gran Turismo made its fortune as a PlayStation only title with an even deeper focus on realism than Need for Speed, Forza Motorsport boasted similar realism as an Xbox only entry, and Burnout was more about crashing in fantastical ways than racing.
Need for Speed kept itself popular by making police pursuits a very important part of the series. Nearly every game makes what you’re doing illegal which is sensible considering actual laws against street racing. Starting with 1998’s Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, it was possible for the player to drive a police car themselves and arrest other racers on the course. As technology improved and the racing genre grew by leaps and bounds, Need for Speed introduced concepts like car tuning, drifting, dragging, and rating your car on outside appearances. Games like Need for Speed: Shift focused more on being a racing simulator as well. All of these changes were implemented to keep Need for Speed as relevant as possible while the series itself maintained its focus on the illegality of what it allowed the player to do.
Yet very little about Need for Speed screams “film material.” Sure it has exciting police chases and legitimately beautiful graphics, but the series as a whole isn’t remembered for its plot. It actually took nearly a decade for a Need for Speed game to get a completely fleshed out story. This first foray into story based material was 2003’s Need for Speed: Underground for Windows, Xbox, PlayStation 2, Gamecube, and Game Boy Advance. It tells the story of an unnamed street racer who strives to become the best underground racer in the city. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff right? While an unoriginal plot can typically ruin a game, no one plays a racing game for its gripping and dramatic story. Case in point, NFS: Underground was an extremely popular title that spawned a sequel with another possibly in the making, but likely had the unfortunate side effect of people thinking, “Hey. This might actually make a film.”
Despite the fact that I’ve owned my fair share of racing titles, ranging from the popular to the unknown, I never became a diehard fanatic of the genre. I’m personally more of an RPG or action-adventure kind of guy. The truth is, I’m not even certain if I’ve ever actually played a Need for Speed game despite the popularity and sheer amount of available titles. I could have sworn that I rented one of these many games in the past to play with a friend, but re-exploring the library leads me to think otherwise. This of course stems from the inherent problem of not being a hardcore racing fan in the first place, Mario Kart notwithstanding. I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably wouldn’t be able to tell Need for Speed apart from many other normal racing games if presented gameplay. This isn’t intended to be a slight on the franchise by any means. It’s just how my video game tastes have developed over the years. Sometimes not even a top ten franchise can do enough to get me running to the store.
While Need for Speed has outsold every other racing series on the market, it has actually been on a steady decline since 2005. Many critics feel that the series was too focused on changing itself around that it forgot what made it popular in the first place. Driving exotic cars in beautiful locales with the police hot on your tail. It also didn’t help that many other racing franchises grew exponentially in popularity. Yet high praise for 2013’s Need for Speed Rivals and 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted shows that this series could perhaps be on the rise again. It’s uncertain how much the poorly received film adaptation will effect the franchise, but it will probably be a drop in the bucket considering this two decade long history. It’ll take more than a poorly reviewed film to stop a series that has outsold the likes of Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, and FIFA.