Castlevania started as a pastiche of Universal monster movies, sending an orange guy with a whip to fight a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and big bad Dracula. Castlevania, the show, spent its fourth season exploring the relationships of a quartet of immortal vampire queens, reflecting on how we process grief, and looking absolutely incredible in motion. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anyone expected, but seven years after the last (maligned) Castlevania game, the Netflix series has become the new benchmark for videogame adaptations.
I can imagine an alternate universe where we never got Netflix’s Castlevania because Konami was still scarred by a disastrous ’90s Hollywood adaptation. Dolph Lundgren was a yolked Simon Belmont, John Travolta was the most overacted Dracula in screen history, and the film bombed so hard that its only enduring cultural legacy was a viral reaction gif of Dolph punching a laughably fake Medusa head until its eyes bugged out.
But in this reality, we got a cartoon that mixes philosophy and long, thoughtful dialogue with toilet humor and extreme violence, and we never have to live with Travolta doing the “What is a man” speech. After decades of Hollywood pumping out bland, cringy, or outright dogshit videogame movies, the last few years of videogame adaptations have been legitimately amazing, because TV finally gave them time to breathe.
The curse has been broken, and we mostly have Netflix to thank for it.
Hollywood movies were never the right fit for games. There are probably a hundred reasons why, but if you look back at most of the adaptations made in the ’90s and 2000s, you can see the big problems screaming out in all caps. The writers rarely captured what truly made the games appealing; the big movie stars of the day took roles they were poor fits for; the stories either adhered too closely to the games (cheese alert) or barely felt like adaptations (who were these even for?). Add in what were usually low budgets and B-tier directors and it’s no wonder they’re almost all relegated to the Bad Movie Night pile.
Nineties videogame movies were a special flavor of bad that I do still savor—I’ll pop on Street Fighter or Double Dragon every five years or so just to laugh—but the streak of bad game movies continued well into the 2010s. I got drunk on giant Russian beers while watching Warcraft and was still shook by how terrible it was. Best case we got something like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, an uncomfortably whitewashed but somewhat competent adventure flick. Most were far worse, or just boring retreads of games we’d already played, like Assassin’s Creed.
If the thought ever occurred to movie producers that an adaptation could somehow enrich the source material by building out the backstories of familiar characters or embellishing the game worlds with more detail, it never showed on screen. That’s finally changed in just the last couple years with Castlevania, The Witcher, and especially Arcane, the League of Legends spin-off that has been a true breakout hit.
Arcane is what a show looks like when it has all the time it needs to cook. I’ve never seen 3D animation like it: Arcane might not outdo Pixar on raw detail, but it’s in a class of its own on style, blending in 2D animation for special effects and detouring into totally different animation for striking one-off scenes.
Just as important, Arcane’s characters get all the depth here that they never could in the MOBA, fleshing out alliances and rivalries with tragic backstories and political speeches and relationships that get enough screen time to feel real. The most common opinion I’ve seen about Arcane is that it’s a great show regardless of whether or not you’ve played League of Legends, which is a rare honor for a game adaptation. And for fans, it’s even better: They get to spend hours immersed in a world they’ve only ever seen in concept art and short cinematics. The popularity of Arcane has already fed back into LoL.
Castlevania also uses the game heroes and timeline as a springboard for a richer, character-driven story. And it’s not afraid to fully reshape some characters so that it can do more with them. Isaac, the show’s richest character, works through a knot of hatred and self-loathing season-by-season, making for some of its best conversations. In the PS2 game Curse of Darkness, meanwhile, he’s your quintessential cackling villain dressed for a bondage party. I haven’t seen every videogame movie Hollywood’s shit out since the ’90s, but I can’t think of a single one that improves a character for the better.
Wait, I take that back. There is exactly one.
Time is really key here: Instead of trying to cram a full game world into a two-hour movie, Arcane and Castlevania both use their stretch of episodes to dig deeper. The Witcher has a bit more in common with Hollywood adaptations—a big part of the appeal is “famous movie star appears in live action, and ooh, it’s expensive”—but it also benefits from time and a star who’s truly dedicated to the source material.
Not every Netflix adaptation has hit those highs. Dota: Dragon’s Blood is competent but generic fantasy, while Capcom has been producing crappy CGI Resident Evil movies for years and just happened to stick the latest on streaming. The new Carmen Sandiego series does seem like a winner, but I’ll never admit it’s good without my Chief. Bad adaptations certainly aren’t extinct, but it’s still exciting to be experiencing a moment where that’s not the only way they can end up. Bad isn’t even the default anymore.
The flexibility of streaming means a game adaptation can take the form it needs to, rather than being mashed into the same generic mold. In this new era, it’s OK for The Witcher series to be the big expensive fantasy show, Netflix’s stab at Game of Thrones, while animated spinoff Nightmare of the Wolf can fully own its role as a slaughterfest starring Sexy Vesemir. There’s no pressure for it to explain the whole Witcher universe to a mainstream audience.
Streaming is certainly a better format for these shows than the Hollywood movie, but the bigger reason these shows have been great is that they’re simply made by people who actually play videogames and understand them. Arcane started as a pet project within Riot; Castlevania animators Sam & Adam Deats grew up on the games. If Henry Cavill doesn’t get to star in a Warhammer series someday, it’ll be a great loss for us all.
Castlevania was the trailblazer of this new generation of game adaptations, but The Witcher and Arcane are the shows that will inform the next decade of game adaptations because they have that air of prestige. It won’t be long before Amazon, Apple, Disney+, and all the other streamers start looking at games for their next billion-dollar epic. Mass Effect looks like it’s on the verge of happening already, so it’s probably only a matter of time until Fallout or some other series gets the Uncle Pennybags treatment.
Hollywood’s going to keep trying, but the latest evidence shows little sign of them evolving beyond the same kinds of movies they’ve always done. Uncharted will look like Uncharted, but it won’t be any better than playing Uncharted, and it won’t make playing Uncharted better, either. Borderlands, with Kevin Hart and Cate Blanchett, is a wildcard, but this seems like yet another movie that would work far better as an animated series that had time to explore Pandora. Game adaptations belong to the streamers now, and we’ve just seen the first few examples of how much better they can be.