From Super Mario Bros. to Sonic the Hedgehog: A Box Office History of Video Game Adaptations

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures (Resident Evil); Paramount Pictures (Sonic the Hedgehog); Universal Pictures (Warcraft)

One of the last major box office hits to arrive in theaters prior to the coronavirus-fueled shutdown was Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, which grossed more than $146 million in the U.S. and over $300 million worldwide before its momentum was slowed by the growing outbreak. By the end of its abbreviated theatrical run, the Paramount release had managed to become the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time in the U.S. (not adjusting for inflation), marking a new high point in a cinematic sub-genre that—while rarely garnering critical praise—has supplied its fair share of box office success stories.

Like every sub-genre, of course, there have also been a number of misfires. Case in point: Disney’s Super Mario Bros., hailed as the first major video game adaptation when it debuted over Memorial Day weekend 1993. Though it was heavily hyped by the studio and given a prime early-summer release date, the $48 million-budgeted film suffered from poor word of mouth and debuted to just $8.5 million over the four-day weekend, topping out at a disappointing $20.9 million in North America. Needless to say, its weak performance did not inspire confidence.

Though multiplexes would soon host another dud with Gramercy Pictures’ big-screen adaptation of Double Dragon—which opened to just $1.3 million in November 1994 and topped out at a minuscule $2.3 million in North America—it was followed in December by Universal’s adaptation of the wildly popular video game Street Fighter, which starred action-hero-of-the-moment Jean-Claude Van Damme. Though the $35 million-budgeted film opened to just $6.8 million in North America and finished with $33.4 million domestically, it powered its way to twice that amount overseas, boosting its worldwide gross to $99.4 million. That lopsided result was the first indication of video game adaptations’ overseas potential, which would underlie later global box office successes like Warcraft and the Resident Evil franchise.

The sub-genre really jumpstarted the following year with the release of New Line Cinema’s adaptation of the hugely controversial fighting game Mortal Kombat. Despite featuring a largely unknown cast and being lambasted by critics, the adaptation satisfied the game’s core fanbase and debuted with a superb $23.2 million in late August of 1995, ultimately finishing its run with $70.4 million in North American and $122.1 million globally off a reported $18 million budget. Unfortunately, that momentum didn’t carry over to the far less successful 1997 sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation ($51.3 million worldwide off a reported $30 million budget), nor to the much-derided 1999 adaptation of the video game franchise Wing Commander, which stalled out with just $11.5 million in North America off a reported budget of $30 million.

The following decade nonetheless saw an explosion of video game adaptations on the big screen, to mixed results. After Warner Bros.’ English-dubbed release of the anime film Pokémon: The First Movie closed out the ‘90s with a powerful North American gross north of $85.7 million and a worldwide tally of over $163.6 million off a $30 million budget, it was quickly followed by two more animated sequels, 2000’s Pokémon the Movie 2000 ($43.7 million domestic, $133.9 million worldwide) and 2001’s Pokémon 3: The Movie ($17 million domestic, $68.4 million worldwide), which were released to diminishing returns. The franchise picked up in U.S. theaters again with last year’s live-action/animated hybrid Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which rose to become the highest-grossing video game adaptation ever in North America when it surged to $144.1 million in domestic receipts and a whopping $433 million worldwide, nearly tripling its reported $150 million budget. Less than a year later, Sonic would steal its box office crown, at least in North America.

2001 would bring both the potential and pitfalls of the video game adaptation into sharp relief. That June, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider capitalized on the explosive star power of Angelina Jolie, swinging its way to $131.1 million domestically and $274.7 million worldwide off a reported $115 million budget (the 2003 sequel, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, would fall short of its success). The following month, however, saw the release of one of the most notorious flops in the canon of video game adaptations with the Sony/Columbia-distributed Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Plagued by cost overruns that saw its budget balloon to a reported $137 million, the CG-animated film finished its run with a hugely disappointing $32.1 million in North America and $85.1 million globally, leading to the demise of its production company Square Pictures.

The most commercially successful and long-running video game movie franchise to date, Sony/Screen Gems’ Resident Evil, kicked off in March 2002 with the release of the first film in the series, which debuted to $17.7 million in North America and finished its domestic run with $40.1 million and $102.9 million globally, more than tripling its reported $33 million budget. The series racked up further success with a slew of sequels, including 2004’s Apocalypse ($51.2 million domestic, $129.3 million worldwide), 2007’s Extinction ($50.6 million, $147.7 million), 2010’s Afterlife ($60.1 million, $300.2 million), 2012’s Retribution ($42.3 million, $240.1 million), and The Final Chapter, which capped off the soon-to-be-rebooted series with $26.8 million in North America and $312.2 million worldwide, making the series a billion-dollar franchise.

On the other side of the coin, the 2000s hosted the release of several notorious, mid-budgeted video game adaptations directed by Uwe Boll, all of which failed to gain box office traction either domestically or internationally. This list includes 2003’s House of the Dead ($10.2 million domestic, $13.3 million worldwide), 2005’s Alone in the Dark ($5.1 million, $12.6 million), 2006’s BloodRayne ($2.4 million, $3.6 million), and 2007’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which managed a paltry $4.7 million domestically and $13 million worldwide off a bloated $60 million budget.

Elsewhere that decade, TriStar Pictures’ 2006 big-screen adaptation of the popular horror game Silent Hill became a minor hit with $46.9 million domestically and $100.6 million worldwide; 20th Century Fox released Hitman ($39.6 million domestic, $101.2 million worldwide) and Max Payne ($40.6 million, $87 million) to okay (if unspectacular) results; and Universal’s Doom—arguably the most anticipated video game adaptation of the 2000s—fell far short of expectations when it grossed just $28.2 million in North America and $58 million worldwide off a reported $60 million budget, despite the presence of future action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the lead role.

The 2010s kicked off with a relative dud in Disney’s Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which even a bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t save. Though the film managed $90.7 million in North America and $336.3 million worldwide—a high number for the video game sub-genre—according to some reports, its budget ballooned to $200 million, presenting the film with an all-but-insurmountable commercial hurdle.

The overseas appeal of video game adaptations cannot be underestimated, and in the 2010s, a number of big-budget titles were salvaged by their international grosses. The most infamous example of this phenomenon is Universal’s Warcraft, which was released in June 2016 to poor reviews and a polarized reception from fans of the hugely popular video game franchise. Opening to just $24.1 million in North America and finishing its run there with a paltry $47.3 million, the $160 million-budgeted film nonetheless scored with audiences overseas, particularly in China, where it finished its run with a whopping $225 million. When all receipts were tallied, the film exited multiplexes with over $439 million globally—only about 10% of which came from audiences in the U.S. and Canada.

This asymmetrical domestic-overseas breakdown was echoed to a lesser extent by a number of other titles, including Disney’s Need for Speed ($43.5 million in North America, $203.2 million worldwide in 2014); 20th Century Fox’s Assassin’s Creed ($54.6 million, $240.6 million in 2016); and Warner Bros.’ Tomb Raider reboot ($58.2 million, $274.6 million) and Rampage ($101 million, $428 million), both released in 2018.

One interesting note: Since the sub-genre kicked off in 1993 with Super Mario Bros., only five video game movies have grossed more than $100 million at the box office: Sonic the Hedgehog, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Rampage and the animated Angry Birds Movie, which grossed $107.5 million domestically and $352.3 million worldwide in 2016 (its 2019 sequel, by contrast, finished with just $41.6 million and $147.7 million). Additionally, no video game movie adaptation has ever crossed the $500 million threshold worldwide.

That could change with any number of video game adaptations on the theatrical horizon, including Sony’s Monster Hunter (currently slated for 9/4/20), Paramount’s Without Remorse (10/2/20), Warner Bros.’ Mortal Kombat (1/15/21), Sony’s Uncharted (7/16/21), Warner Bros.’ Minecraft (3/4/22), and the inevitable Sonic the Hedgehog sequel.