Can anime surpass its source material? Part two: video game based series

A while ago, I wrote about anime that managed to surpass its original manga, and I promised to follow that piece up with a second article discussing anime based on video games. As always, it took a little longer than anticipated to actually write the article in question, but now the time has finally come to discuss whether any good can come of adapting games into animated series. That being said, I will be approaching this piece a little differently from the first article, by considering the success or failure of this practice by genre rather than by just picking out the series that managed to surpass their original versions.

As I said before, transforming a story that was meant for one medium into something that was meant for another is never an easy task, and in the case of manga, it was one that often seemed to result in an inferior task. Unlike the static case of manga, however, many games already have movement and sound, or, in the case of visual novels, a more detailed story than is possible to convey in the speech bubbles of manga. Does this offer any advantage when the time comes to create an anime adaptation?

It’s easy to say that no good can come of RPG adaptations, and indeed, when looking at the line-up, there isn’t really a great deal to disprove that statement. The root cause of the trouble probably stems from the fact that the vast majority of RPGs follow the typical ‘classical fantasy’ tale of one band of heroes facing off against the Lord of Darkness and his minions. We’ve all seen it so many times by now that whilst it may fly in a situation where the player also has a battle system, levelling up and choosing the best equipment to distract them from the storyline, when it comes to just sitting and watching events play out on screen, there isn’t really much to entertain. A teenage boy with an oversized sword? A generic Lord of Evil who sits in a chair and wants to take over the world for some reason? Excuse me whilst I try to find something a little less overused.

That being said, even RPGs that dare to break the mould don’t necessarily translate into good anime. In principle, a cutscene-heavy sci-fi epic like Xenosaga should have been ideal material to turn into an anime, but somewhere along the line changes to the storyline and a laughable virtual reality episode left the result as little more than mediocre. Others, such as the hilariously ironic Disgaea, seemingly spent their entire budget on the trailer, leaving the actual series to become a poorly animated and decidedly juvenile rehash of the same three jokes.

Even so, it is hard not to want these adaptations- somehow, the desire to see our favourite characters in a new form remains strong despite the failures that have come before. Who didn’t watch the Suikoden III opening and think “if only there was an anime of this?” (speaking of which, I must read the manga someday). Who hasn’t seen anime style cut scenes of certain games and secretly wanted more? Is there any way to ensure that the result is not simply a depressingly weak story animated on a shoestring budget? Can the production studio be convinced to put more effort in when they know the fans will most likely buy it anyway?

One possible answer is to reduce the overlap between the anime and its original game, perhaps by using the anime to continue the story (a la .hack) or flesh out a character or scenario that the original game never really had time to devote much attention. As we can see from the likes of .hack//Roots or (dare I provoke the fanboys?) Advent Children, this isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success, but it would allow the writers more freedom to create something better suited for anime, instead of turning another twenty-six episodes into a forgettable plot about the Lord of Darkness.

Action Games
When it comes to action and beat-‘em-ups being given an anime, you can usually depend on one thing- it’s not really supposed to be about the quality. Amidst the various mediocre fight-fests, however, there is one title worth mentioning- Gungrave. Although it does degenerate into a series of boss fights by the end, the earlier episodes make for an interesting mafia-centred character drama, proving the point above that expanding on something not explicitly covered in the game itself may be the way to ensure better quality.

Visual novels, dating sims and eroge
When it comes to visual novels and the like, the concerns about making an anime adaptation are somewhat different- after all, these games are arguably geared more towards plot than gameplay. With page upon page of text scenario to work with, there should be no shortage of material upon which to base an anime story, but here a different problem arises- there may well be far too much to include, forcing the anime to include a pruned version of the story which neglects a lot of the character development that actually made the original game worthy. Certainly Fate/Stay Night, Utawarerumono and Higurashi, whilst hardly perfect in their original forms, demonstrated their flaws more plainly when showed in a more bare bones form.

Of course, when we come to the seemingly endless seam of games created to enable the protagonist to interact with as many members of the opposite sex as possible, we probably shouldn’t expect much in the cases where they are just directly transformed into standard harem or reverse harem series. The likes of YoakeNa might have some nice (non-H) CGs, but they prove to be too forgettable to even pass as light entertainment. Meanwhile, the Neoromance series of games (Haruka, Corda, Angelique) has thus far provided three uninspiring anime adaptations, each of which is filled with unnecessary angst, personality deficient bishounen and either an entirely predictable storyline or no discernible plot whatsoever. Perhaps the only success in this department is Meine Liebe, which deviates from its dating sim origins and just makes all the bishounen involved HARD GAY for each other.

Fortunately, however, there are successes to be found as well, such as the curiously addictive and bittersweet Air, the mystery of Tsukihime and the heart-rending yet satisfying emotional drama of Kimi ga Nozomu Eien. For series like these, it almost seems worth enduring the failures.

Final thoughts
It seems hard to find a good game adaptation no matter which genre you look at, but amidst the sea of low quality and eminently forgettable titles, there are a few eroge adaptations that do stand out. With more and more games being turned into anime, we can expect a continual influx of the average and mediocre, but nonetheless we can also hope for the odd gem to turn up now and then.

I’d like to do a Part III concentrating on light novel adaptations, but that will have to wait until I’ve read more of said novels.

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6 Responses to Can anime surpass its source material? Part two: video game based series

  1. kuromitsu says:

    “there are a few eroge adaptations that do stand out” – and Gungrave. :3 I think Gungrave owns all other video game adaptations. Even though, as you said, it slowly degenerates into boss fights in the latter half, the direction remains superb and the last two episodes make up for all the stupid monsters that came before.

  2. Wererat42 says:

    Light novels? They’ve only recently started importing them… Tokyopop mainly. You should try Scrapped Princess and Kino no Tabi.
    Then there’s Baka-Tsuki’s translation of Suzumiya Haruhi, which was pretty faithful to its source material, but being told blatantly out of order kind of interfered with the the flow of the story, in my own opinion.
    I also know that the full-length novel of The Twelve Kingdoms has been brought over.

  3. Karura says:

    kuromitsu: Gungrave isn’t right up there in my favourites, which, combined with laziness and the need for a well constructed sentence, was why I left it out of the conclusion. It is worth watching, though.

    Wererat42: I’ve read most of what Baka-Tsuki have translated of Haruhi so far and I might review it when I catch up. Scrapped Princess and Kino are actually the two I was thinking of buying first- I was put off a bit by the writing style of .hack//AI buster but I feel ready to give some other light novels a go next time I order books and manga.

  4. jeffx says:

    Have you seen the Ys anime? I thought it was really good, but then again I’m a huge fan of the series. I wouldn’t say it surpassed its source material but it sure was up to par and even took the opportunity to flesh out the early games’ storylines.

  5. Karura says:

    The whole Ys franchise has pretty much passed me by (you know what it’s like when you think you should check something out but there’s always other things that take priority). I guess there’s no harm in adding it to the “must check out eventually” list, though…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Aside from Haruhi, there’s also Shana and Trinity Blood that made it to adaptation from light novels. Don’t know about Shana, but Trinity Blood’s definitely kinda messed up what with the characters significantly differing in relationship dynamics with each other.

    Also, nice write-up and great site — you’re on Anime Nano too? Seems like there’s tons of them these days. Subscribed. (:

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