Licensed video game

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DuckTales was a popular game licensed from a cartoon.

Licensed video games are a genre whose content is in-part based on an existing concept that is legally protected, so a license must be obtained in order to publish the game. Such concepts include books, films, celebrities, organizations, products, and the like. The genre is not based on mechanics or story, just on the fact that they are licensed. Although this may seem like a strange grouping, there is often commonality between most licensed games: they are typically low quality and feature derivative game play.

Since few film or book publishing companies also have an in-house video game development studio, they almost always outsource game development to a third party. However, since established studios prefer to focus on their own creative work, licensed games are usually contracted to inexperienced developers. Also, since licensed games are expected to be available for purchase around the same time the licensed work is published, these inexperienced developers are usually given extremely short deadlines. With such short time constraints, the developers rarely try to create unique play mechanics, and are often discouraged from doing so by the licensor, so they typically make games which are very derivative of existing popular titles. Also, because the games are expected to incorporate many aspects of the licensed work, designers often resort to using multiple genre game play.

However, occasionally a licensor will hire a mature third party developer and they will use their talents to create an impressive licensed game. Some companies, like Capcom and Konami, even excelled at making licensed games, and most of their licensed titles were of high-quality.


I don't remember my first licensed video game, but I do know that most of the licensed games I played on the NES were horrible. Thankfully, I never bought a licensed game (though I still bought plenty of crap titles), but my friends and I often rented them and wasted our money and weekends on their frustrating and monotonous game play. To this day, I almost never buy or even attempt to play them.


One of the first attempts at creating a licensed game occurred in 1974, when Atari tried to get a license to make an arcade game around the film Jaws. Universal Pictures turned them down, probably not foreseeing profit in such a new entertainment media, but Atari still released a game called Shark Jaws whose marquee featured a very small "shark" before a very prominent "JAWS." Fearing reprisal from Universal, Atari created a subsidiary corporation called "Horror Games" to publish the game, which they hoped would shield them from an anticipated a lawsuit. Atari reported sales of around 2,000 units, which was respectable for the time. In 1976, Exidy denied their game Death Race was based on on the film Death Race 2000 released a year earlier, but the similar theme and working title of "Death Race '98" made it clear it was related even though a license was never granted. It went on to be in the top ten highest grossing games of both 1976 and 1977, making it clear that games based on films could be lucrative.

Possibly the first officially licensed game was a Sega title called Fonz released in the USA in November 1976. Since Sega of America was owned by Gulf+Western which included Paramount Television, when Sega brought their game Road Race to the USA, they re-branded it with a Happy Days theme.

Starting in 1979, Mattel Electronics was one of the first companies to make a big deal over getting licenses. Their console, the Intellivision, saw dozens of licensed including by sports organizations like the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and PGA, gaming groups like the ABPA and USCF, films like Tron and Star Wars: The Empire Strike Back, television shows like The Electric Company, Scooby Doo, Masters of the Universe, and The Jetsons, and even products like Kool-Aid and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, since the hardware couldn't handle very realistic games, these licenses were little more than a marketing gimmick.

By 1982, video game publishers were spending huge amounts of money on licenses and pushing their developers to create games under very tight deadlines which often had disastrous consequences. Famously, Atari bought the rights to E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for $25,000,000, and ordered the production of 5,000,000 units, but only gave their developer five weeks to make the game. This resulted in one of the biggest flops in video game history with only around $1,500,000 units sold, many of which were returned, so most of the stock had to be destroyed. This colossal failure contributed to the US video game crash of 1983 and the company's bankruptcy in 1984.

Even as the US video game industry was crashing, Electronic Arts saw the utility of licensed games and was eager to try it out, but, since Mattel had exclusive licenses with most sports organizations, they tried a different approach and signed licenses with the players themselves. In 1983, they published one of the very first games to license a real person's likeness, One-on-One, which features Jules Irving and Larry Bird. Sega would take a similar approach with a lot of their future sports games, many of which were developed by EA.

As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, a licensed game was being made for every major film, TV show, sporting organization, board game, toy, etc. and, when publishers ran out of current titles, they began licensing material that had been off the air for decades like The Lone Ranger and Gilligan's Isle. Despite most of these games being pretty awful, consumers kept buying them, and, to this day, licensed games are still amazingly popular and make up a large percentage of every console's game library.


This is a list of licensed video games that are important to me. For all games in this genre, see the category.

Title Released Developer
Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers 1990-06-08 Capcom
DuckTales 1989-09-?? Capcom
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 1982-??-?? Atari
The Goonies 1986-02-21 Konami
The Goonies II 1987-03-18 Konami
Little Nemo: The Dream Master 1990-09-?? Capcom
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! 1987-09-18 Nintendo
The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King 2005-09-08 Tose
Raiders of the Lost Ark 1982-??-?? Atari
Rambo 1987-12-04 Pack-In-Video
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade) 1989-??-?? Konami
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES) 1989-05-12 Konami