Many of those who grew up with the Harry Potter franchise probably played at least one of the Harry Potter video games, released back when EA was in charge of every tie-in game that wasn’t Star Wars. Now we barely get any movie tie-in games and to top it all off EA owns the Star Wars games, too.
Some might argue that it’s not a shame that we rarely get any movie tie-in games anymore, because the quality is really low, but if you look back, some of them are all-time favourites. Spider-Man 2 still gets constant praise, Goldeneye 007 is one of the most well-known N64 games, and who could forget Rockstar Games’ The Warriors?
Amongst all these movie tie-in games, there is one franchise that went through extreme changes from its first game to its last two. The differences between the first and the last games in the Harry Potter franchise are highly noticeable, from the charming action adventure with platforming elements of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the dark and gritty third-person shooter action of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
The franchise was pushed and shoved until it reached the form of the mainstream type of game developers felt would make the most money and because of this, there’s a positive side to the deterioration of quality in the franchise, as absurd as it sounds. It should be the perfect model to see how the mainstream changed from 2001 to 2011.
Let’s start with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There were three versions of the game made, each from a different studio or group of studios and each for a different set of consoles. The PC version had more puzzle-based gameplay whereas the PSX version was an action-platform game, both taking advantage of the 3D environment. The GBA version was a top-down action-adventure game, while the GBC version was a top-down RPG à la Earthbound. The games had a passable reception and on PC, in the USA, it was the third highest selling game of that year. However, the PS2, Xbox and GameCube versions got some slack for copying the spells and map from the Chamber of Secrets version, probably in a quick hurry after the popularity of the Chamber of Secrets game on those consoles.
If you compare the top ten best-selling video games of the year with the top ten highest rated games of the year, you get an overlap of four games: Grand Theft Auto III, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and Madden NFL 2002. Most of the highest selling games were released on PS2, which explains why the Chamber of Secrets would then be developed for PS2, with a port of Philosopher’s Stone hitting the console in 2003, too.
Presumably, the PSX version of the game was following in the footsteps of the highly popular Tomb Raider games, as since 1996, there had been a Tomb Raider game per year. Another possible source of inspiration could have been the Spyro games that also saw a lot of love on the PSX.
There is any number of puzzle games on PC that could have been an inspiration for the PC version of the game, from realMyst, which was released in 2000, to Grim Fandango, which graced our computers for the first time in 1998.
The GBA version played like a top-down Zelda game, whereas the GBC version played like Earthbound and similar JRPGs, which makes it not too hard to guess where the inspiration for those games came from.
If you look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was a lot of work put into all of these movie tie-in video games, with completely different ideas for each instead of miserable attempts at porting what shouldn’t be ported. Porting it to PS2, Xbox and GameCube in 2003 at least made sense gameplay-wise, as they had a very similar build.
Just like with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there were several different versions of the game. However unlike its predecessor, the PS2, Xbox and GameCube versions were not made after the game released on the other consoles, they were all released at the same time. In fact, the PSX version was even a sequel to the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone game, instead of just another tie-in to the sequel of the movie. This time around, the GBA version is the laziest version, being based on the PS2, Xbox and GameCube versions, with much flatter and also simpler art for it to be able to work on the GameBoy Advance. The game had a better reception than its prequel across the board, scoring an entire ten percent higher on average.
Comparing the ten best selling games of 2002 in the USA with the ten highest rated games of that year also gives you an overlap of two games. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the best selling game of 2002 and the second highest rated game of 2002, while Madden NFL 2003 was the fourth best selling game of 2002 and also the fourth highest rated. They both had an average score of 95.
The gameplay is roughly the same as in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with the main differences only being on different platforms. The PS2, GameCube and Xbox versions let you fly around the school, for example, or as mentioned before, the PSX version was a sequel to the previous movie’s tie-in game, sharing a lot of elements and resources but letting you see more thing around Hogwarts.
With Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, only one of the many console releases was a lazy port, namely the GBA version. Another version was even a coherent sequel to the previous game, with the PSX version not just being a chopped off tie-in game to the sequel of the movie, which is something tie-in game developers love to do for whatever reason.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Platforms: GBA, PC, PS2, Xbox, GameCube Developers: Griptonite Games, KnowWonder, EA UK
Here we find ourselves with three different versions of the game again. The version of the game for PS2, Xbox and GameCube was made by EA UK (later to be known as EA Bright Light) and has very similar gameplay to the respective version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The biggest difference is the ability to play not only as Harry Potter but also as Ron and Hermione. The same thing can also be done in the PC version, which is still quite puzzle-based, but leans more towards the action-platformer gameplay of the PS2 version than Chamber of Secrets did. The GBA version follows the footsteps of the GBC versions of Chamber of Secrets and Philosopher’s Stone, being an RPG game along the lines of Earthbound. The game was received worse than Chamber of Secrets, with the general consensus being that while kids and fans of the series will probably still have fun with the games, anyone else will probably not like it that much.
In 2004 again, we have two games from the top ten highest reviewed games being among the top ten best-selling games, namely Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, being the best-selling game of the year and the third highest-rated, and Halo 2, being the second best-selling game of the year and also the second highest-rated. Both have an average Metacritic score of 95.
The reason that the GBA version is like the previous GBC versions is probably that the studio responsible for it, Griptonite Games, was responsible for the GBC version of Chamber of Secrets and the GBC and GBA versions of Philosopher’s Stone. It could be that they decided to stick to the formula they had for the Game Boy Color games because after making two separate versions for Philosopher’s Stone, one for GBA and one for GBC, they were only in charge of developing the GBC version of Chamber of Secrets. There could have been some trouble with EA, or their GBA version might not have sold well enough, there are many possible reasons.
Here, none of the different versions is seen as a lazy port, even if all of them follow in the footsteps of the previous game in one way or another.
Harry Potter And the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Platforms: GBA, Nintendo DS, GameCube, PSP, PS2, PC, Xbox Developers: EA UK
This is where it starts going downhill. There are only one and a half different versions of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. One for every console except GBA, while GBA gets a shitty port of what everyone else got. You have a similar gameplay, similar angle, except flattened to the typical GBA 2D style, and then you get shitty minigames like this:
It’s baffling that someone in the creative team made the conscious decision to say: “You know what players really want? A dancing mini-game during the Yule Ball right after the first task of the Triwizard Tournament. Players are going to want to relive the excitement of the struggle to not look like a ‘babbling, bumbling band of baboons’ as Professor McGonagall would say.” On top of that, there are screens from the movie directly put into the game as you can see in that video, with the resolution pushed down far enough for it to be visible on the GBA, but not far enough for it to not tarnish the Harry Potter franchise.
Surprisingly, the average rating of every version is roughly the same as with Prisoner of Azkaban, with the GBA version having the best aggregate score on Metacritic somehow.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is more of an action-adventure game than the action-platformer gameplay of Prisoner of Azkaban, which had already was the franchise’s first steps towards being more action-focused. This is most likely partly because of the stakes being raised in the franchise, but also because of the popularity of games like Star Wars: Battlefront II and Resident Evil 4. Since Goblet of Fire is still very much an entry in the series that is directed at older kids to teenagers, with a light-hearted mood interrupted by darker moments, the decision was probably made to start taking the games in a more action-packed direction.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Platforms: GBA, Nintendo DS, Wii, PSP, PS2, PS3, PC, Xbox 360 Developers: EA Bright Light
With Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the franchise took a step backwards away from linear action-oriented gameplay and towards sandbox adventure gameplay. Letting you explore Hogwarts freely for the first time, instead of just wandering from mission to mission, EA Bright Light even got fan input to make the game better. However, they released the same game for every console, with only the obvious changes, such as graphics. This means we got three lazy ports with heavily downgraded graphics and four normal ports. The portable versions of the game all had a much lower average score on Metacritic, whereas the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 versions all had the highest scores, with the PC and PS2 versions in the middle, score-wise.
There are many possible reasons for the step back from action-focussed gameplay. It’s quite possible that they wanted to recapture the spirit of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, arguably the best game in the series, which was also the best selling game in the series. The second best-selling game in the franchise was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which also had similar puzzle/action-platformer gameplay to Chamber of Secrets.
It’s a pity that the developers didn’t put more effort into the GBA, Nintendo DS and PSP versions of the game, to make a separate version that doesn’t play as badly as you’d expect a heavily downgraded port to play. It’s not hard to see that there was only one studio at work here, unlike the several studios that worked on the first three Harry Potter games to make the different versions, meaning they also probably didn’t have enough time to make different versions of the game, meaning that especially the GBA version, but also the Nintendo DS and PSP versions of the game were lazy ports for cash grabs.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Platforms: Nintendo DS, Wii, PSP, PS2, PS3, PC, Xbox 360 Developers: EA Bright Light
After the step away from action-oriented gameplay, the franchise decided to step back into it. EA Bright Light kept the open world sandbox gameplay of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but instead of using the same spell gameplay in battles, too, battles are always in special arenas that feature one-on-one third person spell-casting action. It’s a very weird choice for the game, one that frankly would have made more sense in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with Harry training Dumbledore’s Army and showing everyone how to use new spells along with how to perfect the ones they already know. The shift to more action-packed games made sense per se, but the way they handled it was weird. This time again, the Nintendo DS and PSP versions are cheap ports of the console versions of the game. Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince has the same average rating as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, if not even lower.
The only game both on the list of best-selling and highest rated games is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The list of highest rated games was filled with shooters like Uncharted 2, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and Killzone 2, whereas the list of best-selling games] was mostly filled with Wii games like Wii Sports Resort and Wii Fit.
It’s quite weird that after moving away from an action focus, the Harry Potter franchise took a step back again, especially since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t much darker than Order of the Phoenix except near the end. It’s quite possible they used this game as a stepping stone to try out a new system before the darkest two games on the series hit everyone’s doorsteps, especially since all three games came out in a time frame of a few days more than two years.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010)
Platforms: Nintendo DS, Wii, PS3, PC, Xbox 360 Developers: EA Bright Light
Here’s where it all hits rock-bottom. All the charm of the Harry Potter franchise in every bit of lore that could have been turned into such an amazing game was turned into a mindless third person shooter. Your wand is your gun, and different types of spells are basically different ways to shoot.
Watch your hopes be destroyed as you rush through the cover-shooter thinking you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by some kind of difficulty or puzzle any time now until the credits roll and you wonder why you even did that to yourself. To make matters worse, the Nintendo DS version of the game is just another shitty port, which tries to do what the console versions do, like EA Bright Light still haven’t realized that you can’t just flatten and compress a game and think it’ll fit in the DS cartridge slot. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part One was easily the game in the franchise with the worst reviews all around the board.
Although the franchise takes a leap into a darker tone with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part One, the change of gameplay is too much. It’s not hard to make dark action-adventure games without turning them into complete third-person shooters. It’s quite possible that the popularity of shooters around that time, with the Call of Duty franchise in full bloom, the Halo franchise going strong and even more hitting the top of the sales charts, that EA decided to harvest the lowest hanging fruit and try to make an easy buck by making the newest game, marketed at teenagers, a third person shooter, too. Probably the only reason they didn’t make it in first-person is so that you can still see you’re playing as Harry Potter.
With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part One, EA seems to be following trends due to the lack of other developers to make multiple versions with, as well as the lack of time to make the game in.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part Two (2011)
Platforms: Nintendo DS, Wii, PS3, PC, Xbox 360 Developers: EA Bright Light
“After the franchise hit rock bottom with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part One, EA Bright Light put all of their best work into its sequel and made what is probably the best Harry Potter game.” That’s what I’d like to say, but going by reviews and sales numbers, it’s roughly just as bad as the previous game. Part Two has exactly the same gameplay if not for a few minor changes, such as the ability to Apparate, which is basically glorified cover-swapping. Most of the characters in the game aren’t even voiced by their real actors, and the game moves from set piece to set piece without telling you what’s going on. The majority of reviews say it’s slightly better, but there also abysmal reviews like that of GamesRadar, who said “playing through [it] is more painful than taking a Cruciatus Curse fired directly from You-Know-Who”, giving the game a score as low as a mere half a star out of five.
If you compare the best-rated games with the of 2011 best-selling games you have an overlap of three games, being Gears of War 3, Batman: Arkham City and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
There was no significant gameplay change to the previous game, despite the horrible reception of the game. Most likely, they worked on both games at the same time, which would also help explain why both games are so short and why they are nothing more than incoherent third-person cover-shooters.
The further the franchise goes on, the more the games drift towards an action-packed experience until they have completely moved away from a charming action-platformer with puzzles to a bland third-person shooter. With the rise in popularity of the Gears of War, Uncharted, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo franchises, which sold especially well towards the end of the decade, it’s not surprising that EA Bright Light either decided to (or was told to by their head honchos) make the last games shooters without any other, especially since they had little time and only one studio instead of several to make tie-in games for one of the biggest book and movie franchises of all time. They ended up taking what they thought was the safest road, only to be proven wrong.
There’s definitely a correlation between the presence of certain types of games and the genre chosen at that time in the Harry Potter franchise, although saying there’s a causation might be going a bit too far, as especially between Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince the gameplay changes quite a lot several times. The first few games were made with several studios, which explains the major differences between versions, which got smaller as the games went on and EA Bright Light was given more and more responsibility as they got rid of the other studios, which was a bad decision. EA Bright Light was closed after Deathly Hallows Part Two.
It’s thinkable, likely even that if the franchise had launched a few years later, we would have seen completely different changes in the gameplay, possibly a shift more towards action-RPGs towards the end of the series instead of third-person shooters, which, honestly, would have been a welcome change compared to what we got instead.