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SYFY WIRE video games

The 10 best TV shows based on video games

Let’s hit “Start” on this list.

By James Grebey & Tara Bennett
Witcher Cuphead Arcane Pokemon Header GETTY

It used to be common wisdom that all movies based on video games were bad. That’s no longer the case, as we’re starting to see some video game adaptations that are pretty dang good, even if we maybe haven’t seen a masterpiece yet. But, what about TV shows based on video games? There have been plenty of TV adaptations over the years. Most have been children’s shows, but we’re about to see a wave of new, high-profile TV adaptations for all age groups. 

The newest show, Netflix’s The Cuphead Show, an animated series based on the popular side-scroller video game that was itself inspired by cartoons from the 1930s, premieres today, and it joins several other great animated video game adaptations. There are a ton of live-action shows based on video games — which were quite rare until The Witcher — in the works as well. The next time we make this list, we’ll likely have to factor in the Halo series on Paramount+, HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation, Netflix’s Assasins Creed, and Amazon’s Fallout series, to name just a few. 

Until that time, though, let’s hit “Start” on this list of the 10 best TV shows based on video games.  

1. The Witcher

It’s shocking how good The Witcher is.

When Netflix shared the first look of Henry Cavill in his white Geralt wig back in 2018, there was some concern. Was this really going to look good and not like mediocre, try-hard cosplay? Turns out The Witcher looks incredible, avoiding the pitfalls that other current fantasy series make. The Witcher looks dirty, it looks worn, it looks real. It looks lived-in, which is in a way what people want out of their video games — to live in them. With the series, which only got better in its second season after ditching a novel but confusing multiple timeline setup in the first season, Witcher makes audiences feel like they’re really a part of this world. We’re invested in Geralt’s relationships with Ciri and Yennifer and on the edge of our seats when he slays a monster. We’re just not holding the controller. — James Grebey

2. Arcane

Arguably the new benchmark for adapting video games into series, Netflix’s Arcane is set in the sister cities of Piltover and Zaun, one small area of the world of Runeterra in the massive League of Legends esports universe. French animation studio, Fortiche, collaborated with the creatives at Riot Games for several years crafting a story that worked for both invested League players and viewers with no exposure to the game at all. The series was created using a unique mixture of computer animation and illustrated backgrounds that’s visually arresting, but also allows for nuanced performances which transcends most other CGI animated series. It also has a voice cast of top tier character actors including Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Purnell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Jason Spisak. The premiere series has been nominated for nine Annie Awards, which celebrate excellence in the field of animation. — Tara Bennett

3. Castlevania

The Castlevania video game series is one half of the origin of the term “Metroidvania,” a genre of side-scrolling video games that have players exploring a labryinthian setting with secrets to find and new areas to open up once you’ve gotten the right equipment. It’s simultaneously very mission-focused (“kill Dracula”) and meandering (“oh, can I go back and explore the acid section of the castle now that I have the right gear?”). Castlevania, Netflix’s goregously animated adaptation of the third Castelvania game in particular, translates this paradox to the screen expertly.

The first season was a prologue, the second season was a lot of continued table-setting — culminating in what can only be called a boss rush as our heroes stormed Dracula’s castle and bested him in one episode. The next two seasons delt with the aftermath of that by way of a sweeping story with lots of nuanced characters, plenty of quiet moments to counterbalance the extremely violent action sequences, and some animated nudity for good measure. Castlevania knows it summoned something great when it brought the lore-rich, monster-filled world of the cames to the small screen, and seeing how it explored that world has been an electric joy. — JG

4. Carmen Sandiego

In the late ‘80s, a lot of school-aged kids ingested their geography lessons via the popular computer game series, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The premise is that Sandiego is an international criminal mastermind traversing the world with agents from the ACME Detective Agency hot on her heels. In the ‘90s, the game leveled up onto TV screens via the very entertaining, and informational, PBS live-action game show that ran for five very successful seasons. The game also birthed the catchiest of theme songs by Rockapella. And then in 2019, Netflix brought the character back to TV in the stylish, 2D animated series, Carmen Sandiego, with actress Gina Rodriguez voicing the international woman of mystery. It also does the character proud with globetrotting adventures and a more contemporary spin. — TB

5. Pokémon

The long, long, looooong running Pokémon anime made me cry when I was like seven years old, especially when Ash said goodbye to his Butterfree in the episode “Bye Bye Butterfree.” I haven’t watched all of the 1,100+ episodes since then, but that’s enough to put Pokémon on a list of best video game TV shows.

In a way, it almost feels unfair, because Pokémon has been a multimedia franchise almost from the jump, and the anime almost feels separate from the games. Nevertheless, it is a based on a video game, and it’s impressive that Pokémon has managed to keep pace with the newer games and stay fresh for each new generation of Pokémon (and Pokémon audiences.)

Pretty weird that Ash is still only ten years old, though. — JG

6. Digimon

The Pokémon vs. Digimon wars claimed many an elementary schooler in the ‘90s. But looking back at the two shows, and how they changed (or stayed the same), it’s clear that Digimon more than deserved its slot on the monster-catching schedule. While the quality of various iterations of Digimon varied in quality, the show could have an incredible emotional depth and character growth, and it leaned more into sci-fi and complex ongoing plots than its Poké-rival did. At its best, Digimon was a coming-of-age story, less focused on pure monster evolution than it was on growth. (Though, to be fair, it often it did show that it was, yes, based on simple a Tamagotchi-type game. — JG

7. Alien: Isolation – The Digital Series

In 2014, the video game Alien: Isolation told the story of Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) adult daughter, Amanda Ripley, as she searched for the answer to what happened to her mom and the crew of the Nostromo some 15 years after the events of Alien. In the game, Amanda is stuck on the abandoned Sevastopol space station with a xenomorph. The CGI animated digital web series provides the backstory for why Amanda and the Weyland-Yutani team came to be at Sevastopol, and what went down to wipe out so many of that team. It also fills in some of the mythology gaps regarding how the titular aliens infiltrated other populated space outposts. For a web series tie-in to a video game spinoff of a film franchise, the animation is above average and the story is compelling — and chock full of xenomorph evolution and scares — which makes it a vital watch for fans of the franchise. — TB

8. Dragon's Lair: The Series

This ABC network animated series from 1984 was short-lived and certainly didn’t reproduce the same caliber of animation created by Don Bluth for the video game of the same name, but Dragon's Lair: The Series finally gave fans a cohesive story.

If you never tackled the 1983 arcade cabinet version of the Dragon’s Lair game, here’s two important things to know: 1) It was the most expensive game to play in the arcade at the time, and 2) It looked as good as an animated movie. But, because of its laserdisc-based cutscene gameplay, trying to understand the in-game narrative was more than challenging. You pretty much had to spend a mint in quarters to get far enough in the game to understand much at all. And that’s why Dragon's Lair: The Series gets a lot of points for giving the game characters of Dirk the Daring, his love, Princess Daphne, and Singe the dragon, some much-needed context and understandable adventures. — TB

9. Skylander Academy

Set within the mythology of the bestselling Skylanders video game series from Activision, Skylander Academy is a Netflix CGI animated series with three seasons of storytelling. Spyro the Dragon (Justin Long) leads an ensemble cast of original and game-based characters tirelessly trying to protect the floating realm from the baddie, Kaos (Richard Steven Horvitz) and his cronies. Unlike some other game based series, the storytelling is complex, serialized and appeals to teens and up. It also looks great and boasts an award-worthy voice cast of comedy legends including Bobcat Goldthwait, Norm Macdonald, Catherine O'Hara, Patrick Warburton, and Billy West, to name just a few. — TB

10. The Cuphead Show

Truth be told, The Cuphead Show doesn't really owe its greatness to being based on a video game so much as that video game owes its greatness to being inspired by classic animation of the 1930s. Granted, Cuphead had sharp, challenging, and innovative shot-em-up combat going for it as well, but it was the graphics — created via hand-drawn animation — that made the game stand out. The Netflix series eschews most of the shooting (and it features computer-generated animation, rather than being hand-drawn, though the aesthetics are still aping that old cartoon style), but it keeps the zany, retro vibe and adds some much-needed visual diversity to Netflix's catalog. It is, in other words, a hoot. — JG