Why are Doctor Who video games so bad?

Why are Doctor Who video games so bad?

Last Updated on May 9, 2024

My favourite Doctor Who video game is Dalek Attack – it’s simple, and unpretentious. But like every other Doctor Who game, it’s also not very good.

Over the years, Doctor Who fans have patiently waited for a video game spinoff that truly captures the magic of the TV series. Some games have been awful; others, not so bad. Only a few can be considered good enough; and even then, there’s a problem.

Why haven’t the adventures of an immortal time traveler battling alien aggressors resulted in one of the greatest video games ever?

To find out, let’s consider the highlights of Doctor Who video games from 1983 to date.

Classic era Doctor Who video games

Unsurprisingly, only a few Doctor Who videogames were released before the show’s 1989 cancellation. Some of these were good, such as The Mines of Terror (1986), a side-scrolling adventure. Doctor Who and the Warlord (1985), meanwhile, was a text adventure game exclusive to the BBC Micro, and featured ex-producer Graeme Williams as a designer.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned 1992’s Dalek Attack, an arcade platformer which did well on 16-bit systems (less so on 8-bit).

Good Doctor Who games of the 21st century

Since Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, the most successful examples are the console-based Doctor Who Level Pack for Lego Dimensions, and Doctor Who: Legacy, on mobile.

Lego Dimensions transfers the Doctor’s first 13 incarnations (plus voices), and many companions and enemies, into Lego. Not a full Doctor Who video game, this toys-to-life format, 3D adventure is immensely satisfying, and features a few Easter Eggs for fans.

The developers of Doctor Who: Legacy, meanwhile, have successfully created a compelling jewel puzzler with fan-pleasing moments.

Those other Doctor Who video games

But there have been a few stinkers, too. Now unavailable, the BBC’s Doctor Who: The Adventure Games (2010-2011) featured the voices of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Parts 1, 2 and 5 are particularly good, combining puzzles and exploration; perfect for younger fans.

Doctor Who’s other post-2005 successes include the iPhone puzzler Mazes of Time, and The Eternity Clock. This plays much better on Windows than on PlayStation 3, but has generated an undeservedly poor reputation.

More recently, a trilogy of games from Maze Theory attempted to revive Doctor Who’s digital adventures. The Edge of Time, The Lonely Assassins, and The Edge of Reality (the first in 2019, the others both in 2021) succeeded with some interesting storytelling, but gameplay wise didn’t quite land.

What Is Wrong with Doctor Who Games?

Actually, this is a really simple question to answer. Bad Doctor Who games are almost always a result of bad planning, low budget, and poor execution. Misunderstanding the market and slapping a Doctor Who logo on a game (see The First Adventure, a mishmash of popular gaming clones) is just going to leave fans feeling short-changed.

Over-promising and under-delivering is often a problem. Destiny of the Doctors should have been superb. Remembered mainly as Anthony Ainley’s final appearance as the Master, even these ebullient turns weren’t enough to encourage completion. Meanwhile, the execution of first-person gameplay is poor. It would be 13 years before another Doctor Who videogame was released.

There should have been another way.

When Doctor Who Gets it Right

It hasn’t been all bad for Doctor Who videogames. Some have done well, generated a loyal following, and made an impression. So, what did Doctor Who: Legacy, The Eternity Clock, and the Doctor Who Level Pack for Lego Dimensions get right? What should future game developers do to create a memorable Doctor Who game?

Generally, these games employ simple dynamics, they’re non-violent, and feature straightforward controls. In place of shooting bad guys (something left to secondary characters), puzzles, and cerebral challenges are employed. Success requires strategy.

These games are fun.

Maze Theory nearly got it right, except for one thing: those games are just a bit dull. Each scenario is depressing, you’re more likely to switch off the game than want to complete it.

So, what is the answer? Well, a few years ago I suggested that a British, female adventurer like Lara Croft could prove to be a good template. But things have moved on, with a whole new take on the lead character.

However, the basics of Tomb Raider – puzzle solving, exploration, looking back into history, defeating the bad guys with guile and determination rather than guns and detonators – seems like a good place to start.

Why not? After all, that’s how it all started…

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