There’s always been a lot of overlap between the worlds of video games and animated television, and the two mediums continue to operate close to each other — animators are important in video games too, after all. The tie-in show or adaptation isn’t just a novelty, it’s a key part of how audiences have interacted with animated television made both domestically and overseas. It was Pokémon, after all, that helped open the door for more anime to find widespread success in households outside of Japan.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide to some of the best animated video-game adaptations on streaming. One important caveat: Perhaps out of fear that original animated properties will attract fewer eyes (especially in an era of an overabundance of streaming services), much of Netflix’s animated output builds upon IP consolidation, using already popular properties to get a leg-up in the ongoing streaming wars. Netflix’s enthusiasm in this particular niche of animation production means the streamer makes a stronger showing on this list — and that’s not even counting the recent (and pretty decent) The Cuphead Show, an adaptation of the “maso-core” video game that digs deeper into its Fleischer animation roots.
Here are five of the best animated shows based on video games you can watch right now:
Season 1 streaming on Netflix
Arcane has made compelling adult drama out of rewriting League of Legends lore, even earning comparisons to the game-changing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for the overlap in visual approach — 3DCG animation accented with more graphic textures and 2D effects emulating a hand-drawn style. (The two shows do share some creative staff.) The show is an origin story set in the world built by the game’s developer Riot Games, portraying the popular villain Jinx (Ella Purnell) as a young girl, the sister of her eventual arch nemesis Vi (Hailee Steinfeld).
After the two are separated in their youth, Jinx is taken in by the former enemy of their adoptive father, a slumlord who takes advantage of civil unrest to further his own means. Along with its fraught sibling drama, the sociopolitical details of the show’s setting get a lot of focus too, with a conflict brewing between Piltover, a city utopian in appearance thanks to its mix of magic and technology, and the undercity of Zaun. There’s a distinct gap between the haves and have-nots, and the show begins with a failed rebellion that looms over the rest of the season, class divides deeply complicating allyships that develop later in the story.
There are a handful of less exciting elements to the show — for starters, there’s an inexplicable amount of, god help us, Imagine Dragons both in the opening credits and within the context of the show itself, far more than any innocent viewer deserves to be ambushed with. But thankfully the show’s curation of original songs doesn’t always sink to that level; one of the most spectacular sequences has two childhood friends throw down to a galvanizing track from Denzel Curry, as graphic splashes of paint splatter the screen and the show gets truly experimental in its use of color and 2D brushstrokes. With such gorgeous production, surprisingly compelling world-building and in-depth characterization, far beyond whatever implications one might get from “League of Legends TV show,” Arcane pushes the envelope for animated television in general, not just for adaptations of games.
Seasons 1 to 4 streaming on Netflix
This anime-style take on the classic Castlevania games also takes advantage of its position to tell a mature animated story, one that’s as interested in interpersonal power dynamics and sexual relationships as it is vampire slaying. The series draws on the plot of multiple games — the first two seasons lift the overall story from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, while character elements are informed by later games Curse of Darkness and perhaps the most famous entry, Symphony of the Night. Better still, the show takes interesting creative license with these archetypal figures, flipping the moral alignment of some while choosing to further humanize villains once only observed in 2D pixel graphics.
A star-studded but very game voice cast elevates personable material. Richard Armitage traces the gradual softening of the grumpy, drunk Trevor Belmont, the last living member of a dynasty of monster hunters who has lost all sense of purpose and mostly cast aside the responsibility of his family secrets. The half-vampire Alucard proves a delightful frenemy to him, while the show’s take on Sypha Belnades takes great pleasure in adding complication and ferocity to the vampire-hunting priestess; the animators showing off her battle skills with exhilarating flair.
The show is slickly presented throughout, as the American studio Powerhouse has clearly learned from the timing and stylization of anime shows (multiple staffers have a background in the anime industry itself) as well as the elegant gothic stylings of Ayami Kojima, an artist and character designer who worked on much of the game series. But it’s not all in the service of action — as mentioned before, the show is interested in creating varied and nuanced depictions of sex as well, a rarity for mainstream American animation, which is too often relegated to just being children’s cartoons. Castlevania’s success laid the groundwork for a surge in adult animation from Netflix, for the betterment of all — and it’s a very watchable show in its own right.
Season 1 streaming on Netflix
From its bold, splashy Franz Ferdinand-scored opening credits to its eccentric character designs and loud, expressive framing, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners oozes style. Even though it perhaps doesn’t inflect as much of director Hiroyuki Imaishi’s expressivity as other Trigger work (like the film Promare or the series Kill la Kill), it still has a much stronger visual identity than many other adaptations of its kind. One of the most impressive things about Cyberpunk: Edgerunners is how it uses its visual style to delve deeper into the subjective experience of living in Night City.
A prequel to the infamous video game Cyberpunk 2077, Edgerunners is the story of street punk David Martinez, a top student who leaves his prestigious education behind following the death of his mother. After meeting the enigmatic hacker Lucy, he joins her and pursues a living as a mercenary instead, hoping to make a name for himself. The series chooses well where to lean on storytelling that only it can do, like in the way that it finds new angles on how to portray the characters interfacing with technology and cybernetic implants as well as shared virtual experiences.
In its depiction of the psychological horror of living in Night City, Imaishi and his staff evoke the violent exploitation vibe of '80s and '90s anime OVAs – Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Cyber City Oedo 808 and Wicked City have been comparison points for many. But even with the incredibly grotesque violence and the aggressive commodification of the setting, Imaishi also has an earnest streak, one that shows most of all in the hopeful but tragic romance between David and Lucy as they dream of creating a new life for themselves beyond the squalor of Night City’s oppressive structures. Full of outsized personalities (like pint-sized gun-nut and fan favorite Rebecca) and visual flair to spare, Cyberpunk Edgerunners is an animated show that both enhances and outstrips the game it’s based on.
Season 1 streaming on Hulu
Considering how many video games have been turned into adult dramas, Digimon Adventure is a nostalgic blast from the past, when video game tie-ins were mostly preoccupied with mascot characters and extensions of franchises marketed exclusively to kids. Digimon Adventure is the first anime series in a now long-running franchise which has seen multiple spinoffs and sequels and movies; the opening entry is based on the Digital Monster virtual pet released in 1997. Seven children at summer camp are suddenly spirited away into a parallel Digital World, befriending cute Digital Monsters in the process. Eventually they learn that they are "DigiDestined," children fated to save the Digital World.
The war of popularity between Digimon Adventure and Pokémon isn’t really reflective of where the former's strengths lie, as at the time people dismissed it as a cheap ripoff (understandable, considering the monster partners and their evolutions). But Digimon Adventure actually tells a coming-of-age story that turns out surprisingly bittersweet and perhaps more emotionally mature than Pokémon, dealing with surprisingly deep sci-fi themes (the show opens with a casual note about climate change!) as the children learn to let go of certain parts of their lives. That sense of maturation would become the basis for its later sequel series as well as films, which aged the children up into young adults, and effectively had them grow up along with their audience, as opposed to the relatively static nature of its main rival (though he’s soon set to retire, Pokémon’s lead Ash Ketchum has been 10 years old for 25 years).
While it’s just the old English dub available for streaming (complete with its severely uncool opening titles, with U.S. networks blatantly trying to capitalize on that Pokémon comparison), it’s enjoyable and child-friendly viewing that doesn’t compromise on telling a meaningful story.
Season 1 streaming on Crunchyroll
Borne from the famous turn-based RPG series Dragon Quest, The Adventure of Dai (2020) is a pretty straightforward, classical fantasy adventure. Like the show it’s remaking, it follows the story of a young hero called Dai, who was adopted and raised by a monster magician named Brass on a remote island. The return of the Dark Lord Hadlar and his master, the Dark King Vearn, leads Dai away from the island on a heroic quest to defeat the two, and bring peace back to the land. So far, so simple.
But it also begins with some fun subversions of the classic structure of the series, where the first so-called heroes we see are only that in name, hunt monsters solely for fame and fortune, whether the creatures are innocent or not. Even with this complication, there’s a charm to its simple morality, the bad guys both immediately apparent and also gleefully over the top in their villainy.
The show’s journey is bolstered by consistently impressive animation, cannily using a mixture of 3D backgrounds to create depth while maintaining the traditional textures of hand-drawn, full of colorful and goofy designs (some of which will feel familiar to anyone who has at least seen Dragon Ball, whose creator Akira Toriyama had a hand in defining the character designs of Dragon Quest). Released in an environment where there’s an overwhelming saturation of shōnen anime, The Adventure of Dai seems undersung, a good old-fashioned kid’s adventure series that feels both contemporary and classic.
Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer for Empire Magazine, Little White Lies, Sight and Sound, Hyperallergic, and CartoonBrew. And here!
TOPICS: Animation, Hulu, Netflix, Arcane, Castlevania, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, Digimon Adventure, Crunchyroll, League of Legends, Shōnen Anime