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Lights, Camera, Action Button! is a series exploring film-to-game adaptations in regard to their faithfulness, quality and value long after the original film may have passed into nostalgia. For its first edition Jack Ford looks at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Perhaps no other property enjoys greater reassurance of success as Harry Potter. Whatever form the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history finds itself in – stage plays, theme parks, apps – those behind it can feel assured that they will see big returns on their work.
So when the first film based on the books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was released in November 2001, tickets to it were inevitably going to sell as would the slew of accompanying merchandise. Among the memorabilia for the film, a tie-in video game was released for PC, Game Boy Colour and Advance and PlayStation One.
The PS1 version is worth focusing on for two reasons: an estimated eight million copies were sold, making it one of the console’s all-time best sellers, and, more recently, it has become notorious for some shoddy graphics.
Is there more to Philosopher’s Stone, though, than a humble film port with crooked visuals? Also, given the secrecy that must have surrounded the highly anticipated big-screen counterpart, how faithful is the game as a recreation?
Welcome to Hogwarts
The game skips the opening of the film, so instead of starting out with levels where you have to serve Harry’s abusive extended family, gameplay begins upon his arrival at Hogwarts. It’s not long, either, before the first deviation from the film, where Harry makes friends with Ron Weasley and they go in search of his owl, Hedwig, who was stolen by Draco Malfoy.
This level serves as the game’s tutorial and introduces characters you will run into throughout the game. When it’s over, Harry learns both how to fly a broom and cast his first spell, one of four in the game that come into play as it progresses.
The first spell, Wingardium Leviosa, allows you to levitate and move certain objects, as it does in the film. When it has been mastered the game’s first boss fight begins, where Malfoy attacks you with exploding wizard crackers. It’s not in the film and not very challenging, but it does add to the rivalry between the two characters.
The next section of the game is set in the Hogwarts grounds. This is easily the wildest deviation from the source material: Harry searches the inexplicably lava-covered school grounds to find fire seeds for Hagrid, on the way defeating a statue of a flying pig that comes to life. As well as being baffling and taking too much artistic license, it’s also one of the least aesthetically appealing environments to explore.
Afterwards events start to feel familiar, as you have to chase Malfoy on broomstick after he has stolen Neville Longbottom’s Remembrall – which earns Harry a place on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. This leads to the first of the three Quidditch matches in Philosopher’s Stone and the game inadvertently captures the feel of the sport: it’s uninvolving, goes on too long and it seems impossible for Harry’s team to lose.
Next up, Harry heads to the school dungeons – why does a school have a dungeon? – to learn potion making and defence against dark magic. Finding himself locked in, though, Harry has to steal keys from a sleeping troll, destroy four cursed eyeballs and rescue a missing cat before moving on. This is easily the most frustrating location in Philosopher’s Stone, as the dungeons are hard to navigate and it’s easy to get lost.
Escaping the dungeons, Harry receives his invisibility cloak and uses it to sneak through the part of Hogwarts off-limits to students, avoiding being seen by Filch, the caretaker, who throws you out if caught. This section works well, as the invisibility cloak only lasts for so long (unlike in the film), so the skill lies in knowing when to make a move to avoid Filch and move on. Reaching the end of this section sees Harry find an important plot device, the Mirror of Erised.
Afterwards the game stays faithful to its source, as it next has you working together with Ron to defeat a loose troll and save Hermione. Then it deviates slightly by having Hagrid take Harry to Diagon Alley. While this does get events out of order, it allows for the best part of the whole game, riding the mine carts at Gringott’s Bank.
After leaving Diagon Alley, the game gets back on track with a level in the Forbidden Forest, where Harry and co. search for a unicorn killer. The last section of the Philosopher’s Stone follows Harry, Hermione and Ron as they visit the school’s ‘Forbidden Corridor’, having discovered that the Philosopher’s Stone is being kept in the school and someone is on the move to steal it.
This has players first getting past Fluffy and the Devil’s Snare, then catching a flying key and winning a game of chess against giant enchanted pieces. This is where the film moves on, but the game has you outrun a sleepy troll and fight moving suits of armour before the final encounter with Lord Voldemort, latched on to the Dark Arts teacher, Quirrell.
Is it a faithful recreation?
It’s interesting to observe that a lot of the game’s events come from the book and not the film – perhaps the developers had so much access to the film, to avoid leaks, but could still draw on material from the novel. This leaves room for appearances of elements absent from the film – Herbology, Peeves the ghost – which would please Potter fans, unlike the frequent mispronunciations that are heard throughout.
For the first past of the game the developers play fast and loose with the source material, with some elements having been completely invented. Midway through, when all the spells have been learned, the game starts to stick closer to the events of the film, thought not all of them are in the right order.
How Does It Play?
It’s hard to say for certain what type of game Philosopher’s Stone is – largely it’s a Tomb Raider-esque adventure game (with a knock-back jinx in place of guns), sometimes a platformer, and in some sections it’s a stealth game.
It is definitely possible to have some fun with the game. While it’s presentation doesn’t always make for enjoyable exploration, at times it is challenging, but not overly so for younger players, who would have made up much of the game’s target market.
Gameplay is broken up enough to keep it interesting, most of all the inclusion of collectible Bertie Bott’s beans to exchange for power-ups and hidden challenges to win Witches and Wizards cards (which are easy to miss). Alas, the graphics can’t escape feeling rushed and rough, but the sound design and musical interludes do well to evoke the feeling of the film.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’s presentation may be off-putting, but it can be fun if nothing much is demanded from it. It makes good use of some of the film’s elements, though it takes liberties with its source material for much of the way. It does enough interesting things so as to rise above standard fare for a film tie-in, and while far from the most accomplished game, gets by with a good helping of nostalgic vibes.