The Harry Potter series of movies began back in 2002. Video games were slowly growing into the entertainment empire we know today, but were still in the shadows of cinema. In the best-selling video game lists, one can already see the mainstays of the future lists: Grand Theft Auto, FIFA and Pokémon. One of those, however, is not like the other: Spider-Man: The Movie game. A movie tie-in was one of the best selling titles of that year, above even Mario Sunshine.

Nowadays, movie tie-in video games are quickly becoming a thing of the past. According to a Wikipedia page detailing games based on films, there was a two-year-long break without any new releases from 2019 to 2021, and there hasn’t been one since.

However, this isn’t entirely accurate as the upcoming Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, as well as titles like DC League of Super-Pets: The Adventures of Krypto and Aceare still being developed. But it is undeniable that there are fewer than there were in, let’s say, 2011, where the same page lists 17 examples.

The reason for this is the change which occurred in the public perception and the sales numbers. Once upon a time, these tie-ins used to be best-selling games on their respective platforms. But, with oversaturation came cynicism. Rightfully so, as increased standards left these games, which were always developed in a comparatively short time, with tasks simply too difficult to overcome. And it seems that the money returns reflected that.

The modern perception appears to be that tie-in games weren’t always great, with the good ones being described as exceptions, but this wasn’t always the case. These dev time windows were once not unreasonable, the magic of companion media still fresh, and the freedom of adaptation seemingly more prevalent.

The Harry Potter games are one of the most prolific series of movie tie-ins, rivalled only by the likes of Star Wars. This is largely due to the fact that, at the time when the first movie came out, porting games was less popular than it is now. Every console received a completely different game made by completely different devs. Take the first part for example, Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (why America couldn’t handle the word “philosopher” is beyond me) has five games on five different platforms: PC, PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2, Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance.

Here is where the most interesting part of this retrospective lies: how different teams envisioned a particular story and utilized the design document provided by higher-ups. Launching a game only to realize it’s actually an RPG and not a platformer epitomizes the experience of playing tie-in games in 2022.

Years 1-3: PC

Seeing all the aspects of a universe you just experienced on the big screen realized on your home console has its own worth, certainly different from what you would expect out of other video games. Gamifying a pre-existing experience.

The PC versions of the first three Harry Potter movies exemplify this spirit like no other. The Sorcerer’s Stone, released in 2001, setting the template for the two sequels, is a wonderful adventure that’s dated just right to have charm, but with enough visual and gameplay ideas to make for a wonderful adventure in the cheerful Hogwarts castle. The graphics were always designed with the intent of the game running on even the lowest of low-end setups, which was a big factor in its financial success, but nowadays it makes for a relatively unique art style.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Entrance Hall
The Entrance Hall

The game begins with Harry already in Hogwarts, near these brightly lit stairs leading to different parts of the school. Throughout the story, Harry revisits this location several times, but none is exactly the same as the last time. The game treats each loading screen as an end of a level, and each one has its own secrets. It is no different with said revisits, the devs decided to put a different number of collectables in different spots.

Where the player would previously find that a statue would give them beans if hit with a spell, the second time around the same statue can unlock a secret passage using a different jinx you’ve just learned during the last lesson. This aspect of the game makes Hogwarts feel alive, ever-moving and mysterious, something no future Harry Potter game managed to achieve.

The ways in which these early titles complement their environmental design with secrets make up for flat textures and blocky faces. While clearly technologically behind its time and somewhat comical nowadays, there is a lot of substance to the presentation, and it shows how well the creators were able to work within their established universe.

I’d like to take a moment to mention the absolutely incredible work of one of the best video game composers to ever do it: Jeremy Soule. Soule, who previously composed for Humongous Entertainment’s edutainment games as well as the Icewind Dale series, would later compose for The Elder Scrolls games from Morrowind onwards, as well as Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and contributing to Dead Rising 2 and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

The first games did not have the rights to the movie’s soundtrack; there generally was very little to go off of by the time development had to begin. Fortunately, the music of the first three Harry Potter video games (they all share the same soundtrack to a large extent, with some versions having unique tracks, but all still composed by Soule) manages to rival its cinematic counterpart in many areas.

Its main theme, in fact, was such a strong piece that it has even been used in one of the final games, not only as a throwback, but also as an unrivalled tune for a setup scene. It is catchy, magical, and possesses the same staying power as that of Hedwig’s Theme. Matching one of the most iconic themes in cinema is no small feat.

The way it is utilized in the game itself is also masterful. There are bits and pieces of the wind instruments chiming through as you enter the grounds, heavy piano as you explore darker areas, or some stronger melodies during the challenge stages. Moments such as being greeted by the main Hogwarts theme when finding Nearly Headless Nick’s hiding spot after a long spell of silence are some of the best in all of the Harry Potter game series.

Harry Potter Entrance to the Greenhouses
Entrance to the Greenhouses

Hogwarts’ design remains largely similar throughout the next games, with redesigns focusing on allowing for faster movement throughout the castle as it opens up further in each new instalment. Chamber of Secrets rids itself from the loading screen-based levels and instead allows for free movement around the castle in between the main story beats. This changes up the gameplay pace significantly, as after unlocking a new spell the player may choose to revisit areas they previously found locked away by goo or them simply being too high.

The main gameplay loop of the PC games revolves around learning new spells, casting them by pointing at objects of interest with the mouse (by holding it, one can find spots where the spell symbol lights up) and discovering secrets around Hogwarts through some light platforming and puzzles, all while following story beats that may or may not be a part of the books or movies. Some segments are unique to the game. These are usually remembered the most fondly by players.

The first title is somewhat restrictive in terms of exploration. You, unfortunately, cannot replay levels in The Sorcerer’s Stone, meaning that, should you miss out on any one card, you will not be able to complete the set by unlocking the secret Harry Potter card. There is a counter which you can briefly see at the beginning of each level, but sometimes you may not realize you moved passed one until it is too late.

It is easily the biggest flaw of the first game. The Famous Witches and Wizards cards are some of the best collectables in gaming, with detailed, distinctive artwork. These were created for the purpose of the game, the concept artists went ahead and, through the short descriptions they were provided, managed to bring all these “historical” figures to life with great flair.

Bertie Bott 69 chocFrogCard
Bertie Bott Famous Witches and Wizards Card

Future games rectify this issue, allowing the player to revisit most stages, as well as placing vendors around Hogwarts, who can provide any which might have been missed for a reasonable amount of beans: the other main collectable. In fact, the school’s entire economy appears to revolve around them, which makes the fact that the best students are awarded a trip to the Bonus Bean Room in The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban all the more suspicious.

Teachers providing students with a free currency which doubles as a sweet for the best grades? Sounds too good to be true. But this is what happens, and aside from all the beans scattered around Hogwarts itself, you can make more than enough by having the most house points after each day and accessing the aforementioned room. This is achieved by casting perfect spells during lessons (done through a minigame, either drawing them or pressing arrow keys in order) or finding secrets during spell challenges.

The spell challenges are another key factor of the first three games. Each game has a unique set of spells for interacting with the environment and discovering secrets. Some carry from game to game: the fan-favorite block-pushing, gnome-knocking Flipendo or the secret-platform-uncovering Lumos. Learning each is followed by a little obstacle course filled with deadly creatures and bottomless pits. A Monday at Hogwarts.

These add another layer to the image of the castle itself. How deep is the endless pit? Why is there this giant tower just behind a classroom? Is having Venomous Tentacula of this size legal? Some of it is definitely a bit too gamey, you can get a bit of whiplash from seeing moving platforms in Hogwarts, but, to be fair, structures such as the Grand Staircase already exist.

Harry Potter Dark depths and moving platforms
Dark depths and moving platforms

The games have several prominent minigames. Aside from spell-learning, the main one is definitely Quidditch. The first game allows the player to go through an entire cup tournament from the menu, while the second has purchasable upgrades for it, and can be accessed at any time from the grounds. The third game replaces it with Buckbeak riding, which plays similarly to a 3D Flappy Bird.

Both games have a different style for their Quidditch minigame. While the first focuses on the patented movie tie-in staple of flying through rings, the second goes for what I can only describe as “dirty Quidditch.” Harry basically decimates the opposing seeker with kicks and shoves until they fall limp off their broom and he can catch the snitch himself. Brutal.

The Chamber of Secrets has a duelling minigame, where you challenge kids from other houses for their precious beans. It consists of either catching the opponent off guard by strafing and casting a charged-up Rictusempra, or playing ping pong by using the Expelliarmus shield and throwing a spell back and forth. The school’s economy gets pretty ruined once you obtain a couple of grand in beans from these fights.

Aside from Buckbeak-riding, the third game decides to remove minigames, at least in their previous form. There are side objectives which award the player with cards, but they consist of pointing at either Pixies or book pages with the mouse and casting a spell on them in a short amount of time. It’s the basic gameplay with a faster pace. If any game needed more minigames, it’s this one, as it is the shortest one of the trilogy.

Chamber of Secrets Quidditch
Quidditch in The Chamber of Secrets

The Prisoner of Azkaban is, in general, the biggest outlier. There are significant visual changes, though it does continue with a focus on stylized character models and unrealistic locations. In places, the player gets to control not only Harry but also Ron and Hermione. There is no switching between them like in other versions, but they learn their own spells, meaning their sections feel distinct. Ron learns a grapple hook spell called Carpe Retractum, Harry learns the ice-related Glacius, while Hermione gets to turn statues into living beings with Lapifors and Draconifors.

The gameplay remains largely untouched by this change in perspective, as it still consists of spotting, pointing and clicking. Both it and the first game have an issue with the fact that there is usually a limited and clear usage for the spells in an area. Things which are out of order and need a spell to be cast on them stick out too much. They still manage to design areas in clever ways, but the secrets aren’t hidden well enough.

Prisoner of Azkaban updated look
Prisoner of Azkaban’s updated look

The Chamber of Secrets, on the other hand, works the best with this style, with secrets often needing the player to check through several rooms, requiring them to spot certain details or be attentive to what their spells can do. It stands out as a surprisingly good puzzle game, on top of already being a great Harry Potter companion piece, which is why it is my personal favorite of the three.

In fact, I would call The Chamber of Secrets for PC my favorite Harry Potter game of all, and the PC trilogy as the best and most consistent style for this entire series. There is admittedly a lot of simplicity in all aspects of them due to several factors: their focus on keeping the games accessible to as many computers as possible, their target audience being very young, and the short development times.

This does not stop them from having plenty of ideas on how to expand the world in many meaningful ways. One of the best parts of tie-in games and other companion pieces is that feeling of peeling back the curtain and seeing or experiencing things which feel like they belong in a universe but were previously not shown in the media that’s being adapted.

Exploring a system of caves behind Hagrid’s hut, traversing the Forbidden Forest in search of Aragog, or simply attending classes and interacting with teachers —parts of the story that were only ever shown for a few minutes in the movies get their fair share of time in the games. There are versions that go deeper into this aspect, but none really have the snappy pacing, tight gameplay or the setpieces of the first three PC titles.

You go from a chase sequence featuring a troll and protecting Ron against toilets being thrown at him, straight to a stealth section, and then into the final challenges (three-headed dog, tentacles, chess etc.) and a reasonably tough boss battle against Quirrel. The Chamber of Secrets has you traversing the titular location, making sure to keep the appearance of a sewage system which the Basilisk would crawl through rather than some dungeon, which the other versions opt for instead.

These, and others, presented without a movie cut or a chapter break, visualized and interactable, have plenty of their own kind of charm, more so than any other attempt at translating the franchise into a video game format. There are other good games from the series, but they tend to succeed in other ways, which will be discussed in future parts of this retrospective.

While these titles have their issues on modern hardware, they should still be playable and completable, should you find a copy. These, as well as all other Harry Potter games, are unfortunately abandonware, meaning they are nowhere to be found on any digital storefront. There has, however, been a somewhat increased interest in bringing them back.

The upcoming Hogwarts Legacy release brought renewed curiosity about how these games hold up. Interviews with developers and artists, who worked on the PC titles specifically, released just this year, and in both (found on Flandrew’s and Phil of Glimmer’s channels) there is still clearly a lot of well-deserved pride in what they managed to achieve.

When asked about whether he would ever be interested in remastering these titles in the Flandrew interview, Christo Vuchetich, who still works at EA, said that doing so would be a “delight.” It is a slim chance, but I hope future generations will be able to access these games more easily. They more than stand the test of time and were a pleasure to get through for the purposes of this retrospective.

Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 month ago

Awesome! Informative and concise. Great job.