If you’re old enough to remember the Matrix trilogy, you’re probably not thrilled to hear that Warner Bros. is reportedly working to reboot the seminal sci-fi action series that began in 1999. Few original films since then — no matter the genre — have had as much of an impact in the entertainment world as The Matrix, and even fewer movies have felt as fresh as it did.
Of course, many Matrix fans would say that their fondest memories of Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and the gang are tied to The Matrix alone, rather than the often ponderous and confusing movies that followed it: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, which were filmed together and released six months apart in 2003. Others would point to The Animatrix, the 2003 collection of nine animated shorts that flesh out the backstory of the Matrix universe.
Then there are the people who loved the video games that the Matrix franchise spawned. All three of them — 2003’s Enter the Matrix, and The Matrix: Path of Neo and The Matrix Online, both from 2005 — received mixed reviews. But fans latched onto something memorable, innovative or just plain weird in each one, and as much as the prospect of a film reboot inspires dread, think of the bright side: We might finally get a good video game in the Matrix universe.
Enter the Matrix (2003)
Enter the Matrix represented the fruits of an unprecedented collaboration between Hollywood and the video game industry. The Wachowski siblings, who wrote and directed all three Matrix films, also worked directly with developer Shiny Entertainment on the game.
In those days, many movie-licensed video games were made with nominal assistance from the filmmakers — they would perhaps provide some image assets or snippets of dialogue, but wouldn’t be directly involved in the development of the game. Enter the Matrix was completely different. The Wachowskis created an hour of live-action film footage specifically for the project; Yuen-woo Ping, the legendary martial arts choreographer who created the action scenes in the films, directed fight sequences that Shiny used for motion-captured animations in the game.
“Basically, the [Wachowskis] wrote the equivalent of a feature length movie to go into the game for our full motion video sequences,” said Stuart Roch, executive producer on Enter the Matrix at Shiny Entertainment, in an interview published on the official Matrix website (now archived at MatrixFans). “They also collaborated on our cineractive sequences and our in-game engine sequences, writing many of them, and then they’re involved every step of the way with our game play.”
Unfortunately, the tight collaboration between Shiny and the Wachowskis didn’t pay off in the quality of the game. Players were disappointed that they could only play as two secondary characters from the latter two films — Niobe (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Ghost (Anthony Wong) — because they wanted to be able to step into the boots of Keanu Reeves’ Neo himself.
Two of the three reviewers at Electronic Gaming Monthly rated Enter the Matrix a 3.5 out of 10, with one of them describing it as a “polished turd.” Jeff Gerstmann, then of GameSpot, said it was “worth a look for hard-core fans of The Matrix films, but a buggy disappointment for just about anyone else,” giving it a 6.4 out of 10. The general consensus, even from more positive reviews, was that the game felt rushed and didn’t do any single thing well. But it laid the groundwork for a somewhat better effort the next time around.
The Matrix Online (2005)
Massively multiplayer online games were still in their infancy in the early 2000s, and it wasn’t until late 2004 that the genre exploded with the debut of World of Warcraft. Avid gamers themselves, the Wachowskis wanted to do something in the video game world that would push MMOs forward with the Matrix franchise.
They chose developer Monolith Productions and writer Paul Chadwick, creator of the Concrete series of comic books, to make The Matrix Online — an MMO that would be the official, canonical continuation of the Matrix universe. The Wachowskis espoused an active relationship between creators and fans, telling Chadwick in an interview published on IGN after the game’s release that Matrix fans were “who we ultimately made the trilogy for and it now makes perfect sense to us that they should inherit the storyline.”
The reception to The Matrix Online at its launch in March 2005 was about as lukewarm as it would be for both Enter the Matrix and its follow-up, The Matrix: Path of Neo. Reviewers criticized the lack of variety in the game’s missions, enemies and even its urban setting. The “interlock” combat system proved more frustrating than interesting. And like many MMOs, The Matrix Online was plagued by network issues and bugs at launch.
Things went so poorly that in late June 2005, just three months after Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment released The Matrix Online, the publisher sold off the game to Sony Online Entertainment. At the time, approximately 50,000 customers subscribed to the game — “a far lower number than [Warner Bros.] projected,” according to the New York Times. When Sony shut down The Matrix Online four years later, in August 2009, it had fewer than 500 active users.
Yet the relatively small community of players who did play The Matrix Online became die-hard fans, singing the praises of its innovative storytelling. One dedicated player has spent years working on an unofficial revival of the game. Here’s how a retrospective from Engadget described what made it special:
But [The Matrix Online] was able to wrap everybody up into an evolving storyline, philosophy, and sense of community. Players worked together and fought one another on more levels than just PvP and PvE. They formed bonds with characters who didn’t even exist while forming bonds with others around them that were willing to believe in the same things they did. They roleplayed willingly in order to keep the story going beyond what the developers had planned.
MMOs have come a long way in the past decade, even if nobody has really managed to compete with World of Warcraft. Perhaps the ahead-of-their-time live events in The Matrix Online would be better served in a new online game à la Destiny or The Division.
The Matrix: Path of Neo (2005)
For its follow-up to Enter the Matrix, Shiny listened to the main criticism of the game — the fact that you couldn’t play as Neo — and corrected that issue, if nothing else. You spend the entirety of The Matrix: Path of Neo playing as the title character, including his pre-red-pill days as hacker Thomas Anderson.
In essence, Path of Neo loosely retells the three Matrix movies in video game form, just from Mr. Anderson’s perspective. Clips from the main trilogy, The Animatrix and Enter the Matrix serve as cutscenes along the way. As Neo, the player interacts with characters like Trinity and Morpheus, and gradually acquires the kinds of special abilities that Neo comes to possess in the films, like flight, bullet dodging and bullet time.
The game didn’t turn out much better than Enter the Matrix, but it’s perhaps best remembered for its bizarre, batshit ending. It’s a major departure from the conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions, in which the Christ figure Neo sacrifices himself to end the war between humans and machines.
Path of Neo features a cutscene in which pixelated avatars representing the Wachowskis talk directly to the player, explaining that the film’s “Jesus thing” would be “lame” in a video game. Instead, they rewrote the conclusion to fit with the way games usually end: “15 minutes of sweaty-palmed, button-pushing action to kick the crap out of some big bad-ass boss.”
Then Neo fights a skyscraper-sized agglomeration of urban debris and Agent Smith clones.
After Neo defeats the Mega-Smith, the game rolls a clip from the ending of The Matrix Revolutions ... except with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing over it. No, seriously. We guarantee that this is the wildest thing you’ll see today.
Really. We’ll wait. Watch it below:
Did the Wachowskis intend it as a commentary on the state of early-2000s action video games? An admission of how nonsensical the Matrix films ended up being? A “giant middle finger pointed at [players] in bright green Matrix code,” as GameSpy’s review put it?
The world may never know — unless the reboot of the Matrix results in more video games based on the franchise.