05 Jul Superheroes in Video Games
I’m writing this piece on a warm summer evening in early July. I’m about a day or so away from seeing the newest Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home. At this point I’ve seen every MCU film multiple times, I own the Blu-Rays, I have statues and toys surrounding my desk, and I still try my hardest to keep up with the comics. Super Heroes have become part of the modern mythology and it’s amazing to see that the average person now knows who Thanos and Ant-Man are. They’ve become memetic and very present in the vernacular. I can feel yet another 1000 Thanos’ snap memes being shared as I type this piece. There are superhero movies, tv shows, cartoons, t-shirts, snacks, jewelry, and more and more and more. We also have access to hundreds of superhero games as well and I’m most interested in what makes these types of games work and what doesn’t.
Over the past decade we’ve been treated to amazing superhero games like the Batman Arkham series, Spider-Man (ps4), and Injustice. While there were some great superhero games in the past, for the first time in my memory I can consider certain superhero games as Game of the Year. In 2018 Marvel’s Spider-Man was my runner up to Game of the Year behind Octopath Traveler. I’m not exactly sure what has pushed these developers to make milestone games like this and it’s refreshing to finally have some critical praise from a sub-genre that has mostly been panned as licensed shovelware. While I love the rise of the modern superhero game, I’m more intrigued by what works and what does not. Why certain characters work and while others don’t.
The Right Character for the Job
Superman games are garbage. They’ve never been good and though there have been many attempts to make them work, they fall short of delivering a good experience. It’s because Superman is far too powerful to make an interesting protagonist in a video game setting. As a fan of Supes, the best of his stories in the comics focus on his flaws or his attempts to be “human” while having the power to destroy the world in a sun-fueled rage. Superman is best when he has to use restraint or is forced into fights in which he’s at more of a disadvantage, like in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. Superman also works when he’s the villain, which may be why Injustice is a good fit for that version of the character.
Batman games, however, have been much, much better. It’s because Batman works for video game logic. His skill set should naturally improve as he’s a human with access to limitless technology. Batman’s fighting style and tools are also very video game friendly, grappling hooks, smoke bombs, batarangs; they’re all essentially ninja weapons and we know how much videogames as an artform loves its ninjas. Rocksteady has been able to do some amazing things with Bats in their Arkham series, mostly because the player can actually feel like Batman. You can do Batman things, traverse Batman environments, and batpunch criminals in their anti-bat faces.
It’s a little odd that developers have not been able to make Superman work as of yet, outside of fighting games, but it may be that he’s not the right character for the job. I love Superman and what he represents as a character, but his powers have never fully worked in video games. Invulnerability is very difficult to represent without being boring. We know that Batman works and what makes him work. Classic Batman games have been pretty good too, I always love playing the Sunsoft Batman game on NES or The Adventures of Batman and Robin on SNES. Ultimately the Bat’s tools and moves work very well for video games and when you mix in some RPG skill trees you have some of the best action games released in modern history.
Other characters, like Spider-Man also work very well as they have learned from the Batman games before them. Marvel’s Spider-Man feels like the Marvel answer to the Arkham series and the game is better for it. Other characters like: Daredevil, Captain America, and Iron Man should be able to work as well, if handled by the right development studios. It’s all about choosing the right heroes and building the right mechanics around them to celebrate their “powers” in the right way. The right way to make Superman work is to tone down his powers or make him weaker…and that doesn’t celebrate Supes at all. The focus should be to let a hero’s powers grow and let them shine.
Feeling Super, but Give Me a Challenge
When you fire up a superhero game, you want to feel super, plain and simple. These extraordinary characters do amazing (or spectacular) things and we want to experience that first hand. I want to be able to swing through Lower Manhattan while stopping car jackings and fighting off powered psychopaths. I want to eventually get full access to an arsenal of attacks, tools, and costumes. In the end, I want to embody everything that the superhero is about! But…I don’t want it to be a cakewalk.
Video games are all about overcoming obstacles and virtual challenges and superhero games should be no different. Sometimes this causes certain heroes to have their powers or abilities altered a little bit to make them fit within the context of the videogame universe that has been created. This works best when the player starts the game with a taste of powers, but as they flesh out their abilities the challenge level rises. This is true about all video games, but sometimes superhero games lose sight of this. If a game is too easy it runs the risk of being boring and the last thing we want is for our brightly colored heroes to be boring!
Spider-Man and Batman handle this very well. The world is against the player, but we feel like we have a chance to win. This mentality should be present across all genres of games as the journey is just as important as the destination. Challenge is integral to video games which is why I feel that RPG mechanics have helped this facet of gaming. It feels like you accomplish something when you start at level 1 and progress and improve your character as the game continues. I specifically mention this for Superheroes because it could be easy to make them all too powerful from the get go. Spider-Man can lift a car and can avoid being hit due to his Spider Sense (Peter Tingle), but maybe his tech isn’t great from the start? Maybe he’s still young and makes careless mistakes. In Spider-Man you’re forced to dodge enemy attacks and while the arachknight can take a few punches and be ok, if you don’t dodge bullets well, you’re going to get taken out. Aspects like this ground the hero and while they’re quite powerful they still have to be on top of their game AND improve if they want to survive.
MAKE IT FUN
I play video games first and foremost as a form of fun escapism. Games are supposed to be fun, if a video game doesn’t make you laugh (at least once) and make you want to throw a controller through a wall, is it really worth playing? Challenge is important, but so is fun factor and humor. I find that it’s easy for a game to lose this sense of fun if they’re overly too engrossed with a dark tone or violent delivery. Games like Doom walk the line very, very well. Over-the-top gratuitous violence with heavy metal soundtracks and snappy game play is fun fun fun. Developers need to be self aware of how ridiculous a game is and have fun with it. I can gush for days at how good Insomniac Games is at this particular facet of design and how self aware the company is. Spider-Man is oozing with in jokes, tongue-in-cheek references, and a bit of deconstruction of the superhero game. At the same time it celebrates everything videogamey about videogames AND the Spider-Man mythos. This is how Insomniac designs games and can be seen in every game they make, like Ratchet and Clank and Sunset Overdrive. While I can continue to talk about Sony’s Spider-Man, I want to divert your attention to games that fully understand the fun factor element of playing a super hero game.
Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction always stands out to me as a game that did a great job at making the player feel powerful but also allowing them to have fun. It’s like a 3D open-world Rampage game where you play as the Hulk. I remember playing this game and loving how silly and fun it was as Hulk smashed everything! You could turn cars into boxing gloves. Hulk is an awesomely powerful character that could have a hard time translating to video games for similar reasons to Superman. Ultimate Destruction got it right, though, let the player run around and destroy stuff while having a lot of silly fun doing it. We want to embody the characters and do what they do best while having fun on a meta level. Is it ridiculous to throw planes at Abomination as the Hulk? Yes… but that’s why we want to do it.
We also saw this in the EXCELLENT Spider-Man 2 from 2004. In one of the best movie-licensed tie-ins, Spider-Man 2 was able to finally get the feel of Spidey right. While the game was fairly short and somewhat repetitive, it was a benchmark on how to build the modern superhero game, at the time. Superheroes operate well in an open world, but the most important aspect is knowing the hero well enough so that it feels right. If you’re playing as Spider-Man, you need to be able to swing from webs and Spider-Man 2 accomplished this. This made the game incredibly fun and somewhat revolutionary for the time. I don’t think Spider-Man (2018) would exist in the same way if it wasn’t for Spider-Man 2.
In the same breath of fun, what’s more enjoyable than a superhero team up? NOTHING! Superhero beat ‘em ups are some of the most fun games around! Everything from the X-Men, Spider-Man and Avengers arcade games to Marvel Ultimate Alliance! I’ve always gravitated to the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games as they’re mindless, button mashy fun. You can play alone, you can play with friends, and they grant the player access to a giant roster of super heros. The Ultimate Alliance games may be a little simple in delivery, but I always appreciated being able to hop in with a few buds and beat up endless waves of enemies while joking around. Who doesn’t want to make up their own, fake super hero team with: Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Groot, and Magneto? That sounds like so much fun…I’m upset that UA3 isn’t out yet… Couch multiplayer is also perfect for superhero beatdown fun and I think that taking down waves of Sentinels in UA3 will deliver everything you want from a superhero game: fun, saturday morning inspired chaos, with a side of superpowers and Sweet Spicy Chili Doritos. Just please bring your own pro controller or wipe your hands before using mine….
While we’re talking about couch multiplayer….
If All Else Fails, Make a Good Fighting Game
Who Would Win in a Fight? Batman or Superman?
I love that we live in an era where both Marvel and DC characters have had some excellent fighting games. I understand that Marvel vs. Capcom Ultimate was not very good, but it’s easy enough to get your hands on MvC 2 or 3. Injustice 2 is a modern fighting masterpiece and while I loved the first game, IJ2 takes everything its predecessor did and improved upon it. Why fighting games? Why do they do super heroes so right? It’s in the fabric of the genre something that dates back to Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.
Traditional fighting game characters are a bit like superheroes in their own right. They’re super strong and have all sorts of cool and strange powers. If you take a look at Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat you’ll see characters who can shoot energy waves from their hands.
Or Freeze their opponents
Sometimes you fight a weird electric river monster…
Or a dude who can shape shift.
This is so evident in fighting games that when Capcom developed Marvel vs. Capcom for arcades, the subtitle was: Clash of the Superheroes. These game developers are aware that they made their characters into superheroes complete with special powers and the amazing ability to bash each other’s faces in. While fighting games are also grounded in martial arts, so are superheroes. Supers love to fight, so why not celebrate that in a video game.
Fighting games are best when there is a diverse roster of different abilities and character types. If everyone in Mortal Kombat played like Scorpion, it would get a little boring. Superheroes work the same exact way, diverse characters with unique and interesting powers. It’s ok if some powers overlap, but in the instance of characters like: Ryu, Ken, and Akuma their move sets are similar, the nuances between the characters are what make them truly unique. This is true for superheroes as well, Iron Man and War Machine look similar and have similar powers…but only one of them shows you their Sunday Best.
Fighting games have always felt like a perfect fit for superheroes. This is most certainly why the best pre-Arkham supers games were almost always fighting games. I remember playing hours of Marvel Super Heroes and X-Men: Children of the Atom in the arcade by my house on Long Island. This genre has unlimited potential, which is why gamers are still playing Street Fighter II religiously. They’re timeless and we’re lucky to have games like Marvel vs. Capcom immortalized in the library of classic games. They’re also a goofy and fun time, in what other genre can you battle with Morrigan and War Machine vs. Mega Man and Captain America? None…
As superheroes have dominated the silver screen its nice to see that they continue to truck along in videogames as well. They’re still not at the same level of quality as their film counterparts, but I hope that we’re entering a golden age of superhero games, led by Arkham, Spider-Man, and Injustice. Here’s to hoping Square’s Avengers game continues the trend!
PS- I saw Spider-Man: Far From Home and it was very very good.