As someone who enjoys superhero comics and video games, I'm continually amazed that so few developers are able to successfully marry those two things. For every Arkham Asylum, there are countless half-baked movie tie-ins and quick-and-dirty mobile games gumming up the works. And it's not like this is a new phenomenon either. Some of the most terrible games of the Atari and NES area involved Marvel and DC properties. Superman 64 is still legendary in its awfulness.
And for the life of me, I can't understand why there are so many bad superhero games. There are plenty of quality games with superhero-esque protagonists - Devil May Cry, God of War, Infamous, etc. Kratosis basically just Wolverine with less hair and a longer reach. It's a phenomenon that seems to specifically plague Marvel and DC's properties. Looking at the success of the Darkness games and Telltale's Fables and Walking Dead adventure games, it's clear that creator-owned comic properties are doing just fine in the gaming realm. Why is it that as soon as a character starts wearing spandex and attaches a "-man" to the end of their name that it suddenly becomes so much more difficult to produce a worthwhile game?
Superhero games often fail for many of the same reasons that all licensed games fail. Too much of the development budget is spent on acquiring the license in the first place, leaving too little money to actually build a game. The development cycle may be too short to nurture the game, especially when it comes to movie-based superhero games (we're looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man 2). And too often, there's the mentality that the license will sell itself, regardless of the actual quality of the game. So no matter how much a development team may want to craft a fun, entertaining, technically sound superhero experience, they may lack the resources, time, and publisher support to do so.
Superhero games also have problems unique to that genre. Historically, one of the biggest problems with these games has been the struggle to depict the characters' superhuman powers. The 1993 X-Men game on the Sega Genesis was typical for the genre. A side-scrolling action-platformer, X-Men only allowed players to use a character's mutant power a handful of times before their energy meter was depleted and they had to resort to punching robots and dinosaurs to death. That game would have you believe that Cyclops' optic blasts run on a pack of AAA batteries. Meanwhile, the old NES Superman game followed this pattern: 1) Superman descends into sewers, 2) Superman gets attacked by random enemies and devolves into Clark Kent, and 3) Clark Kent runs around helpless until he dies. Not exactly the Man of Steel. These and other games make the mistake of limiting how often you can use a hero's abilities, rather than making those abilities a core element of the gameplay. If superhero-esque characters like Dante and Kratos are allowed to flex their muscles as much as they want, why can't actual superheroes?
Superhero games is an area where the source material thrives - telling epic, engrossing stories of good vs. evil. This is especially a problem with movie-based superhero games. Too often these games either try to adapt and expand the framework of the movie or find some way to sneak themselves in as a prequel, sequel, or an odd mix of both. The Spider-Man movie games tend to adapt the story of the film and cram in a handful of extra Spider-Man rogues for good measure. At best, you wind up with something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The game followed the basic path of the movie, but crammed in a bunch of tangential material about Wolverine battling giant jungle monsters and destroying a Sentinel factory. It didn't make for a terribly cohesive storyline, but at least it allowed for some memorable action set-pieces.
Meanwhile, even games like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and X-Men: Destiny that feature completely original storylines fail to deliver on the story front. One of the big complaints regarding Web of Shadows was its poor depiction of Spider-Man, which is maybe to be expected in a game that revolves around Peter being tempted by the power of the alien costume again. Destiny was a bad game for many reasons, but one of those was the way the game downplayed iconic X-Men characters in favor of new creations and then failed to deliver a story where the player's decisions and choices with those characters actually mattered.
Despite all these hurdles, there have been some Marvel and DC games that have succeeded in delivering an authentic superhero experience. The Arkham series is the most obvious and most definitive example. These games have avoided all the pitfalls and problems I've mentioned before. They weren't tied to the release of any particular movie, leaving Rocksteady ample time to craft and hone the games. The gameplay in Arkham Asylum did an excellent job of emphasizing Batman's skills and abilities; building a challenging, satisfying adventure that relied on stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and puzzle-solving, Arkham City refined that gameplay and opened up Batman's world, and Arkham Knight looks to take that refinement several steps further. And all the Arkham games, even the comparatively lackluster Arkham Origins, have told gripping Batman stories. Drawing from previous incarnations of Batman but building a new Gotham City where anything can happen, the Arkham series has resulted in a great Batman saga.
As mentioned before, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a good game, easily the best take on the clawed mutant in gaming and vastly more entertaining than watching the movie that inspired it. Origins was basically a God of War clone, but a very competent one that allowed developer Raven Software to push Wolverine's powers to their limits. One of my great gaming disappointments is the fact that we never received a sequel or follow-up, despite the fact that the game basically ended by teasing a Days of Future Past-themed sequel.
Spider-Man has been an especially frustrating franchise to follow over the years. Activision hit on a good formula early on with their 2000 Spider-Man title on Playstation. That game's free-roaming webslinging formula was refined until it reached its pinnacle in 2004 with Spider-Man 2. But in the ten years since, there's been a frustrating lack of forward progression and innovation with the franchise. Most new Spider-Man games recycle the open-world Manhattan structure. Once the novelty of exploring the city and playing the same few side-missions over and over wears off, there isn't much to these games.
But Activision had a brief Spider-Man renaissance with the release of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions in 2010. That game was far more experimental with the Spider-Man formula, introducing four unique versions of Spidey and tailoring each hero's missions to suit his particular skills. Spider-Man Noir kept to the shadows in stealth-driven missions, Ultimate Spider-Man used his alien costume to decimate enemies in combat-oriented missions, and so on. Shattered Dimensions had the structure and variety that most Spider-Man games lack. That Activision never managed to capitalize on that success is frustrating, though the quick turnaround on most Spidey games is probably the culprit.
Both Marvel and DC have found a decent amount of success in the fighting game genre. It's a natural fit given how much superhero comics emphasize combat between heroes and villains, and both companies have been able to piggyback on the success of established franchises. Since X-Men: Children of the Atom first hit arcades in 1994, Capcom has churned out a steady stream of enjoyable, over-the-top Marvel fighters based on their Street Fighter games. Meanwhile, DC injected their characters into the Mortal Kombat Universe for 2009's DC Universe vs. Mortal Kombat. That paved the way for last year's Injustice: Gods Among Us, which followed the basic gameplay formula and story mode structure of Mortal Kombat 9 but told a new story of DC's heroes crossing paths with a totalitarian, alternate universe Superman.
Unfortunately, all of these quality games still remain exceptions to the rule rather than the norm. The Arkham games may be great, but how many crappy Batman games did we have to suffer through before that series came around? There are lessons publishers and developers can learn from past successes and failures. There are too many characters who have barely begun to realize their potential in the gaming realm, or haven't been tapped at all. Going forward, I really hope more publishers begin pursuing games based on the characters who are best suited for the medium, not necessarily those who have big-budget movies on the horizon.
Wonder Woman and Thor have always struck me as two characters who deserve far more gaming attention than they've received so far. And both are well-suited to gaming for basically the same reasons. They're both super-strong characters with an impressive array of abilities and a tendency to wield axes, hammers, swords, and the like in battle. Both hail from fantastical realms and routinely deal with mythological monsters and gods. It's so easy to see either Wonder Woman or Thor starring in an action RPG inspired by The Legend of Zelda or Darksiders series.
The recent Deadpool game wasn't a great success, but I think Deathstroke could succeed where his kooky Marvel cousin failed. I mentioned in a previous column that Deathstroke has been given a major boost recently thanks to his roles in Arkham Origins and the Arrow TV series. A Deathstroke solo game could be the next step in that character growth. Slade's tendency to mix guns with fancy swordplay could make for a great gameplay system - something along the lines of Devil May Cry but less flashy and more straightforward. And Slade's modest array of superhuman abilities - super-strength, healing, enhanced brain capacity - could also be integrated in interesting ways.
Speaking of Arrow, it's not hard to picture either Green Arrow or Hawkeye translating well to video games. Maybe the best way to revive the tired shooter genre is to swap out guns for bow and arrow combat. The longbow is everything a gun isn't - careful, precise, methodical. Rather than just charging into a room with guns blazing, players would have to think and strategize and keep careful stock of their supply of arrows. And the fact that both archers routinely use trick arrows in their arsenals would give the games that extra bit of spice. The easy solution would be to slap together a gimmicky motion control game, but there are a handful of game franchises like Thief and Tomb Raider that take archery more seriously.
Finally, I really would love to see the X-Men shown more respect in their video games. There have certainly been plenty of X-Men games over the years (especially during the heyday of X-Men: The Animated Series in the early '90s), but only a handful like Children of the Atom and Mutant Apocalypse (both developed by Capcom, coincidentally) really stand the test of time. In addition to another Wolverine game that builds on Origins' God of War formula, I really want to see a game that makes full use of the X-Men as a team and a fighting unit. The X-Men Legends games were great for their time, but these days console technology is capable of much more. I want to see a full 3D action epic where I can control whatever X-Men I want, coordinate a team, and do battle with all of their greatest foes.
On the flip side, there are some superheroes who maybe just aren't that suited for the video game treatment. There hasn't been a great Superman game, and I'm not convinced there ever will be. It's tough to depict a character as strong as Superman without either eliminating the challenge or completely nerfing his powers (as so many games have in the past). Not to mention that flying is a difficult ability to pull off in any game. Flash is another character I have trouble picturing in his own game. How do you convey super-speed in a video game? Do you just remove all control from the player as Flash zips around the screen faster than the eye can see and fingers can react? Or do you slow everything in the game to a crawl and model the combat after something like Quicksilver's prison break sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past? That might be fun for the first few enemy encounters, but it would probably grow tedious after a while. Granted, all it takes is one clever programmer or designer to crack the code with these heroes, but why spend that much effort when other superheroes are ready and waiting for their AAA games?
Fans can argue all they like about whether Marvel or DC is winning the war in Hollywood. Marvel clearly has the upper hand for now when it comes to movies, while DC is on better footing when it comes to animation and television. But neither company is winning when it comes to gaming. There's no reason that the Arkham series should stand alone when it comes to quality superhero gaming experiences. There's no reason each new Spider-Man game should struggle with the same problems as the ones before it. There's no reason characters like Wonder Woman and Thor and Deathstroke and and Green Arrow and Wolverine can't entertain and enthrall gamers as easily as gaming icons like Kratos and Master Chief and Link. The industry can do better by these heroes.
Source: IGN Comics