The comic book world melds easily into the video game world. Characters can leap off the pages of popular comics and into video games with relative ease. To give a little history of the comic book industry we’ll observe the comics as they were published in specific ‘Ages’ of important years. In the 1940’s we saw the ‘Golden Age’ with Superman, The Submariner, Captain America which showed wartime heroes in the form of superheroes which fought back the Nazi’s of World War II and sparked sales. The Golden Age introduced characters that we know today very well through merchandising, movies, and particularly video games which can give more of an immersion with the character. The Golden Age was a mix of superhero comics, but after World War II the superhero fad died down, and comics were supplemented with mystery comics, romance comics, and other popular genres that fit the readers tastes. Now this is a little early to say that these characters influenced video games, but the mold of the more current renditions of the characters we know today like Superman, Batman, The Flash and The Fantastic Four started in their more known form during the Silver Age of comics. The Silver Age was a revival of popular characters that started with DC Comics ‘The Flash.’ Yes, we owe a lot to The Flash, a character that seems to go a bit unsung in my opinion.
Even as a huge Marvel junkie I still give my nod to The Flash as it was he who trail blazed the revival of characters that quickly fell back into the mainstream. From the Silver Age we see the Bronze Age of comics which ran from around 1970-1985. The Bronze Age focused more on real world issues at the time and ones that still persist today like alcoholism, drug abuse and environmental problems. One particular comic (that I have a remake of) was not published under the Comics Code Authority which featured Harry
Osborn and his use of LSD, which landed him in the hospital.
It was actually a story that was requested by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare and Stan Lee wrote it and published it without the CCA’s approval. After the comics sold well the CCA loosened its grip on what could and could not be published in a comic book. This was a groundbreaking event in comic book history which allowed for more leniency in the next era of comic books. Known as the ‘Modern Age of Comic Books’ or ‘The Dark Age of Comic Books,’ this is the time period where we see comics emerge like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and series like Marvel Zombies. This time period featured more grim stories of characters and with more realistic digital technology which allowed for more grungy and vivid comic book art styles. To keep comics popular writers got more creative, and ties between characters grew with crossovers and in-depth arcs of stories became the norm. In Marvel comics things like, “The: Initiative,” “The Skrull Invasion,” “Dark Reign” and more arcs emerged which tied many of the old heroes into a new and different story with familiar back stories. A new series with Marvel emerged called ‘The Ultimate’ timeline of comics which retold the original stories of Marvel characters. While it’s separate from the main timeline which is a good thing I’d like to take a moment to say that I really don’t like the Ultimate continuity of comics. There’s a lot to be said about it, but I don’t want to get into a heavy debate with myself here.
Needless to say we have different eras of comic book characters but how do they relate to video games? The next great comic book video game only pops up once and a while because of the horribly rushed games that are based off of the Hollywood blockbuster movies that come out. But where did it all start? Well, from movies of course. Movies are more enjoyable than reading a comic book to people who obviously aren’t fans of well..reading. Movies are easily digestible, and can sum up a superhero’s epic tale in about 2 hours with sequels that offer a piece of their comic book history. So the first video game based off of a comic book came from; none other than the man of steel: Superman. Based off of the 1978 movie titled Superman starring Christopher Reeve, Superman the game for the Atari 2600 is a trippy psychedelic adventure where Superman flies from one colored screen to the next fighting off bad guys and repairing a bridge to go fight Lex Luthor. To be honest it doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s a step in the right direction for comic book video games. Sadly, Superman also notoriously fronts the cover of the game titled ‘Superman’ or better known as Superman 64 for the Nintendo 64. Rather than dwell on the bad games, because there are a ton of them, we’ll take a look at the better ones, and the influential ones. While Superman 64 is influential, true video game and comic book fans will know to steer clear of the horrendously rushed Nintendo 64 title. The video game industry featured many comic book related games that were both good and bad. The titles normally referenced movies, but in most cases expanded past the movies content, or completely altered the game to fit its own story. This is the case with Batman Forever which followed little to do with the movie. It was given off to Acclaim who used an engine that is strikingly similar to the Mortal Kombat engine. It had some quirks to the gameplay, particularly the weird grappling hook controls on the SNES, using the up directional button to jump, and long loading screens.
There has been different genres that I’d briefly like to touch upon with comic book video games. In a basic sense we see that there are games that are based off of movies, arcade fighting games, games that try to do something new, and games that are like the X-Men Legends series.
The movie titles are almost always bad, with a few exceptions to earlier titles which focused less on the movie and more on the game. Arcade fighting games like Marvel vs.Capcom were neat, and the fighting was better suited for arcade style as opposed to games like Batman Forever or even like Spider-man Maximum Carnage which had more of a beat-em up’ style to them which just made the games feel slow. A game in particular which really frustrates me was actually made by Data East and titled ‘Captain America and the Avengers’ and is just a collection of bad things thrown into a game. This is an example of a side scroller beat-em up’ which just didn’t come full circle and seemed to be rushed by a non-English speaking development team. I’d say this is a game that tries something new but I’d be wrong in saying that. Eventually that era of comic book video games breaks past the worse games in the SNES/N64 era and we see some good games emerge on the PS2 and the Gamecube. Spider-man 2 is considered to be a big success, as well as The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction for multiple platforms.
In my eyes, one of the best comic video game series of all time is the X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance games. It’s a top-down isometric view comic book beat-em up’ based in the X-Men and then the entirety of the Marvel Universe. The games feature RPG elements like item upgrades, skill trees, perks, and uses some puzzle elements at times. X-Men Legends and X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse were difficult games if you didn’t level your characters correctly but offered a true homage to the X-Men comics that I remember as a kid in video game form. Playing as Cyclops, Iceman, Nightcrawler and the rest of the expansive character roster of X-Men characters allowed for a different experience every time you pick up the game and play. The games threw in side characters as NPC’s that added to the story which aided you along the way as well, so characters that didn’t fit as playable characters were still present in the games. While I may not have been the biggest X-Men fan, it was fun to play through X-Men Legends and the Rise of Apocalypse sequel in X-Men Legends II.
The Marvel experience of X-Men Legends-esque gameplay continued in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series of games. At this point we’re years past the horrible-ness of Captain America and The Avengers with its shoddy gameplay and horrible translations and into the next generation of console games. I personally played Marvel Ultimate Alliance on the Xbox 360 and the Wii, and I do have to bluntly say; the Wii version is horrible. Bad graphics, mixed with gimmicky motion controls made up for a bad experience that thankfully was much better on the Xbox 360 version. While by today’s standards the graphics are dated, the game still holds up well in my eyes, and offers a very ambitious character roster and downloadable characters which have sadly been MIA on the Xbox Live Marketplace for a number of years.
Thankfully I was able to download the character pack which comes with Cyclops, The Hulk, Nightcrawler, and Hawkeye in addition to the villains pack which came with Magneto, Sabretooth, Venom and Dr. Doom. Being able to play as some of these characters is great especially in tandem with the already huge roster of characters in the game like Captain America, Iron Man, the entire Fantastic Four team, Spider-man, Luke Cage, Daredevil and countless others. The plot is great, dropping the marvel team of superheroes into a super conflict with a combination of many villains from the Marvel universe. This brings the team to locations like the SHIELD Helicarrier, Atlantis, and places like Asgard, and Stark Tower. It’s similar to X-Men Legends which is not a bad thing and offers online play for up to 4 players which adds tons of replayability especially if you want to max out your characters and collect all of the hidden goodies.
Between Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Ultimate Alliance 2 there was a slew of Marvel movies that came out including, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Punisher: War Zone. These movies heavily influenced the games and gave priority in the story to movie favorites like Iron Man, and the Hulk in the game. The main idea of this game was a split between the Marvel superheroes over the Superhero Registration Act which in theory sounds good, but in actuality is flawed and not as fun as it would seem. It pays some relevance to the comics with the Secret War led by Nick Fury as the introduction to the game, and puts you in Latveria right off the bat. It’s a cool intro and teaches you the new mechanic of mixing ‘fusion’ moves to create what was boasted as having a seemingly endless number of unique fusions between characters we were limited to very similar fusions that boiled down to a whirlwind move, rush and tackle move, rock throw move, and not much more than that. The game basically had variations of moves that other characters already had with different animations. I feel like it was a cheap trick to have such similar moves for several characters. For instance Spider-man has a web-dive attack where he slingshots himself into enemies, but Luke Cage has a similar move where he uses his chains to slingshot himself into enemies. Seemingly minor gripes at this point, but the variety is very lacking compared to the original Marvel Ultimate Alliance moves which felt unique and didn’t need the fusion gimmick to feel different. The character roster felt more dry because of the lower character variability and made my experience with the game very lacking. In short I’d say that I prefer the first game despite the seconds larger reference to the comics.
In the future I’d personally like to see more comic book games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The movie industry has killed the idea of buying a game based off of the movie and has ruined that for me, and I’d hate to see the rest of comic book characters to fall down the same path. It’s a hard mold to fit with today’s influences in media separate from the original comics it’s hard to keep the original comic content and implement it into a video game. Originality is needed to keep comic book games fresh, and I hope to see something with the vigor and creativity of the original Marvel Ultimate Alliance and X-Men Legends I and II. Call it a cliché ending, but I just want to see some good comic book games.