I have a full-to-bursting shelf of my favorite comic books: Superman: Peace on Earth, Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther, some Walt Simonson Thor, several Captain America storylines. My collection of great superhero games is, to my dismay, much smaller. I try new ones out whenever I can, but few make the grade. Most miss the fundamental rule of a great superhero game: simulate, not just what the character does, but how the character does it.
Lots of games simulate what superheroes do. In fact, most of these games don’t even involve superheroes! From classic side-scrolling beat-’em-ups like Streets of Rage to the most recent Mario game, one can readily find protagonists who protect people by punching and throwing fireballs.
Hence, to make a recognizable superhero game one can’t simply focus on what comic book characters do. Instead, one has to bring out a particular character’s methods. Batman and Street Fighter’s Ryu are both martial artists, but Batman is differentiated by his detective work and his reliance on fear and surprise to overcome enemies. Captain America and Paragon Shepard from Mass Effect are both . . . well, paragons, but only Cap fights with a shield while giving inspiring speeches.
Really capturing that superhero feeling, then, requires designers to look to the methods. A Batman game that’s just walking from the left side of the screen to the right while hitting people will feel generic no matter how many references and in-jokes are packed in. By contrast, a Batman game where the player emerges from the shadows to terrify “superstitious and cowardly” villains will drip with Batman flavor.
There are a few superhero games that I feel really bring this out. First, take a look at Captain America and the Avengers, an early-’90s arcade game.
No one could deny that there’s a lot of Avengers-ness packed in there. The player controls Iron Man, who’s helped out by Wasp and Quicksilver, fighting Crossbones and the Red Skull, while the Grim Reaper (in his distinctive Marvel Comics horned helmet) jeers on a screen in the background. After defeating the Red Skull Wonderman arrives in a Quinjet to whisk the player away to safety. There are more Avengers references in less than 10 minutes of play than there are in some issues of the Avengers!
Yet, the gameplay here is completely generic. The first sequence is a classic side-scrolling shooter, with Iron Man in place of Gradius’ space ship. What follows is a beat-’em-up that owes much to classics like Double Dragon.
Compare that with Batman: Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum puts its players in Batman’s shoes, and asks them to use Batman’s tools. Players must sneak around gun-toting thugs to take them by surprise, lay traps, and win fistfights with perfectly-timed blocks and counters. At every step players feel like Batman–not because the character is on the screen or his name is heard, but because the player is thinking the way Batman would think and solving problems the way Batman would solve them.
I have a lot of affection for both of these games, but only one scratches the superhero itch. Arkham Asylum says “you are Batman.” It’s just about the closest one can come to being in a comic book.
With Captain America and the Avengers, on the other hand, my affection is born of nostalgia for types of gaming rarely seen since the decline in arcades in the U.S. It reminds me of playing NES games with friends. Its skin-deep superhero-ness just isn’t much of a draw; when I’m looking for a comic book experience I look elsewhere.
There are more superhero games that follow Captain America and the Avengers’ example than there are in Arkham Asylum’s mold–and many of them are a lot of fun. Only those that follow Arkham Asylum in simulating the character’s methods, though, really have a comic book feel. Designers going for that feel should keep its example in mind.