What Makes A Truly Great Superhero Game?

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As a fan of both videogames and superhero books/films/shows/underwear, it’s always baffled me that games and superheroes don’t often seem to play together well.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some absolute belters – but for every shining example like Arkham Asylum or Spider-Man 2, we have to suffer through a Spider-Man 3, Catwoman, or – God forgive me – a Superman 64. 

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It’s probably obvious why the bad games are so bad – it’s the reason we’re so often bombarded with shitty movie tie-ins and unfinished releases: Developers will usually have spent so much time and money on acquiring the rights to our favourite heroes, that they’ll find they don’t have the time or budget left to actually make a good game.

Then of course, developers are beholden to the whims and demands of not only videogame publishers, but the comic book companies that hold the rights in the first place. Predictably, trying to please everyone while meeting a deadline doesn’t always end well (just look at Unseen64’s excellent recent video on the cancelled Daredevil game)

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Superhero movie tie-ins are usually the worst offenders for this very reason, and it’s often clear that these kinds of games are rushed out to meet the movie’s release date. Spider-Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man 2Catwoman, and X-Men 3 are all clear (and very stinky) proof of this.

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Still, that’s not why we’re here today. While it would probably be entertaining to be the thousandth article to write about shit superhero games, and bash on Superman 64 some more, I want to look at what makes the good games so good.

Perhaps we should start with the most obvious example: Batman. The guy rarely does wrong in comic books, TV, and film, and his videogame career is no exception.

The Dark Knight arguably boasts the best ratio of good games to absolute stinkers, and while your mind might immediately go straight to the fantastic Arkham games, there’s more to Batman’s relationship with videogames than that.

Head all the way back to the days of the NES and you’ll discover a superhero movie tie-in that doesn’t make you want to tear your face off and post it to the developers – Batman: The Video Game was a cracking arcade beat ’em up that saw gamers use Batman’s gadgets and combat know-how to take down the Joker.

What really worked about Batman: The Video Game, is that it took a ton of inspiration from Ninja Gaiden, and translated that gameplay to the streets of Gotham in a way that didn’t feel forced.

In short, the developers took a genre that worked in the context of the caped crusader’s world to create a game that delivered an authentic Batman experience.

I think that’s probably the key element to consider when putting together a superhero game that you don’t want people to look back on and laugh – developers should really think about what kind of gameplay suits their chosen superhero best.

That’s why superhero fighting games and beat ’em ups so rarely suck, because Spidey, Superman, Wolverine, and chums spend a good chunk of their time punching each other in the face anyway.

Look at the likes of Injustice: Gods Among Us, Marvel Vs Capcom, and X-Men Dimensions (Google it, it’s awesome).

All of the above are fighting games that boast a strong selection of heroes and – as is tradition for the genre – makes sure each character feels distinctly different, allowing for the heroes and villains to really showcase their vastly different powers.

But perhaps creating a multiplayer superhero game is the relatively easy option? Based on the evidence, it would seem that crafting a truly engaging single player superhero adventure is the real challenge.

I need to come back to the Arkham series for a second, because it’s kind of hard not to when you’re trying to talk about awesome superhero games.

Rocksteady undeniably set a new benchmark with Arkham Asylum in 2009, and for my money, a massive part of that game’s success comes down to an approach similar to the one that was taken with Batman: The Video Game way back in 1989.

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The team at Rocksteady took tried and tested gameplay elements from a bunch of classic videogames and spliced them together to create an unforgettable adventure – perhaps the definitive Batman adventure.

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Of course, to say that Rocksteady simply pinched different genres and pushed them into a game that happened to star Batman would be a huge disservice. Their masterstroke was blending and combining these different elements to form a cohesive experience.

Stealth, combat, and exploration are arguably the core aspects of an Arkham game. It’s not like Arkham Asylum stole its stealth sections from Metal Gear Solid, or nicked its item based progression and exploration from Metroid – but the influences are clear and ever present.

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Arkham Asylum, City, and Knight looked at what kind of gameplay styles would work best for their hero, and built a unique experience from there – when we play those games, we’re always doing things that Batman would do.

Batman wouldn’t, for example, just dive in to a room full of thugs with guns, because he would die. As we’ve seen in other Batman media, the Dark Knight approaches situations methodically and takes down threats one by one – exactly like you do in the Arkham games

This brings me to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a game that could have been really special, but failed because it seemed intent on simply copying Arkham. The Arkham games (as we’ve established) are awesome, so why did it fail? Because Batman and Spider-Man are two very different heroes.

Spider-Man would jump into a room full of thugs with guns, because his spider sense, speed, and agility would see him through. That’s why I was often baffled (and annoyed) when 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 insisted on forcing you into Arkham aping stealth sections.

Perhaps the closest we’ve come to a definitive Spider-Man game is the excellent tie in Spider-Man 2 from 2004 (not to be confused with The Amazing Spider-Man 2… blame Sony).

In Spider-Man 2, combat was still relatively clunky, but it did its best to incorporate the webhead’s powers; Speed, spider sense, and a whole lot of webbing. It was the first open world superhero game, and simply swinging across the city, fighting crime whenever and wherever was a blast.

Spider-Man 2 allowed us to (for the first time) leap through an open world, fight crime where we saw it, and essentially be Spider-Man. The 2004 game worked so well because it never forced us into situations that didn’t work in the context of the wall crawler’s abilities.

Shout out to Web of Shadows and Ultimate Spider-Man for offering similar experiences – though they never really fixed the problems that Spider-Man 2 had – the speed and free flowing nature of his combat have never been properly represented in a game.

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See, when a superhero game purposefully limits what we know that hero can do for the sake of challenge, it can never truly be a genuinely authentic gaming experience.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve yet to see a Superman game worth playing? Developers have never seemed to be able to find a way to make the Man of Steel’s vast and near limitless set of powers work.

But look at games like God of War, Infamous, The Legend of Zelda, and Batman: Arkham Knight. So, so many videogames feature heroes with all manner of different skills/items that are constantly used for puzzles, combat, and exploration.

As soon as a superhero gets involved, things often seem to go to shit. Super Mario 64 for example, was a game about a plumber that had sections where he flew – and it just worked. Superman 64, on the other hand, was a game about a man who is known for his ability to fly, and it did not work.

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There’s still every reason to be optimistic for the future of superhero games though. Rocksteady are currently working on Arkham VR, a project that aims to put the emphasis on Batman’s detective skills. They’ve earned the time and resources to work on a game like that.

Then there’s Spider-Man PS4. After years of below average Spidey games, Sony has handed the reins over to Insomniac – the established developer behind Ratchet & Clank.

Such a move seems to suggest that the veteran studio are being trusted to implement their own vision. If Marvel and Sony just wanted to make a quick buck from yet another rushed Spidey game, they could have given it to any old developer, not one with such pedigree.

All in all, I think what developers tasked with creating superhero games need, is the time and the freedom to create the game their way, and to realise their own vision away from outside interference.

I think (or hope) that those two key future releases are indicative of this, and that our favourite superheroes can begin to storm the world of videogames with the same success they’ve enjoyed on the big screen.

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