It’s never been easy being a superhero. It’s arguably worse being one in a video-game. Time and again, the ballad of the superhero game has played out the same way it does every year: a game caught between overwhelming potential and stifling mediocrity. Suffice to say, living out the legends of our favorite comic-book characters onscreen has been a turbulent one at best, and quite honestly, it’s just a little tiring.
Apparently someone feels our pain. It was earlier this week that Marvel’s own TQ Jefferson spoke on that very subject. Talking on interview, the games division head read many a gamer’s mind in how superhero games have been faring as of late, commenting that the company’s long had a way’s to go when it’s come to its licensed adaptations. On the topic of a video-game for its increasingly prestigious Avengers property, Jefferson could only say a game would come when it had “the right partner.” That’s quite the admirable attitude to have given what flops have done to hit and lowbrow brands alike, but its moral is all the more disappointing. There’s no game developer out there that can take the Avengers seriously, much less the rest of Marvel.
The thought of such is truly baffling given the climate of Hollywood’s comic-book paradise right now, especially for Marvel and it’s a wonder why more game studios aren’t cashing in on the hottest trend to hit the movie world since Star Wars. It’s easy to think that store shelves would be loaded with Infamous: Second Sons from aisle to aisle, raining down superhero goodness in every way possible. Then again, the ridiculous amount of reluctance isn’t surprising when you look at the way we buy them.
If there’s any adage that follows super hero games, it’s that, “most of them sucked.” Even while Jefferson claims gamers wouldn’t flock to any Avenger game that was anything less than satisfactory superheroes’ rocky gaming history would seem to prove otherwise. Mention 2004‘s Spider-man 2 and you’ll likely recall Spider-man: Edge of Time. Cite The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and you’ll likely recount its lackluster 2008 movie clone. Superheroes are still haunted by the Superman 64s of their past and we still buy them anyway like cartoon characters on the fronts of cereal boxes. Good or very, very bad, it’s a staple of an unhealthy diet that’s not liable to make companies change bad habits.
It’s true that an Avengers game is no small team to assemble. If you count the movie’s cast of Ironman, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow alone, you have no less than five unique characters to develop five different characters with five different movesets. Maybe more if you consider inevitable DLC of the upcoming Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. That’s one tall order, even more so if you consider it on the scale of an open-world New York or even Asgard. All the while, the problem’s evidence enough that not only is insanely complex, but something that demands to be done both well and with relevance in its own right apart from the films. Jefferson seems to have admitted as much. Marking off three “pillars” of what a good superhero game’s checklist goes for, he cited what he called: 1) engaging gameplay, 2) staying true to its characters, and 3) having a compelling story.
How do you do all that? That’s the multimillion dollar question Warner asked itself back in 2009, and lo and behold, Arkham Asylum was its answer. The thought of a virtually unknown studio taking up the cape and cowl was basically ludicrous a half-decade ago, and it wasn’t since then that someone like Rocksteady could prove naysayers wrong. What might seem like any other night to Batman became something of a phenomenon, capturing not only the dark, gritty feel of the graphic novels and comics, but introducing solid gameplay and a unique identity all its own within a chilling narrative framework. Despite that, the Arkham games’ success have yet to translate through to the rest of gaming world as a whole and still seems like more of an exception to the rule than the norm even five years later.
Maybe that’s exactly the point: Arkham has never been translatable and simply never should be. Much of what made Batman the success he is today was his own pride Rocksteady took in crafting their own universe apart from anything we had seen before, blending a perfect smorgasbord of the Animated series voice cast in comic-book trappings albeit with a pinch of Christopher Nolan’s twisted sensibilities. Even its past Batman iterations seem virtually unplayable by comparison, and arguably that’s always been the case. Case in point, the best superheroes do well by being their own hero.
It’s also true that Marvel games have done well maintaining a genuinely better reputation than DC’s when it’s come to making decent games, and plenty of them. Mention one bad Marvel game and you’re more likely to hear two of DC’s in casual conversation. Marvel Ultimate Alliance was a great one and X-Men: Legends II was another, with at least Shattered Dimensions in there somewhere. Many were good, maybe a few were even better than Arkham, but it’s undeniable that all of them have only landed in a niche market and none of them reside in this decade. Even fewer have proven themselves as actively competitive, triple A titles worthy of a Call of Duty level showing. That’s not a bad thing, but there’s a difference between a solid seller and that Thor movie game propping up your couch.
Maybe the real answer comes down to your local theater. It’s funny to think that DC and Marvel are sitting in what seem to be the exact opposite positions in their respective arenas. While Marvel heroes of any shape and size bring home the bacon on an annual basis to audience’s delight, DC can’t seem to break a billion without Batman in the name, not to mention a continually polarized fan base. On the other side of things, it’s been close to a decade since Marvel’s released their own Ultimate Destruction while The Dark Knight is the envy of the gaming world. It may come as no coincidence that Arkham was born only a year after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy began printing money for the studio. Let’s remind ourselves that it’s Warner that also happens to own the rights to Batman himself. Warner’s clearly taken fashioning its own mascot and if Nolan’s Batman ride was going to end, games were they’re way to keep pushing the gas, maybe more than ever now that Batman takes up the other half of their upcoming prologue to a Justice League bonanza.
If Warner Interactive’s taken nothing but deathly serious effort into polishing their own property, then Marvel’s gaming slump is only thanks to the ease of its cinematic glory. Licensing their babies out to Activision, a third-party with no real stake in hand-me-down series, was a non-issue when The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron was already headlining the same year as Star Wars. Make no doubt about it, it and Treyarch’s published the Ultimate Spider-mans of our day, but keep in mind it also made its Rise of the Silver Surfers too. Activision’s never been obligated to make good on its movie games and it might not given its own Skylanders and Advanced Warfares. If the Amazing Spider-man 2 game’s recent flop-burger of a reception is any indication, superhero games have and are just the underfunded, underdeveloped appetizers to their filmic main courses.
So where does that leave superhero games? Maybe more of the same than ever. DC will continue making the most of its games in lieu of Arkham closing the door on the Dark Knight’s finest hour in hopefully epic fashion. Marvel will meanwhile keep raking in cash at the box office, with or without games. Or maybe that’s all about to change.
Arkham Knight’s liable to debut in full to a genuine E3 spectacle right alongside the biggest Driveclubs and Dragon Ages of the industry, and surely to Marvel’s envy. It’s not impossible that Marvel’s well aware of what good press can do for movie awareness, especially if Rocksteady was smart enough to plant any Justice League illusions into Arkham at long last. Marvel’s everywhere, and it’s only logical to snap up what’s left of gaming for the sheer press alone. Disney Infinity might be a very certain precedent that the studio’s done with third-parties and self-publishing might be their brighter future. It would be least of all surprising to hear of Marvel bankrolling their own LA game studio. They certainly have the funds to do it. Maybe it might simply piggyback on EA’s Star Wars deal with its parent Disney. Theres’s no ruling out Disney outright buying EA either. It has the cash to burn on that end too.
No matter what the course, it’s a sure fire bet that the cinematic arms race for the superhero crown is just getting started and its first shots are going to be fired in gaming before we know it. Are superhero games finally past their demons? The future better be good for soaring over New York alongside Ironman and the Helicarrier, because we’ll be damn sure we avenge it.
What do you want from superhero video-games? Sounds off in the comments below!