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Comic Book Games - Part One: The Progression of a Subgenre

This is a three-part series exploring the subgenre of comic book videogames. This first part offers a brief survey from inception to the current state of the genre.

Bill Boggess, Blogger

July 18, 2011

8 Min Read

To assert that comic books are a fertile ground for the gaming medium is a painful understatement. The muscle bound, spandex-clad pantheon of heroic archetypes that fill the pages of DC, Marvel and the lesser know publishing houses like Top Cow and Dark Horse seem almost tailor-made for the video game construct despite the fact that comic books predate the medium by more than fifty years. Regardless of this seemingly inherent predisposition for a harmonic transition from page to software, videogames based on comic books have been consistently uneven in terms of execution and quality and consequently such games are often ignored, marginalized and lumped in with the glut of other vapid licensed titles that plague the retail market. 

In the early years of gaming, these unremarkable comic book adaptations were easier to understand, often due in large part to the limitations of technology and the restrictions those limitations placed on game design. Most developers in possession of a comic book intellectual property opted to transplant the hero into a side-scrolling action game confined to 2D spatiality. This forced programmers to adhere to the standard conventions of pre-established gaming paradigms which in turn usually led to an uncomfortable fit where the character and his/her superpowers were either marginalized or completely ignored, essentially stripping these iconic, mythic characters of the very attributes that made them so initially compelling. This cookie cutter approach to game design, while still being practiced today, was far more pronounced in the earlier eras of the medium and subsequently most comic book games suffered for it.   

The results were games that shared little of the mystique and grandeur of the comics they attempted to emulate. When Wolverine can fall dead from a handful of punches thrown by a security guard and Superman can be felled by even the smallest of projectiles, it is not unreasonable to assert that something very important has been lost in translation. The only logical reason to employ an IP when creating a game is to embody that iconic character and translate the experience from one medium to another and unfortunately, most early attempts at comic book games - much like their early filmic counterparts - failed to translate these elements in a meaningful way.

There were of course games that proved to be exceptions. During this time Sega released a smattering of inspired and well-executed comic book titles based on Marvel licenses, including several quality Spiderman games and two X-MEN titles on the Genesis that were ambitious and well-intentioned if not completely successful in terms of cogent game play. Konami developed an incredibly faithful X-MEN side scrolling arcade brawler that allowed for six-players simultaneously and is still remembered fondly to this day. Still, even within the parameters of success, most of the games during this era merely emulated popular genres - specifically beam em’ ups - resulting in games such as The Punisher (Capcom 1993) Batman Returns (Konami 1993) and Captain America and the Avengers. (Data East, 1991) As solid as these experiences were, they still reflected rigid gaming constructs that were foisted upon the comic characters rather than developers forging an experience around them.

During the 32/64 bit era Capcom injected the comic book game genre with a much needed dose of quality with X-MEN: Children of the Atom, a vibrant, smoothly animated 2D fighter that was equal parts quality and bombast, achieved by using massive, detailed spites that emulated - perhaps better than any game before it - the look and feel of the superhero. The subsequent sequels and franchise crossovers that would follow X-MEN: COTA would expand to include many major players in the Marvel roster and to this day many consider these games to be among the best visual and thematic representation of the comic book medium within gaming.

If 2D can be considered a haven for decent comic book games during the mid and late 90’s then early 3D was most certainly its most prolific harbinger of bastardization. Clumsy programming and uninspired game design ushered in some of the absolute worst games made during the 32/64 bit era, many of which were unfortunately branded with popular comic book IP’s. Acclaim’s Fantastic Four, considered an unplayable train wreck of code, lead a pack of mediocre offerings that included Eidos’ painfully uninspired Incredible Hulk game (imagine a Hulk game where you need keys to open doors) and Titus’ legendary homage to excrement, Superman 64, a game that managed to transform the task of playing a god-like protector of earth into one of the most excruciatingly dull experiences available in the medium.

Fortunately, towards the end of the PS1/N64 lifecycle, Activision and their development team Neversoft released Spiderman, a solid 3D action title that managed to capture important aspects of the character while delivering a solid game play experience that managed to capture key elements of the web-slinger’s repertoire. About a year later SEGA facilitated the release of Sword of the Berserk on the Dreamcast, a remarkably well done hack n’ slash game based on an obscure (at least in the U.S.) Manga comic.

While there is no overtly perceptible moment when comic book based games began to flourish or even improve dramatically over what had come before, it was around the advent of the PS2 era that developers, armed with better hardware capable of rendering lush and dense 3D worlds, began approaching comic book games with renewed vigor and creativity. Last generation saw by far the widest margin of improvement in this sub genre and the result was a collection of games that faithfully replicate the look and feel of their subject matter, taking the best attributes of the source material and creating exciting, compelling gaming experiences unique to the larger genres they occupy.

Still, comic book games are anything but a perfect, well-represented subgenre. Despite better technology and the ability to provide both compelling game play and an interesting narrative equal to that of the source material, certain proverbial bumps in the road remain and continuously threaten to derail games that should be no-brainers in regards to delivering a quality experience. The most prominent of these issues is the accelerated developmental schedules of certain comic book games necessitated by key IP’s that have been adapted for film. To coincide with the release of the movie and therefore maximize exposure and profit, many comic book games are given shorter cycles of development and this can lead to games that are less ambitious,  shallow endeavors that are less polished and refined products.

The vast majority of comic book based games released in the last few years were done so in conjunction with a major motion picture and most of the titles rushed out to meet the day-and-date release of the film suffered in terms of overall quality. Conversely, those games not anchored to such accelerated development windows have typically been better titles as they were conceived and developed as games rather than merely ancillary goods designed to siphon consumer dollars. Recent games like Thor and Iron Man 2 illustrate the fallacy of an expeditious development schedule for the purposes of releasing a game alongside the film where by sharp contrast a game like Arkham Asylum – which was an endeavor unfettered by a film release - becomes one of the most celebrated games of this generation. 

The other issue impeding quality, while less dire, is nevertheless worthy of discussion as it falls squarely into the laps of developers and programmers: design. Superheroes are, by the very nature of their archetype, powerful beings who, when fully realized, present designers and programmers with the unique struggle of balancing these powers with game play that can deliver a reasonable challenge while not stripping the on screen avatar of everything that makes it such a compelling icon to begin with.

This challenge is a sizeable one considering the abilities of some of Marvel and DC’s more popular characters. How does one make a Wolverine game challenging when the mutant in question has been shown to regenerate from a gleaming skeletal form? How to make a Superman game compelling while not stripping a heroic icon, who has been shown lifting entire continents on his shoulders, of everything that makes him “super”? Could a decent Flash game even be made that wasn’t nearly 100% bullet time effects?

To the credit of this industry, some designers have certainly risen to the challenge of creative design and even within the rubble of failure seeds of future successes have been planted. Consider EA’s Superman Returns, a much maligned game whose most glaring flaw was ambition. While the game is certainly far from perfect, the core mechanics were by far the best seen in a Superman game to date and the focus on making the city of Metropolis, rather than Superman himself, the source of the health bar was an intelligent move. Developer Tiburon, understanding that Superman is practically invincible, placed the focus upon the surrounding city and forced the player to consider their actions and how they affect their surroundings. For all of its flaws, Superman Returns made great strides in addressing the issue of making an immortal-based game challenging.

Just as the film industry has learned, comic book adaptations require a more deft approach than merely shoving a recognizable character into a pre-existing mold and wait for the revenue to roll in. Recent titles like Wolverine: Origins and the aforementioned Batman: Arkham Asylum demonstrate that the best examples of this subgenre employed a design strategy that first distilled what makes a heroic icon so compelling and then molded a game around those attributes. As technology progresses and the barriers of developmental impediment continue to be toppled by advancement, those designers willing to employ a more holistic approach will see their comic book adaptation fare much better both commercially and critically.

Part Two of this series will deal with more specific breakdowns of those games that have successfully emulated their comic book IP’s and the lessons that can be gleaned from these titles.

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