Marvel Studios, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large, is a cinematic and financial juggernaut (and I’m unable to capitalise “juggernaut”, because 20th Century Fox has lawyers everywhere). Marvel has managed to propel former B, C and D list characters like Iron Man, Thor, and The Guardians of the Galaxy into the public concious, and in doing so they have built themselves a financial bulletproof vest of sci-fi-action-comedy blockbusters. A year ago, popular culture at large had no idea who Drax, Groot and Rocket Raccoon were, now kids are carrying Subway drawstring bags with Star Lord’s face on them.
Things aren’t slowing down either, since Marvel recently announced a third avalanche of films, notably including more obscure characters like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and The Inhumans – possibly household names to you or I (or Comic Book Guy), but relative nobodies compared to the now flailing likes of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. As apprehensive as said announcement made me, I’m still excited. Aside from some definite high and lows, the MCU movies have so far managed to keep to a fairly consistent quality, and Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the studio can even handle riskier, less stereotypically “superhero-ey” projects. Despite all this, there’s still something missing. I never thought I’d even so much as think this, but: I think it’s time we had some more superhero games.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m far from pining for the days when each superhero movie came with its own uniquely awful tie-in game. Excluding Spider-Man 2, I don’t think there has ever been a truly great superhero movie tie-in, and it’s unlikely that this will change any time soon. Modern super hero movies simply do not translate well into videogames; most superhero movies spend a lengthy amount of their first act developing origin stories or internal lore, and such slow initial pacing rarely works well for games that are supposed to be about punching things. This means that most tie-ins tend to begin their narratives somewhere around its mother-film’s second act, then proceed to pad out its own story by either spending too much time fixated on a single aspect of said movie, or diverting into non-movie canon and drawing more from comic book source material. By trying to keep in line with its source material and simultaneously not be as god-awful as said material might be, tie-in games rarely achieve either of these goals. Even games based on good movies like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger have received lukewarm reception from most, so it’d be silly to expect anything different from a Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther game.
I’m not even saying there haven’t been a few decent Marvel games in recent years. Marvel Heroes has a reasonable following of MMO players, particularly after its “2015” relaunch, and I utterly adored LEGO Marvel Super Heroes for its bombastic and over the top approach towards an all encompassing super powered New York City. Herein lies the crux of my issue; I want a game like LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, but with the bricks stripped away and replaced with the toned, supple biceps of one Captain America. Why not take the open-world-with-levels-tacked-on formula of recent LEGO games (and Spider-Man 2, to beat a dead horse somewhat) and have them resemble something closer to the broader Marvel universe as it is today?
Really, I long for the days of vast, cross-universe Marvel games, like the Ultimate Alliance series. Those games, the first of which is now eight years old, are oddly hard to track down these days. I spent years trying to find a seventh generation copy of the original game for less than £20, a seemingly hefty price tag for a game that came out before the PlayStation 3 was even available on store shelves. Copies of the game’s Civil War themed sequel currently sell anywhere between £20 and £50. When games that are older than the concept of an iPad are selling for the same price as brand new Xbox One/PS4 games, it speaks volumes about the public’s desire for a proper, galaxy spanning, spandex-and-all Marvel game. The original Ultimate Alliance allowed players to assemble a team of four Marvel super heroes from a roster of around thirty, then send said teams on various missions to battle with notable super villains. It was a fairly derivative Marvel story, all things considered: Doctor Doom has assembled the most powerful villains (and Bullseye) into a collective super-villain team, so Nick Fury must do the same with the Marvel universe’s bravest heroes (and Ghost Rider). What made the game shine, though, was the ways in which it allowed for team customization and power combinations, something LEGO Marvel Super Heroes aped very well seven years later.
Despite Marvel movies not being particularly adaptable into games, Marvel heroes themselves have always been prime candidates for beat-em-ups, fighting games and even action-RPGs. There’s never any need for exposition dumps or origin stories, because these characters and their motivations are inherently recognizable from minute one. We know Captain America loves freedom and (gasp) America, we know Wolverine is a gruff asshole, and we know Iron Man is a singular metaphor for the Western World’s reliance on corporate funded weapons and technology as a means of protection and “readiness” against foreign threats. Okay, maybe not that last one, but Marvel heroes were originally designed to be recognizable to readers picking up comics in any era, and in 2014, even unknowns like The Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Fist are fairly big names to a lot of consumers.
In other words: this stuff sells. Even without the LEGO brand, Marvel super-heroes are so familiar to the broader popular culture that they could re-release Superman 64 with an Iron Man re-skin, and it’d probably sell like Atlantean hotcakes. Marvel/Disney could really break out into the tween/young adult gaming market by releasing a “true” Marvel game, and in doing so they’d strike a crushing blow against their competition in the one market they’ve yet to dominate. Where DC is constantly playing catch-up in the cinematic sphere, their Arkham games are huge sellers, and were seen by many to represent the evolution of the super-hero game. The Arkham games are faithful and well designed, but Arkham Origins showed that complacency could be DC’s downfall in the gaming market.
Marvel has the chance to capitalise on this and make a butt-load of money, but they also have the chance to experiment with some interesting ideas. Videogames are in a pretty interesting place right now, what with the prevalence of digital titles and smaller indie teams. If your IP is going to sell big anyway, why not try something new, and in the process create something unique and challenging? A Rayman Legends-eque lateral, co-op platformer starring Groot and rocket Raccoon, wherein Groot uses his powerful limbs to destroy enemies and traverse terrain, while Rocket blasts enemies from afar and uses his speed and agility to cover long distances? A turn-based strategy game that lets you take control of a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D operatives? An open world RPG set in Asgard? Re-release Spider-Man 2 on eight generation consoles?
All I know is, soaring through New York as Iron Man in LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is the closest a game has ever come to making me feel like a real super-hero. Marvel has the money and power to make millions of dollars worth of videogames, yet they remain oddly silent in the realms of virtual entertainment. The next few years are going to be very important for Marvel/Disney, and they don’t want their legacy to be: “awesome movies, crap games”.