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The world is superhero crazy right now. Marvel recently gave its comics the mass reboot treatment in Secret Wars, while its runaway cinematic universe is so successful that everyone's trying to copy it. If the Transformers and Ghostbusters movies are getting shared worlds, can a Pitch Perfect or Adam Sandler cinematic universe be far behind? It's enough to keep you awake at night.
One of the greatest shared universes of all time is the realm of video games. Puzzled? Then consider the core fundamentals found in the majority of games out there today: progression systems, a degree of narrative, gameplay mechanics, world boundaries, and musical scores are just a few tropes expected by default in this industry. The commonality of expectations is both a blessing and a curse.
Developers can often become entrapped by the laws of game design, but there are times when sticking too rigidly to those universal values can cheapen a game so badly that even Poundland couldn't sell the results. And one of the best examples of common design harming what should be a simple concept is the superhero game.
These shared design constraints and rules shift depending on which generation you look at, but they include health bars, the possibility of death, invisible walls to restrict play-space, and more. The first example to spring to mind is Superman and the scores of sub-par games that have held back his awesome power. When, in a game about Kal-El—with all of his god-like powers—would a health bar be an appropriate design restriction? Certainly not in a game like Sunsoft's 1994 SNES effort, The Death and Return of Superman.
It's a side-scrolling brawler like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, where Superman can be defeated by demonic enemies—simply by punching our hero in the face enough times that his health bar depletes. I'm aware this is commonly how health bars work, but if you follow Batman comics, you'll know that in Frank Miller's legendary The Dark Knight Returns, Superman diverts a Russian nuclear bomb, is engulfed in the blast and survives.
He's practically reduced to a skeleton, but just brushes it off (at the expense of some local flora) and gets back to work, like he's just stubbed his toe or something. Why, then, does he keel over so easily from a few melee hits in The Death and Return of Superman? Depending on the mechanics at play, the rules that so stringently dictate a superhero's powers, weaknesses, and methodology become warped and in many cases, causing the overall package to suffer.
You can see how, by embracing the shared values and mechanics of "the game," Superman isn't accurately represented in Sunsoft's brawler. It's still a really fun game that's well worth seeking out—unlike Titus Software's infamous Superman for the N64 (regularly cited as one of the worst video games ever)—but does it make you feel like the indestructible man we know from the comics? Not even close, and that's because it was designed with firm gaming rules in mind.
Sunsoft made a few great superhero games back in the day, including Batman Returns on NES, which sees Bats laying waste to Gotham's criminal dreck with a gun and a boatload of firepower. Again, if you know the lore, you already know what's wrong with this picture. Bruce Wayne has a strict no killing or guns policy, so when you see him whittling down scum with enough ordnance to rival Contra, you know someone's missed the point.
But as the years went on, we saw this trend of ill-informed and mechanically jarring superhero games continue, but in baffling new ways. Chances are you didn't play 2008's woeful Iron Man movie tie-in from Secret Level and publisher Sega, but in it, Tony Stark can earn money by completing missions to upgrade his suit before trudging on to the next moribund stage. Tony Stark? As in, Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor whose greatest power is perhaps his infinite money and resources?
Experience and currency are two forms of progression etched into the fabric of game development, and by shoehorning it so lazily into this beer coaster of a disc, the developers have overlooked a vital element of what makes Tony Stark the hero he is. He's not got super-human powers, but money to burn on fancy new toys. Earning cash by slaying scores of poorly designed enemies with less AI than a pocket calculator makes zero sense here. Be thankful if you never played this one.
Latter-day Batman games have risen up out of the mire. Thanks to Rocksteady Studios, we've seen some of the finest superhero games ever to grace code. The Arkham series hits the tone of DC's brooding, damaged hero wonderfully, and presents gameplay mechanics that actually fit the character. These titles also include fluid combat that wouldn't look out of place in any of the good Batman movies, and the detective sections that are so often overlooked in his games.
Even the criminally under-appreciated Captain America: Super Soldier manages to hit several strong notes. The critics blasted this one at launch, but at a second glance it's not bad as a bargain-bin purchase because of all the high-flying stunts and bone-crunching combat at work. It was never going to win awards, but you do feel like the first Avenger as you flip and bound through HYDRA-occupied Europe while turning the faces of goons into paste with your fists and Vibranium shield.
The launch trailer for Rocksteady's third Arkham series game, 'Batman: Arkham Knight,' released this week.
Perhaps these rare victories in superhero gaming are a case of recent technology advancements? Today, developers seem more equipped to make solid mechanics befitting of their superhero of choice, and it's possible games like Batman: Arkham Asylum have inspired other studios to do better. Whatever the case, I'd argue some of the best superhero games out there today haven't got anything to do with Marvel, DC, or any comic publisher for that matter.
I always felt like Platinum Games' Bayonetta and its sequel could represent a superhero IP. The games' titular protagonist has a health bar and is bound by many of the traditional universal gameplay tropes, but you don't see her dying from something stupid like not being able to swim—like Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 game (idiot)—or falling over from a few feeble punches to the face.
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The stuff Bayonetta pulls off should be standard in superhero video games. The explosive tutorial for Platinum's Wii U sequel has her fighting angelic monstrosities on the back of a fighter jet as it corkscrews and destroys big portions of a city, only to then battle a huge boss from the roof of a runaway train, before she takes to the air to combat a colossal demon on the side of a ruined skyscraper. It's like playing the Chitauri invasion of New York in The Avengers, but in turbo mode.
The Bayonetta games star a near-indestructible hero who pulls off the kind of feats the likes of Thor, Iron Man, and Superman should be able to do in their games, but because they're often bound on a leash made of traditional gameplay mechanics, they're not allowed to be the heroes we've come to know and love over the decades. It's a disservice to their characters and the creative people who have worked tirelessly on their stories.
There is hope, of course, because the triple-A space has become quite adept at dispensing instant gratification in games. Infamous: Second Son enables player to raise utter hell in Seattle from an early point in the story, and before long you're zipping across the city while taking out D.U.P. troops in huge numbers without little issue. Similarly, the mad feats possible in Injustice: Gods Among Us with just a few button taps really nail the over-the-top action from DC's stock with sheer style.
Spectacle like this should come naturally in superhero games, by having the game designed around empowerment, while simple cash cow tie-ins that miss the point just shouldn't be allowed. By being too tied down by the expectations of what games should be, developers of comic games can become blinded to what they could be. With Marvel and DC films lined up from now until at least 2020, there's plenty of time for the gaming industry to push the bar higher, and get it right.
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