Comic books and video games may be two different mediums, but they have seen several cross-overs for decades now. Comic books have been adapted into games, while games have received comic book prequels and spin-off stories. They seem to complement each other rather well and has always been one of the main attractions for both mediums. However, thanks to technology becoming way more advanced, we’ve seen creative ideas flourish for the potential of superheroes in gaming. Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series and Insomniac’s Spider-Man series all come to mind now when we think of defining superhero video games. However, are we now at a stage where we can call it the golden age of the genre?
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Rewinding the clocks back to 1986, gaming got its first glimpse of a real superhero video game in Ocean Software’s Batman. Since then, companies have leapt at the opportunity to grab their own superhero IPs and rights, leading to a surge of superhero games rolling out from the mid-80s onwards. Of course, Capcom seemed to find the most success when they eventually released their acclaimed fighter Marvel vs. Capcom, while gaming studios were acquiring development and publishing duties for video games based on big blockbuster superhero movies at the time. Activision grabbed Spider-Man, while rights were shared among many developers for Marvel and DC’s finest. It was a splendid time to be a fan of both, though they never quite reached their full potential.
Despite the odd movie-to-video game adaptation standing out like Spider-Man 2 or X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a large majority of superhero games were simply written off as quickly produced and under-developed. They never had the lasting impact of other popular gaming franchises, and simply existed as an obligation for marketing to fill a quota. Superhero games were rushed in development to coincide with the releases of their movie counterparts, leading to half-baked products that only really catered to die-hard fans.
Then things changed when in 2008, Rocksteady released Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first true sign of the great potential in superhero video games. Praised for its comic book accuracy, animation, stellar game design, and wonderful gameplay, Arkham Asylum cemented itself as an enigma among a genre of video games that were never taken seriously. Now, people were paying attention. Rocksteady wasn’t the first to break this curse, but they were the first to push studios into taking superhero video games seriously, I believe. Unfortunately, it was still a slow and steady climb to greatness. We’d have to wait years before developers really honed in on superhero video games, and it wasn’t until 2008 that this shift happened in another medium entirely.
The world was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or at least the roots of it) with the release of 2008’s movie, Iron Man. Marvel Studios promised a crossover of multiple superheroes in film that was only dreamt of at the time. Fast forward to 2012 and Marvel Studios fulfilled their promise of achieving a crossover event on a large scale with The Avengers. Not only did the films rake in millions of dollars, but they also pioneered a new age of superhero films in cinema – and it wouldn’t be long before the video game industry caught onto its popularity.
Spider-Man’s introduction to the MCU was still premature during this phase, but Insomniac Games were quick to strike a deal with Sony on an ambitious video game project that would firmly place the web-slinger in his own gaming universe as opposed to being based on a film, much like Rocksteady’s Batman games which were at the height of their popularity in the mid-2010s. This lead to the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018, which shattered expectations and redefined what superhero video games could be. The groundwork may have already been laid by Rocksteady, but Insomniac were shifting conversations quickly.
Given the colossal popularity of superhero films, it would only make sense that video games would adopt a similar reception since the target demographics are mostly shared, right? As it turns out, the reception wasn’t so kind to Square Enix’s 2019 video game Marvel’s Avengers which attempted to establish their own video game universe and new character designs like Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac seemed to strike gold since Spider-Man has seen so many changes to its lead actors in the films, that a new video game face was welcomed. In the case of Avengers, the same film cast remained – the same cast that pop culture subconsciously attached to the superheroes. So seeing new faces was a jarring reveal, but it wasn’t the only problem that Marvel’s Avengers faced.
Rocksteady’s Batman and Insomniac’s Spider-Man saw plenty of success as single-player games, but Marvel’s Avengers attempted to infuse a live-service model into the game, partially fueled by live-service really taking off in gaming. This hindered the game’s potential greatly. While it did feature a decent campaign, much of the game’s ongoing enjoyment solely rested on that dreaded live-service model to keep players engaged after the credits rolled. Unlike superhero movies which had an ending and a post-credits stinger, Marvel’s Avengers forcefully prolonged its stay which lead to its divisive reception.
Developers may be wising up to the fact that superhero video games find a lot more success as single-player story-driven games now, judging by Eidos Montreal’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy (and we assume numerous other unannounced superhero projects currently in development). On top of that, Rocksteady is returning with a wider cast of characters in Suicide Squad Kill the Justice League, while Warner Bros. continues to push the Batman games into the spotlight with Gotham Knights. Insomniac released the acclaimed standalone expansion to Marvel’s Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and have already announced Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Wolverine. All of the games mentioned above are sure to be massive hits when they launch unless they step into the same pitfalls of Marvel’s Avengers – which seems unlikely since developers are now learning exactly what players want out of these games.
Thanks to the impressive power of the last generation of consoles and the current generation, I think we’re on the verge of the golden age of superhero video games. Developers are paying attention to their success and are now treating them with the same amount of care and attention as other AAA games as opposed to additional cash magnets to complement the movies. PlayStation seems to understand this as they’re investing heavily in Insomniac Games, while Warner Bros. still nurtures their own properties. As massively popular as the MCU is, though, video games are still only a fraction of that popularity and it will take further nurturing to really bring them to glory in an interactive virtual realm.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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