Fighting games as a genre go hand in hand with super hero comic books. As much as any fans of super hero books say they read for things like story, characters, plot, art, etc, they can’t lie and say they don’t also love a good old-fashioned throw down complete with epic splash pages, larger than life sound effect words (KKRRAAKKAKOOOM!!!!) and crazy super powers. It’s for these reasons that there’s so many comic book themed fighters on the market because at the end of the day, the idea of pitting hero against villain, hero against hero and villain versus villain either one-on-one or in a tag-team environment will never not be fun. A lot of the leg work is already done for game makers as well, for they already have an enormous pool of fighters in which to draw from, each with either super powers or gadgets that translate into super moves. Off the top of my head, you’ll have to trust me on this as you have no idea really how long it took to make this list, here’s just some of the comic book fighters I can think of:
- TMNT: Tournament Fighters
- Justice League: Task Force
- VS. Series (X-Men: Children of the Atom; Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter; Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter; Marvel Vs. Capcom 1, 2, 3)
- X-Men: Mutant Academy 1, 2
- X-Men: Next Dimension
- Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects
- Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe
- Avengers: Battle for Earth
- Marvel: Contest of Champions
- Injustice: Gods Among US
- Avengers: Operation Galactus Storm
Kinda shocking that there hasn’t been either a dedicated Batman or Spider-Man fighter, isn’t it?
After the discovery of the long-lost Justice League fighting game, it got thinking on something I’ve bad rolling around in my head for quite some time: Are fighting games the laziest form of comic book games?
Before you start casting stones saying “how dare you!!!” let me make my point, because like you, I’ve spent dozens of hours playing the “VS. Series” over the years, worked by a sweat playing Avengers: Battle for Earth on Xbox 360 and clocked in a lot of time unlocking alternate costumes and bonuses in X-Men: Mutant Academy. The reason I say fighting games make lazy super hero games is because when companies need to make a quick buck, most times around a movie, they whip together a fighting game.
After years of being out of the video game spotlight, the first X-Men game that came to market in the year 2000, right along side the feature film, was the first X-Men: Mutant Academy, whose roster just happened to be filled with mostly characters from the first feature film. The same thing happened in 2012 with The Avengers, something that came up by accident but still rushed to market to capitalize on the billion dollar grossing film. THQ was to have an Avengers game to market to launch alongside the film but financial issues stopped the game from coming out. In its place? Ubisoft’s Avengers: Battle for Earth, a game that was announced and released in 2012 and made it to stores shortly after The Avengers arrived on home video in the fall of that year. Had the cancelled Justice League movie released, we’d have yet another DC fighting game to talk about here.
It’s not all movie tie-in games that suffer from this though, pointing to EA’s half-hearted attempt to use Marvel’s stable of characters to launch their own with the mostly forgotten Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects as evidence. More recently I would look towards something like the mobile brawler Marvel: Contest of Champions, a seemingly quickly turned around, bare bones mechanically speaking brawler that hopes to capitalize on our desire to engage in super powered fisticuffs with our favourite Marvel characters, regardless of how good the game is.
Why I think a lot of comic book fighters don’t work is due to their lack of story mixed in with the fighting. Characters from either the DC or Marvel camp have sustained their popularity over the decades not because of super powered beat downs alone, and again, don’t get me wrong, those are awesome, but because of the story that caused the conflict to begin with. We’re invested in the fight between Batman and Bane because of the events that have led up to it, not just because Batman is going to throw down with a Venom enhanced muscle-bound monster. Do you think that the Green Goblin would be as remembered a villain today if you subtract the years of relationship building between him and his arch-nemesis?
The case can be made that story also sometimes doesn’t matter in a super hero fighting game, and once again I look to the “VS. Series”. Those games have little to no story other than a tiny ending vignette that features a few still pictures and lines of dialogue, yet those games have gone through multiple chapters and are still played competitively today. The reason you can attribute to those titles success is because of their sound mechanics, built upon the already sound foundation of the Street Fighter series with some added over-the-top super moves and aerial bouts that are well suited to the inclusion of Marvel’s camp of characters.
Who I strongly feel strikes the near perfect balance between story and combat is Netherrealm Studios, and it’s something I also contribute to the longevity of their Mortal Kombat series of games. Growing up in the 90’s when the fighting game scene really exploded, you either fell in one of two camps: Mortal Kombat, or Street Fighter. Though I’ve flip-flopped between which one I’ve liked more over the years, appreciating the mechanics of Street Fighter as I matured into my teens and twenties over the stiff dial-a-combo gameplay of Mortal Kombat, admitting now that I’ve since rekindled my love of MK after the 2011 game, I initially much preferred MK over SF. The reason? Story.
Okay, now Mortal Kombat isn’t Shakespeare by any stretch of the imagination, however I liked its roster of multi-coloured ninjas, thunder gods, thieves, special forces and shaolin monks over what Capcom had to offer because of the relationships between the “Kombatants”: Scorpion was out to avenge his death from the hands of Sub-Zero, Sonya Blade sought to bring the criminal Kano to justice while Liu Kang, the noble hero character, fought in the name of his deceased ancestor, Kung Lao, who lost his life to the tournament centuries ago. These characters continued to develop over subsequent sequels along with the addition of new characters being thrown into the mix, each with their own rivalries and agendas. Not only was I always curious to find out how things would evolve from chapter to chapter gameplay wise, but from a story standpoint as well. It was because of this that the first N64 game I picked up was the terrible Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero all the way back in 1997.
Netherrealm have honed their ability in balancing story with excellent fighting mechanics in this decade with the Mortal Kombat reboot from a few years back and more recently with the excellent Injustice: Gods Among Us. Both combined traditional fighting game tournament structure with a story campaign that not only forced you to try characters you may not have before, but also incentivized you to play further because you wanted to know what was going to happen. The Injustice universe has even gone on to spawn its own digital comic series that has won countless awards and has been ongoing well after the games initial release of approaching two years now that has fleshed out the back-story of the universe in some terrific ways. You hear through the game about how Superman went from being a shining beacon of hope into an oppressive overlord, but it’s not until you pick up the first issue of the comic that you truly get the whole heart-breaking details.
When done for the wrong reasons, comic book fighting games can be of the most derivative and pointless games you’ll ever play. Much like traditional fighting games though, if close enough attention is paid to either excellent play mechanics, a gripping story, or in the best case scenario, both, they can conversely be truly memorable and played for years after release. Going forward developers/publishers should keep in mind that while making a game where Captain America and Thanos square off head-to-head cool, thinking up a compelling reason as to why they’re fighting is equally as important.