Why There Aren’t More Truly Great Superhero Games –
Superheroes and video games should go hand in hand. While movies may struggle to bring the endless imagination of the comics to life, games revel in the kind of explosive action, fantastical abilities and heartfelt plots found in all this source material. Why, then, have so few games actually been able to get it right?
Sure, there have been great superhero games – from Insomniac’s latest Spider-Man to Warner Bros’s Arkham games to even X-Men Origins: Wolverine – but they’ve been few and far between. And considering the movie industry is buzzing with multiple box-office breaking comic-book flicks every year, the lack of amazing superhero experiences on consoles has always been puzzling.
However, the explanation for why can be traced right the way back to the earliest days of the medium. Gaming back then didn’t have the same respect it does today, and that general view led to the big two, Marvel and DC, selling their licences off to publishers who didn’t care enough about quality.
6. The Early Years
In the ’80s and ’90s, publishers like LJN infamously attempted to cash in on any mainstream licence they could get their hands on, resulting in absolutely terrible superhero games like The Uncanny X-Men, Spider-Man and Howard the Duck.
Again, there were gems to be found in between the fluff, with the arcade X-Men and Spider-Man beat-em-ups being particular highlights. For the most part, though, it was a free-for-all, with publishers attempting to get their own licensed games out in the wild so they could sit back and let the money flow in as fans lapped up anything they could get their hands on.
It didn’t help either that the studios who owned the characters viewed games as mere adverts for movies, often made with part of their marketing budget, either to boost ticket or toy sales. Regular game developers usually only have to answer to their publishers, but a third layer of control is added when dealing with characters another company owns. Reflecting on the pressure this added earlier this year with vg247, James Parker, the lead in charge of the ill-fated Catwoman video game tie-in, said:
“All the things that can go wrong with game development are compounded within a movie tie-in. The goalposts are moved as the story or contents of the film change, and having several layers of approval – often from people who neither understand nor care about the game adaptation – means that schedules can be thrown off by no fault of of the developers, and all the time they’re facing down an unchanging release day.”
This mentality continued right into the 2000s, with immovable release dates compounding convoluted development processes where even the smallest changes to a character’s design or line of dialogue had to be approved by producers whose main focus wasn’t on the game itself.
5. The Activision Years
After years of letting anyone have a go, Marvel sold the exclusive rights to their characters in 1998 to Activision, which started nearly two-decades of games made under their tutelage. The ins-and-outs of the deal aren’t public knowledge, but it was most likely in response to Marvel’s impending bankruptcy in the same year. The company sold the rights to their characters to movie studios in the same vein, in an attempt to keep afloat.
Initially, the partnership was a huge success. In 2000, the publisher debuted three AAA Marvel titles: The fighting game X-Men: Mutant Academy, Neversoft’s seminal Spider-Man, and Blade. From here on out, there would be at least three superhero games from the publisher a year, with sequels coming on an annual basis.
The frequency came at the cost of quality, however. The speed of production meant one year could birth great titles like Spider-Man 2 or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, while the next could see disappointments like Fantastic Four and X-Men: The Official Game. Still, the projects themselves were huge commercial successes, and it led Marvel and Activision to renew their deal in 2003, with a new expiry date of 2017.
Unfortunately, as documented in our video focusing on Activision as a whole, the publisher eventually began to push these titles to the wayside. The amount of yearly superhero games was slashed in 2007, which just so happened to be the year Call of Duty 4 changed the entire industry.
Even worse, while Activision reduced its gaming output massively as it began focusing on online services, it kept the same short development cycles for its licensed games, prioritising release dates over quality. Some titles overcame their constraints during this era, such as Deadpool and Shattered Dimensions, but even they lacked the quality and polish of major blockbuster releases.
4. DC’s Rise
It didn’t help, either, that in 2009 WB showed superhero fans just what they’d been missing out on when it released Arkham Asylum into the wild. While it’s difficult to imagine now, it cannot be overstated how much of a surprise Rocksteady’s game was at the time, but it took the publisher a lot of trial and effort to get there.
Not facing the same kind of crisis in the ‘90s as Marvel, WB continued to work with a multitude of different publishers and developers on their superhero tie-ins. That didn’t necessarily make them better though; it was clear that these releases were still afterthoughts, and even the very best – like Batman: Vengeance and Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu – weren’t exactly blockbusters in terms of sales or production values.
In fact, some of the very worst superhero games were born out of WB letting anyone have a crack at their properties, with terrible Superman tie-ins in particular becoming emblematic of the lack of quality associated with the genre. Hell, it’s one of the few times Activision has looked good in comparison.
Perhaps knowing they could do better, just as Activision started to cool on Superhero properties, WB embraced them, publishing their own titles rather than giving total control to other companies. Their first attempts were a bit wobbly, with Watchmen: The End is Nigh and the ambitious-if-flawed Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe both failing to inspire confidence.
But then Arkham Asylum happened…
3. The Arkham-Verse
Born out of a cancelled tie-in to Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Rocksteady were given free reign to do whatever they wanted with the character. It was creative freedom which could have been daunting, a far cry from every little detail having to be okayed by movie execs only interested in advertising a different product. The developers ran with it, though, for the first time having the tools necessary to nail what it’s like to actually be the Batman.
More than just revitalising the superhero genre, Asylum redefined third-person action games as a whole, birthing a combat system which is still ripped off to this day. And it was all drenched in Batman lore and steeped in the mythos of the character, rewarding anyone with even a passing interest in the caped crusader.
While many expected Asylum to kick off a superhero boom, though, it never actually came to pass. Activision simply weren’t interested in putting in the same amount of effort, and Disney slowly pulled themselves out of the video game world entirely.
Even WB, who found continued success with Arkham and later Injustice, have struggled to get other projects off the ground. A Suicide Squad game from WB was infamously cancelled, and even Rocksteady’s next creation – presumably a Superman title – has been shrouded in mystery for years now.
2. Outside The Mainstream (And Activision’s End)
Focusing purely on live services, during these boom years for DC, Activision were more than happy to let their own superhero games flounder, releasing the occasional phoned-in Spider-Man alongside Sony’s new movies for a quick buck. The company’s relationship with Marvel came to an end in 2014 with the turd in the wind that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Digital licenses for past games weren’t renewed either – meaning you can no longer officially buy any of their superhero titles outside of second-hand stores – proving once and for all how the publisher viewed these games as disposable products.
There were, of course, successful enterprises outside of Activision and WB, but they were mostly niche products. TellTale has released a bevy of great licensed, narrative-driven experiences, including ones based on superheroes like Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman. On the other hand, Lego has produced plenty of Marvel and DC projects aimed at a younger market. Fighting games have similarly always performed well, but superheroes usually only appeared in crossovers like Marvel vs. Capcom and the aforementioned Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
While scratching an itch, none of these were quite the blockbuster experiences fans were looking for. For those, players had to look elsewhere, to original creations like Sony’s Infamous, to get their superhero fix.
Of course, no matter how good these games were, they came with the pervasive feeling that already-established heroes deserved to be treated with the same care.
1. Marvel’s Spider-Man And Beyond
While both Marvel and DC characters have been plagued by decades of mismanagement and tied up in licensing deals that held them hostage, the future is bright. After parting ways with Activision, Marvel are now following WB and entering partnerships with developers and publishers who can do their properties justice. We’ve already seen the fruits of their renewed interest with this year’s Spider-Man, a PS4 exclusive that’s done for the Web Head what Arkham did for The Dark Knight.
They’ve also enlisted Square Enix to produce AAA games based on the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. How this new ethos pans out in full is yet to be seen, but based on their enthusiasm and the one title we do have, it looks promising. Rocksteady are also back hiring for their upcoming next-gen project, which is rumoured to expand the DC gaming universe beyond Batman.
The way the parent companies of these characters view the gaming world has radically changed since the start of the decade, and if these upcoming blockbusters can exist alongside the already-great Lego and TellTale experiences, then we might just be entering a golden age for superhero games.