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Has there ever been a truly great superhero game?

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From a genre brimming with wannabes, could you name a video game we wouldn’t want to live without?

The impending release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has made me wonder why there’s always so much hype over comic-based releases based, especially given the underwhelming track record of superhero games in the past. So before getting too excited about it, I want to consider if there has ever been any proper, legendary games released about a super-person.

‘Superhero’ is a tricky term to define, especially if we choose to ignore DC and Marvel’s cynical joint-trademarking of the word. Is Viewtiful Joe a superhero? Is Mario, a shape-shifting princess rescuer, not? Is Batman, with his belts and bombs, really one? Well, I have concluded that, hell, it doesn’t really matter. Superheroes are whoever we choose to call one. It’s an a priori concept. When you see one, you know one. Spider-Man, Green Lantern: yes. Sonic, the Care Bears: not so much.

The infamous ‘Superman curse‘ has meant that developers are now reluctant to release a title with the striking yellow ‘S’ on its cover art. The opposite is the case for the Spider-Man games, which have always had a knack for garnering acclaim – and yet, none of them have been truly amazing. Yes, it’s easy to remember the good’uns released in this genre, but it’s more difficult to sift through the memory banks to find an example of an iconic title, a genuinely great video game. Indeed, has anyone come close?

viewtful joe - wikimedia

The superhero genre is packed full of ‘almost-there’ men – ones that have got close but then just missed the mark of excellence. One such game is Viewtiful Joe, which is acknowledged as one of the best action games on PS2. Acclaimed for originality and elegant cel-shading, Joe was the flavour of the month, for months. Hipsters loved Joe. It was retro, comic book pretty and had the ‘hold on to the child inside you’ optimism of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It’s always a good sign when a game makes you happy. Some of the greatest games of all time share this joy-inducement as a key feature. And Pokemon RBY, Super Mario Bros. and Ocarina of Time are a swanky bunch of friends with which to share that category. But what he made up for in style and ADHD-fuelled charm, Joe lacked in addictiveness and longevity. Once the pad left your hand, it never came back up. And, as it has with countless games before, that tells us all we need to know about the greatness of Joe.

Always memorable, but a little rough around the edges, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction was a masterclass in how to make a technically imperfect game superb fun. The silky, flowing movement mechanics were the pre-cursor to the now hugely popular trend of parkour-style open-world gameplay, seen in games like Prototype. And in the same vein as we’ve come to expect in that genre, the level scaling was near-perfect. With progress, the PC ended up able to smash whole blocks, skyscrapers and all. It would have a place on the podium alongside history’s other great games, but it came a little too early, if you’ll pardon the expression. The GameCube wasn’t ready for a title with such post-modern gameplay, and by the time its derivatives like Spider-Man 2 and Infamous came about, they had very little new to show us.

And on that Spidey note, it seems only fair to give the third and final ‘so close’ honour to a game that was so interestingly designed, it steals a place in our collection on the grounds of artistry alone. Ultimate Spider-Man was not the most re-playable or even fun game in Spiderman’s deep arsenal. But for basically inventing a new mode of cel-shading, the designers rightfully earn their place in the annals. The plot was commendable and was one just a few big name superhero titles to tie in canonically with a concurrent comic strip. Most of all though, it was a new kind of pretty. There seems little doubt that from this game’s release onward, more and more developers will push to make their superhero games look just like the comics on which they are based. High praise, of course. But praise doesn’t necessarily equal greatness.

spiderman

So, really… Can we even name one great superhero game?

There are a few things necessary to make a game fittingly heroic in this genre. If you played it, you haven’t forgotten it. When you played it, it felt new, modern and you had a lot of fun. And finally, when playing it you feel as though you are inside the head of the titular hero, in a way that went beyond what any super-game had achieved before. Batman: Arkham Asylum showed hundreds of competitors how it’s done. This game was like Mike Tyson. It didn’t make a fuss or pull any fancy tricks. No footwork, no smokescreens. It simply got up in your grill, kicked ass and everyone who watched said: “Fair enough. It’s just very, very good.”

It warms the cockles that they managed to fit every Batman villain from Gotham to Timbuktu into a semi-linear adventure without it seeming the least bit forced. Pair this with the fact that the main boss was essentially a Joker-Bane hybrid and it’s difficult to deny that they also created their own iconic antagonist. He’s a new degree of unhinged, this version of Joker. Shaky, craving drugs and less predictable than ever, he’s an utter psychopath. And he’s about nine feet tall, so ends up doing his own dirty work for once. Raise your hand if you’re getting sick of psycho-geniuses pulling the strings from behind bars. In Arkham Asylum, Batman and his cackling nemesis both had to get the elbow grease out.

Still, what players really couldn’t get enough of – and a big part of what made this game great – was that swooping puzzle. Mini-games aren’t technically mini-games nowadays, but let’s face it – it was a mini-game. Gliding from vantage point to hiding place and picking off goons as a trickle runs down their trouser leg is thrilling. True role-play is what they achieved here and it was supremely immersive. “I’m Batman”, we croaked at the screen as the stragglers cried for help. Then back into the darkness.

Not only has there never been a more entertaining superhero game, there’s never been one so impressive. It still looks good half a decade on. It will always excite. It has a place in our hearts.

 

Featured image: Warner Bros. Interactive, images: Wikimedia, Marvel Entertainment,

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