You know, a few things in the gaming world should be no-brainers. Like most video games, comic books are about the conflict between positive and negative forces. Any comic worth making a game about has a wealth of characters and story to use as inspiration to fit the traditional video game roles. The translation from the printed page to the computer or TV screen sounds ought to be easy as cake, right? Apparently not. Comic-based video games can go horribly wrong in three different ways: bad gameplay, poor adaptation of the characters or the unholy combination of the two.
Other than to make money from fans, one of the main points of a superhero game is to play as your favorite characters. So why did so many of these games turn the main characters into weaklings? Developers are probably so used to ramping up the challenge of a game through the use of a weak life bar that they forget to make the superheroes super. You can boo me all you want for this, but Venom takes way too much damage from chubby businessmen armed with umbrellas and girls in biker shorts. I know NYC was going buck wild during that storyline, but that's a bit much, isn't it? One of Marvel's most overrated beloved anti-heroes can be killed by a woman's long hair? Oh, the shame of it all!
The Silver Surfer is usually powerful enough to fly through outer space without dying, win one-on-one fights against starships (or fleets of them if he's had a good breakfast) and survive almost anything short of being knuckle-slapped with the Infinity Gauntlet. The NES version of the Silver Surfer is a whole different story. Despite the game's high quality (and incredible music), he can be killed by touching anything on the ground including ducks. I'm going to repeat this again because such an idea just can't register the first time that you read it. The Silver Surfer can be killed by touching an ordinary duck. Most of the people who like the Silver Surfer enough to buy the game will probably be a bit confused as to why he's that weak. Unfortunately, he's not as famous as Superman, a character so well known that no sensible game company would horribly weaken in order to make the game har- -
Well, crap. See that screenshot over there? That's Superman getting shot in his own NES game. See, that's not right. Superman is famously bulletproof, not that it ever stops cheap hoods in te DC universe from trying to pop a cap in him. Superman being damaged by normal gunfire is like Aquaman instantly dying upon contact with water. It doesn't stop there, because the Man of Steel also gets hurt by colliding with human gangsters. Look, most people aren't immediately hurt when bumping into other normal humans, so it looks even more ridiculous when Superman takes damage from rubbing elbows with people he'd normally be able to backhand into orbit (not that he would). Then again, this is probably some alternate reality Superman (Earth-Kemco?) who traded in his invulnerability and gained the power to hold conversations with the Statue of Liberty.
Ah, my first comic book game disappointment. I have a review here, but here's a quick rundown on it. It was a top-down (bird's eye view) game where Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm (who appears to be pantsless), Iceman, a barefoot Colossus and a Nightcrawler (with Kitty Pride's power to walk through walls instead of his own teleport skills) fought a bunch of tiny, barely animated, nearly shapeless monsters, robots and "stuff" until they reached a cheap boss supposedly based on a random X-Men villain. I say "supposedly based" because they barely resembled or fought like who they were supposed to be. Villains who had no projectile attacks were just shooting "stuff" out of themselves. Although you were given a partner with computer AI, it usually just walked into every trap and enemy it possibly could while taking all the power-ups before it's eventual death. Switching betweent the two characters became a chore because the AI would almost always undo whatever progress you'd just made. That shot of Colossus is where he ran to and died because he was too stupid avoid the closing doors all 10 times that they crushed him.
An unstoppable force of wrong, “Spider-Man and the X-Men” managed to make itself available for every console and handheld system out at the time. I have a review of it here, but there's one thing that still irks me about this game. Three of the five hero-specific game engines are based on video game cliche's that NOBODY likes. Storm's levels have her swimming with limited oxygen like Sonic and the 1st Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES. Almost every conversation about that TMNT game includes the phrase “but that underwater part with the bombs just drove me crazy!” As much as one swimming level like that inspires anger, this game has TWO such stages in it with Storm shooting electric bolts underwater. Gambit's levels auto-scroll forward as he must jump from platform to platform (and conveyor belts) to keep from falling into bottomless pits or spiked pits while other things are attacking him and he's being chased by a giant, spiked ball. In a way, I'm impressed that the designers were able to cram so many univerally hated concepts just into that one level engine. But Cyclops didn't just the shaft... he got the mine shaft. Only a crappy pun like that can describe how wrong it is that an X-Men character was put into a mine cart level. I want you to think about that. Cyclops is in a f***ing mine cart stage. Normally, something like this would crack me up. But this one just comes off as bad because it's really trying to be a serious level filled with robots of Genoshian guards. It is full of cheap and full of fail. The sad thing is that this game gets a pass from a lot of comic fans just because of who stars in it. Then again, you can say the same about a lot of things with Spider-Man and the X-Men in it. Yeah, I went there.
Adding insult to injury, Japanese companies like Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft produced games based on these licenses that weren't just faithful to the source material... they were great. Think about the best comic book games from the old days and nearly all of them were from Japan. Batman for the NES and Genesis? Japan. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Japan. Captain America and the Avengers? Data East = Japan. All those fun Marvel fighting games? Capcom = Japan. Sure, you'd have an odd hiccup here and there (That Superman NES game is from Japan, too), but they kinda put most American console games to shame back in the day. Need an example? On the left is a picture of the continue screen from Capcom's "the Punisher" with Nick Fury being nursed by two agents of SHIELD. What you probably didn't know is that they're based on two actual comic characters: Alexander Pierce and Kate Neville. That's so obscure that even I had to look the guy's name up when I wrote this. Not to say that we didn't get good U.S. games for the home computer, because there were quite a few. Maybe the U.S. programmers had less time to fine tune their games or were underfunded. That's quite possible. But it's just weird when people who didn't grow up on the stuff were better at adapting it than people living in the country where the characters are icons.
I know what some of you are thinking. “Aw, poor comic nerds. They want everything to be all perfect and stuff and they cry whenever someone gets unimportant stuff wrong LOL” Oh, cut the s#$%. Most of the people that'd say that about comic fans are the same ones that'd go apespit if EA mistakenly used the wrong shoelace color on a sports star's footwear, the Dodge Viper SRT-10 handled like the Viper GTS in a racing game or a WWII game was made where the German soldiers were using the wrong type of stick grenades. You'd be on some message board crying things like, “OMG, why did does Morpheus look like Master P in the new Matrix game?” or “At what point in the series 24 did Jack Bauer gain the ability to fire lasers from his entire face?” In other words, you'd probably whine, cry and moan about it on the internet. Just like us.
We've come a long way since those days of phasing Nightcrawlers and bullet-riddled Supermen. Rushing out a low-quality game to sucker punch a gullible trusting fan base just won't cut it anymore. Now they actually hire people from the comics industry to help with the game or put in obscure bits of comic back story for extra seasoning. Fan-favorite writers like Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Jenkins, Peter David and Marv Wolfman have been hired to write relatively recent comic book games. Companies are now putting some serious work into that stuff now and we're getting classics like Rocksteady's Arkham games. But even more important than that, they're making good games that stand as good games on their own merit. Hopefully, that could bring more comic fans into gaming and more gamers into comic books.