Injustice 2 just came out and it looks like NetherRealm Studios really pulled it together. For single player superhero smashing, you can’t do much better. Later this year we’ll see if Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite can top them. Until then, let’s talk a bit about how to make a superhero game that ticks all the right boxes. You’d think it would happen often (what better subject for a game could there be?). We all know that it doesn’t.
1 Make it a Fighting Game
You’d think that the most important thing in a superhero game would be to feel like you’re really playing as that character. This isn’t necessarily true.
A fighting game doesn’t let you explore all the possibilities of being Superman or Iron Man – it nerfs them to balance the roster. Powers with ill-defined boundaries can’t run rampant in a game where everyone has to fit a certain template. This does wonders for the consistency of the game’s design.
So even if Black Adam or Thor could fly around and topple the whole stage on their mortal opponent’s head, they can’t when everyone’s being held to the same standard. If Robin can’t do it, no one can.
The question is no longer the difficult problem of “How can we make a game that lets players be Superman?” but the much more manageable, “What could Superman do under these restrictions?” By depending on the weakest among them for the standard, balanced fighting games are able to make each character’s identity more a matter of style than power. They’re about the appearance of playing as heroes, without all the pesky inconsistencies that come from trying to make it a simulated reality. Even in the lesser efforts, this usually works.
2 Don’t Make it About Superman
For the equal but opposite reason fighting games work, Superman games do not. Normal video game characters can’t fly. Level design in general depends on staying grounded where the designer can keep track of you. Instances of temporary flight – such as the winged cap in Super Mario 64 – are designed carefully and explicitly. Flying usually results in a simulator laser-focused on the restrictions of flight, or a rail shooter that limits your power over the play space to a forward axis.
Otherwise, as soon as you give the player the ability to fly, the game becomes a sandbox. Saints Row IV and Infamous 2 dealt with limited powers of flight in a freeform setting, but because of it the superhero experience became inconsistent compared to the Batman: Arkham games, in which the limitations were stricter and clearer. I’ll get back to that series in a bit.
In proportion to how much access the player has to 3D space, a superhero game threatens to become Superman 64 (or Aquaman on GameCube – lesser known but just as bad). The problems of flight aren’t simply a question of poor design, but the inherent limitations of giving players so much power. Superman, who is essentially the gold standard of entitlement by which every other hero is a decimal, has never made a decent game for this reason.
3 Make it About Batman …
No one has Batman beat in terms of the versatility precisely tailored to the needs of a video game. His powers are so limited that it’s hard to abuse them, but also so vague that the developer can take him essentially however they prefer. Take the Batman: Arkham games for instance. His ability to teleport across courtyards to continue a combo string is absolutely superhuman. But because of the Batman character itself, these liberties are never abused, as they would be in a Superman game.
And about the powers of flight – RockSteady’s real contribution to Batman was nailing his movement cycle. Once they figured out the grapple lock system, prowling around Gotham became as natural as strolling through the mushroom kingdom.
Even mortality is forever on Batman’s side. He has built-in opportunities for stealth and health management and vehicle sections. He can be killed even if his powers make him more than human. The conventional problems of superhero gaming essentially don’t even apply. Spider-Man would have the same advantages except for one thing.
4 … But don’t Base it on a Movie
By inheriting all the problems of licensed games and tie-ins, simultaneous releases timed for the opening of a big movie are almost never worth your time. One exception one that comes to my mind is 2004‘s Spider-Man 2, which was a freewheeling success and the most I’ve ever felt like Spider-Man when playing one of his games. But the story parts, the movie tie-in parts, are just as bad as any simultaneous release. Only the overworld elevated the game above the usual ilk of poorly-conceived missions and half-synced Tobey Maguire narrations.
The best superhero games – Batman: Arkham, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, The X-Men arcade brawlers – aren’t limited in their development cycles by the release of a movie, or in their content by the plot of that movie. The freedom to be a game is important for any video game character. Since superheroes are already so fickle, this becomes especially true. Look to The Amazing Spider-Man games for a terrific model on exactly how to grind up a movie’s content and crank out an embarrassment. At least it was on schedule.
5 Make it Colorful
Bryan Singer started a trend towards setting superhero fights in black leather and metallic industrial walls, like the X-Men were all snarling Goth teens being forced to dress for church. While by no means a sure mark of quality, the colorful splat of content slurred into existence by the Deadpool game definitely leaves a nicer mark than those Catwoman games. The X-Men arcade beat-em-ups definitely had a flare for the fantastic that Marvel Nemesis and any game based on the Fantastic Four just don’t.
But wait, you say. Superman 64 was certainly colorful. It also wasn’t based on a movie. Batman: Dark Tomorrow was absolute cape sweat. All true. These five things together aren’t meant to be criteria for a great superhero game, but I’d like to think that they can be used to mine them out. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was a colorful fighting game. Batman: Arkham was a Batman game that purposely existed outside the canon of the movies. Games with Superman in them have a higher hurdle to jump before they become playable.
These aren’t truths, but suggestions. The main task with these games is to create a graphic world for us to inhabit. But the sad truth is that if I were to pick the very best superhero games, they probably wouldn’t be DC or Marvel. They’d be games like Viewtiful Joe and Astro Boy: Omega Factor (yes, on the GBA: if you have a chance to play it, play it). These are games that are panel-for-panel everything that’s missing for me when a mutant facsimile of a movie actor mumbles their old lines in cut-scenes, or when, even in the best of them, I’m asked not to be a superhero, but to push “Y” and watch the game do it for me.
We’re all looking for a chance to do these amazing things ourselves. In this way, superhero games represent much of what is best and most essential in all games. The fact that there are so few good ones should tell us something about how we’ve treated that chance so far.