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Replay: The Superhero Experience
by Joey Núñez

It was a hard choice to choose to write about my superhero experience in the videogame medium, simply because I hold both superheroes and videogames in such high regard. Whilst that might seem somewhat contradictory, however, the fact of the matter is that the presence of my favorite superheroes in videogames has been nothing short of a tragedy.

Truly, ever since the days of the NES, the big Comic book publishers (Marvel and DC in my book) have been selling off their most famous characters to the highest bidder, resulting in barely playable and often downright ugly wastes of time that could hardly be called videogames. I don’t think any of you want to remember the monstrosity that was Superman 64: not if you want to keep your lunch going in the right direction, at least.

So, what's the problem? I mean, this should be a no brainer, right? Superheroes and their incredible adventures aim to provide a bit of escapism to everyday Joe’s like you and me, and last time I checked, videogames have been riding the escapism bandwagon since the days Mario was hurling crates at Donkey Kong. Need an idea for an adventure game which is both entertaining and compelling? How about a story about a regular guy who is granted incredible powers, and is suddenly expected to become a saviour. Need impressive combat mechanics? Well, let’s see your title character fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. Lasers literally erupt from his eyes. In the words of the great Stan Lee: ‘Nuff said.

Sadly, there have been few game developers who have been truly capable of capitalising on the gold mine that are superheroes and churn out compelling gaming experiences. And here’s why: when you look up superhero in the dictionary the definition that what will pop up, more or less, is: “hero, possessing extraordinary, often magical, powers”. There are three key words in this definition: hero, extraordinary, and magical.

When I grab my controller and start up a superhero game, I expect to play as a hero. I expect to feel like a hero. It is not enough to tell me I am Spiderman during the tutorial and stick me in a Spidey costume. If you are trying to convince me that I am a hero then I need some heroic deeds to accomplish. I need to be pitted against insurmountable odds, and against those odds I need to be able to succeed; all while shooting out one-liners and looking oh-so-awesome.

How will I succeed? Remember those last two key words? Extraordinary and magical. A superhero is an extraordinary and/or magical individual. Hear that, big time game developer? Magical! I’m talking the Greek pantheon of gods dressed in brightly colored tights. Anything less will not suffice. That, accompanied by some angst and minor drama, is what being a modern day comic book superhero is all about. Game developers of the world: please take note.

Now, it has not all been bad news in the superhero world of videogames. It would be unfair of me not to point out those few rare gems that have truly left a mark on the gaming landscape, by showing us comic geeks that there is hope of living out our childhood Saturday morning fantasies. So instead of being completely negative, I decided to focus on those games, and see if I could convince myself that there really is a light at the end of this tunnel.

The first games I absolutely must point out are the Spiderman games which Activision has been pouring out for the last decade. That’s right kiddies; the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman made his first appearance on the good ole’ original PlayStation back in the year 2000, and my world has not been the same since. It was the first superhero game I ever played which was set in a 3D environment. For the first time ever, Spiderman could actually swing in any direction. I was blown away. Not since the days of Maximum Carnage had I been so enthralled in a superhero game. The freedom granted by the 'raw power' of the PSone, paired with a story that could have been ripped straight from the comics and featuring iconic villains from Spidey’s rogues gallery (Doc Ock, Carnage, Venom, Mysterio, The Lizard), and narration from the Stan “The Man” Lee made this the definitive Spiderman game.

Activision would continue to produce Spiderman games, and their next milestone would be reached with Spiderman 2, on the Playstation 2. Based on the movie of the same name, this game somehow managed to beat the double whammy of bad mojo heading its way, given that it was both a comic book and a movie licensed game. More than that, the bad mojo was not only beaten, but crushed. Largely, this was due to the fact that Activision had faithfully recreated Spiderman’s favorite playground, the New York Skyline. For the first time ever in a Spidey game you were granted a free roaming environment based on the city of New York and the ability to swing through it to your heart's content. Years later, having a Spiderman game without a free roaming New York is tantamount to having a doughnut without cream filling, but back in the day, enjoying the freedom to swing around New York was not only unheard of, but simply exhilarating for any Spiderman fan. Activision has since dropped the ball with the Spiderman Franchise, and its most recent effort - Spiderman: Web of Shadows - was met with mostly lukewarm reviews. Hopefully the recently announced 'Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions' will bring the franchise back to its former glory.

Another honourable mention all the way back from my PlayStation 2 days is the often forgotten Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. I remember pulling this game out of a bargain bin in some random mall hoping that I would get a few laughs out of Hulk’s lovable one-liners (“Hulk Smash!”) and his indestructible purple pants. Boy, was I surprised. The game didn’t have much of a story to it, and I can remember that the visuals weren’t groundbreaking to say the least, but if you had ever once wondered what it was like to be a green goliath rampaging through a city, then this game was here to answer all of your questions. Ultimate Destruction had you picking up police cars and using them as boxing gloves as you ran up the side of a building and launched yourself towards an incoming helicopter, and once all the mayhem was done on that building you just ran on, it would crumble down around you. You were the Hulk, and “Hulk Smashed” till the cows came home. Ultimate Destruction captured what being the Hulk was all about, in all of his glory and infamy. And darn, was it fun.

I would be remiss if I did not carve out a special place in this article for Batman: Arkham Asylum. Just like The Dark Knight showed us all how a Superhero movie should be made, Arkham Asylum took us all back to school and reminded us of what the superhero videogame experience was all about.

The good folks at Rocksteady aimed to do what, for years, no one had been able to accomplish: make the definitive Batman game. Luckily for us, their goal was accomplished. In Arkham Asylum, Batman fans found the game they had been craving for years, and the key to its success was precisely the experience with which it provided gamers. See, Batman is a very complex character. Unlike other superheroes he has no superpowers to speak of - rather, he relies on his amazing skill set as an accomplished martial artist and expert detective, not to mention his wide array of high tech gadgets. A couple of games in the past have managed to tap into one or another of Batman’s skills, but none had really tapped into the full potential of the Batman character, until Arkham Asylum came along.

The Freeflow Combat System in Arkham Ayslum made you feel like you could kick Bruce Lee into next Wednesday, but the game didn’t stop there. In Invisible Predator sections, you had to leave the Freeflow combat aside and rely solely on your gadgets and stealth tactics to overcome your enemies. The game made sure to throw plenty of riddles your way which required you to use your wits and your gadgets to discover the solution, reminding you just why Batman is considered the world’s greatest detective. The story, which was written specifically for the game, used some of the best enemies Batman has got, headed up by the one and only Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker, and was all set in one of the most iconic locations in the Batman universe. In Arkham Asylum, you are the Dark Knight, and you are kickass.

There are a couple of other games which I’d like to talk about, like Infamous (which proved that a game based on an original superhero and concept can be so much better than a licensed game, when done right), or the X-Men Legends and the Ultimate Alliance games (which managed to handle a cast of over a dozen comic book characters and somehow avoided being utter garbage). But, alas, these articles can’t go on forever. However, if nothing else, this little rant on the superhero videogame experience gives us all proof that, regardless of all the mishaps we comic geeks have had to put up with over the years, there is hope yet. There is an Arkham Asylum sequel coming, after all.

Later, gamers.

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- Joey Núñez

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