The State of Marvel's Video Games: Is Their Potential Being Squandered?
Despite whatever video game I may be playing at the moment, there’s a few (off the top of my head) that I always find myself returning to for one reason or another: Final Fantasy XI, Mirror’s Edge, Super Mario Bros. 3, XCOM: Enemy Within, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. In the case of that last one, you can imagine my excitement over the recent announcement that Marvel Ultimate Alliance and its sequel would be returning to consoles in a matter of days (not as proper remasters, but with improvements, nevertheless).
What did I feel from then until I decided to write this? Joy, followed by nervousness, then anger, then profound and utter disappointment. I only have one question as a result of this: does Marvel have a plan for its characters in gaming?
When MUA first hit shelves, I was intrigued by its wealth of characters and its gameplay, so I reneged on waiting until I could afford a PlayStation 3 and the more advanced version of the title, and instead bought it immediately for the PlayStation 2. It was not just one of the last games I played for the PS2, but it was one of the last games in my lifetime that I can remember playing straight into the ground. First I played it on PS2, then — when I acquired the game for my new Xbox 360 — I got all the trophies I could and bought all of the DLC that I could possibly get my hands on. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 never struck a chord with me like its predecessor did, but I was always keen on eventually returning to the sequel due to positive word-of-mouth reviews I have heard over the years. With both games having been re-released, now was my chance.
If you haven’t heard by now, MUA’s return to consoles has been nothing short of an embarrassment, punctuated by what some might describe as pure indignation towards fans that have eagerly awaited some sort of follow-up. As one of my close friends put it, “this should have been a layup.” I could not have agreed more: a remastered Marvel game with a roster populated by characters that have experienced a surge in their broad appeal over the past few years, along with addictive gameplay, fun cutscenes, and even a selection of different uniforms for each character. Add in cooperative gameplay, and this was indeed very much a layup.
Instead, the bundle’s release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this past week came with the revelation that the first game contains none of the downloadable content, while the PC version has reportedly suffered from issues impacting controller and audio performance – both of which are being corrected, according to Marvel Games creative director Bill Rosemann. Considering all of this, and the fact that the releases are upscaled versions with other (minor) improvements in lieu of a major remaster, the inaugural price points are completely absurd: $40 for each game individually, and $60 for the bundle.
I do not think Marvel or Disney hate their fans, but the possibility that they simply do not care (for whatever reason which may make sense) about building a robust library of games (old and new) based on their characters has become seemingly more and more possible over the past few years.
Few Marvel games have made waves within the gaming community in recent years. X-Men: Destiny was a critical bomb, and Deadpool was positively received by critics and fans, but failed to really make a mark in the genre (in fact, at the time of writing this I nearly forgot to mention that this game received a remaster for PS4 and Xbox One). The title instead faded away.
Spider-Man tie-ins haven’t fared much better: 2010’s Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is the most recent game that people speak highly of. There is a healthy amount of enthusiasm from the community towards Insomniac’s upcoming Spider-Man game, one of only two Marvel titles that we know of currently in development for consoles (the other being an episodic title from Telltale Games in 2017).
Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is not the only franchise to be mishandled in a re-release – some have not seen the light of day at all. 2000’s Spider-Man, considered amongst my peers to be both one of the best superhero games produced as well as being criminally underrated in the time since its release, has never been re-released on the PlayStation Store (to my knowledge). Games like X-Men: The Arcade Game, Deadpool, Marvel vs. Capcom: Origins, and the downloadable content for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and its sequel, along with other games have all unceremoniously disappeared from their respective digital stores (usually due to licensing).
Normally I am interested in giving the benefit of the doubt to publishers and developers due to the harshness of the gaming climate these days, but when Disney treats their recently-acquired Star Wars license so much better than they do their Marvel license in the gaming realm, it is very hard to not rule out carelessness or lack of imagination as the reason for the strength of the license floundering the way it has been.
While already popular before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film helped to generate interest and hype for entries of the series in other mediums on a much larger scale than before: the same way Marvel exploded back into the mainstream with the Cinematic Universe they have built since 2008. Unlike with Marvel, the Star Wars license was met with enthusiasm for the intriguing gaming possibilities.
What followed between the announcement of Disney’s acquisition and the release of the film was a deliberately broad campaign to capitalize with yearly films, new lines of toys and comics, and a plan to develop Star Wars video games for both mobile and home devices.
Electronic Arts confirmed a 10-year plan to produce and support Star Wars titles when they entered in to a deal with Disney three years ago. The movie could effectively grow a universe of sorts for Star Wars within gaming, comparable to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Due to the long development cycles of games as opposed to films, the deal has yet to bear any real fruit. The enthusiasm for producing games on a broad range that is lacking with Marvel, is very much the case with Star Wars.
Amy Hennig, known for writing the first Uncharted trilogy, is currently working on a highly-anticipated Star Wars game for Visceral Games and it will apparently be in the same vein as the aforementioned Uncharted franchise. Despite its shortcomings, Star Wars: Battlefront still has an active fanbase with downloadable content currently in production now through early 2017. A sequel to Battlefront is currently in production as well.
Why has the word not been given for Marvel’s characters and games to be pushed and produced with more enthusiasm? The Marvel universe provides a much larger universe pantheon of characters to choose from, as well as games that can be re-released, or have sequels produced.
Hopefully the issues with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance’s re-release will be addressed soon, or perhaps I will never play the game again. It is a scary prospect, but one that I can live with (I am really glad I did not sell my PS3 copies of the games). Hopefully, Disney and Marvel take a closer look at what types of games their fans are asking for. The crowds who pack theaters for Marvel and Star Wars films are populated by gamers who crave the next experience with one of their favorite characters. This vision is arguably being realized with the Star Wars license, and it is time for the same to happen with Marvel.