Superheroes are ideally suited to the pliable worlds of video games, where the ability to leap a tall building in a single bound doesn’t require genetic mutation or an alien birthplace – it can be implemented with just a few lines of code.
But for such a straightforward formula, superheroes and video games got off to a bad start. For every dazzling modern release such as The Amazing Spider-Man, there were 50 awful efforts in the early days of gaming, where Superman’s invulnerability was ludicrously hobbled by the format’s need of a life bar to provide a challenge. Fortunately, there were some good superhero games out there too – games that didn’t ruin our fantasies but instead made them stronger…
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NES (1990)
At a time when even hearing the word ‘ninja’ was considered edgy, the heroes in a half shell put in a pretty decent supereffort. This massive 2D scrolling platformer had puzzle levels, top-down mazes, and an oppressive difficulty level that may have broken some young players and put them off gaming for life.
X-Men Arcade (1992)
It took ages for a good superhero title to appear, partly because earlier machines didn’t have the colour palette to do justice to all those shades of Lycra. All that changed with this arcade game, which melded the side-scrolling beat ’em up with super powers. It lives on still, thanks to rose-tinted re-releases on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
Batman Returns, Sega Mega CD (1993)
A moderately decent platformer from before the game world embraced 3D graphics, Batman Returns did a good job of incorporating the design and style of the early ’90s ‘gritty’ Batman film reboot. The version Sega made for their niche Mega CD console add-on was a rare high for the poor machine, thanks to an exclusive 3D-rendered driving section that was powered by Mega CD’s upgraded processors, as well as CD-quality music. It was the best thing ever, for Sega fans, for a couple of weeks.
Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage, SNES, Sega Mega Drive (1994)
What lifted Maximum Carnage above the millions of other 2D side-scrollers was Spidey’s ability to summon help from Captain America and other Marvel heroes mid-battle. Comic book geeks loved being able to play as bad guy Venom, who had a moveset all of his own.
X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Arcade (1996)
A game straight out of the fever dreams of a generation, Capcom surmounted the huge licensing issues involved to pitch its Street Fighter line up against Marvel’s legendary X-Men. It had SF mechanics at its core, but with tag-team action, players could unleash insane Cyclops-Wolverine special attacks. Cool.
Spider-Man, PlayStation, N64 (2000)
The first fully-3D Spider-Man title arrived in 2000 on Sony’s original PlayStation and the N64, in a game that was powered by the same smooth and solid 3D engine we’d seen run the excellent Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. But no triple heelflips here:instead you got a moody and believable Spidey game, which gave players a huge city to explore in a (relatively) unrestricted fashion. Still, best not to ask what those floating webs you’d been swinging on were attached to.
Freedom Force, PC (2002)
Freedom Force gave us a tactical role-playing game populated by an all-new team of super-people developed specifically for the title. A lack of famous superhero names worked in its favour, making Freedom Force an affectionate pastiche of the genre. We ended up with an enjoyable, tactical fight to save Patriot City from alien attack.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, PS2, Xbox (2005)
This excellent 3D smash ’em up was as much fun as being the Hulk ought to be. Not exactly a challenge, though: it really was a case of throwing cars at things before retreating to a safe distance. Then there were helicopters to take out. Then tanks. And Hulk smashed ’em all.
The Darkness, PS3, Xbox 360 (2007)
The Darkness dumped comedy colours and wisecracking hunks for a touch of dark horror. Players weren’t just shooting everything, either – your character had built-in, extendable tentacles that, er, grew out of his body and could consume the hearts of your enemies. A creepy concept built around a solid 3D shooter core.
Batman: Arkham Asylum, PS3, Xbox 360, PC (2009)
Arkham Asylum didn’t just get the look and atmosphere spot on – it also solved the problem of how to make fighting work in 3D worlds. This wasn’t a game where you were spamming the punch button; the fighting was a simple attack-and-counter system, freeing you to concentrate on enjoying the feeling of smashing five baddies into simultaneous oblivion. Plenty of stealth (and bat-grappling) was equally stylish and suited the new, darker Batman.