The Weird and Wonderful History of Marvel Video Games

Tom Regan
Games PC Gaming
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For over 30 years, it almost felt like there were no rules governing Marvel’s treasure trove of characters. Walk into a comic shop in the 1990s and you’d find the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men sitting alongside a woefully mismatched Wolverine action figure, only to head home and watch an X-Men animated series that completely contradicts them both.

In a post-MCU world, this lack of consistency all seems a bit baffling. Yet, as a company that built an empire on shipping new comic books every week, Marvel has always lived and died on being able to keep its heroes’ adventures going. And how does it tell a never-ending story? By lending its heroes out to a constantly rotating conveyor belt of different creators.

Nowhere has this standalone ‘licence-our-characters’ philosophy been more apparent than in Marvel’s video game output. To date, the comic-book giant has loaned its creations to an eye-watering 123 different gaming adaptations. Spanning 13 console generations, many different developers and almost 45 publishers, Marvel’s mammoth gaming output has spawned beloved cult classics, embarrassingly poor cash-ins, and everything in between.

Stan Lee stands next to a Spider-Man bus stop ad
Marvel has a long, storied history of dominating in movies and on TV but its video game history is less consistent.

Yet, unlike many of the beloved comic arcs it built an empire on, very few Marvel games have been considered canon, or even managed to breed sequels.

Now, though, the publisher’s gaming strategy is changing. In 2019, games have overtaken every other entertainment medium in terms of profitability — and with arch-rival DC finding unprecedented critical and commercial success with its Arkham game series, a newly unified Marvel Studios is finally trying to forge a more cohesive gaming future.

But before we take a look at Marvel’s gleaming game future, it’s worth exploring its weird and wonderful past.

(Peter) Parker Brothers

spider-man atari
Behold, the first Marvel video game!

It all started in 1982. Despite video games actually first rearing their pixelized pate way back in the mid-1960s, it wasn’t until the launch of Atari’s first home console in 1977 that companies really began to see them as big business. Not wanting to leave money on the table, board-game behemoths the Parker Brothers (the creators of Monopoly, no less) soon began to try their hand at making one of these newfound electronic game-y-waj-igits.

Unsurprisingly, even then, not all publishers were created equal. Thanks to the massive success of Parker Brothers’ physical games, the company was instantly handed both the Spider-Man and Star Wars licenses. Thanks to the coding work of Laura Nikolic, the first ever Marvel video game was born.

Atari 2600 Spider-Man ad
A wonderfully charming magazine advert for the Atari 2600's Spider-Man.

Spider-Man for the Atari 2600 saw players scaling a building with Spidey’s web shooters as they fought off baddies and attempted to defuse a trail of Green Goblin’s bombs.

It may have been basic, but it was a video game where you could actually be Spider-Man! And at the time, that novelty was enough to help it shift almost a million copies worldwide.

The First Gaming Avengers

Spider-Man text game
If it ain't broke, don't fix it: Marvel video game number 2 was also a Spidey game but this time, it was a text adventure.

It turns out Marvel-licensed video games are a lot like buses, because, after 24 months without any, two more suddenly showed up in 1984. Taking a different tack to Parker Brothers’ Spider-Man, the second and third interactive Marvel experiences were text-based adventure games.

Known as the Questprobe trilogy, the first two entries starred The Hulk and Spider-Man respectively and tasked players with typing in text commands in order to save Bruce Banner and Spidey from some pretty hairy situations. The third entry, Questprobe featuring Human Torch and the Thing, was released a year later.

Unlike the Atari 2600 exclusive Spider-Man, this trilogy marked the first Marvel games to be released on multiple platforms, with the adventure titles heading to Atari 8-bit, Apple II, Commodore 64, DOS, and the ZX Spectrum.

From then on, the Marvel games just kept coming. Next up was a serviceable Howard the Duck movie tie-in, followed by a Captain America and Spider-Man crossover caper… until the arrival of a new interactive Marvel adaptation quickly became an annual institution.

In 1989, the comic publisher simultaneously released both its first ever X-Men and Nintendo game – NES brawler Uncanny X-Men. The downside of this historic moment? The game itself was pretty dire. Fortunately for the rest of the world, this less than stellar release was only ever seen in North America.

Coin-Op Classics

Thankfully, as consoles got more sophisticated, so did the Marvel tie-ins that graced them. While a now-infamous games publisher called LJN released 10 truly terrible Marvel-licensed games during the ‘90s, this decade also managed to atone for its sins by producing some of the best Marvel games ever made.

This time, it wasn’t just console owners who had all the fun. With arcade machines still guzzling up quarters at an insatiable rate, the ‘90s saw two classic Stan Lee creations turned into arcade greats. We are, of course, talking about X-Men Arcade and Captain America and The Avengers. Like most arcade hits, these were both Japanese-made co-op action games that saw up to four players teaming up in order to take down a slew of big bads.

The title screen of Captain America and the Avengers
You might not remember it, but 'Captain America and The Avengers' is still a hugely enjoyable arcade brawler.

Unlike many of these ageing cash-ins from the era, though, these two arcade ports still look and play well to this day, with each eye-catching, pixelised brawler oozing the X-Men animated series’ campy ’90s charm. Thanks to some botched translations, they’ve also spawned their fair share of memes, too. Yet, if ‘90s Marvel games are destined to be defined by one publisher, that honour goes to Capcom.

While the comic-book giant was still happy to continue licensing its characters to game makers seemingly at random, when Capcom published its first Marvel-licensed fighting game, X-Men: Children Of The Atom, the world paid attention. This arcade classic played like a blend of already-successful fighters like Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Darkstalkers, tasking players with choosing their favourite X-Men hero or mutant menace and fighting their foes in best of three, 1v1 bouts.

It was fast-paced, allowed for some juicy combos, and more importantly, felt like a genuinely good video game – Marvel or otherwise. Thanks to its coin-snaffling arcade success, the game quickly made its way to both Sega Saturn, personal computers, and a shiny new console called the PlayStation.

Crossover (Cap)Capers

Title screen for Marvel vs Capcom Clash of Super Heroes
After some pretty iffy tie-ins farmed out to a mishmash of different studios, Marvel's decision to partner with Capcom and lean on its fighting game expertise paid dividends.

While a host of other fairly forgettable brawlers and platformers filled the gaps between (including a Wolverine SNES game that accidentally invented a new type of hip hop) a few years later, it was Capcom who would once again continue its streak of making brilliant Marvel fighting games. 1996’s X-Men Vs Street Fighter was Capcom’s second fighter using the Marvel license, although this time, rather than just emulate its groundbreaking 2D series, the Japanese company sought to add some heavyweight heroes of its own to the mix.

By this point, Street Fighter was a huge series in its own right – with Ryu and Chun-Li being just as recognisable to ‘90s kids as say, Jean Grey or Wolverine. Yet, by a weird and wonderful coincidence, Street Fighter was also an IP that just worked with Marvel. Thanks to its roster’s larger than life personalities and superhuman abilities, Ryu and co made the perfect sparring partners for Professor X’s gifted youngsters — and a year later, Capcom’s prize fighters squared off against the wider Marvel world, in the enjoyable Marvel Superheroes vs StreetFighter.

Strider calls Ryu for backup in Marvel vs Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes
2000's 'Marvel vs Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes' isn't just regarded as one of the greatest licensed titles ever realised, but one of the best fighting games full stop.

Still, as great as these two Capcom fighters were, neither were quite as iconic as what was to come. In 1998, Capcom struck gold once again with the arrival of the first in the now beloved Marvel vs Capcom series, entitled Clash Of Superheroes. Combining Capcom’s trademark fluid combat with gorgeous sprite work, this crossover fighter expanded the roster of both companies. While well-received, it is ultimately remembered as the game which set the stage for one of the greatest fighters of all time – 2000’s Marvel vs Capcom 2.

This time around, the two entertainment universes collided on 3D stages, with the blend of 2D characters and 3D backdrops creating a timeless look that still feels just as charming today.

Unlike most licensed video games, Capcom’s fourth major crossover left a real mark on the medium. Marvel vs Capcom 2 isn’t just one of the greatest interactive Marvel experiences ever, it has also cemented itself as one of the most popular video games ever made. Even 19 years after its release, despite two newer entries having been and gone, Marvel vs Capcom 2 still remains a favourite at renowned fighting game tournament EVO.

A Swing and a Hit

Spider-Man on Playstation box art
Activision's Neversoft-developed Spider-Man game is now regarded as a PS1 classic.

It turns out though, 2000 wasn’t just a great year for 2D Marvel fighters – it was also the year Spidey really found his gaming groove. Seeing the money-making potential that came from making genuinely good licensed video games, Western publisher Activision decided to invest in superheroes.

The result? PS1 classic, 2000’s Spider-Man. Developed by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater creators Neversoft, weirdly, this 3D action game actually used the same engine as its gnarly rail-grinding cousin.

Thanks to its unique mix of stealth and action elements, Spider-Man was a blast to play. Swapping web-swinging freedom for intense small-scale levels, Neversoft put players into the spandex of a different kind of Spidey. Infiltrating hideouts and quietly scaling ceilings, this sweat-inducing tie-in brought some real tension to the Spideyverse.

More crucially though, it felt like the first game that Marvel took seriously. Not only did the game feature commentary by none other than sir Stan Lee himself, but it also saw several actors from the ‘90s Spider-Man and Spider-Man Unlimited cartoons reprising key roles.

In other words, it was one of the first licensed games to really feel like it wasn’t just a cynical cash in. While the game was also released on Nintendo 64 and Gameboy Color, thanks to the critical and commercial success of the PlayStation version, it spawned a PS1 exclusive sequel: Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro.

The ACTIVISION Accord

Historically, Spider-Man was important for another reason. Neversoft’s crawl-‘em-up was one of the first games to come out of Activision and Marvel’s lucrative 1998 licensing deal. While Activision had actually been working with Marvel since the aforementioned Howard the Duck tie-in, in ‘98 Activision signed a licensing deal with the comic-book creator that would give it exclusive rights to Spider-Man and X-Men-related titles.

While publishers like Sierra Interactive, 2K, SEGA, EA, and a few others spent the early 2000s experimenting with tie-ins based on other massive IPs like Daredevil, The Punisher, Iron Man, and er, Ghost Rider, Activision largely stuck with what it knew. Well, aside from a couple of pretty OK Blade games. Remember Blade? Of course you do.

With its licensing deals being a temporary arrangement, Activision was originally scheduled to lose its rights to the Marvel license in 2009. Yet, in 2005, Activision announced that it had already shifted a jaw-dropping 25 million Marvel-licensed video games. Unsurprisingly, Marvel was all too happy to extend Activision’s licensing deal by an extra eight years – (almost literally) giving the games publisher a license to print money until 2017.

Thanks to a batch of brilliant titles, the partnership seemed like good news for gamers, too. During the PS2 years, Activision continued to release a steady stream of rock-solid 3D Marvel games. Whether it was enjoyable brawlers like 2004’s X2: Wolverine’s Revenge, addictive action RPGs like 2006’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance or stonecold sandbox classics like 2004’s Spider-Man 2, Activision’s superhero output seemed to be a rolling stone that wasn’t about to gather moss any time soon.

ACTIVISION BAD

Wolverine swings his blades around in Wolverine Origins
The film may have been a bit crap, but the ultra-violent 'X-Men: Wolverine Origins' for PS3 and Xbox 360, actually ended up being a 2009 gaming highlight.

Unfortunately for Activision, however, as the MCU went from strength to strength, the comic-book publisher started to have second thoughts about this lengthy licensing deal. While its Fox-related output was still pretty solid (2009’s Wolverine: Origins was the rare movie tie-in that was better than the movie itself… and featured Hugh Jackman doing the voicework, no less) it’s MCU-related games were non-existent.

At the end of 2013, Activision-published Marvel games quietly began disappearing from online platforms. It’s not hard to figure out why. With Marvel films now becoming blockbusting behemoths, post-2007 should have been a golden era for Marvel-related video games. Yet, in the years that followed its cinematic success, Activision only published 2013’s Deadpool, The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men: Destiny, and Spider-Man: Edge of Time, all of which launched to reviews in the mixed-to-negative range and racked up unremarkable sales.

Aside from Activision’s stale array of early 2010 console releases, the vast majority of Marvel ’s game output in the 2010s has (of course) been on mobile. Since 2008, Marvel has licensed over 20 different mobile tie-ins for its MCU-related heroes… which, were largely pretty unremarkable.

With Rocksteady’s industry-leading Batman Arkham series setting a lofty new standard for superhero games, Marvel quickly realised that by all accounts, Activision was squandering Marvel’s massive gaming potential. In fact, in an utterly bizarre turn of events, some of the best Marvel video games of the last decade were actually the Lego Marvel Super Heroes series — which was published by DC owner, Warner Bros.

Awkward.

In fact, Warner wasn’t the only publisher trying to grab a chunk of the Marvel gaming pie. As it turns out, the world very nearly had a first-person Avengers co-op game, too. Published by THQ and developed by THQ Australia, leaked footage shows an Overwatch-esque “first-person ranged brawler.” Sadly, the publisher went bankrupt and this weird-looking project got lost in the chaos.

A Modern Marvel

Thanks to the ultimately disappointing Marvel Vs Capcom: Infinite, it felt like gamers were destined to go yet another console generation without a Marvel classic. Luckily for the house of M, 2018 finally broke its losing streak.

The first major boon for Marvel’s gaming output for almost a decade was, of course, last year’s PlayStation 4 exclusive – Marvel’s Spider-Man. Published by Sony and developed by Insomniac Games, this free-roaming web-‘em-up picked up where Activision’s PS2 classic Spider-Man 2 left off. It’s a ton of fun, deserving of the critical and commercial success it received — but more interestingly, it’s the first video game ever to be plastered with the official Marvel MCU flipbook logo.

So, what’s next for Marvel video games? Well, after this PS4 exclusive, Marvel seems happy to share with the other platform holders, granting Nintendo the exclusive rights to Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 – which is being developed by Ninja Gaiden studio Team Ninja. While this has prompted rumours that Microsoft has also been given a Marvel exclusive to work with, the only other confirmed Marvel game in the works is Square Enix’s upcoming mystery Avengers project.

Based on the little we know so far, industry whispers have suggested that this game is a third-person, online competitive shooter. The first title in the works is, of course, an Avengers game. Developed by Tomb Raider veterans Crystal Dynamics and Deus Ex custodians Eidos Montreal, the finer details of this anticipated title are still shrouded in mystery.

Whatever the game ends up being though, Marvel and Square seem to have assembled *ahem* some top-tier talent to lead the project. Shaun Escayg, former Naughty Dog creative director, and Stephen Barry, a 27-year games vet from EA and Visceral Games, are attached to the Avengers project in leadership roles.

With a few excited tweets surfacing from the dev team, all signs point to an E3 2019 reveal blow out. Happily, though, Ultimate Alliance 3 and this Avengers project aren’t all that gamers have to be excited about. In January 2017, Marvel revealed that this currently untitled Avengers Project is the first in a multi-year, multi-game deal with Square Enix.

After a rocky few years, it finally looks like there’s a lot for Marvel-loving gamers to be excited about.

 

Tom Regan
Having written for everyone from Trusted Reviews to The Guardian, Tom is a London based writer who can't stop talking about games. Now he's joined the team at FANDOM as gaming editor, we have to constantly remind ourselves that he's not actually Ed Sheeran.
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