When most people think of Marvel in the 90’s, eye searing, Manga influenced visions of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man and Jim Lee’s X-Men, and the Fox cartoon series’ that loosely adapted them, immediately come to mind. Beneath the surface though the House of Ideas was nearly at death’s door, hemorrhaging money due to the previously mentioned all-star creators jumping ship to form competitor Image Comics, and business practices that relied too much on a bursting bubble of speculators flocking to far too many gold foil and hologram variants, thinking each purchase could potentially be the next Amazing Fantasy #15, but mostly ending up with longboxes full of very poorly written and drawn kindling.
If the corporate exploits of the wildly successful Disney owned Marvel of today seem calculated to a fault, the Marvel of the 90’s was essentially it’s completely gonzo opposite, throwing their licenses at every wall imaginable to see what could possibly stick and keep them from eventually being the WCW of comic companies. That meant that sometimes we got vile garbage like the David Hasselhoff starring Nick Fury TV movie, or notorious debacles like Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. But it also resulted in something utterly remarkable, namely, Capcom’s mid 90’s to early 00’s treatment of the Marvel video game license.
“Get this guy from motherfuckin’ Baywatch outta my motherfuckin’ Helicarrier!”
Having created some of the only 8 bit licensed games that weren’t complete disasters with their Disney based NES output, Capcom lavished the same love onto the then-red hot (again, Jim Lee’s run and the Fox cartoon) X-Men franchise in Arcades with 1994’s Children of the Atom. ’94 was a banner year for the big C, capping off the game series that defined the entire decade on Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, and unleashing the gorgeously animated flavor that would color their house style for the rest of the Clinton era in fighting game monster mash Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors, followed by the similarly Anime-centric Street Fighter Alpha: Warriors’ Dreams in early ’95.
Children of the Atom combined the best of what Capcom had learned being the world’s premiere fighting game creator, yet was also incredibly forward thinking, innovating features that would eventually become indispensable genre staples in the years to come. If “Street Fighter, but with the X-Men” was all you needed to hear, that was definitely what this was, but Capcom added so much more unique personality to the proceedings, from graphics to music and especially gameplay, that it hardly even seemed like a licensed game at all, Capcom devoting just as much love and care into the brawling exploits of Wolverine and Cyclops as they did to Ryu and Ken.
I can remember being blown away by CotA at the time, but a bit bummed out that it featured only Marvel’s mutants, being a much bigger fan of Fox’s Spider-Man series, only discovering later how much of a clusterfuck it was as an adaptation. Little did I know that Capcom was crafting exactly what I had hoped for, a 1995 sequel to Children of the Atom that would broaden their superhero fighting horizons even further, and remain the final non-tag team offering in their still revered Marvel canon.
The Infinity Gems swirl with cosmic energy in an ethereal void, Spider-Man faces off against the Juggernaut, Wolverine slashes his adamantium claws into obscure Ghost Rider villain Blackheart in a flame strewn hellscape. Iron Man and Magneto compare technological prowess to genetic supremacy deep in the vacuum of space. A post-apocalyptic warzone sees Captain America drive his mighty shield into the gelatinous befanged maw of extra dimensional despot Shuma-Gorath, as mutant telepath Psylocke and none other than the ever lovin’ Incredible Hulk join the fray. The Infinity Gauntlet-ed fist of the avatar of death itself, Thanos, looms large over the chaos. This is Marvel Super Heroes, and it’s here to kick your ass.
Or at least, it definitely kicked my 12 year old ass. It blended the high flying Street Fighter on steroids action of X-Men with an expanded roster of Marvel’s best and brightest in all their hyper colorful 90’s glory. Here we have the Smart Hulk and the “modular armor” Iron Man, Wolverine, Psylocke, Magneto and (most importantly) Juggernaut, carried right over from CotA, looking as if they’d been ripped straight from Jim Lee’s sketch book. Spider-Man: tall, lanky and bug eyed as McFarlane intended and Mark Bagley perfected, Capcom flexing their weird ass muscle and including off the wall villains Blackheart and Shuma-Gorath, and last but not least, two initially unplayable bosses lurking in the inky blackness of infinity in the form of an incredibly towering and iconic Doctor Doom and the pile of intergalactic muscle and rage known only as the mad titan Thanos.
Contemporary game magazines loved to buzz about how Capcom’s animation was “Disney quality”, and it wasn’t just hyperbole. These X-Men and Avengers ravaged across the screen in a beautiful ballet of destruction with fidelity never before seen in pixel animation. The backgrounds too, were a sight to behold, lovingly animated and towering nearly four screens high to accommodate the nosebleed inducing gameplay inherited from Children of the Atom. Said gameplay now felt smoother than ever, combos chaining light to heavy attacks into special and super moves dialed in to butter smooth perfection, as a world ending fireworks display exploded from the screen without a hint of unintentional slowdown, the sound design booming from the cabinet and beckoning other Arcade goers to come bear witness to your fantastic wrath.
Capcom even found a way to work the iconic Infinity Gems into the gameplay. Throughout the typical arcade mode, the increasingly difficult parade of characters you face will each hold one of the Gems: Power, Time, Space, Reality and Soul. Punishing your opponent with quick offense will cause them to drop their Gem, allowing you to use it yourself, inflicting all kinds of interesting chaos on your foe, be it super armor, increased speed, or causing elemental projectiles to appear in thin air and home in on your quarry with but a standard punch.
Thanos himself holds the Mind Gem, and he’ll strip you of all the Gems you’ve collected before you face him. He boasts an insane 6 “infinity combos” (those are super moves), one for each Gem, compared to the standard fighter’s one or two, but there’s ways around his onslaught, especially for nimble warriors like Spidey or Logan. Besting the mad titan presents a cutscene of Adam Warlock, She Hulk, Nova and Drax the Destroyer (looking goofy as hell before his mid-aughts “Kratos” makeover) freed from Thanos’ tyrannical grip, followed by a short ending sequence tailored to your specific character.
Capcom also developed a pair of side scrolling beat ‘em ups for the SNES utilizing the license with loose thematic ties to the Arcade fighters, X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse and Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems, which received fairly mixed reviews due to shallow gameplay and poorly balanced difficulty.
If you know anything about 90’s Marvel you could’ve probably written these vignettes yourself, but rest assured, Wolverine leaves the Xavier Mansion after being spurned yet again by Jean Grey, Blackheart and Shuma-Gorath abuse their newfound power in the most evil way possible, Peter Parker and Mary Jane share a tender moment outside of the turmoil of superhero life, and Juggernaut is hurled back to earth in a crumpled, dented heap by Adam Warlock with nothing to show for his galactic victory. It’s fun, charming, pitch perfect stuff and proves once again that nobody has ever treated the Marvel license better than Capcom.
It’s hard for me to explain exactly why Marvel Super Heroes made such an impression on me. To the layman, it most likely just looked like another in the endless litany of Capcom fighting game updates, which the mainstream press and most gamers alike grew increasingly tired of as the 90’s dragged on and brought with it more dramatic genre innovations in the way of 3D brawlers like Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Speaking of Tekken, my nearly equal love for Tekken 2 saw me choosing to buy a PlayStation over a Saturn, and after a nearly interminable two year wait, the version of Marvel Super Heroes that made its way to Sony’s first born video gaming child was but a shadow of its Arcade perfection.
Sega’s 32 bit machine was built from the ground up to handle hardcore hand drawn 2D gaming, one of the big reasons it failed in an era dominated by burgeoning polygonal graphics. Sega’s machine could barely handle its first generation iterations of in-house 3D IPs like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, (necessitating costly rereleases of those games that were given away for free to early adopters), let alone the new 3D franchises like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider which would come to embody the console generation.
The Saturn, as a result, became a haven for perfect Arcade ports of Capcom’s pixel animation heavy 2D fighters, leaving Sony’s machine with tepid (in some cases barely playable) versions of the games that shone brightest on Sega’s penultimate console. Still, I plugged away at the PSX MSH, despite its lengthy load times, copious slowdown and missing animation frames, due to my sheer love of the game at hand, Saturn ownership being a costly and risky proposition even to this day.
Finally in 2012 Capcom made a perfect rendition of the game available for download on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as part of their Marvel vs. Capcom Origins collection, alongside on of its many sequels, the original Marvel vs. Capcom. The game featured a bevy of unlockables, online play, and several options for displaying it’s upscaled HD visual presentation. The game is sadly no longer available (so goes the tangled world of licensing), but if you managed to snag a copy, you’ve got a real “Gem” on your hands (I’m sorry), and it’s one of the reasons I’ll probably still own an Xbox 360 until I die.
The legacy of Marvel Super Heroes is considerable. Of course Capcom immediately followed the game up by pitting it’s two biggest 90’s cash cows against one another in X-Men vs. Street Fighter (1996), then piling more and more fighters and frenzy on top of that in Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997), Marvel vs. Capcom (1998) and Marvel vs Capcom 2 (2000). As the number of fighters grew though the games’ initial charm seemed to diminish, far away from the engrossing flavor of the initial Marvel, Darkstalkers and Street Fighter Alpha installments from where the majority of each game’s assets were culled.
2011’s Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (PS3 and Xbox 360) gained some nerdy good will by scaling things back a bit, bringing franchise specific battlegrounds back into the mix like Daredevil’s Hand Hideout, and incorporating fan favorite characters begged for since the very beginning like Deadpool and Ghost Rider, before the lack of polish and gameplay balance of its “Ultimate” edition made it a chore to play for all but the most dedicated of diehards.
2017 is rumored to be the launch date for a brand new Marvel vs. Capcom game, this time a PS4 exclusive eschewing the usually X-Men heavy focus on the Marvel side of the roster for fighters exclusively involved in the ever profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe (again, licensing) and, once again, their hunt against Thanos for the elusive Infinity Gems. Hopefully Capcom can use that thematic connective tissue to once again deliver an experience as explosively bombastic and infinitely replayable as Marvel Super Heroes.