Comic books aren’t just gracing our movie screens: they’re a mainstay in today’s gaming market, too.
Comic book superheroes are getting more attention than ever before in video game markets, and by and large that’s been a good thing. Whether you enjoy the latest Batman: Arkham game or the more family-friendly exploits of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, developers are producing more enjoyable games based on comics than ever before. (This was not always the case. I’m looking at you, Superman 64.)
What’s more impressive however are games that go a step further, until they almost resemble a comic book themselves. Sometimes it’s thanks to stylistic choices and other times a deep understanding of what makes the source material work. But whatever the reason, we now have many adaptations and original works that feel like they were lifted from a two-dimensional page.
No other video game embraced the joy of the 1960s comics era quite like Irrational Games’ Freedom Force did. Set in the fictional Patriot City, players assemble and develop a team of heroes granted incredible abilities following an encounter with the mysterious Energy X. Each character is provided a unique origin story and set of powers, usually mirroring Jack Kirby or Stan Lee creations, and pitted against the very worst threats of Silver Age villainy. Mobsters, Russian spies, dinosaurs, giant robots, alien invaders, and even threats beyond time are all packed into Freedom Force adventures (or rather, “issues”) across a variety of comic book locales. Its sequel, Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich, added to the original’s pulpy tone before taking a surprise (but not unwelcome) turn into Dark Phoenix Saga territory. It’s uncertain whether another Freedom Force game could be produced, especially now that Ken Levine has departed from Irrational Games. But with everything from the Batman: Arkham to LEGO superhero games drawing unprecedented attention, I say it’s time that Freedom Force made a glorious return.
X-Men Legends/Ultimate Alliance
Activision’s Marvel RPGs are pretty similar to Freedom Force in terms of gameplay, but they stand out for having the largest interconnected superhero continuity in gaming. Starting with X-Men Legends and leading into Ultimate Alliance, each game featured a roster familiar shared characters and a universe larger than any immediate supervillain threat. In its first game alone, Legends introduced tense mutant-human relations, the history of Sentinel attacks, the Shadow King’s assault on astral planes, and an orbital finale on Asteroid M. By the time Ultimate Alliance came out, Raven Software had included Asgardian realms, alien races, and even Galactus while still making callbacks to characters from X-Men Legends. While these connections aren’t as extensive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s, it remains the largest comic book canon games will produce until Rocksteady decides to put Superman in an Arkham game.
There’s no shortage of open-world games that let you use powers in a major city, although few offer a “comic book” styled experience. The Batman: Arkham games are great, but a little too cinematic. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction was an absolute blast, but its chaos is strictly in the realm of “GTA with the Hulk”. Crackdown comes pretty close to a comic book tone, but I’d say Infamous is a much better fit. Between the varied powers and legitimately insane supervillains Cole encounters, Sucker Punch’s universe could easily be transferred to a comic book medium. Even the moral choice system, however flimsy the execution, is well-suited for a character coming to terms with his newfound responsibilities, like if Spider-Man could shoot lightning instead of webs.
Not enough for you? Look at the various gangs of Infamous 1, each styled after supervillain henchmen. You’ve got the Reapers, who are weak but definitely took the coolest name. Then there’s the Dustmen who have literally constructed costumes out of garbage. Finally there’s the First Sons, who are well-equipped with armor, weapons, and even deployable drones. Throw in the a small percentage of superpowered Conduits in each henchmen encounter, and Empire City isn’t looking so different from Marvel’s New York during a crossover event.
Most readers will be more familiar with 2005’s XIII than the original French comic book, but Ubisoft certainly didn’t hide its graphic novel roots. Comic book elements are built directly into XIII‘s visuals: The entire game was cel-shaded to provide a comic book art style. Dialogue is presented through caption bubbles instead of ongoing subtitles. Loading screens were replaced with comic book panels. Most pleasurable however were the sound effects, which were almost always accompanied with appropriately chosen captions. Enemy footsteps could be tracked by the “Tap Tap” text appearing on screen, while gunfire, explosions, and even knife strikes were signified by Adam West-inspired text. (Speaking of whom, Adam West was one of XIII‘s voice actors, yet another reason to check out this game.)
The comic-inspired visuals were even a big part of how XIII relayed information to the player. As first-person sequences played out in real-time, comic book panels and captions would periodically appear within the screen. Sometimes these panels replaced cutscenes, showing what was happening in other areas of the facility. Other times they pointed out where enemy reinforcements were arriving from, or simply illustrated especially skillful headshots you’d made. Sure, cel-shaded games have been made since (Borderlands and The Walking Dead being great examples) but few embraced comic book experiences as gameplay mechanics.
But there’s still one game that went even further…
No other title on this list screams “90s” like Comix Zone, but those growing up in the Sega Genesis era will remember it fondly nonetheless. This game follows Sketch Turner, a comic book artist and freelance rock musician (again, 90s) who is imprisoned inside his own book when his villain, Mortus, manifests in the real world. Hailed as a prophesied chosen one who will save the fictional universe, Sketch fights his way through mutant forces and various post-apocalyptic landscapes, hoping he’ll find an escape along the way. It’s all pretty standard video game storytelling, but Comix Zone is the most literal example on this list of a comic book experience. Each level is designed as a comic page, with glimpses of other panels along the screen’s edge that Sketch can move to upon clearing his current obstacles. At certain points, Sketch can physically tear open the page to attack enemies or reach hidden items, and occasionally transforms into a powerful superhero who deals damage to all on-screen enemies. Unfortunately Comix Zone was notoriously difficult (once again, 90s) but it’s genuine charm and novelty went a long way to softening that blow. And having a catchy soundtrack didn’t hurt either.