It seems counter-intuitive that superheroes have such a spotty history in video games. Two mediums so defined by empowerment would appear to be a natural match, but that's selling the capes-and-cowls short. Like any adaptation, a good superhero video game is really about being faithful to the source material. Comic books are about much more than donning capes and punching criminals, and the best games have understood how to capitalize on the strengths of individual heroes and what sets them apart. As San Diego Comic Con approaches, we salute the games that have done right by understanding what makes their heroes special.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (1989)
Perhaps the easiest of the bunch, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' journey to arcades was one time that a simple beat-em-up made sense. These are turtles who are ninjas. Give them some robotic bad guys to break and set them loose. It's not a complicated idea, but the arcade game nailed the tone of the turtles at the height of their popularity. That is, at least, the tone of the cartoon turtles. The original comic was much more darkly satirical.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
It's a cliche, but nevertheless true, that New York City can be a character in itself. Spider-Man games had existed for years by the time Grand Theft Auto came about, but they were generally standard beat-em-ups. Spider-Man 2, a tie-in with the big-budget blockbuster movie that helped put superhero films on the map, was the first to follow GTA's lead and let Spidey occupy a living, breathing New York.
Suddenly, so much more about the character made sense. His web-swinging was more authentic and viable as a transportation tool, and the addition of random crimes made him a hero of the people: your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man! The sheer size of the city helped illustrate that he's just one hero doing the best he can. Great power, great responsibility.
Open world renditions of Spidey's New York have become old hat in the years since--especially because Activision keeps pumping them out at a regular clip--but we should remember what a game changer it once was.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (2005)
Even if you don't know your MODOK from your Infinity Gauntlet, everyone knows one defining trait of this Marvel character: Hulk smash. So why not give him a game to do just that? Radical Entertainment figured out that when playing as the Hulk, the most important trait is to make the player feel like an unstoppable force of nature. Everything from the movement speed and traversal to his overpowered attacks accented the idea that Hulk is not one to be trifled with. Setting it in an open world may have simply been en vogue, but it also made for plenty of opportunities for gratuitous destruction.
Superman Returns (2006)
Very likely the worst game on this list, Superman Returns at least understood one thing: Superman fisticuffs just isn't that interesting. The character can be used to tell great stories about inspiration or the human experience, but when it comes down to the Man of Steel going mano-a-mano with some ugly alien? Yawn. He's virtually invincible and he always wins. The only time he didn't win was when he died, and then he came back to life and won. How do you make someone care about a character like that? Or even make them believe that there's any danger or dramatic stakes whatsoever?
The answer in the comics and movie adaptations has been to put the focus on the world Superman is trying to protect. Superman is never in any real danger, but as a protector he can't allow himself to fail humanity and let it be hurt. As mediocre as Superman Returns may have been, it understood that the life bar should belong to Metropolis, not Superman. You're not fighting for yourself, you're fighting for them. If only a new studio would pick up on this idea and make a good game out of it.
Lego Batman (2008)
Lego Batman fulfills two important roles in the canon of Batman video games. The first, more superficial one, is the sheer gadgetry of Batman. Without a set of powers, Batman relies on his tinkering skills. This has lent itself to "toyifying" the character with a variety of ultra-specialized suits. Lego Batman is all about the suits.
The more substantial import of Lego Batman is that it illustrates a fundamental truth of the character that is easy to forget: Batman is flexible. There is no one "true" take on Batman. Dark and brooding works in certain media and for certain audiences, and his backstory certainly has those roots, but he can and should be treated as an all-ages character. The light-hearted comedic Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon is no less Batman than Christopher Nolan's film adaptations. Kids might not grasp the full emotional weight of a man whose parents are killed and forges himself into a weapon, but denying them Batman or acting as if their versions are less important is just cruel. He belongs to everyone.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Speaking of dark and brooding, it doesn't get much darker or broodier in video games than the Batman: Arkham series. They're held up as a beacon of superhero adaptations done right, and I won't argue. It successfully took the somewhat somber Animated Series cartoon and used it as a springboard to create a compelling world. More than anything, though, Arkham excels at illustrating Batman's most valuable tool: intimidation.
Obviously, it's plenty of fun to use the freeflow combat system to crack some kneecaps and leave thugs trembling on the floor. For my money, though, the Predator segments are not just the best parts of the game, but among the best parts of the last generation. After years of stealth games that focused on making you feel vulnerable and hunted, Rocksteady turned it around by making you the hunter. Again, this accents Batman's lack of powers. He's a more cerebral hero and needs to stay safe and use his wits. The Predator missions finally put us in the spiky black boots of the Bat.
Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013)
At his core, Superman is an inspirational figure more than an aspirational one. The emotional hook is about showing the boundless potential of humanity, not just in his super-strength but with his kindness and generosity and selflessness. What happens when that spirit goes wrong, and he decides humanity can't be trusted to take care of itself? It's a question that the comics have explored on multiple occasions in comics like Red Son and adaptations like the cartoon Justice League's "Justice Lords" plotline.
Injustice: Gods Among Us may have retread old ground in that respect, as well as provided a laughably dumb explanation for regular humans like Green Arrow or Joker to even survive a superpowered punch, but it understood the dramatic stakes of a Superman gone wrong. On top of that, it brought in the full force of the Justice League with all the internal bickering and differing perspectives that it should. That may have been a thin excuse to make superheroes wail on each other, but it's not as if the League of the comics gets along much better.
The Merc with the Mouth certainly isn't one of the most well-known superheroes. These days he's more of a gag character than a standard member of the Marvel universe, but his self-aware spin on comic tropes must have appealed to High Moon Studios. Though the combat was only so-so and the level design was outright poor and the final boss fight was one of the most infuriating in recent memory, you certainly can't accuse the Deadpool game of misunderstanding the character.
It was loud, abrasive, and obnoxious, just like Deadpool. You had too many powers to keep up with, just like Deadpool. The whole thing felt like it was goofing on the self-seriousness of the X-Men comics, just like Deadpool. Say what you will about the game's quality, but this is one adaptation that understood its source.