Games have a notorious reputation for mucking up adaptations of books and films. Comics have been more fortunate, with many enjoyable, sometimes even great games that have done well by their source material. Whether it’s Wolverine’s gruffness, Batman’s gadgets or the lighthearted antics of The Avengers, games have found ways to competently incorporate the myriad of heroes and heroines that exist in the beautifully illustrated pages of comic books.
Here are the 12 best videogame adaptations of comics.
1. DuckTales (1989)
Although Capcom’s game is based on the DuckTales cartoon, the show was built heavily on Carl Barks’ timeless work on Disney’s Uncle Scrooge comics. Barks created Scrooge McDuck in 1947 and went on to introduce such classic characters and concepts as Duckburg, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose and the Junior Woodchucks. Without Barks’ comics neither the DuckTales show nor game would’ve been possible. And both the show and the game are legitimately great adaptations; the former was at the time the best example of how to turn a sprawling comic book mythology into a successful cartoon, and more than a quarter of a century later the game (made by many of the same creators behind the original Mega Man games) remains perhaps the greatest videogame adaptation of a cartoon.—GM
2. X-Men (1992)
A goofy arcade beat ‘em up developed by Konami decades before they cancelled a certain project and ended up on everyone’s shit list. This particular X-Men game let up to four people play as everyone’s favorite mutants, zapping, stabbing and stomping their way across stages filled with henchmen until an appropriately dramatic final battle with Magneto. Though it’s less than an hour long, with the right people along for the ride it makes for a grand old time. Also, that art is gorgeous. Just look at it.
3. Alien Vs. Predator (1999)
The Alien and the Predator, infamous beasties with their own classic movie franchises, didn’t actually clash until 1990 when Dark Horse published a crossover comic. Nine years later, Rebellion released a game with that concept that blended horror and action in a unique way, letting you play as the Alien, the Predator, or an unlucky jarhead. Each character had their own campaign built around their respective strengths and weaknesses, which meant you were playing three different (and exceptional) games. It’s a bit of a shame that the 2010 continuation of the series was such garbage.
4. Spider-Man (2000)
The first Spider-Man game developed by Neversoft, the folks who created everyone’s favorite skateboarding series, is one of the most important comic book games ever made. It allowed us to play a superhero in a 3D setting that made great use of Peter Parker’s vibrant world, though, like most early comic games, there’s not really a decent plot; the game settles for throwing waves of Parker’s classic enemies for the most arbitrary reasons at you instead. Still, a minor sin given how many game adaptations of comics, particularly open-world ones, build on the foundation laid by Neversoft’s game.
5. The Punisher (2005)
Volition’s The Punisher is a grisly game where you torture enemies for information before forcing them into a wood chipper feet first or dropping them into a pool of hungry piranhas. Really though, that’s the least you should expect from something starring Frank Castle, a man whose despair is only matched by his ruthlessness. What’s surprising is that The Punisher is not just a faithful adaptation, but also a satisfying shooter housing a bloody smidge of innovation. The gun violence is graphic, particularly for a game based on a comic book, with heads exploding into red mist and arms being blown away by shotgun blasts. You can take enemies hostage and use them as bullet shields or throw them around. There are even some environmental takedowns. While this all might not sound particularly impressive now, The Punisher’s diabolical brand of vigilante violence made it worth playing over and over again back in 2005.
6. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (2006)
Raven’s follow-up to the great X-Men Legends broadens its scope to the entire Marvel Universe, featuring dozens of beloved Marvel characters and countless references and Easter eggs for diehard Marvel zombies. This was the first time an entire comic book universe was brought to life within a videogame, and that novelty more than made up for the sometimes repetitive action. Also the goofily complex storyline even feels like a universe-wide comics crossover story from the 1980s or 1990s. It’s easy to imagine a 1988 issue of West Coast Avengers with a little Ultimate Alliance tie-in graphic in the top corner of the cover.—GM
7. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Another surprise. How often can you say “well, the movie stunk but the game based on it is fantastic!” Wolverine, like The Punisher, is great because the developer was allowed to take off the kid gloves and show just how nasty Wolverine and his adamantium claws could be. This is his primal, bloody world, and Raven Software did it justice by creating a fantastic hack & slash where you could romp around stages, cutting enemies to ribbons (or throwing them into helicopter blades). Tying the game’s health regeneration system into Wolverine’s healing powers by letting the player watch his skin and muscle tissue grow back after taking damage was a nice, gross touch too, making a long stale mechanic briefly interesting again.
8. Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2010)
If you’re turned off by the dark and humorless Arkham Asylum, The Brave and the Bold offers a Batman you can get behind. WayForward’s riff on the Cartoon Network series and DC’s old Bob Haney-written team-up comic is one of the most charming superhero games ever, with a great sense of humor and a strong Silver Age influence. Instead of making fun of the goofiness of the Silver Age, the game fully lives up to the inspired silliness of Haney’s wonderful comics, with fun banter and ridiculous scenarios.—GM
9. Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Rocksteady proved they could create a good Batman game with Arkham Asylum. With City, they made a classic action game that expanded the asylum’s narrow, claustrophobic crawl spaces and hallways into an entire city for the player to fly around in and take on the best of the Caped Crusader’s villains. Though the newly released Arkham Knight is better looking than City and is even a fine game in its own right, it failed to improve on the design of its predecessor and is often a victim of feature creep. City, with its just-right sized open world and a fantastic story, remains the (second) best Batman game ever made.
10. The Walking Dead (2012)
Emotionally devastating and powerfully told, The Walking Dead doesn’t just eclipse the comic it’s based on. It’s simply one of the best games ever made, focusing on a group of survivors trying to make their way in a world occupied by the undead and ruthless people willing to do anything to stay alive. The first season of the game succeeds because not only does it take the time to build its characters’ relationships but it’s also hesitant to kill those characters just for the sake of shock value. If only the second season of the game had understood the importance of that instead of going all George RR Martin and chucking everyone into the grinder.
11. Lego Marvel Superheros (2013)
Easily the greatest of Lego’s legion of superhero games, Marvel Superheros is an open-world game filled with a ridiculous amount of fan service, in-jokes, and stuff to do that’s surprisingly mostly fun. Wanna swing around New York as Spider-man? Have at it. Or maybe running down Main Street, battering every car you come across as The Hulk is more your style. There are many classic characters to play as, each one with their own set of powers that are fun to play around with. Marvel Superheros is big, but more than that, it’s that rare big game that’s consistently entertaining, making the most out of its wonderful, strange marriage of intellectual properties.
12. The Wolf Among Us (2013)
Telltale’s other adaptation of a comic book doesn’t fire on all cylinders as much as its older, rotting-fleshed sibling does. In spite of that, this six hour prologue to the popular comic Fables does a fine job of filling in the backstories of the series’ two best characters, Bigby Wolf and Snow White, and making their character developments compelling. The game’s understated, heartfelt conversations and disturbing revelations that make us concerned for our two heroes, and for the wellbeing of the fables trying to stay alive in New York, are ultimately what holds The Wolf Among Us together and will hopefully serve as the foundation for a superior sequel.
Bonus Round: Freedom Force (2002)
Freedom Force isn’t technically based on any particular comic but instead the game is a delightful parody of The Silver Age of comic books and a beautiful tribute to the unparalleled comics genius Jack Kirby. An enjoyable real-time strategy game, Freedom Force spoofs both Marvel and DC characters by letting the player control a team of goofy super-powered patriots defending their city from a league of cartoonishly politicized super villains. Besides being a pretty funny game it’s also quite challenging, encouraging you to liberally use the quick load function when you make tactical miscalculations.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.