The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a box office juggernaut. (No, not Professor X’s step brother. His movie rights are still owned by Fox.) Occasionally, Disney’s emphasis on creating storylines that weave throughout all of the films has hampered the ability of individual films to create a coherent story (cough Age of Ultron cough), but it’s also helped to craft a vibrant universe of worthy heroes that we love as characters as much as paragons of superpowered justice. At least on the Marvel side, we have a renaissance of cinematic superhero storytelling, but the market for solid licensed superhero games remains an almost barren wasteland.
Ten years ago, Raven Software and Activision released Marvel Ultimate Alliance. A Beat ‘Em Up/RPG hybrid, Ultimate Alliance let players loose with over twenty playable members of the Marvel universe to stop a plan by Doctor Doom to usurp the powers of Odin and conquer the world. It’s a fairly basic superhero crossover tale, but it was deeply rooted in decades of comic book lore and made by a team who clearly understood what folks loved about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision of cape storytelling.
Last month, both Marvel Ultimate Alliance and its… less than satisfactory sequel were re-released for modern consoles. Although the re-releases suffer from a host of technical issues, they reminded us why those games have become standard bearers for licensed hero games, and here are ten lessons that they can still teach games and films today… for better and for worse.
In part because of the success of Christopher Nolan’s “realistic” reboots of Batman, superhero films and games have moved away from the fantasy and science fiction at the heart of much of the Marvel and DC Universe. The mysticism that underlined Jack Kirby’s most fertile years or the space opera leanings of Chris Claremont’s tenure with X-Men are nearly non-existent in the stories we see on film and in games. It’s little surprise that one of the freshest of the recent crop of superhero films is the gonzo Guardians of the Galaxy.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance starts on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier but takes players to Mephisto’s realm (aka Hell), to Asgard and all the way across the universe to the Shi’ar Empire. By the time the game is over, you remember that you are playing characters with nearly godlike powers (and some, like Thor, are actual gods), and the only thing limiting their adventures is the writer’s imagination.
Here’s a game that should make you sad. Name a solo licensed superhero game with a female lead. I can name one, and it was the abysmal Catwoman game based off the Halle Berry film. Here’s another challenge. Name a solo licensed superhero game with a lead that’s a person of color. There aren’t any.
Representation matters, and in games and film, it’s not there. Ultimate Alliance offered players the most recognizable members of the Marvel universe like Spider-Man, Iron Man and Thor, but it also gave players the chance to play as less visible members of the universe that weren’t just white dudes: Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Black Panther, Storm, and the Invisible Woman, to name a few. With a Luke Cage show coming to Netflix and Brie Larson cast as the MCU’s Captain Marvel (the former Ms. Marvel), it’s time we get games where the spotlight is officially shone on them.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was a disappointment for a lot of reasons. It dumbed down the combat of the first game significantly while also replacing careful combat design with endless waves of enemies. But it’s biggest miscue was primarily basing itself off of Mark Millar’s Civil War storyline. Having to listen to characters complain about violations of their constitutional rights when they’re literal vigilantes enforcing the law outside of any judicial authority or public accountability is a stretch.
The best comic stories work because they understand the structure of the comic book panel/page as a method for telling a story. The best superhero films understand the power of moving images to tell a story. Games are about interaction and choice, and you should pick source material that reflects those dynamics. Ultimate Alliance 2 let you choose which side of the war you were on, but there were plenty of opportunities to examine player choice and superhero responsibility that were never realized.
Arguably the best licensed superhero game since Marvel Ultimate Alliance is Lego Marvel Super Heroes, and it’s great for essentially all of the reasons that Ultimate Alliance is great. But one area where it improves upon its spiritual predecessor is how it treats its heroes outside of combat. Beyond the hub levels and some slight dialogue trees, Ultimate Alliance only lets you explore its heroes through how they fight villains (and each other in the sequel). You have a host of powers that showcase the ingenuity of your heroes as combatants, but there’s little space for the myriad ways that they can be heroic that don’t involve violence.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes and the Arkham Batman games show heroes as problem solvers. We’ve never had a Batman film that showcases him as the World’s Greatest Detective, but in the Arkham games, Batman’s suite of technology is key to his identity. Lego Marvel Super Heroes lets you use powers for platforming and puzzles and they all feel distinct to the hero you’re controlling. If Activision ever resurrects the Ultimate Alliance franchise, it would be great for them to integrate more tools for non-combat experiences in the game.
While superhero games and films should always be aware of the unique needs that distinguish comic brooks from their media, they should also be respectful to what folks liked about these stories in the first place. Arkham Knight and Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman were divisive because they took beloved heroes and made them into sociopathic reflections of violence and toxic masculinity with little resemblance to the heroes that they were in our youth. The ‘80s work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore and the ‘90s Dark Age of comics have some blame here, and there’s room for mature, nuanced superhero storytelling, but violence and “edgy maturity” can’t be a replacement for character driven storytelling.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance gave plenty of nods to these characters and the complex, interweaving webs they shared in each others lives. The dialogue in missions would change radically based upon who was in your party. It was a little thing, but it grounded these characters in a world that existed before you sat down to play and will continue to evolve once the game’s credits roll, and you knew Spider-Man as a wise-cracker and Thor as a serious ruler and Captain America as a paragon of patriotic virtue. These traits matter and invest you in these universes.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance is a who’s who of Marvel’s best villains, and they interact with the world in a way that makes sense for their characters. Galactus is a cosmic god. Dr. Doom prizes power above all else. The Mandarin is willing to betray the other evil-doers if it means he can come out on top (spoiler: he doesn’t). The Skrull are hellbent on galactic extinction, and when the game is over, it’s hard to feel like you didn’t risk it all to save the universe. When Ultimate Alliance 2 pits you against heroes with awful motivation for their actions and their non-powered lackies, I never felt especially heroic.
Solo superhero stories are essential, because superheroes should represent a diverse cross-section of people and individual stories can provide inspiring heroics for all members of society. But crossover stories are also fun because sometimes there are problems we can’t solve on our own, and if we can tackle them with friends, it’s that much better. Ultimate Alliance let you and your friends take center stage in an epic fantasy. And if you and four friends can be the Fantastic Four or the X-Men or one of the many line-ups of the Avengers, everybody gets to be the hero and play together.
The original Ultimate Alliance had deep roots in RPGs. In fact, it could easily be considered a four person, superhero driven version of Diablo. There was an emphasis on loot. You leveled up and spent skill points and money on new costumes and abilities. It was stat-driven. And that’s fine, although the idea of Spider-Man equipping something dropped by Bullseye to become stronger is a little silly. But the first game (the second fixed this) only gave experience points to the people in your active party. In a game with over twenty characters, you were given very little incentive to experiment with your roster because the characters who were sitting on your bench quickly became underleveled. If you offer a huge cast, encourage players to pick and choose who they play as often as possible; don’t give them reason to form a bland, vanilla party.
When Ultimate Alliance takes you to Arcade’s Murderworld or Namor’s Atlantis, it’s showing parts of the Marvel Universe that are never displayed in films or television. Hell, Murderworld is probably only familiar to the casual gamer because of the old Sega Genesis/SNES game Arcade’s Revenge, where the X-Men team up with Spider-Man. And we should see more deep cuts from the Marvel/DC Universe in games/film. Where’s the Squirrel Girl or Kamala Khan film? Miles Morales is long due for his own Spider-Man film (especially after the Andrew Garfield franchise never went anywhere). The success of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that audiences are willing to embrace unknown heroes if the Marvel brand is there and the reviews are good enough. It’s time games take the same risks.
The Ultimate Alliance games are spiritual successors to Raven Software’s earlier X-Men Legends games, which had the same premise as the Ultimate Alliance games but let you have fun with the massive roster of X-Men heroes instead of the broader Marvel Universe. And here’s a thing you’ve maybe noticed. We haven’t had an X-Men game in years. The last console X-Men game was 2011’s X-Men: Destiny which got… not great reviews. And there are rumors these days that Disney is holding back on new X-Men games until they can reclaim the film license from Fox. A handful of X-Men have appeared in the Lego games and other licensed Marvel products, but they haven’t been able to star in a long while. I don’t know about the rest of you but there are few things as satisfying as throwing Gambit’s kinetic energy powered playing cards at enemies or controlling the weather and wreaking havoc as Storm. Come on, Disney. Let the X-Men shine.
Don Saas is a music and games journalist based out of West Virginia. If you want to see his rants about movies and pro wrestling, you can find him on Twitter here.