Super Types

July 1, 2010

The Comics Console: What Makes A Great Comic Book Video Game

I think there’s a bit more of a difference between what makes a good video game and what makes a good comic book based video game than some people think. There are all kinds of good and bad video games throughout history, and for comic book video games, most of them fall into the bad category, but with comics today continuing to boom, and with film and television taking comic books more seriously, the video game industry is also getting serious about comic book properties.

The best comic book based video game we’ve seen so far is without question Batman Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum is so good because the developers followed the same formula that makes a great comic book: original story, cool characters, and inspiring visuals.

The first thing Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady did right was hiring an actual comic book writer to pen the story, and who better for a Batman tale than Paul Dini? We were treated to a new and original experience that fans and non-fans could both invest in and enjoy, just like you would want from the perfect comic book.

Next, Rocksteady really brought the main character, Batman, to life. This wasn’t just creating a sprite with a Batman costume to run around and punch as; Rocksteady took Batman’s strengths as a character and made that accessible to the player. Batman is an expert fighter and brilliant detective, and Rocksteady in turn made us expert fighters and brilliant detectives. That’s where they really knocked it out of the park with this game.

And of course, the visuals were another huge component to the success of the game, and I’m not just talking about the game’s graphics. Everything from Batman’s costume to the designs of his villains and the aura of the world was new, yet familiar, and still very imaginative, with surroundings that compliment and suit the character. Again, all things you want out of a great comic book.

All these ingredients mixed together make a perfect comic book video game…or hell, just a great video game in general.

True, any video game is nothing without a fun, well-built foundation, and Arkham Asylum definitely has that, but we’ve also seen some good comic book games that weren’t exactly considered good games overall. An example of this is 2002’s Superman: The Man of Steel for the Xbox. While the game suffered from issues like repetitive and sometimes boring gameplay, glitches and bugs, and some pretty terrible voice acting, the developer, Circus Freak Studios, captured almost perfectly what it would feel like to fly between the skyscrapers of Metropolis. I remember ignoring what mission I was suppose to be accomplishing next and having a blast just flying around the city shooting off my heat vision randomly.

The X-Men Origins: Wolverine video game was widely considered a bad video game, but it does a great job of making the player feel like Marvel’s most complex anti-hero. With great use of Logan’s claws, healing factor, and other abilities, it’s great for the hardcore Wolverine fan, even if it isn’t a perfect game.

Probably the second best comic book video game in my opinion would be Spider-Man 2 (the movie tie-in). Activision’s previous Spider-Man games for the PlayStation/Nintendo 64/Dreamcast and the first Spider-Man movie game adaption did excellent jobs at making the player feel like the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but Spider-Man 2 is where they nailed it. With a Spider-Man whose every ability is accessible to the player, a fully explorable open-world New York City environment, and a story that isn’t afraid to stray far from the film’s, Spider-Man 2 was the ideal Spidy experience.

The thing this game really got right was the web slinging mechanic. This was the first realistic approach to swinging between buildings in New York we had seen in a Spider-Man game. Much like Man of Steel, I would take a break from the story to just swing around and enjoy the scenery. But where Spider-Man 2 succeeds and where Man of Steel fails, is that the story is actually so fun you don’t always want to take a break, but even better than that, the game encourages you to swing around the city and stop random crimes-in-progress as if you really were Spider-Man. I remember playing the game for hours the day it was released, and not being able to sleep that night, because every time I closed my eyes I would get dizzy from the image of swinging around as Spidy so much.

More recent Spider-Man games have stayed with this technique, but while this formula worked great in 2004, the Spidy games of late have had trouble evolving from this style of simple gameplay. Spider-Man: Web of Shadows keeps what made Spider-Man 2 so great, but also keeps the same repetitive missions we’ve had for years, with a few cheap gimmicks thrown in. Hopefully we’ll see something drastically new with the upcoming Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions.

You don’t always needs 3D graphics or modern technology to create a great comic book game. Scott Pilgrim: The Video Game is kicking it old school 2D beat ’em up style to bring the fighting spirit of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels to game consoles.

Another example of this is another of the all-time great comic book video games that came out in 1992 on the Super Nintendo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (or TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist as it’s titled on the Genesis). Konami gave us the weird story we expect from the TMNT, and one of the best 2D side scrollers ever made. This type of game works perfect for a property like TMNT because it doesn’t need anything fancy. Just lots of fun action and ass kicking with a sense of humor.

Most examples of comic book games failing are usually due to just not having that foundation of fun gameplay. Games like Batman: Dark Tomorrow or Wolverine: Adamantium Rage relied too heavily on namesake to make their game successful, and not enough on making a quality game.

One extremely annoying pet peeve of mine is developers attempting to make a video game actually look like a comic book. We saw this in 2005’s Ultimate Spider-Man where cut scenes are seen as moving comic book panels with complete with moving and appearing onomatopoeias.

I really don’t care for this style, because it feels so much like a cliche or like a crutch. Just because the source material is coming from a comic book doesn’t mean we need to see comic book themes translated into other mediums. A great example of how this fails hard is in Ang Lee’s Hulk film. We don’t need our video games or movies to look like comic books, otherwise we would just go read comic books.

While we comic book fans may still be victim to bad games based on movies based on comic books like Catwoman or Iron Man 2 in the future, we’re slowly but surely getting better comic book games free of any ties to movies or what have you like Batman Arkham Asylum and Transformers: War for Cybertron. And with both comic book and video games becoming more and more respected as artistic mediums, the future of comic book video games is very bright.

For more segments of The Comics Console, click here!

Andrew Hurst



  1. Billy

    Good write-up. My son loves Batman: Arkham Asylum. He could play that game all day. lol

  2. If the creators of some of these games would take the actual story a bit more seriously and realize that just because it’s a “comic book game” they do NOT all fall under a kiddie type of banner.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Mulder and Comic Attack. Comic Attack said: The Comics Console wants to know: What makes a great comic book video game? #comics #videogames […]

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