Here’s a statement only 90’s kids will understand: The Avengers are the cheapest, most low-rent superheroes available.
To be clear, this is not to say that pre-Disney Marvel Comics didn’t have one hell of a superhero team on its hands. Ever heard of The X-Men? They were the bomb-diggity, and it is hard to convey to modern readers just how many children at the time were putting forks between their fingers and pretending to be Wolverine. This may have just been a result of the comics being fun and plentiful, but it is more likely that the X-Men were popular because they had a hit Saturday morning cartoon (that, if memory serves, had upwards of seven episodes across seven years), multiple tie-in videogames, and more action figures than you could ever hawk at a garage sale. The “culmination” of this massive popularity was the 2000 movie that defined superhero films/Hugh Jackman for a decade. And speaking of films, X-Men paved the way for other superheroes that were… also not known as Avengers. Spider-Man leaps immediately to mind, but this was also the era when DC Comics’ Batman came into his own grim popularity. And Batman was able to get there because his previous projects, like the Burton films and the amazing animated series, were also grand successes. And has there ever been a videogame console that didn’t host a Batman or Superman game of some kind? I’m not going to bother to do any research on this matter (the internet is all the way over there!), but it certainly feels like there was an Atari Jaguar Batman title! Point is that well before Disney decided to create its shared universe, superheroes were popular in all sorts of mediums.
… Except the Avengers. The Avengers were consistently forgettable.
The Avengers comics were always there (well, “always” as in “since Stan Lee decided to slap a bunch of his most lucrative properties [and Ant-Man] together”), and they were always at least moderately popular. The Avengers were appealing because they seemed to have a lot more latitude than other “superhero rosters”. Why? Well, in the absence of a clear Superman or Wonder Woman, you really could slot anybody into the team. Dropping a literal god for a dude that can shoot arrows? Sure! Bald “Celestial Madonna” because Magneto’s daughter is on vacation this week? Why not! But, unfortunately, this led to The Avengers not being as “established” as its rival teams (you know, other gangs where you could always count on spotting a Wolverine). This made for a franchise that was generally good, but also often something closer to Captain America and his Amazing Friends. Or, in the case of the number one reason some children of the 80s and 90s recognize any Avengers, Iron Man & his Amazing Friends.
While never as popular as Batman, Spider-Man, or The X-Men, Marvel had a moderate hit with an animated Fantastic Four series in 1994. This cleared the way for its “partner” television show (gotta have that “Marvel Action Hour” for syndication), Iron Man. Tony Stark was clearly the lead in Iron Man, but he was joined by a number of other Marvel luminaries, like Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury. Were they collectively referred to as “The Avengers”? Nope! They were Force Works, which did exist in the comics of the era, but certainly not with Hawkguy. However, the basic concept was there, even if you had to wait until five years later to see the sequel series, Avengers: United They Stand, which lasted a whole thirteen weeks before fading into nothing. Why did it disappear so quickly? Likely because they based the whole thing on West Coast Avengers, a team that dropped Captain America for friggin’ Tigra. Tigra! The only Avenger to appear in 2019’s seminal musical film, Cats!
So, through the 90s, kids that did not have easy access to comic book shops had one impression of The Avengers: they are the heroes that can’t support their own shows. Spider-Man stars in a 600-episode arc about some stupid stone tablet, and Captain America maybe gets to guest star in three. Lou Ferrigno will smash as Hulk whether he is animated or live-action, but Thor can only stop by for an episode or two. Iron Man gets his own show, and he winds up sponsoring refugee D-listers like Wanda Frank. And if these losers were to get a tie-in videogame, well, why should it goes well?
Captain America and The Avengers is a 1991 Arcade title from Data East. It is, like so many other licensed games of the time, a 4-player beat ‘em up. The variation du jour of CAatA is that you have the choice of throwing or detonating most background objects (Ninja Turtles only has exploding barrels! No options at all!), and some levels turn into shoot ‘em ups. That’s about it. So, like most other beat ‘em ups of the time, the game lives or dies on its heroes, enemies, and presentation. And how do those all work out? Poorly!
Your heroes are Captain America (yay!), Iron Man (woohoo!), Hawkeye (arrows are passable videogame weapons), and Vision (that guy). Your enemies are (per Turtle tradition) an army of generic robots that are wholly constructed of nitrous and dynamite. And the bosses? Well, there are more bosses than most beat ‘em ups, as you face a mid-boss and a final boss for each level. But quantity is no substitute for quality here, as your heroes face the likes of Living Laser, Klaw, Wizard, and Controller. Look, when you are facing a boss that is named after a videogame peripheral, you know the A-listers were too busy for this nonsense. Even more interesting villains, like Grim Reaper or Ultron, are reduced to “has a dash attack” and “has a fireball” do-nothings. And don’t even get me started on Mech. Taco, the Taco that walks like a mech (oddly, Mech. Taco has not appeared in any Disney flicks yet, but we all have our fingers crossed). Strangely, this means that noted Wasp villain, Whirlwind, comes off as the most interesting boss, as at least his windy powers impact not only the fight, but also the background and any incidental debris that may be scattered about. It’s neat! It’s maybe the only neat thing in the game!
Excuse me, there is one other “neat” thing: the Avengers couldn’t get through one game without some X-Men transplants. The Sentinel, a gigantic robot that is iconic for its relentless hunting of mutants, appears as a shoot ‘em up boss in Stage 2. It is identified as “Giant Robot”, but nobody is going to mistake that purple titan for the Iron Giant. And Juggernaut is the first boss to appear on Red Skull’s space station. This is easily the worst depiction of Juggs in a videogame (dude kind of looks like a hunched-over cyclops [not that Cyclops]), but this is unmistakably Charles Xavier’s beefcake brother. Dude is lumbering around as usual, just reminding you that you could migrate over to the X-Men arcade cabinet at any time. Wouldn’t you rather rescue Kitty Pryde than slug it out with the likes of Crossbones?
And if you want to play a game with X-Men anyway, maybe you should fast forward to Marvel Super Heroes In War of the Gems.
Captain America and The Avengers was a Data East joint, and, unless you were really into BurgerTime, you could be forgiven for assuming their Avengers tie-in would be lackluster. But Capcom! Now there was a gaming company to trust back in the 80s and 90s. They had Mega Man! And Street Fighter! And were able to make a passable game out of Talespin! And they successfully adapted The X-Men into a fighting game that spawned its own franchise! And the second game in that franchise was an Avengers game! Kinda! Marvel Super Heroes is conceptually based on the same Infinity Gauntlet Marvel comic series that would eventually become the most profitable movie duology of all time. But this version included the likes of Magneto, Juggernaut, Wolverine, Psylocke, and at least one multi-tentacled monstrosity. And there are noted Avengers Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk, too, so it marginally counts as an Avengers title! Probably! Oh, and if you wanted a little more plot, there was a SNES tie-in title that dropped three X-characters, and picked up a whole host of Avenger buddies! Marvel Super Heroes in War of the Gems, released in 1996, certainly should qualify as an Avengers game.
It also qualifies as yet another Avengers tie-in that feels cheap as hell.
There are good bones here. This is a beat ‘em up with the occasional bit of 2-D platforming. Like X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse, it is also a game where you can occasionally utilize special moves and combos like its attendant fighting game. This is a great change from the ol’ standard of “lose health/energy for doing anything” that has plagued many other Marvel games. And, while the roster cannot completely qualify as Avengers in 1996 (Wolverine and Spider-Man wouldn’t consistently join up until they had successful movie franchises), they are all roughly on the same power level, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to see Smart Hulk tussling with the same baddies as Captain America. Oh! And for a little variety, we do occasionally see a handful of areas where air is limited, so we basically get an organically incorporated timer for challenges. Got to get that heartrate up somehow!
Unfortunately, while the basic gameplay is marginally inventive (this is better than Final Fight with Captain America), the levels and their attendant enemies are anything but. For whatever reason, while the Marvel universe has some pretty amazing locales (Limbo is lovely this time of year), nearly all of the stages in MSHiWofG are forgettable, “video game-y” areas. There’s a lava level, ice level, sewer level, and aquarium (because who doesn’t need a water level in their beat ‘em up). Yes, you get to fly to Dr. Doom’s citadel, but it is more of an excuse to use a castle tile-set and incorporate a teleporter maze than anything. And your opponents through all of these battlegrounds? Well, they are simply “evil clones” of your Avengers, so you face armies of Iron Man-but-with-spikes, Wolverine-but-green, and Hulk-but-bald. Look, when Spider-Man is your hero without an evil clone, you done #$^&ed up. But do not think that just because an Avenger isn’t playable in the game that they will be left out of the fun. Daredevil gets a literal devil variant, Vision becomes a flying menace, and Hawkeye actually becomes a threat with an evil version that snipes from far-off platforms. Even an evil Silver Surfer slides through a stage! All the heroes you love! Ready for punching!
And it is supremely weird how this makes the whole game feel very… budget. There is never an explanation offered for this army of anti-Avengers, and their general designs are not distinct enough to warrant any further investigation on “who” these bad good guys are supposed to be. Is that supposed to be a She-Hulk that is also searching for the gems? No, because there are three of ‘em all in a line, and Jennifer Walters doesn’t have cloning powers. Alpha Flight, Canada’s premiere superhero team, seems to stalk around the Alaska stage, so you could totally justify their existence as our northern neighbors thinking they know best… but then the same “Evil Puck” creatures appear at the New York aquarium. And, somehow, the original characters make even less sense in this context. Blackheart pops up out of nowhere with exactly zero explanation as to why he is participating in this War of Gems, and Dr. Doom flees his castle to fight again later and unceremoniously die in space. You have the whole of the Marvel stable participating in the Infinity Wars, why forsake real, interesting villains for friggin’ Sasquatch?
I guess if you wanted to see the Avengers battle some actual villains, you would have to play their fighting game released the same year. Are you ready for Avengers: Galactic Storm? Because Data East certainly wasn’t…
For reasons our top scientific minds are still trying to discern, this Avengers title is based on Operation Galactic Storm, an Avengers crossover from 1992 that is remembered by exactly nobody. This 1996 arcade game is the only proof it ever happened at all! And, while it is nice that we nearly got two fighting games featuring Captain America in a year, this roster is chockful of Avengers F-Stringers. Thor is on vacation, so please accept Thunderstrike! Iron Man is taking a powder so you can have the real man in armor, Black Knight! And Crystal, best known as being either Johnny Storm’s girlfriend, Black Bolt’s niece, or Quicksilver’s wife, is your standard one female Avenger rep. And the bad guys are exclusively Kree adversaries, so you are stuck with Supremor, Shatterax, and Korath-Thak. Remember last Christmas? When everyone was trying to find Korath the Pursuer action figures? No, of course not, that would be stupid. Korath looks like what would happen if Juggernaut shrunk in the dryer, and he is about as memorable as Cain Marko’s drycleaner (first appearance Amazing X-Men Volume 2 #15). At least we have Dr. Minerva, who is basically an evil Captain/Ms. Marvel. Wait! That just means we couldn’t get through another Avengers game without an X-Men character appearing. Dammit!
Oh, and the game looks terrible, and plays even worse. Please try to act surprised that the people behind Fighter’s History couldn’t produce a good licensed fighting game. Additionally, continue to feign shock that faux 3-D graphics in the mid 90’s aged about as well as Thunderstrike (if you have not already surmised, Thunderstrike is phenomenally stupid). About the only memorable bit in this Avengers title is that its story mode has instant continues (so you don’t have to blow quarters on a match continually “resetting” with every loss), and there are assist characters of dubious efficacy. It is cool that someone decided to model the Vision for this plastic universe, but it is a little saddening that this ‘droid of a thousand abilities only gets to perform a reverse dive kick. At least let my man bust out the laser eyes!
And what do all of these 90’s Avengers have in common? They’re cheap. They seem like knock-offs of other, better franchise games. Batman gets to fight Penguin, Riddler, and Two-Face. Spider-Man fights Sandman, Venom, and at least one rampaging guerilla. Captain America can only ever fight Whirlwind, Bald Hulk, or the multi-tentacled avatar of a floating, green head. Iron Man gets dinky little sprites, Colossus gets big, chunky pixels and a special move that roars through the arcade. Magneto always shows up for Dazzler, while Vision can barely summon the attention of Ronan the Accuser. In short, back in the day, the most prominent Avenger would never rank above the most extraneous of X-Men. Kids of the 90’s were convinced that The Avengers were not Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but little more than an opening act for the real heroes.
But, luckily, The Avengers were catapulted to greatness with the release of their 2012 film. And The Avengers never saw a “budget”, failure of a videogame ever again.
… Or The Avengers are stuck being those Avengers forever.
FGC #584 Captain America and The Avengers
- System: Arcade initially (and used for these screenshots), and then Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Game Gear. The Game Boy and NES versions have the same name, but are generally different, also low-budget experiences.
- Number of players: Get four in the arcade! Or two at home! Or zero on Game Gear, because those batteries ran out five minutes ago.
- Favorite Avenger: Vision has a great walk. That… is about all that distinguishes these characters. You’d think there would be a significant disparity between a guy living in a robotic suit of armor and a dude that just shoots arrows, but here we are.
- One Lady Avenger Per Game: Wasp appears as an assist “option” during the shooting sections. There is no sign of Scarlet Witch, unfortunately, despite the fact that Vision is playable, and Quicksilver bops in from time to time to drop health refills.
- Hawkguy: Hawkeye is a playable character in this game from Data East, and also a participant in Sega’s Spider-Man arcade game. And he was one of the only two playable characters in the NES Avengers title. How did these companies all keep choosing Hawkeye!?
- Favorite Boss: Red Skull seems to be cosplaying as Kingpin this time, and then he gets a giant, weirdly fleshy Terminator robot and a pope-bubble to hide in. This is literally the only boss in the game that is remotely memorable… give or take the taco.
- Did you know? This localization is legendarily bad, but please be aware that octopus in Japanese is “tako”. Mecha Taco is clearly just “mechanical octopus”, but I guess someone was in the mood for Mexican.
- Would I play again: This is not one of the great beat ‘em ups of our time. I’d rather play one of those.
FGC #584 Marvel Super Heroes in War of the Gems
- System: Super Nintendo exclusive. Apparently there was talk of a Genesis port, but it never materialized.
- Number of players: Nothing was learned from SNES Final Fight, so just one.
- Hawkguy: No, seriously, what is the deal with Hawkeye? His clone appears in damn near every stage, and he is always a pain to avoid. Do arrows just work naturally well with videogame mechanics?
- One Lady Avenger Per Game: Savage She-Hulk is an occasional opponent. She never appears as a boss, and she’s in full-on berserker mode, but she’s at least there. No, there are no evil Black Widows, Tigras, or even Jocastas to fight.
- Best Surprise: Nebula, the cybernetic underling of Thanos, is the penultimate boss of the game. And she offers a pretty good fight, too. If I didn’t know better, I would assume her and her varied moveset was another transplant from the arcade fighting game, but, nope, she’s original to this one. And she’s a pretty fun cyborg for everybody!
- Did you know? There are sections where Avengers must fight underwater, and have a limited air meter. This makes sense for mostly human Captain America or mostly naked Hulk, but Iron Man has the same issue. He’s in a robot suit! It’s his thing! He doesn’t need to find a source of air! And, for some reason, everyone can breathe in space! What is going on here!?
- Would I play again: I’ll take X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse first, and that’s only if, like, every other X-Men game is not available. This Wolverine adventure doesn’t even rank.
FGC #584 Avengers in Galactic Storm
- System: Arcade exclusive, though it is being released as an Arcade1Up cabinet as a sorta-arcade exclusive.
- Number of players: Two, though you can actually cooperate with your second player if you’d like. I have not ever seen two people that want to play this game, though.
- One Lady Avenger Per Game: Continuing the grand tradition of the most unassuming character being the absolute best, Crystal the Inhuman Princess kicks unaccountable amounts of ass in this one. She can summon meteors! And fireballs! And her hyper attack is a tidal wave! She’s easily the best Avenger available for this job, and puts Black Knight and his silly little bomber jacket to shame. There are, unfortunately, no Lady Avengers on the assist roster.
- Favorite Assist: Giant Man is represented by a giant, inexplicably hairy arm flying into the frame. I like to pretend that The Avengers just became caught in a Monty Python sketch, and then I imagine what that fighting game would look like. For the record, it looks like Heaven.
- Did you know? Dr. Minerva, Captain Marvel’s palette swap, did appear in the Captain Marvel movie as one of Carol’s Kree rivals. So that means we saw Minn-Erva on the big screen before Thunderstrike. Eat it, Eric Masterson.
- Would I play again: No.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse! We’re going from one group of officially licensed Disney mascots to the big boy! Please look forward to it!