The Legacy of Marvel vs. Capcom

From X-Men to Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, let's look back at the decades-long history of these bizarre and fun collaborations.

When money is involved, there’s always a way. For instance, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 was repeatedly hit with rights issues and Disney is a bit stingy with the Marvel properties in video game form, but we’re getting a third game in a few months because they know there’s money to be made. A similar thing happened a few years ago when we got Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. Marvel went with a new entry in a series that’s been known to make them money.

Granted, it didn’t work out for them, but it was still worth trying.

Anyway, despite being considered “Marvel vs. Capcom 4” by some, it was actually the ninth game to feature this unexpected, yet entirely fun crossover rivalry. A crossover rivalry that may have seen its final iteration, sad to say.

The partnership began back in 1993 when Capcom made the side-scrolling arcade brawler Punisher. The rad-as-hell beat ‘em up featured Frank Castle and Nick Fury taking out an army of goons sent by the Kingpin, which is rather odd when you realize that none of those three would show up in another Capcom game outside of ending cutscenes.

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But our story doesn’t truly begin until the end of 1994. One-on-one fighting games were a fad that was truly catching on due to the success of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The success of these titles created a fighting game free-for-all. Tons of companies set to work on new fighting games and/or ripoffs of more successful titles in an attempt to cash in on the trend. There were fighting games with monsters, fighting games with giant robots, fighting games with dinosaurs, fighting games with Shaquille O’Neil, fighting games with cartoonish clay beings, fighting games with murdered heroes from throughout history, and so on. Many of these turned out to be blemishes on the house that Capcom and Midway built. Luckily, Capcom was already hard at work on the next great fighting game.

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The X-Men franchise was huge in the early 90s and having Capcom, the guys who gave us Street Fighter II, translate it into a fighting game was outright brilliance. 13-year-olds around the world yelled, “YES! EXACTLY! THANK YOU!”

X-Men: Children of the Atom was released at the end of 1994 (beginning of 1995 for the US) and built on the foundation of Street Fighter II. Much like Super Street Fighter II Turbo, it included the then-new super meter system, but tweaked the engine into a much more…explosive aesthetic. Characters could jump much higher and simple fireballs became beam attacks with directional control. It felt more like a superhero fight than what Capcom had previously given us.

The game itself didn’t have much more of a story than, “Magneto’s up to something. Let’s go stop him!” The roster wasn’t huge, either. You could choose from six X-Men and four villains, while Juggernaut and Magneto acted as the bosses. Coincidentally, several of the characters came with samples from the voice actors who worked on the X-Men animated series. It was a design decision that would remain all the way into Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

But while X-Men: Children of the Atom had enough going on to be an instant classic, Capcom threw in a bit of a curveball. The game included an appearance by Akuma, the brand new mystery boss from Super Street Fighter II Turbo. There was no story logic behind it. In fact, Akuma hadn’t even been given much of a story by that point to begin with in regards to Street Fighter. Yet here he was, both as a hidden subboss and as a playable character through a fairly complicated code.

By defeating Magneto with Akuma, all you’d get was an end credits sequence littered with each X-Men character doing his/her dizzy animation.

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This was the first step in the crossover rivalry and led to a sequel. For its next Marvel game, Capcom decided to go much bigger. After all, the X-Men corner of Marvel is cool, but why use Colossus as your obligatory big, strong guy when you can use the Hulk? Why settle for Silver Samurai when you can use Dr. Doom? Iceman is neat, but not as neat as his amazing friend Spider-Man.

And so, less than a year later, we got Marvel Super Heroes. It had the same basic line-up of six playable heroes (bringing back Wolverine and Psylocke), four playable villains (including Juggernaut and Magneto), and two boss characters (Dr. Doom and Thanos). The whole thing was a loose interpretation of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline and brought with it a new addition to Children of the Atom’s engine: the Infinity Gems themselves.

Throughout the game, you would gather more and more Infinity Gems, which could be knocked out of the fighter’s possession to create a game of reverse hot potato until they were used up. Different Gems powered up the characters in different ways, such as stronger defense, healing, better offense, and so on. Certain character/Gem combinations caused cosmetic changes, like shadow effects or multiple versions of the character appearing on screen.

The game also featured Shuma-Gorath, which was outright weird. Apparently, Capcom really wanted this obscure Dr. Strange villain to appear in the game and Marvel shruggingly let them. Not only was Dr. Strange not in the game, but in the early internet days, nobody was really able to find out what the hell Shuma even was. He had only a handful of appearance back then and his multiple appearances since probably owe at least a little bit to Capcom’s tentacle love.

The Japanese version of the game once again featured a secret character. This time they went with Anita, the little girl from Capcom’s Darkstalkers. It was really an exercise in Capcom being lazy, since she had very, very little in terms of animation. She would instead just stand around while Donovan Bane’s floating sword would attack for her. One such move included having Akuma simply appear and stand next to her. Much like Akuma in Children of the Atom, she had nothing in terms of story and was just there for the sake of being there.

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Capcom did release a game called Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems for the SNES with a similar set of playable characters, yet it had absolutely nothing to do with the arcade fighter. What a letdown.

At the end of 1996, they built on the crossover even more with X-Men vs. Street Fighter. Not only were they turning it into a full-on crossover game instead of just a fun guest cameo, but they completely blew open the very concept of fighting games themselves by making it a two-on-two tag team game.

Poor SNK, whose tag-team fighter Kizuna Encounter came out the same month. That game never had a chance…

In this new game, the Street Fighter cast visited the Marvel engine. Now you could have Ryu jumping 50 feet into the air, only to stop himself and blast out a Kamehameha beam. The tag gimmick also allowed teammates to hit their super attacks side-by-side, adding overkill in their offense.

On the X-Men side, they introduced Rogue, Gambit, Sabretooth, and sorta final boss Apocalypse. With the Street Fighter folk, they reused lots of Street Fighter Alpha and Alpha 2 sprites, with one exception. They used the game to introduce Cammy’s Alpha self with a brand new look (showing more cheek than ever), which would be used later on for Alpha 3.

Apocalypse came in his giant form, which would have made for a fitting final encounter. Instead, defeating him leads to a rather curious follow-up where the fighter you used to get the final hit has to take on your partner in a one-on-one fight. Only then will you get to see your character’s ending cutscene.

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One of the endings actually had a lasting impact, oddly enough. Charlie Nash was at the time known for dying in all of his fighting game endings due to being a prequel-based personality whose death is supposed to be Guile’s modern-day motivation. X-Men vs. Street Fighter ends with M. Bison capturing him and experimenting on him. In future installments, Charlie reappears as the darkened palette swap Shadow. He’s depicted as a brainwashed cyborg who breaks from his programming and targets Bison again.

Not only would the Shadow concept show up in UDON’s Street Fighter comic series, but it would be the inspiration for Charlie’s storyline and appearance in Street Fighter V.

Sabretooth came with assists by Birdy, a very obscure X-Men character who only appeared in six comic book issues before being killed off in the early 90s. If not for Capcom, nobody would ever remember her. Even then, nobody’s ever tried to bring her back or even reference her existence.

Despite being such a revolutionary take on the fighting game idea, X-Men vs. Street Fighter was a disaster on PlayStation. Due to the console’s technical limitations, the port was just a one-on-one fighter with assists.

A year later and it’s Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. Again, why stop at just the X-Men? On one hand, the game introduced “Variable Assists,” where you could call in your partner for a quick assist attack. This feature would become a big part of the games moving forward.

On the other hand, the game is incredibly lazy. Nearly all the sprites and characters are from previous Capcom games. There are a bunch of hidden characters, but they’re just palette swaps, such as Armor Spider-Man and US Agent. Not only does the game use Apocalypse again, but he’s the prelude to Cyber-Akuma, which is just Akuma with some cyborg pieces added to his usual self.

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The most notable thing about Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter is the inclusion of Norimaro, a cartoony nerd designed by Japanese TV host Noritake Kinashi. Despite being the only truly original fighter in the game, Norimaro wouldn’t appear in the US version of the due to a rights issues. Plus, Marvel wasn’t especially happy with him being in there in the first place.

One thing that’s always stayed with me about this game is the official poster. It’s a great image that brings in all the different playable characters. Yet despite this being the most lighthearted game in the whole series, Sakura is shown crying in terror while Chun-Li tries to comfort her.

This is the game that has Dhalsim eating dinner with Shuma-Gorath, so maybe take it down a notch, girl.

Then early 1998 hit and Capcom wondered why it should even stop at JUST the Street Fighter crew? The result was Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes. While Capcom was pretty lax on the Marvel side, creating only one brand new playable character, one boss, and a palette swap with a new name and voice actor, they at least put in some real effort with the Capcom crew. Retaining only three Street Fighter guys and reusing Morrigan from Darkstalkers’ sprites, they also introduced Mega Man, Strider, Captain Commando, Jin Saotome, and Roll.

Variable Assists were removed and replaced with something a bit more ambitious, though never again used. A roulette of 22 assist characters would appear, each with a limited amount of times they could be called in. Outside of Thor and Jubilee, the Marvel side was made up of reused characters from earlier games while Capcom had only a few recycled animations mixed in there.

There were other interesting gimmicks tossed in, too. Ryu could switch his fighting style to play like Ken or Akuma. Duo Team Attacks allowed both members of the team to be active at the same time, a feature that was plenty broken.

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Building on Apocalypse in the last couple games, the final boss was none other than Onslaught, a villainous concept that was big at the time, yet Marvel and their fans would soon uncomfortably creep away from it. Unlike Apocalypse, he came in two forms: a normal form where he’s about the height of the screen and a building-sized second form.

The thing that makes me laugh about this game is the set of secret characters. On the Capcom side, outside of Roll, they’re all palette swaps with different names. Chun-Li became Shadow Lady and Morrigan became Lilith. Which…is kind of weird, since Capcom already had Lilith sprites lying around and didn’t need to simply recolor Morrigan, even if they did have a story reason for it.

But remember how, in the previous game, Capcom had recolored Marvel characters renamed as other Marvel characters? It very much appears that was the plan for this title, but the folks at Marvel shook their heads no. And so, we get “Red Venom,” “Gold War Machine,” and “Orange Hulk.”

“HULK CLOBBER TIME! PUNY YANCY STREET!”

Anyway, it was a fun game with a ton of personality. I have much love for the endings, featuring such moments as Venom trying to convince his partner to join him in being a mass murdering vigilante and Mega Man destroying Onslaught and then absorbing his powers.

Plus the hidden character theme is completely rad and overlooked.

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Then came 2000 with Marvel vs. Capcom 2: A New Age of Heroes. Not only did Capcom realize, “Why stop at two-on-two?” but they also asked, “Why stop at just over a dozen fighters?” They had a whole library of fully-designed characters on either side of the crossover. It was time to shove as many characters as possible into one game.

The three-on-three fighting game featured 56 playable characters, gradually unlocked in the arcades via time release. Only a mere nine of them were new, with just two belonging to Marvel (Cable and Marrow, to be specific). On the Capcom side, new characters Ruby Heart and Amingo were apparently Darkstalkers rejects whose sprites were shoveled into Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

There were also two versions of Wolverine: one with adamantium claws and one without. Capcom being Capcom.

The game brought back Variable Assists, giving each character a choice of three possible assist attacks and making the three-on-three melee into absolute chaos at times. Players also had the ability to tag out via supers and do “Snapbacks,” which were one-hit attacks that would force an opponent off-screen and make them tag in someone presumably with less health.

The whole thing came off as a final frontier for the Marvel fighting game engine. Outside of the pesky single arcade ending (hey, I cared!), it felt like the ceiling of what Capcom had to offer. The best they could do was add more characters or maybe tweak the gameplay a bit, but nothing was going to feel like a major or meaningful leap.

In a way, it was just as well that Capcom would go on to lose the Marvel license. By early 2000, Capcom became notorious for no longer giving a shit. Outside of Capcom vs. SNK and its sequel, Capcom could no longer hide the stink of laziness. Even Capcom vs. SNK 2, which featured some beautiful sprite art, still reused the original Morrigan sprite from the first Darkstalkers, which looked like an eyesore and showed the true Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain.

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Capcom’s Marvel stuff used to be Madden-like in how they would come out on a near annual basis. Then they went about a decade with nothing. What happened in the series’ absence was interesting for all the parties involved.

Capcom mostly went silent for a while, occasionally re-releasing old fighters with slight updates. Once the SNK partnership dried up, the best Capcom could do to fill the vacuum was to crossover with themselves. They released Capcom Fighting Evolution, the saddest mashup, where they tossed a bunch of sprites from various fighting games together and locked them into differing engine styles.

In 2008, they finally started to get their asses in gear. Not only did they finally create a brand new Street Fighter game for the first time in forever, but they also went back to the ridiculous crossover genre with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. In this game, Capcom properties took on anime heroes and villains from shows such as Gatchaman and Yatterman. The engine was a 3D cousin to X-Men vs. Street Fighter, going with the two-on-two tag style.

While Capcom certainly had some fun with the crossover aspect at times (especially since Tatsunoko character Doronjo was the inspiration for Capcom’s Devilotte and they played on that), the game didn’t catch on nearly as much as the Marvel series. Not only was it only available for the Wii in terms of home release, but the novelty wasn’t really shining in America, where the Tatsunoko guys were a bit too obscure.

Capcom still did better than Marvel. During the separation days, Marvel had Electronic Arts put together a Marvel fighting game called Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. It had Marvel staples take on the Imperfects, a bunch of newly-produced antiheroes created by the alien scientist Niles Van Roekel. The engine, which I can best describe as “gritty Power Stone,” was a decent start for something that could have worked down the line, but the game fell short and came off as mediocre at best.

At least it did have a rad tie-in comic miniseries by Greg Pak and Renato Arlem. It’s disappointing that Marvel at no point decided to capitalize on any of the Marvel vs. Capcom games by doing a comic miniseries. I think people would have read that. Right? But instead, we’ve had to settle with comics about Ryu and Chun-Li meeting Sonic the Hedgehog and the cast of GI Joe.

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Well, GI Joe used to be Marvel!

Elsewhere in the video game world, Midway knew to jump on the most basic counter project to Marvel vs. Capcom and put together Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. It was released in 2008, unfortunately just before the Mortal Kombat games figured out how to be good. While held back by its teen rating despite the Geoff Johns blood orgy that was DC Comics at the time, it was still fun and told a good crossover yarn.

Scorpion even got to show up in Injustice: Gods Among Us years later, mainly due to the fact that Warner Bros. bought the Mortal Kombat franchise from the bankrupted Midway. Sub-Zero and Raiden were in the sequel.

Even with all these crossover fighters being made to fill the void, it didn’t really matter. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 players refused to budge. The Evolution Championship Series had its first official installment in 2002 and every single year they had Marvel vs. Capcom 2. It was the mainstay. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom got a single year while Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Marvel Nemesis, and even Capcom Fighting Evolution never even got a spot at the tournament.

Part of the allure came from how utterly broken Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had become. Various characters were so overpowered that it became almost like an arms race in who could exploit the game’s shoddy balance better than anyone else. As long as this was the final step in the franchise, it was going to be part of the rotation forever, even if there were no tricks left for players to discover.

But that wouldn’t be necessary. In the middle of 2010, a teaser trailer was released, announcing Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds. In a single minute of cinematic footage, we got to see Ryu fight it out with Wolverine, as well as the unorthodox-yet-on-point rivalries of Morrigan vs. Iron Man and Chris Redfield vs. Hulk. And unlike the previous Capcom games, this was the more mainstream, rampaging version of Hulk instead of the smirking, smart one from the 90s.

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The trailer also included a bunch of silhouettes with a handful of them identifiable, such as Viewtiful Joe, Chun-Li, Captain America, Dr. Doom, and Deadpool.

As the months passed, more and more characters were announced through character trailers and even more cinematic trailers. The cinematic trailers were supposed to tie into a story mode that Capcom talked up quite a bit, but it was quietly swept under the rug by the time of the game’s release.

Still, the game delivered the same explosive goodness as past installments, only with modern graphics. Most characters still played the same as always and we had 38 to choose from. The big changes came in the form of a different button setup (taken from Tatsunoko vs. Capcom), the ability to do tagging air combos, and the X-Factor system. Each player could turn their team red and glowing for a limited time, in which they were faster, stopped taking chip damage, and could cancel into more combos. The less fighters remaining on the team, the longer the X-Factor would last.

The game also introduced Phoenix into the fray, whose ability to transform into an overpowered force of nature if you put all your eggs in one basket made selecting her a gamble of a strategy.

This time the big bad was Galactus. What resembled a story came in the form of a 12-page comic that came with the special edition, written by Frank Tieri and drawn by Kevin Sharpe. It had to do with a bunch of villains from Marvel and…one villain from Capcom (hi, Wesker!) teaming up to open a portal into the neighboring worlds, powering up the device by stealing from Galactus’ spaceship. AKA, the dumbest plan.

Tieri was brought in for the game to give it a few doses of character and charm. Not only did he write a lot of pre-fight and post-fight one-liners for the heroes and villains, but he also wrote endings for every single character. Many of them played up the crossover aspect, such as Chun-Li beating up Kingpin, Arthur fighting Fin Fang Foom, Tron Bonne reprogramming Sentinel, and so on. A couple of them seemed to exist for the sake of saying how cool it would be if ____ was in the game. Most notably Iron Fist in Ryu’s ending and Ghost Rider in Dante’s ending.

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Wouldn’t you know it, less than a year after Marvel vs. Capcom 3 came out, Capcom announced Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The original plan was to have a handful of DLC characters for Marvel vs. Capcom 3, but that went out of the window due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Instead, they did a discounted update featuring twelve new characters (hi, Iron Fist and Ghost Rider!) and some minor changes.

Funny thing happened prior to its release when one of the guys working the official website made it really easy to find out who the extra characters were going to be well in advance, thereby ruining all the surprises for Capcom’s marketing team. Whoops!

Despite being a real success, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and its Ultimate counterpart didn’t last all that long on the physical and digital shelves. At the end of 2013, Disney let the Marvel/Capcom contract lapse. As far as they were concerned, why go third party? They had their own in-house stuff to make them money. Yeah, Marvel vs. Capcom 4 would be a license to print money, but that meant sharing and sharing is stupid.

That didn’t stop Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 from being one of the main events in every EVO after its release. Naturally, Capcom tried to distance themselves from the game’s tournament strength, considering they had no way of selling copies at the time.

Then, several years later, they reunited once again. Marvel and Capcom banded together for another go to make Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite in 2017. The new installment went against the grain by moving backwards instead of forwards.

Instead of building on the engine that culminated in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite appeared to be like an altered evolution. It’s what the X-Men vs. Street Fighter concept could have become if it zigged instead of zagged. On one hand, it was back to being two-on-two instead of three-on-three, but on the other hand, they brought back the Infinity Gems from Marvel Super Heroes.

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Er, Infinity STONES. Because movies.

But while Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite went backwards in terms of the engine, it also goes backwards in another, more damning way. The X-Men (and less-importantly, Fantastic Four) were off-limits. No Wolverine or Magneto in this big fight because Fox owned movie rights and Marvel only wanted to focus on whoever’s able to be connected to their cinematic universe.

Man, mutants really do get a bum rap.

The game mostly reused old assets (did we really need Rad Spencer to come back?), though we got a few new characters. Interestingly enough, the announce trailer’s attempt to make the inclusion of Captain Marvel was met with mostly shrugs. They mistimed that bombshell by a couple of years. Other new characters included Jeddah, Ultron, and a new version of Thanos. The game’s big boss was Ultron and Sigma merged into one being, which made it curious that Sigma himself was DLC. Other DLC characters included Black Widow, Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Monster Hunter, and Venom. Though by the time they came out, people had long stopped caring.

Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite was a fun game, but it lacked any real staying power. I mean, the story mode was actually really off-the-wall and ended with Thanos making a gauntlet powered by Ryu’s inner-darkness so he could throw Hadokens at Death, but as a competitive fighter, it had no legs. Among other things, the X-Men exclusion hurt them, especially when a representative tried to play it off by claiming that nobody really remembers the X-Men these days anyway. Also, Arc System Works and Bandai Namco announced Dragon Ball FighterZ around that time, which gave us that 3-on-3 tag fix we’ve been wanting.

The most damning moment came with the announcement of Evo 2018. For the first year since its inception, there would be no Marvel vs. Capcom. They wouldn’t even be going back to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite was passed over and we instead got the likes of BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle and Injustice 2.

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Will we ever see a Marvel vs. Capcom 5? Not in a while, if ever, I figure. But the nice thing is that Ultimate Alliance 3 prominently features Wolverine and that was a thing before Disney bought up Fox. At least we won’t have that bullshit to deal with in the potential next game.

Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and wants a Killer Instinct vs. Valiant Comics game even if maybe three other people would be excited over it. Read more of his articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L