The evolution of superheroes in videogames

From the 8-bit days of Alex Kidd to the present, we look back at how videogame superheroes have evolved over the last quarter of a century…

Although we recently looked at the difficulties of adapting superheroes to videogames, it’s worth remembering that not every superhero videogame is adapted from a comic book or movie. Some of them are created for the medium itself.

As with comics, the superhero archetype has evolved along with the entertaining culture it’s embedded in, but how closely? To celebrate the release of DC Universe Online, let’s have a look…

Alex Kidd (1986)Sega Master System

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As the star of Alex Kidd In Miracle World, which came built into the Sega Master System, Alex Kidd was created in the superhero style, if not necessarily one in the traditional sense.

With a secret royal heritage and the ability to shatter rocks using his fists, Alex Kidd appeared in numerous games until 1991, when Sega booted him as their mascot in favour of a blue-tinted, attitude-spouting hedgehog who is now best known for appearing in mediocre games.

Superkid (1990)Spectrum, Amstrad CPC & Commodore 64

Although the character was as derivative as its name suggests, Superkid was nevertheless an 8-bit classic.

Was it the fact that you got to rescue helpless citizens, use your powers to fly all the way into space, and explore several different levels that made it great? Or was it the fact that you could punch helpless old biddies so hard that they literally popped? I’ll let you decide on that front.

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Captain Commando (1991)Arcade

Since Mario had proven that all gaming companies needed a mascot, Capcom took a character who had appeared in its manuals since 1986, recast him as a superhero from the future, and placed him in a self-titled side-scrolling arcade beat ‘em up, although anyone with any sense played as Mack the Knife, one of his three companions.

Judge Dredd meets Captain America, Captain Commando has since gained new life as a playable character in the Vs. Capcom series of fighting games.

Kid Chameleon (1992) Mega Drive/Genesis

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Heralding the arrival of the 90s proper was Kid Chameleon, and if you don’t believe me, just look at this list of attributes: skateboard, check. Mirrored shades, check. Leather jacket, check. First name: Casey, check and mate. And to top it off, the game was set in a virtual reality world.

If there’s a game more 90s than that, it probably starred Zack Morris.

Kid Chameleon had the ability to transform into a number of different characters, each with their own unique powers. One (Cyclone) was specifically a superhero and another, EyeClops, was clearly influenced by the X-Men’s Cyclops. (It was the 90s, after all!)

Earthworm Jim (1994)Mega Drive/Genesis & SNES

Strangely, although cut from the same cloth that gave us zany indie comic successes like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sam & Max (indeed, creator Doug TenNapel later became a comic book author) Earthworm Jim was an entirely original creation for gaming.

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Jim, a worm in a robotic suit, faced a variety of bizarre and surreal obstacles.

Fondly remembered for its humour even today, Earthworm Jim spawned several sequels, but, like many, the franchise was ultimately killed off by a premature attempt to realise the character in 3D during the late 90s.

Comix Zone (1995)Mega Drive/Genesis

With indie graphic novelists turning their creations into big business (Matt Groening, Eastman & Laird, Steve Purcell), it was only a matter of time before the comic artists became the stars, and that happened here, in Comix Zone.

When a bolt of lightning brings his creations to life, artist Sketch Turner becomes trapped in his own comic, fighting his way to freedom. The game faithfully reproduced a comic book aesthetic in which the player moved from panel to panel and characters had their own speech bubbles when they talked. Good fun, even if it was rock hard.

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After all that, in 1997, a little movie called Batman And Robin made the very idea of superheroes so toxic that, for years, it seemed like no one wanted to take a chance on their own, instead content to release adaptations and sequels featuring existing characters. And besides which, everyone was busy playing Pokémon and Final Fantasy.

It wasn’t until the X-Men movie made superheroes acceptable again that we got…

Freedom Force (2002)PC

A tactical RPG with a cast the size of Stan Lee’s royalty cheques, Freedom Force put players in control of the superheroes of Patriot City as they defended their home against all manner of villains.

Its developers shamelessly imitated existing Marvel and DC heroes/villains, but when the companies themselves weren’t providing, who can blame them? Besides a chancing lawyer, I mean.

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The game was very well received and a sequel, Freedom Force Vs. The Third Reich, was released in 2005, alongside a comic book adaptation of the first game.

Viewtiful Joe (2003)GameCube, PlayStation 2

It took two decades, but Capcom finally returned to original superheroes with Viewtiful Joe, in which the protagonist, Joe, finds himself inside the world of his favourite character, Captain Blue (tellingly, a cinematic, rather than comic book superhero) and given superpowers of his own to rescue his girlfriend.

With fantastic, cel-shaded graphics, Viewtiful Joe combined platforming, puzzles and combat, and received almost universally high ratings. Though we’re still waiting for a third game in the series…

City Of Heroes (2004)PC

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With superheroes firmly back in public favour following the well-received Spider-Man and X-Men movie sequels, it’s no surprise that a company put together a superhero universe that gave players the chance to create their own. Even if that did mean they had to go around deleting characters that looked too similar to existing, copyrighted creations.

Praised on release as being a fresh addition to a genre which was overrun with fantasy franchises, the City Of Heroes MMO is still going strong today, having recently merged with its own sequel, City Of Villains.

Crackdown (2007)Xbox 360

Although some might argue that a game which puts you in charge of a superpowered policeman isn’t really a superhero game (especially given the game’s ending!), it’s close enough for us. After all, as you play the game, you build up your superpowers, and by the end you’re able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Sure, you can also score a headshot from a great distance and your car morphs into a futuristic speedster, but those are superpowers of sorts.

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Crackdown was the first in a line of original, postmodern superhero creations on games consoles, and great fun to boot. It’s just a shame the 2010 sequel was a load of rubbish.

Infamous (2009)PlayStation 3

Continuing the postmodern take on superheroes which dominated the latter half of the 00s (e.g. films like Kick-Ass, and TV series like Heroes), Infamous starred Cole MacGrath, a bike courier given electricity-based superpowers, placed in an open-world city, and the chance to become either a hero or villain, depending on the player’s choices.

With the city in disarray following a cataclysmic explosion, the environment was reportedly influenced by Brian Wood’s New York warzone comic, DMZ, and the Batman No Man’s Land arc in which Gotham City is sealed off following a destructive earthquake. Well-regarded by critics and gamers, a sequel is due out this year.

[Prototype] (2009)PlayStation 3

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Lastly, [Prototype], a game with the misfortune to be released the month after Infamous, and featuring curiously similar concepts, a super-powered protagonist running around an open-world city. Still, it’s not like Infamous was the first game to do that. (You have to go back to the Atari 2600 Superman from 1978 to find the one that was!)

Again, like Crackdown and Infamous, [Prototype] isn’t a straight-up superhero game, just a game in which you have superpowers. Ultimately, it reviewed slightly worse than Infamous, but still did well enough to spawn a sequel, the trailer for which debuted last month.

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