Going for the gold.
Golden Ages are universally used to describe a period of time where something is at its best. In film, the era marking the transition from the silent-film era to the 1960s is considered by many to be Hollywood’s Golden Age. In comics, broadly, the Golden Age is when comics, particularly superhero comics, became a major force in publishing and many iconic Marvel and DC characters we know and love today were created.
The popularity of comic books has ebbed and flowed over the years but with the recent Golden Age of superhero films underway–look no further than Avengers: Endgame toppling Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time–we’re also entering a Golden Age in superhero gaming.
Although it’s worth mentioning that there are several comic book video games from the past that are good, it’s just that most of them weren’t! This is mostly because superhero games up until a certain point were just movie tie-in cash grabs and not standalone games.
Whether it’s 1998’s Batman and Robin–for which IGN wrote in their review “[i]n the end, you’ll buy this game only if you’re a Batman fanatic, not because it’s a good game”– or 2004’s Catwoman, which was simply as much of a car crash as the film, superhero games were plagued with boring stories, terrible controls, awful character acting and, specifically in Catwoman’s case, unplayable camera angles.
But things started to improve. The first of a few examples of this this was, perhaps, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s 2009 single player action adventure game that saw players take control of the Dark Knight to try and escape from Arkham Asylum and it took the world by storm because of how authentically the player was able to control and feel like Batman, especially in comparison to previous superhero games. It won countless accolades and broke many sales records, eventually spawning a critically acclaimed series of Batman games.
In fact, superhero gaming has boomed everywhere since. Marvel’s popular, albeit often under-looked Ultimate Alliance series got a rebirth as an exclusive title on the Nintendo Switch with Marvel’s Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Sony recently released Iron Man VR where the players can make use of PlayStation VR to literally become Iron Man. Even the Lego versions of superhero titles and properties are great, fun games.
If we fast forward to now, we’re only two years out from PlayStation 4’s Spider-Man, which many consider to be one of the best, if not the best, superhero games of all time. It became one of the fastest-selling games of the year, one of the best-selling PlayStation 4 games of all time, and the fastest-selling superhero game in the United States.
Spider-Man, like Arkham Asylum before it, was the first game to take a character as beloved as Spider-Man and truly test the limits of what it would be like to play as him in his own standalone non-movie-tie-in game. It had dynamic combat, sweeping cinematography and fantastic world-building with possibly the best Spidey-swinging mechanic there’s ever been. In short, it surpassed its predecessors in every way.
In fact, as of 2019, Sony’s Spider-Man, two Lego superhero games (Lego Batman and Lego Marvel Superheroes) and two Batman Arkham games (Arkham City and Arkham Knight) filled out the top five of the US lifetime sales top five for superhero games. The oldest game there is from 2008, which is surely testament to how much appetite for superhero gaming has increased and how much the games have improved.
Then there’s the advent of mobile gaming with games like Marvel’s Contest of Champions, Marvel Puzzle Quest, and Spider-Man Unlimited providing people with a fun, easy to play, bite size superhero gaming experience playable on their phone. Contest of Champions, for example, has been downloaded more than 40 million times, a staggering total.
When you sit back and take all of this in it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we might currently be living through the ‘Golden Age’ of superhero gaming. With so much variety across almost every platform there’s something for everyone and superhero video games have never been more respected or just generally better than now.
And if we’re not in the ‘Golden Age’ yet, then we must at least be at the start of it because the future looks amazing for superhero games too. The Avengers seem to be getting the Batman and Spider-Man treatment with an action-adventure game being released this week. Warner Brothers have announced the next take of their Batman: Arkham series in development, vis-a-vis the Suicide Squad, while creating a new Batman universe for the extended Bat-family to play in. And, of course, there’s a Spider-Man sequel featuring Miles Morales set to be the flagship title for the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 5.
When comic books began booming during their ‘Golden Age’ in the 1940s and ‘50s I wonder if any of the superhero fans had any idea that someday in the future the characters they were reading about would be Hollywood’s biggest film stars and brought to life as playable characters in video games? It sure is good to be a comic book fan nowadays!
Daniel Wood is a Freelance Journalist and Cinema Manager based in Bristol, UK and he once ran a Spider-Man based news website. He cannot, at all, lift Thor’s hammer. He has tried.