By Erik Grove
Greetings from the momentarily sunny Oregon coast! This week I'm on vacation celebrating my wedding anniversary with my lovely wife so I'll spare you my usual preamble so I can get back to it. This week's column I'm going to write about games that feature comic book characters that I (and we) like to play with friends or when we (or I) have some free time. I give you my Essential 8 Comic Book Games!
In the early spring I went on a camping trip with several friends and one of them brought this box full of cards, crazy and awesome. I was skeptical when my friend, world famous Portland beer connoisseur, blogger and my favorite Batman fan, Michael O'Connor put this monstrosity on the table and began to explain the initially daunting sets of cards and rules. There are something like five billion cards in this box featuring some of the most recognizable Marvel Comics heroes and villains and an intricate but still somehow elegant cooperative/competitive gameplay that wasn't much like anything else I was familiar with. We played one game and we were all hooked. We returned home early from that camping trip (we were rained out – in Oregon – imagine that) with fond memories of hikes, poorly coordinated Frisbee games, meals of smoked meat and beer and this game. It spread like a virus through our social circle and now 3 out those 4 players have their own copy (including yours truly) and we're discussing which expansions to get next.
It's tough to distill Legendary for new players. For the first fifteen minutes of setup and play of your first game you'll be convinced this game was created by a crazy person with way too much time on his hands but soon you grasp the connections between the cards and the combinations you can create. You quickly find yourself saying things in the new language of this game, throwing down a Wolverine Berzerker Rage to defeat the Red Skull once and for all. The best thing about this game is also the most intimidating. There are so many options and permutations. You play cooperatively against one of several available villainous masterminds who will have one of several evil schemes backed up by different villain groups and henchmen while you play from a large group of available superheroes. The play changes substantially depending upon the mastermind, the scheme, the heroes, the villains, the number of players and the order of the cards drawn. So far every game of Legendary I've played has been different than the one before it.
After the camping trip when I returned, addicted to Legendary, I found that there was a similar deck-building game available for DC Comics. The DC Comics Deck Building Game has some common concepts but it's ultimately a significantly different, faster paced game with art from DC Comics top creators. This one is a lot easier to learn and setup. My wife got this one for me for our anniversary and we played it three times in pretty quick succession. What it lacks in the sprawling options of Legendary it makes up for in design and playability. I haven't introduced this one to the camping trip guys yet but I'm looking forward to it. DC Comics Deck Building Game and beers at my place next week guys? Let me know.
Around the same time I got really into superhero comics, I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons. My older brother had a small group of friends that played and I remember when I was about 10 they asked me to sit in and control a character for a player that wasn't able to be there. Now, maybe it was my fourteen year old brother picking me to hang out with his older friends or maybe it was the narrative aspect or the dice or just all the dudes with swords fighting dragons but I was a quick study and big fan of role-playing games. Within a couple of years I had rounded up my group of friends and started my own games.
Soon, I discovered the TSR Marvel Superheroes Game and the combination of role-playing and comic book characters ignited my teenage geek brain with excitement like only rumors of new Star Wars movies could. The problem with the Marvel Superheroes Game is that it was already old and hard to find when I started to play it and I didn't really like the system very much. It turned out that a role-playing game with my favorite superheroes didn't work out like I thought it would.
Over the years there have been many attempts at a great superhero RPG system but as far as I'm concerned the best one is Mutants & Masterminds by Seattle-based Green Ronin Publishing, now in its 3rd edition. The mechanics and rules are smart and Publishing, now in its 3rd edition. The mechanics and rules are smart and very playable. I've owned every edition they've put out and seen improvements all along the way. What started as a superhero version of Dungeons & Dragons (built on D&D 3rd edition D20 system initially) has grown and blossomed to be its own thing. I like Mutants & Masterminds enough as a system that I've used it to run fantasy games (using one of their expansions from 2nd edition). The newest edition also has the prestige of being chosen by DC to be the engine behind their DC Adventures role-playing game. If you like RPGs and you like superheroes, there's nothing on the market that's as good as Mutants & Masterminds. Trust me – I've played almost all of them.
Steve Jackson Games is the maker of the prolific and addictive Munchkin series of games. Poking fun at the tropes of various genres, Munchkin is a family-friendly game that's worth playing over and over again. My nephew loves it and introduced me to the game series and honestly, he and his parents are far more familiar with this game and all of the expansions and iterations than I am. What I do know is that it's a lot of sun and Super Munchkin in particular is a blast that skewers some of the silliest aspects of super heroes.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade Game
In the early 1990s every single time my parents took us to the movies or a pizza parlor with a good game room I played this game. Now, with the preponderance of "barcades," I still gravitate to it. I'm sure there are other games that deserve a mention but for me, for nostalgia perhaps, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game remains the most consistently enjoyable arcade game of all-time. The combination of fast-paced nunchuck versus ninja action and the four player cooperative style made this game an instant classic for kids in my generation. While there have been versions released for various home game consoles they still don't approach the experience of playing this game in a crowded arcade. Thankfully, there are several places in Portland where I can plunk in my quarters with a few of my friends and relive the experience over and over again.
Of course I played a lot of Street Fighter 2 after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cycled out of the new arcades. I can still throw a fireball in my sleep and every time my wife does yoga I ask her how long until she can stretch her arms across the room and breathe fire. She still doesn't understand that reference. Enter Ultimate Marvel Versus Capcom 3 or, as I like to call it a sugar overdose strobe light seizure dream with Spider-Man and Ryu. Look, there are probably better fighting games, and I've certainly enjoyed other games (I particularly enjoy Injustice: Gods Among Us right now) but this one is absolutely perfect for insane bright explosions of colors and cheesy music and screaming out "WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?" when some combination of buttons creates a totally unexpected super move that sends your friend's video game avatar flying backwards in slow motion.
I'm a social game player. I always have been. I've always liked multiplayer games more than single player games. I don't have a lot of interest or patience for 500 hour role-playing game experiences where you might spend more time creating a character than I spend going to work for a week. I don't begrudge people who enjoy those games at all but they're not really my thing.
There are very few single-player games that resonate with me and this one, this one Xbox (not Xbox 360 or Xbox One) game is one of them because of Garth Ennis and the Punisher. Ennis's Punisher run, both the Marvel Knights and then the later MAX books, is what has made the character forever a favorite of mine and this game, this fast-paced, bullet drunk violence ballet of a video game, is basically the Marvel Knights run made into a video game and it's as amazing as you might expect it to be. I don't own a lot of console games but this one stays with me. You can probably find it for $5 or a clever whistle at a used game store and play it on your relic of an original Xbox or something and if you can, you absolutely should. There are moments of black comedy gold (hint: one of them involves plastic cutlery, several involve power tools) voiced by Thomas Jane that will make you miss the comics and loathe the flaws of the cinematic adaptations of the comic.
Alright, this is the one. This is the best comic book video game I've ever played and if you've played it, you know why and if you haven't played it, I'm sorry. If you like Batman and if you have ever enjoyed a video game, Arkham City is a masterpiece. All that stuff I said up above about not enjoying single player games usually? Well, Arkham City is the exception that proves the rule. Every detail is compelling and immersive. Batman's rogues are adapted and realized in a brilliant hybrid of the Batman TAS style and the more recent Nolan Dark Knight trilogy.
Utilizing the best voice actors in the business (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively) and taking full advantage of a vast city ripe for exploration and butt-kicking Batman-ery, this game gets the Batman mythos in a compelling an addictive way that all of the other superhero games that have ever been and will be are jealous of. While Arkham Asylum (the first game in this series) was amazing on its own, this sequel ups the ante in all of the right ways and has left Batman and video game fans clamoring for a proper follow up (sorry, Arkham Origins – you don't count) for years. I'm looking forward to the upcoming Arkham Knight like I'm looking forward to the next Avengers movie and I'm praying neither disappoint.
That's all for this week folks! Special thanks to my wife for the sweet anniversary presents and her patience with me as I write my comic book column on our vacation. Did I miss a sweet comic book board/card/role-playing or video game? Let me know!
Erik Grove is a writer living and doing various awesome things in Portland, OR. You can read his words at www.erikgrove.com and/or follow him on Twitter @erikgrove. You totally should too. Batman would. Just sayin'.