Friday, August 21, 2009

Marvel vs. Capcom 2: The Perils of Nostalgia

Few downloadable games have been more enthusiastically promoted by the gaming press than Marvel vs. Capcom 2. This isn't surprising, as many consider this fighting game from 2000 a classic of the genre. MvC2 is known for its huge roster of characters - there are twenty-eight characters from Capcom videogames and twenty-eight more from Marvel Comics properties. The game is 2D and sprite-based, so it looks somewhat archaic, but the graphics hold up far better than they would in a nine-year-old polygon-based game. The downloadable MvC2 isn't just a straight port of the original arcade game; online play and Trophy support have been added, as well as video filters to make the game look better in HD. Given my somewhat irrational affection for fighting games, I downloaded Marvel vs. Capcom 2 the first day it was available. I understand why it's a good game in theory, but I wish I had spent my fifteen dollars elsewhere.

What's wrong with MvC2? Well, for one thing, the game more or less assumes not only that you know how to play fighters, but also that you've played Marvel vs. Capcom 2 before. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the AI fighters are quite nasty; I'm not sure how exactly you're supposed to beat arcade mode without continuing, though you need to do so to earn Trophies. While there is an in-game "instruction manual," it's not terribly useful, and has the annoying fighting game problem of referring to buttons by their arcade counterparts. When I perform a Hadouken with Ryu, I do not press the LP (Light Punch) button, I press the Square button. I understand that you can change the controls around, but I wish MvC2 would make more concessions to the fact that it is appearing on a console, not in an arcade. Arcades, you may recall, are pretty much dead in the US.

While it's nice to have fifty-six characters, it's also a tad intimidating. When the game first appeared in arcades, not all the characters were available: they unlocked as the arcade's patrons played the game and earned "experience." Similarly, when Marvel vs. Capcom 2 appeared on the Dreamcast, Xbox, and Playstation 2, several characters were locked at the start of the game and had to be "bought" with points earned by playing the game. So while longtime players of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 won't have to labor to unlock their particular favorite fighters, new players can expect a gigantic learning curve. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has received rave reviews most everywhere, but most of the reviewers seem to be reviewing their memories of the game, not the game itself. It's one thing to wax nostalgic about days in the arcade or on the Dreamcast playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 until your fingers were sore. It's another thing to come into the game with no history of it - it's fresher, to be sure, than it was for the reviewers, but it's also a hell of a lot less fun.

Marvel vs. Capcom's graphics have aged, to be sure, but what's really old-fashioned about the game is its aesthetics. The Marvel characters in this game, for example, all have their nineties' outfits. This isn't too shocking for a character like Spiderman, but Wolverine's yellow outfit looks rather retro now that the general public thinks Wolverine dresses in black and looks like Hugh Jackman. At least the game's version of Storm doesn't have a mohawk. If I'm talking about dated aspects of Marvel vs. Capcom, I must also mention the infamous Morrigan sprite, which was good back in 1994. Morrigan's sprite was reused for many years; it got very old very quickly. For all its fault, however, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 looks pretty damn good on my HDTV; no one will think it's a new game, but neither will anyone cover their eyes in horror (unless maybe they take too close a look at that Morrigan).

Even when the game is driving you up a wall, Marvel vs. Capcom's charms are fairly obvious. Players can engage in all kinds of ridiculous "dream matches" between Marvel and Capcom characters or "relive" favorite fights from Marvel comics. Fights are chaotic and flashy and fun to watch, and button-mashing does sometimes lead to very cool attacks. A new player can often look cool, even if they don't have a great deal of fun. I do, however, question the way Capcom picked characters for this game. On the Marvel side, there are number of obscure X-Men characters (Marrow? Spiral? Omega Red?), but not a single member of the Fantastic Four? And no Punisher? The Capcom characters, on the other hand, overemphasize the Street Fighter games. Couldn't they have left joke character Dan out in favor of someone more interesting, like someone from Street Fighter Alpha? Or from a completely different franchise, like Breath of Fire or Ghosts and Goblins? There are so many characters in this game that you're surprised to see how many important ones are missing.

One of the most important features of the downloadable Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is its online play, which seems pretty good. Alas, it's not terribly beginner-friendly. People online seem to actually be good at the game. Newbies will bleed. Profusely. The MvC2 porters, Backbone, have also added a custom soundtrack feature to the game; Capcom just posted several new - and free - songs for the game online. New features like custom soundtracks may be small, but they show that someone has the right idea about how to create (or, in this case, port) games for current-generation systems.

I really wanted to like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and perhaps I eventually will like it, but I wish more had been done to make it accessible to players unfamiliar with the game. Cheap AI, a surfeit of characters, and mediocre instructions all add up to a game that is frankly maddening to me. I like fighting games; I'm probably above average in my fighter skills. And yet I've found myself hard pressed to get into MvC2. It's a damn good game, I'm sure, but it only shows its best side to the most devoted players. This is a shame. Perhaps it's just me, but a game where IronMan and Jill from Resident Evil face off against Wolverine and Mega Man should be just a little more... friendly.

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