Playing Pretend

Like many people my age, I grew up playing video games. Many of those games have gone on to be considered classics, like Crash Bandicoot or Pokémon. There’s a lot of their DNA in modern games, like how Dark Souls’ cycle of learning how to counter enemy’s moves by repeatedly dying is very reminiscent of Mega Man’s game loop that has you effectively memorize stages and boss patterns (nearly twenty years since I first played it, I can still get through much of Mega Man X5 on muscle memory).

Then some games were much more of a flash in the pan than others. I remember a motocross game being fun enough (some googling tells me it’s Jeremy McGrath Supercross 2000), but it’s hardly remembered these days, nor one you’d cite as being particularly influential. Bomberman Party Edition is a ridiculous amount of fun, but sadly, it’s not one that’s particularly easy to get a hold of these days.

One particular genre I enjoyed was the multiplayer arcade beat-em-up. They were the sort of games you played on the couch with your little brother and fought bad guys. I fondly recall sinking hours into games like Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue and Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles. I don’t really remember how good the games were, and I recall Jedi Power Battles being unreasonably hard, but the best part about them was getting to be a Power Ranger or a Jedi and fighting bad guys. 

Theming was everything for these games, and, if memory serves, they did a good job of letting two brothers pretend to be Power Rangers and Jedi. There’s that part of video games that’s all about playing pretend, an experience heightened when it taps into the consciousness of pop-culture. I’m not sure either Lightspeed Rescue or Jedi Power Battles would have grabbed my imagination nearly so much were it not for their licenses. Really, all those games had to do was capitalize on that.

Over time, couch multiplayer became less common, as too did the beat-em-up in favor of shooters and the like. There were exceptions, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Spider-Man, but in many ways, these exceptions proved the rule: These games were quite out of vogue.

Along comes Marvel’s Avengers and the game’s a delight. It’s not as polished as Spider-Man nor, is its combat system as deep and complex as Arkham Asylum. But it doesn’t really have to be. Taking a cue from Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO games, the characters operate within archetypes (Thor and Iron Man fly similarly; Black Widow and Ms. Marvel can both swing from ledges, Widow with a grapple, Ms. Marvel with her stretchy arms) that are then individualized through their own attacks and abilities. It’s not overly complicated and, honestly, could be described as being quite shallow.

But boy is it fun. Some of the moves are ripped from the movies and comics and are instantly recognizable. Beating up bad guys as Black Widow feels like you’re actually Black Widow, which in turn feels different from when you’re playing as Hulk, who’s different from Thor. There’s just enough tuning that each character feels unique, and then you get to run around fighting bad guys as them.

I like games. But it’s not often I’m openly grinning like an idiot while playing them. Avengers feels otherwise. It doesn’t seem to be drawing on the ‘modern’ action-beat-em-up like Arkham and Spider-Man so much as going back to those games from ’99 and ’00 and infusing them with more modern sensibilities. The games is rough and a little buggy in places, but the focus is so much more on the fun of it than anything else. Punches feel right, and beating up AIM robots as Iron Man scratches a particular childhood itch I didn’t know was there. Complex systems and polished graphics be damned, the game’s fun, and really, isn’t that what’s really important?

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