Comic books often seem destined for some kind of big screen adaptation, with many of them being home to brilliant stories and great characters. Sometimes, that comes in the form of blockbuster movie adaptations, but other times, comic books find their greatest successes in video games. While these games might be exceptions to the rule, more often than not, the greatest comic book stories make for brilliant video games.
While gamers have often been subjected to failures like the recent Young Justice: Legacy or the relatively boring Amazing Spider-Man adaptations, sometimes a comic book video game comes around and changes the entire game. Some franchises such as the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises have a long and turgid history with video games, each with their own mixed results, so we’ve limited our choices to one per franchise. Without further ado, here are, in our opinion, the greatest comic book video games.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions came and went, making little impact or garnering much attention, but underneath this placid reception lay a great, sometimes brilliant Spider-Man title. Taking inspiration from a variety of alternate dimensions found within the Spider-Man comics, Shattered Dimensions takes inspiration from a piece of each world – Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Noir, Spider-Man 2099 and The Amazing Spider-Man – to craft an intriguing and wholly new story. Playing as each of the different Spider-Men, you’re taken through a variety of worlds, each with a distinct style. While the differences in style and tone should disorientate its audience, Shattered Dimensions does a brilliant job of bringing readers along for the ride. Not only does each unique level present a new style of gameplay and unique abilities, such as the stealth levels of Spider-Man: Noir and the fast-paced technicolour action of the Ultimate Spider-Man levels, Shattered Dimensions also plucks the best villains and characters from across these alternate tales. With a plethora of delight cameo appearance from Deadpool to Spider-Ham, Shattered Dimensions has it all.
While I am aware that this is cheating slightly, as Comix Zone is technically an original property and not based on a comic book, it might as well be. With brilliant and innovative side-scrolling gameplay featuring the world of comics brought to life, Comix Zone deserves its place among the best comic book video games. Replicating the pulpy comic book feel, Comix Zone featured a comic artist named Sketch Turner as he unwittingly brought to life a powerful mutant named Mortus, who escaped from the comic book pages and into the real world. Sketch is then sent into the world of comics, brought to brilliant life by innovative gameplay and cool, pixel-based graphics. Comic panels can be broken and used as tools in battle and to solve puzzles, crafting a wonderfully meta and beautifully immersive comic book video game experience. The ingenuity of Comix Zone has scarcely been repeated, and it stands out as one of the most genuinely unique platformers of its time.
Belgian graphic novel series XIII is not well known by any accounts, but its 2003 video game adaptation raised its profile somewhat with a neat, gorgeous game showcasing a unique and innovative style. Taking inspiration directly from its source material, XIII covers the first five volumes of the comic series that follows an amnesiac man named Jason Fly accused of killing the President of the United States. Utilising a gorgeous and effective cel-shaded style to bring the world of the comic to life, gameplay is smooth and neat looking, holding up even today. It’s a game that uses its unique style with flair, stretching the boundaries of what comic book adaptations can be and showing off a graphical prowess uncommon for its time. Particularly neat is the comic-style pop up boxes that appear during combat when a headshot is performed. XIII utilised a variety of weapons and stealth techniques such as lockpicking, climbing and rappelling to craft its spy-themed narrative. Level design is innovative and looks absolutely gorgeous, reflecting the look and feel of the comic book style almost perfectly.
Often touted as the greatest comic book video game of all time, Arkham Asylum brought with it minimal expectations, and it shattered them all. Building on the success of previous Batman games such as the surprisingly effective Batman Begins tie-in video game, Rocksteady Studios went all in with Arkham Asylum. The game is stunning to look at, featuring several locations across the deeply unsettling Arkham Asylum and its surrounding islands. It was the first Batman game to really make use of Batman’s detective skills, allowing players to search for and solve a variety of complex riddles and puzzles in order to advance the game. Written by Batman legend, Paul Dini, the story takes so many twists and turns, and features the largest cast of villains in any Batman game, from the Joker, to the Scarecrow and referencing everyone and everything in between. From the nightmare-inducing Scarecrow levels to the brilliant game-crashing fake-out, there were so many brilliant and just plain awesome moments in the game, marking it out as the definitive Batman video game, and indeed one of the greatest comic book video games of all time.
The Darkness II
The Darkness is another lesser-known comic series that received two brilliant adaptations in the forms of The Darkness and The Darkness II. Both games explore the life of Jackie Estacado, a mob boss and possessor of the Darkness, an ancient entity that manifests itself in the form of vicious tentacles of shadow. While both games are great adaptations of the comic series, The Darkness II built on a lot of the flaws of the original, adding in gorgeous cel-shaded gameplay and a whole new cast of characters. Dream sequences and the notion of reality play heavily into the sequel, with Estacado questioning his very existence and position as head of the mob following an attack by a cult-like group. Combat is performed in several ways, with Jackie able to use the tendril-like Darkness to literally eat the hearts of his enemies, or simply gun them down. With a deadly and effective arsenal at your disposal, The Darkness II allows for some bloody great fun, with a deeply affecting and emotion story to boot. It’s unfortunately that the franchise ended on a massive cliffhanger because the series was a great adaptation of a brilliant comic series.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
Taking inspiration from the brilliant early 2000s run of the Incredible Hulk comic book series, Ultimate Destruction builds on the intricate, thought provoking stories and added a whole new layer of brilliant with its destructive, open world gameplay. One might say that it was this game that operated as the prototype for Radical Entertainment’s Prototype, as the developer clearly recycled many elements of the brilliant wall climbing and smashing combat found in the game. For a game subtitled Ultimate Destruction, it certainly lives up to its name, with Hulk able to smash anything and everything in sight. The range of boss fights is brilliant, featuring many A and B-list Hulk villains such as Mercy and the Devil Hulk. Couched within the destructive gameplay is a brilliant and deep psychological tale, exploring the damaged psyche of Bruce Banner that no other Hulk video game has explored in such depth. The balance between the Hulk and Bruce Banner is rendered brilliantly in Ultimate Destruction, with Hulk bringing simple and brilliant combat, and Banner bringing layers of emotional depth to the game. For any fans of the Incredible Hulk, Ultimate Destruction is a must-play game, and a brilliant adaptation of the stories found in the Incredible Hulk comics.
Simply titled, X-Men, this 1992 arcade side-scroller has the benefit of nostalgia and beautifully simple gameplay behind it. Surprisingly, the X-Men series of video games has never quite reached its fullest potential, often lying back on stale video game tropes and uninteresting stories. While not the first game in the series, it was the most popular, particularly with the increasing popularity of the comic book series. Interestingly enough, the enemies and character designs of X-Men is actually based on the failed 1989 Pryde of the X-Men pilot, suggesting it was designed as a tie in for the series. Despite this, the game is a fun arcade beat ‘em up featuring Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and Dazzler. While we might scratch our heads at the inclusion of Dazzler, she was a hugely popular character at the time, and one of the major players in the X-Men franchise. Taking on the role of one these fan-favourite characters, players would battle through a variety of iconic enemies and bosses including Pyro, Nimrod, The White Queen, Juggernaut and of course, Magneto. Allowing for two-player co-op, this game was a great, fun romp through the X-Men universe and provided endless hours of fun.
Birthed from the loins of a disappointing movie, Volition, Inc.’s The Punisher refused to be bound by the mediocrity of its source material, taking only loose inspiration from the film, and instead relying heavily on its original comic book counterpart. The game struck up quite a bit of controversy when it was first released, largely for the graphic depictions of violence, and several scenes had to be cut from the final game. Ironically, it’s this violence that marks out the game as a brilliant adaptation, as The Punisher is inherently a violent character. With a mix of exploration, stealth and combat, players guide Frank Castle through a variety of deadly missions, going after everyone from the Yakuza to B-list Daredevil villain and assassin Bushwacker. The game also features several cameos from other well-known Marvel characters such as Iron Man, Black Widow and Nick Fury, hinted at the expanded universe that would soon spread out into Marvel’s films. The story also draws heavily from Garth Ennis’ acclaimed Punisher run, featuring several scenes that took direct inspiration from the comics. If ever there was an example of a game turning lemons into lemonade, look no further than The Punisher.
The Wolf Among Us
In the eyes of many, Telltale can do no wrong, so when it was announced that they would tackle Vertigo’s Fables, there was an understandable buzz around the title. The Wolf Among Us shattered any expectation placed upon it, and went even further, garnering praise from fans and non-fans alike. The Fables series works on the basic premise that fairytale characters have had to flee their homeland to New York City following a great war. Crafting a unique prequel story to the comic series, TWAU featured a stellar cast of brilliant characters, showcasing the talent of Telltale’s design team. Bigby Wolf is a wonderfully complex and flaw protagonist, working in a town that hates him for his past as the big, bad wolf. Bigby blazes his way through the bright, beautiful lit technicolour landscape of Fabletown working to restore peace and solve the murder of a working girl named Faith. Dozens of characters across fairytale lore make appearances within the game, and it doesn’t shy away from its harsh depiction of the struggles of living. The story is absolutely brilliant, keeping you hooked from the moment you enter the weird and delightful world of Fabletown. What makes The Wolf Among Us such a great adaptation is that it takes the story of Fables and crafts something so unique and memorable.
These were just a few of our favourite adaptations. Were there any of your favourite comic book video games that we missed out on? What comic books would you like to see adapted into a video game? Tell us about it on Twitter or Facebook!