If there’s one thing that can be said about the Marvel canon, it’s that numerous interpretations, reboots, and style changes don’t really effect the basic appeal of these characters. A guy who regenerates and can pop metal claws still comes across as cool whether it’s an actor representing these powers or set down in ink on a comic book page. In terms of comic book interpretations, Marvel Super Hero Squad represents a much more light-hearted take on the super hero mythos. The mid-90’s cartoon’s darker tone is gone, replaced with wise-cracking heroes and silly villains that break-up the monotony of long brawls. It’s a game inspired by a toy series and animated show that is intended for younger audiences, and it compliments them decently.
The game is a brawler that borrows several pages out of the Smash Brothers playbook. All characters are handled by a basic set of controls. A attacks, A plus direction tap performs a different attack, B is used for a special attack, etc. Each character has their own unique attacks, though a lot of them fall into the same categories for shoot or dash. There are also a lot of characters that aren’t quite re-skins, but their moves overlap quite a bit. Gameplay consists of a multiplayer battle mode or a two-player co-op campaign. Like Smash Brothers, most battles occur on a high platform, and it’s a kill if you fall off it. Falling off before your health is terminal results in just a penalty and a re-spawn. Some characters can fly, others can’t but make up for it with stronger attacks. Again, like Smash Brothers, there’s enough characters and moves provided that the variety makes up for curious imbalances in the system. You just play as all your favorite super heroes.
The campaign itself is what you make of it. Each one features a defining character like Wolverine or The Hulk who is then paired with another super hero picked from a small pool. There’s a tiny bit of strategy to this selection. For instance, if you’re working with a flier who mostly relies on projectiles, you want to make sure you’ve got a brawler to keep people back. Missions consist of beating up never ending swarms of robots until you hit a marker or unlock a door, the formula of which is broken up by QTE’s (Quick Time Events) and brawl sessions. Level design is a bit rough, though. You just roam around a large area smashing things until the game tells you that it’s time to go, and the camera can be a bit wonky at times because it’s trying to orient around two characters. You’ll be arguing with the person on the other controller a fair amount trying to get them to stand somewhere so you can look around. This problem is magnified by several moments where you have to knock over a distant pillar or shoot a floating mine. You can’t get a decent shot because you can’t see the target, which is assuming the camera rotated around enough for you to even notice the target. All that being said, most of the time it works, and other than the awful QTE’s, it’s not terrible.
It’s hard to really gauge a multiplayer experience in these games because if the gold standard is Super Smash Brothers Brawl then quantity is the chief selling point. The game pulls this off, I’m just not sure competitive play isn’t going to devolve into just playing the same couple of characters. Most of the projectile reliant heroes and villains don’t last in fights. The heavy brawlers like Hulk or multi-skilled characters like Iron Man hold out the best because they deliver more damage. Dodging projectiles is not too difficult if you zig zag around. Like Smash, I mostly found myself setting the character to random and just playing with whoever you get to keep it entertaining.
The plot is actually funny if you’re willing to let yourself go a bit. Wolverine mutters “Snkkkt” every time his claws extend, Bruce Banner is a wimpy geek once he loses his Hulk form, and word puns are scattered throughout. This isn’t the version of serious heroes dealing with deep psychological problems that are prevalent today, but younger audiences will find something to enjoy here. A meteor has deposited a bunch of crystal fractals and it’s up to the Marvel team to find them before Dr. Doom’s minions can track them down. Playing the campaign unlocks most of the levels and characters, which includes everything from Magneto to Lady Marvel. To give you an idea of the tone of all this, I think the image of Dr. Doom drinking tea in his night robe during the pause menu sums it up nicely. Smashing things in between jokes is what you should expect from Marvel Super Hero Squad.
Deciding whether or not to buy this game is mostly a decision based on who you want to play the game with. It has enough design issues that I’d say it’s probably not worth it if you want a sophisticated combat experience. However, if you want a way to share the Marvel universe with a younger child, it’s a solid game. The subject matter stays light while making enough sly jokes about the Marvel canon that an adult player might crack a smile. The controls are easy to master and there are enough playable characters that it always stays entertaining to see what weird moves a super hero can pull off. Battle mode is fun, but if someone was concerned with winning instead of relaxing, it’s a bit unbalanced. Marvel Super Hero Squad is a game that goes with the Marvel universe, but it does not add to it.