There was a time when Marvel, purveyors of comic books and all things superheroic, would slap their license on just about any low-quality product that fly-by-night Chinese manufacturers put in front of them. What resulted was ugly, unarticulated action figures, sub-par animated series, countless low quality candies, soaps, party favors, and a slew of bad video games. Once Marvel’s movies started proving that their characters could make real money, those licenses were replaced with better companies, resulting in beautiful, highly-articulated action figures, entertaining animated series, countless medium-quality candies, soaps, and party favors, and, sadly, a slew of mediocre video games. One of the newest licenses for Marvel is the kid-friendly Super Hero Squad; a series of cutesy, super-deformed action figures with an attached animated series. As a matter of course, THQ has created a game based on the property, and while it does a great job of representing the fiction upon which it’s based, it fails, in every way, to deliver an enjoyable game experience.
As basic a beat-‘em-up as you’re likely to find, Marvel Super Hero Squad puts players in control of adorable versions of some of Marvel’s most famous heroes, and tasks them with fighting their way through seven levels of oncoming waves of enemies in order to stop Dr. Doom’s nefarious plot. Only a few heroes are available at the game’s outset, but more become available as the game progresses, including a few unlockable characters. While they may seem a bit foreign to longtime Marvel fans, the Super Heroes in the game are extremely faithful to the cartoon. Most of the characters are simplified versions of their classic personas (Spider-Man is jokey, Wolverine is gruff, Hulk is stupid), but a few stray from their roots (Silver Surfer is a California surfer-dude, Thor is a vain priss). It may chafe some older fans, but you can’t blame THQ for staying true to the source material.
By definition, Beat-em-ups tend to be simple gaming experiences. What makes them fun is variety of attack types, variety of enemy types, and an engaging game world that compels players to continue on their path. Sadly, Marvel Super Hero Squad doesn’t do any of these well. There are buttons mapped to ranged attacks and jumping, but pretty much every enemy can be easily dispatched by hammering the A button over and over. In fact, some enemies will gladly allow you to pound on them without offering the slightest resistance. It’s as if the game forgot to apply AI to about half of the enemies that appear. Whether your enemies fight back or not, combat is extremely repetitive. There are finishing moves that attempt to mix up the action a bit, but with no on-screen indicator to tell gamers when to initiate these finishers, it can be nearly impossible to pull them off. In general, there’s a lack of guidance, especially for a kids’ game. Several levels require players to destroy environmental objects in order to advance, but with no on-screen indicators, younger players will likely have a hard time moving forward and may lose interest.
All this tedious action can be played in single-player or two-player mode, with drop-in/drop-out capabilities. There’s no online component, so team-ups have to take place on a single console, but given the material and the platform, players looking for a robust online experience in Marvel Super Hero Squad should have looked elsewhere. The big problem, and it is a BIG problem, with multiplayer is the camera. While in single-player the camera has a tendency to get caught on environmental elements and lose track of the action from time to time, in 2-player mode it’s practically broken. The camera will always focus on player 1, meaning that player 2 will frequently be off-screen with no idea who might be surrounding and attacking them. A shoddy camera system can be excused if it’s for the benefit of creative, lavishly designed levels, but here, they are as cookie cutter as one can imagine, with plenty of rectangular, grey rooms in which to fight. Battle mode allows players to take their heroes (and villains) into battle against each other in an al-out free-for-all. Conceptually, this makes perfect sense, and makes me wish that Activision would do the same with their Marvel Ultimate Alliance series. In practice, though, it relies on the same monotonous controls as the main campaign, and therefore fails to entertain. Character models, while faithful to their cartoon counterparts in design, are blurry, muddy, small, and nondescript. In the heat of battle, it can be almost impossible to distinguish which character is which, leading to a lot of confusion, and, ultimately, disinterest. Fortunately, between fights we are treated to some cute, genuinely funny cinematic scenes that give the game a distinct personality and a good dose of fun.
Marvel Super Hero Squad’s popular source material, cute story, charming cut scenes, and fun personality will likely put the game into the hands of many young gamers and super hero fans. Most of those kids, however, will quickly tire of the game’s dreary gameplay, shoddy camera, unreliable controls and overall lack of depth and polish. At their best, kids' games should offer instant accessibility, a small amount of challenge, and a lot of simple fun. Marvel Super Hero Squad fails to deliver on any of these, with confusing controls, overly simple gameplay, and far too much repetition. It’s simply not fun for any age.