With Marvel’s Avengers dropping today (our big review will be coming tomorrow, for those still on the fence), it seems a fitting time to answer the big question:
What are the greatest superhero games of all time?
Let’s find out together.
A few criteria were taken into account when answering this question. Firstly, the reviews. I took into account Metacritic scores for all available platforms. Any games that did not have a Metacritic score, I looked up as many review scores (taken from the time, no retrospectives) that I could find and calculated an aggregate score for it.
Secondly, how well they capture the spirit of the source material or the genre as a whole in the case of unlicensed titles. This should not need to be considered but there are a shocking number of superhero games in existence that simply fail to understand why the genre or a specific character works; Spider-Man games with no web-swinging, for example.
Thirdly, cultural significance. What did this game do for gaming culture and broader culture beyond? Did it change the way games are made, did it tap into the zeitgeist, did it shift a lot of systems? These things were taken into account when assessing their placement.
This is not a pure opinion piece. I will be discussing some games that I do not personally enjoy, I will be seeing games that I love position lower than I would place them in a more subjective ranking. It is a balance, I used the available data and made judgment calls.
So, with all that in mind, here are the ten greatest superhero games of all time.
10. LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes
LEGO Batman has long been the crowning jewel of the LEGO games and no game married the freedom and creativity of LEGO with the expansive imagination of the superhero genre like LEGO Batman 2.
Building on the already excellent LEGO Batman, the sequel added a wealth of new playable characters (including characters from the Justice League) as well as introducing voice acting and large open-world environments. Everything about this game showcased what LEGO games were capable of, with a distinct sense of humour and a lot of charm.
9. Spider-Man 2
For the longest time, Spider-Man 2 was considered far and away the best Spider-Man games of all time. The character has not seen the best luck in the medium but the video game tie-in to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 got everything about the character right.
The swinging was perfect, the first Spidey game to truly get that right, the freedom of an open-world setting allowed players to finally feel like Spider-Man.
The game also took some very welcome liberties with Sam Raimi’s cinematic universe, adding in more characters from the comic book that would never get a chance to shine in Raimi’s trilogy. Spider-Man 2 truly succeeded at two tricky propositions; being a good Spider-Man game (of which there are few) and being a good movie tie-in (of which there are even fewer), this holds up as one of the absolute best of the genre.
8. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
Possibly one of the more overlooked entries in the genre to crack the Top Ten but anyone who played it walked away with fond memories of smashing everything in your path and having a great, green time of things.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction was a colourful, chaotic open-world action game that offered a surprising amount of inventive diversity in the carnage you could wreak. The MCU and Marvel’s Avengers have borrowed a fair few ideas from Ultimate Destruction’s bountiful playbook and no one could blame them; this game is unbeaten in terms of pure Hulk mayhem.
7. City of Heroes
This may be a surprise to some but City of Heroes absolutely warrants a place in any superhero list, being a single system title avoids the problem of bad ports dragging the reputation down and it has the honour of being a bona fire trailblazer: The first superhero MMORPG. While Ultima Online would pioneer the genre, and World of Warcraft would revolutionise it and bring it into mainstream culture, City of Heroes will always be overshadowed in the realm of MMOs but as a superhero game, it was the first of its kind. And it was an absolute blast to play.
While it lacked the mechanical depth or limitless scope for expansion of its fantasy forebears, City of Heroes was an easy to pick up entry in the genre and provided comic book geeks with a wealth of options to let their imaginations soar. My character was a Spirit-esque character who was bitten by a radioactive Joseph McCarthy to grant him amazing anti-communist powers. It lacked the staying power of other, bigger MMOs and was officially closed down in 2012 (but bootleg servers now exist, thanks to released source code) but it still managed to stand out in the crowd at the peak of MMORPG mania. During its early days, you could even find yourself playing alongside famous comic creators. I was once in a party with Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone. She did not find me funny at all. Good times.
Two non-licensed superhero titles in a row. Infamous was a major win for the PlayStation 3 on release, an excellent quality exclusive title to give the occasional struggling system a boost in prestige in the face of the overwhelmingly successful Xbox 360. Infamous was brought to us by Sucker Punch and the popularity of the Infamous series would lead to Sony buying Sucker Punch in 2011, the year Infamous 2 was released. Without Infamous, we may not have seen Ghost of Tsushima this year.
Infamous was an excellent game, which really embraced the scope that a super-powered protagonist could bring, with a vast and inventive array of electricity-based powers accessible in the character progression system. While the world of Infamous lacked the benefit of being an established IP, it was created by a team that seriously understood the genre. The sequels may have grown more advanced and ambitious, but none of them could really match the immediate impact of the original.
5. Injustice 2
Very few developers have a handle on tight and engaging fighter mechanics like Mortal Kombat’s NetherRealm Studios. I am almost shockingly inept at fighter games and have been since the original Tekken, but even I can recognise a good beat ‘em up engine when I see one.
Combine that top-tier gameplay with the best that the DC Universe has to offer and you have a true stand-out of the superhero genre. It cannot be overstated how good the Injustice 2 story mode is, even if you are not a fighter fan like myself, the game is worth experiencing for an epic storyline clearly produced by people who care about these characters.
In every facet of this game, character comes first, from the cut scenes to the actual movesets. For DC fans, it doesn’t get much better. Save for a few notable exceptions…
4. Batman: Arkham City
Making a sequel to a runaway smash hit, GOTY candidate is no small task but Rocksteady was more than up to the task. In some truly notable ways, Arkham City eclipsed its predecessor. The combat was improved in all the right places, the story was more layered and interesting, the expanded array of rogues were implemented with more variety and the boss battles were similarly unique to their characters.
So why only fourth? A lacklustre Wii-U port dragged down its critical rating and the simple fact is that it didn’t come first. Everything that Arkham City does right, it owes that to Arkham Asylum, but (spoiler alert) we will get to that soon.
3. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Without question the best Spider-Man game ever made. Everything Spider-Man 2 excelled at, Marvel’s Spider-Man perfected. The web-swinging was perfect, making traversal so rewarding that you could spend hours doing just that without even touching the main campaign or side quests. The story is among the best in the Spidey’s history, character arcs that make sense yet feel fresh and new. The game is loaded with brilliant Easter eggs for fans of the comics and the Marvel universe, taking all the right cues from the Arkham games in terms of fan service.
Sony and Insomniac took a gamble with making one of the most popular characters on the planet a PS4 exclusive but it paid off with a huge hit, a bonafide system seller.
2. Batman: The Video Game
It just goes to show that you cannot keep a good game down. No matter how far technology evolves, good gameplay will last forever. Batman: The Video Game was a tie-in for Tim Burton’s seminal 1989 Batman release, a movie that had a seismic impact on pop culture in every respect. It gave birth to the first big superhero movie boom, it created a new generation of Prince fans, and the video game was brilliant.
This game holds up today. The levels are designed to offer multiple routes of exploration, giving players who mastered the game’s wall jump mechanics the chance to take shortcuts. The game was tough but not unforgiving, demanding precision while not being unrealistic or relying on blind luck like some of the tougher titles of the era. The graphics were incredible, with some remarkable animation details that show real care was put into this game. Everything about Batman: The Video Game works beautifully.
To this day, Batman: The Video Game is one of the best-rated superhero games in history and one of the best NES games of all time, an impressive feat given the size and quality of that system’s library.
1. Batman: Arkham Asylum
It couldn’t be any other game, really. Arkham Asylum is the best-reviewed superhero game, it perfectly captures a wide range of iconic Batman media into one place with its blending of Batman: The Animated Series, Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and a slew of popular comic book runs. The medley results in a distinctly unique take on the character that pays homage to the classics while standing on its own. The entire Arkham trilogy stands as the ultimate Batman story but Arkham Asylum is the best.
The restricted location offers a more focused narrative, more room to really take in and explore the world around you, with a wealth of brilliantly observed Easter eggs for fans – still the absolute benchmark for superhero fan service in gaming. Everything feels organic to this world rather than crowbarred in there. The storytelling is consistently imaginative, particularly the use of nightmarish Scarecrow visions that provides the Batman franchise with one of its best interpretations of the murder of Bruce’s parents, which has been done-to-death (no offence Thomas and Martha) by movies at this point.
And then there is the combat. Arkham Asylum pioneered the ‘free flow’ combat system that removed enemy targeting systems and allowed for a more versatile, flexible form of combat against multiple enemies. It was a game-changer for the action genre, fast and ferocious and never once feeling overwhelming. Easy enough to grasp, challenging enough to master, the free flow combat system allowed all players to feel like a badass. To feel like Batman. This combat system would go on to be used by other beloved action titles like Shadow of Mordor, Marvel’s Spider-Man and Ghost of Tsushima. We owe our thanks to Arkham Asylum for the sheer existence of so many of our favourite action games these last two generations.
Combining that standard-setting combat with a fantastic stealth system and the incorporation of crime scene investigations, no other video game had ever made us feel like Batman quite like Arkham Asylum. This was the ultimate superhero experience and, even to this day, it remains the purest. The sequels may have gotten bigger and more polished, Marvel’s Spider-Man may have brought exciting new elements to the formula, but no game has managed to be quite as pure. Arkham Asylum was right to the point with no distractions.
And, most crucially, it got there first. No other superhero game that came before Arkham Asylum could touch it and every great superhero game that followed owes their existence to it. The choice for the greatest superhero game of all time was an easy one.
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