Marvel Super Hero Squad (PlayStation 2) Review


From a very young age, I’ve been a fan of the comic book medium and the superheroes that comprise it. (Remember back when my blog was “Wilcox Arcade and Comics”?) That’s why I have so many superhero video games. I was and (for the most) still am very “about” that stuff.

Somewhere fourth or fifth grade, I was especially engrossed the Marvel Super Hero Squad franchise. I collected the toys, subscribed to the comic book series, and—wouldn’t ya know it—played the video game on my Wii.

Recently, I went back to my Wii copy, only to find that the disc can no longer be read. Being the B-grade licensed game freak I am, I thought to myself, “Why not buy Marvel Super Hero Squad on my preferred console, the PlayStation 2?” As you might imagine, I thusly bought Marvel Super Hero Squad on my preferred console, the PlayStation 2.

Did you expect a different ending?

Marvel Super Hero Squad

Developer: Mass Media

Publisher: THQ

Release date: October 20, 2009

Gameplay

Super Hero Squad’s gameplay is split into two very similar halves: Adventure mode and Battle mode. At risk of stating the obvious, the Adventure mode is the cooperative story mode, and the Battle mode is the competitive fighting mode.

The Adventure mode plays out as a beat-em-up with a touch of light platforming and can be enjoyed by up to two players. Most Adventure mode chapters revolve around a very simple objective—defeating all enemies, shutting down generators, collecting pieces of a machine, etc.—before darting to the exit.

Combat, decidedly the focus of the game, isn’t the best in the world, but it’s fun in a mindless sort of way. Each character has a melee attack, a “Reach” (A.K.A. Power) attack, and Finisher at his or her disposal, as well as an evade move for defense.

Attacks can be chained together to perform fairly simple combos. Each character can unleash their own set of five basic combos and three basic ranged combos. Honestly, though it sounds pretty rudimentary, I feel the limited combos are perfectly suitable for a children’s beat-em-up. (The instruction manual says you “experiment” with moves to “make your own” combos, but I don’t feel like this claim holds up very well in practice.)

In the heat of the moment, the combat does get very, very button-mashy, but I didn’t hate it by any means. I’m a man of beat-em-up tastes; as such, I’m not offended by simplicity.

The platforming is similar story: It fits the bill exactly as it should. Super Mario Odyssey this is not—but, by that same token, this isn’t Bubsy 3D either. Jumping from ledge to ledge in Super Hero Squad is purely sufficient.

Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to collect a handful of pickups and powerups. These include Fractal Shards, Power Shards, Shard Fragments, Microshards, and Collector Tokens.

Fractal Shards are actually just a story element—not something you’ll find in an environment—but collecting them is the main objective of the game. At the end of each chapter, your current Squaddie will return his or her respective Fractal Shard to Captain America for safekeeping.

Power Shards are “smaller fragments” that “provide heroes an villains with temporary boosts to their abilities.” These boosts include Attack, Speed, Health, Knockback, and Object. To be perfectly honest with you, the only Power Shards I cared about in Adventure mode were for Health, but they all come in much more handy in Battle mode.

Shard Fragments are “tiny colored chips” of each PowerShard. You’re supposed to collect enough of these to gain a PowerShard boost. I’m not really sure why the choice was made to include what is essentially a less convenient, duplicate item, but most Power Shards were manifested as Shard Fragments in the Adventure mode, it seemed.

Microshards are the “coins” of Super Hero Squad: the most plentiful, nonessential item. Per the manual, Microshards are “not powerful enough to boost anyone’s abilities, but still dangerous to the citizens of Super Hero City.” Your goal is to collect as many as you can throughout each chapter to unlock bonus Battle Modes arenas. Before reading the manual, I honestly had no clue what these did, but I appreciate their purpose now that I’m aware.

The final pickup is the coolest of all: Collector Tokens. There are six Collector Tokens found in the Adventure story, and collecting them all unlocks a secret bonus hero. Collector Tokens aren’t terribly difficult to find—I’m pretty sure I found all but one Token on my first run—but the reward is pretty satisfying.

There are also occasional quick-time events, which aren’t really anything to write home about. I suppose these sequences are vaguely cinematic, but they never provide anything more than a brief distraction for player one. (Then again, are quick-time events in general ever that interesting in the first place?)

Each chapter is interspersed with boss battles, as well. This should be a good thing, but…the bosses aren’t very interesting. Each encounter is literally just a Battle mode CPU fight, making these diversions feel almost like padding. Don’t expect anything legendary.

The only major gripe I have with Adventure mode is that it often seemed like the level design was forcing me to repeatedly backtrack just to find baddies to dispose of so I could trigger some sort of progression. Maybe it was just me, but it really felt that way.

The Battle mode, on the other hand, more or less behaves like significantly watered down Power Stone. You and up to three buddies can duke it out in a 3D arena filled with various powerups and throwable items.

Battle mode is fun if flawed. My brothers and I certainly had a good time with it, but outside of that, I don’t feel there’s a lot of longevity to be found. Of course, that’s just my opinion—many of you may end up getting a real kick out of it—but I personally would rather play a better fighting game.

All that being said, I want to make it clear that I did, in fact, really enjoy my playthrough. While it’s not a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, Super Hero Squad is plagued with some flaws that I simply had trouble getting past, as we’ll continue to explore going forward.

Content

I have to admit that Super Hero Squad falls somewhat short in the content department. The content offered here definitely isn’t bad—and it’s not terribly teensy-weensy—but I do wish there could’ve been slightly more to round everything out.

There are seven chapters to complete in the Adventure, each focusing on a different Squaddie’s efforts to collect an Infinity Fractal. Each chapter isn’t terribly long, which is really good from a “pick-up-and-play” perspective, but it’s unfortunate in that there aren’t quite enough chapters to fill out the experience. If you play one level a day like I did, then it doesn’t feel too short, but I’d imagine you’d feel sorta gipped if you tackled the story all in one sitting.

The Battle mode seems to be where most of the meat is found. There are 21 playable characters, 15 stages, and three battle types. The character roster is actually pretty sweet, with big names and lesser-known heroes and villains alike. Some of my favorites include Ms. Marvel, Nightcrawler, and Silver Surfer.

One thing I really love is that most (all?) characters have two unlockable alternate costumes that pull from established Marvel lore. Hulk, for instance, has Mr. Fix-It and Red Hulk variants. While there could’ve definitely been a greater number of alternate costumes, a la Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I’m pretty happy with what’s here.

The stages are also quite varied and interesting, faithfully adapting iconic Marvel locales. Some of my favorite stages include…

Like I said, you’ve got a few ways to tackle battles. In Time Battle, you play to a set time limit, and the player with the highest score wins. In Score Battle, you play to a set number of points, and the first player to reach this score wins. Elimination Battle is a stock mode: when you run out of points, you’re out, and the last player standing wins.

These battle types aren’t terribly original or exciting, but they don’t have to be. The fact that players have these choices is good enough. Plus, you can play in teams or as a free-for-all, so that should do something for variety, too.

The available options aren’t above and beyond what’s expected but aren’t barebones either. You can adjust sound volume, enter cheat codes, enable or disable cheats, and view (not edit) the controls.

Now, for my favorite part in almost any game: the extras. Unfortunately, the “extras” here are by far the biggest letdown of all the content. All you can do is view characters, arenas, and movies. There’s no additional text explaining the background behind any of this—just still images and cutscenes. Heck, the instruction manual contains more extras than the game itself.

It would’ve been really nice to at least get concept art, let alone development details and lore. It seems to me that Super Hero Squad skimps hard in this department.

Considering the relatively short length of the Adventure mode and the lack of juicy extras, I have a strong feeling the developers intended for the Battle mode to prop the entire package up. While the Battle mode is fun and all, I don’t feel it’s quite strong enough to make up the Adventure’s shortcomings in full.

This could just be me; I’m honestly not sure. But I do hope I’m not coming down too hard on this game.

Controls

As you’ve hopefully seen so far, Super Hero Squad isn’t some dreadful abomination. Much of the game is truly entertaining, especially if you’re a beat-em-up nut like I am. However, there is one devastatingly glaring controls issue I simply could not ignore.

The basic control layout is perfectly functional in pretty much every way. And when you’re playing solo, you most likely won’t run into any problems at all. But when you add one more player to the Adventure mode mix…well, that’s where things start to go bad wrong.

You see, when a second player joins the fray, the camera still locks on to the first player like a hawk. There’s no zooming out or adaptive split screen like you’d expect from a co-op experience like this. Heck, the game doesn’t even force both players to stay together on screen.

Instead, player one can drag the wonky-as-all-get-out camera wherever the heck he or she pleases at all times, constantly putting player two in the most unbearable situations. Half the time I was playing with my 6-year-old brother, I wasn’t even on the screen.

The awful camera system is compounded tenfold by the game’s checkpoint system. The very second one player dies, you’ll both be sent back to the nearest checkpoint. While checkpoints are plentiful, this system becomes mind-numbingly tedious when you’ve been stuck on the same simple platforming sequence for 10 minutes just because your player two can’t do it.

I digress. The checkpoint system isn’t a controls issue, as bad as the issue may be. Yet that doesn’t excuse how positively game-ruining the camera in general. I hate, hate, hate to say—because Super Hero Squad would otherwise be a superb multiplayer title—but that’s just how it is.

Other than the misbehaving camera, all the controls are mostly just fine. I didn’t have any trouble executing attacks and combos and all that jazz. I just can’t get over how rough that camera was throughout my entire playthrough.

Graphics/Presentation

Marvel Super Hero Squad isn’t the prettiest game in the world, but I think the presentation on the whole holds ups. On the technical side of the things, the framerate appeared (to me) consistent throughout, but I didn’t feel that all the character models were quite up to snuff.

Call me crazy, but I feel almost certain that the PS2 version suffers a bit compared to the Wii version. I own both versions—I’ve seen both versions—and there’s something that feels slightly off on the PS2. Then again, I could be totally imagining it, as the PS2 and Wii versions of games are typically quite comparable.

That being said, I like the colors and textures a lot. The choice to keep things simple substantially benefited the visuals overall. I never felt lost in a sea of “yuck”. Everything was always very clear.

As for the presentation, I’d say it’s pretty dang good. This game feels like and episode of the Super Hero Squad Show. The only major complaint I have is that the cutscenes—mostly composed of still, prerendered models—feel really cheap. While this aesthetic choice was kind of charming, I would have preferred fully animated cutscenes, especially ones done in the style of the show.

Speaking of “done in the style of the show,” I’m super conflicted on the box art. It’s not a bad composition, per se, but my gosh, do those 3D models look bad. Hand-drawn art done, once again, in the style of the show would’ve looked 10 times better. Want proof? Check of the box art for the sequel, Marvel Super Hero Squad: The Infinity Gauntlet.

However, I will give the game bonus points for its very informative instruction manual. Unfortunately, the manual in black-and-white—and it employs the oft-dreaded Comic Sans—but it’s otherwise a nice guide.

Sound/Music

As with the visuals, I can’t say the audio totally blew me away, but I really appreciate what the game gets right. For one thing, I really like Mick Gordon’s soundtrack. Al the music hits just the right “notes” (heh-heh), whether you’re in a menu, a chapter, or an arena. Would I listen to the music for fun outside of the game? Probably not, but I respect good tunage when I hear it.

The other aspect in which audio supremely excels is the voice acting. As far as I can tell, all the voice actors from the show reprise their roles for the game—and that includes heavy hitters like Grey DeLisle, Tom Kenny, and Steve Blum. Even if you question some of the casting choices made for the show, you have to give this game credit for properly emulating its source material.

Oh, and can we talk about that kick-butt theme song? I swear, every time I turn on this game, I’m darn near incapable of skipping that jam. (Well, except for when I put start the game with the wrong memory card inserted and have to reset. Then, I can’t be bothered to listen again.)

So yeah, it’s a pretty “sweet” sound suite. (Time for me to stop.) If there’s one thing Super Hero Squad does pretty dang well, it’s the audio.

Marvel Super Hero Squad, like many of the titles I review on this here blog, is nowhere near perfect. However, while the game has its fair share of flaws, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some amusement out of the experience.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, I played Super Hero Squad with my 6-year-old brother, and I feel that was the best possible way I could’ve attacked the game. Yes, the camera was a nightmare in two-player, but he and I got to see a game to its conclusion together. That was neat.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation, looking for something fun to play with a buddy. If you are—and you have a high tolerance for rough games—then I definitely recommend Marvel Super Hero Squad. You might even sort of enjoy it.

Keep it real, ya sweaty nerds. (And join my Discord server. I’m not gonna stop asking you.)

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