Playing MvC1 in 2017, you can’t help but think of the scenes at launch. It’s 1998 and fighting games are at an interesting point in their evolution. The Street Fighter II series has more or less been left in the 16-bit era and with no Evo Moment #37 to rejuvenate interest at a mainstream level, fighting games aren’t as dominant as they might otherwise be. Sure, Tekken 3 has been wowing fans of the genre and there’s a lot to like about it, but the beat ‘em up is merely one excellent form of gaming entertainment amongst many. Furthermore, at the time I personally found that my “arcade scene” was limited to trips out of town and pier visits over the holidays, so I missed out on the coin-op release of Marvel vs Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes. By the time the home release was available – around 1999 and 2000 depending on where you were in the world – I had moved on to PC shooters as my main form of gaming entertainment.
MvC1 in 2017 – attract mode
It’s a shame, because even before you get around to playing MvC1 in 2017 you can visit YouTube and look at various footage from the game to get an idea of how big a deal it was. After all, who wouldn’t be excited at the sight of Zangief performing a Final Atomic Buster on Wolverine in the game’s attract mode? This wasn’t even the first time this had happened – there was X-Men vs. Street Fighter in 1996 and Marvel Super Heroes after that – but it still felt like a big deal. Seeing the demo from afar, you’d read captions such as “PARTNERS UNITE LIKE NEVER BEFORE!” and “COMBINE FORCES WITH THE DUO TEAM ATTACK”, all interspersed with gameplay clips. Of *course* you’d want to reach for your loose change and try and settle the argument over whether or not Strider Hiryu would beat Captain America in a brawl.
MvC1 in 2017 – foundations
MvC1 was very different from the likes of Street Fighter II and Tekken – there were multi-level super combos, teams of two characters, a “special partner” who would provide an assist attack and then leave (this would be refined in the later games; custom assist moves would eventually be added for all selectable main characters), team attacks, and much more hidden technology that you’d only make the most of after hours of play and discovery. The later games would have even more options to choose when working out your strategy, and some might say that MvC1 offered a better balance between accessibility and complexity. In a way, the game itself barely cared about some of its mechanics; the assist or “special partner” selection was more like a slot machine – a selection box would cycle through the twenty special partners until you stopped it. Other customisations were more familiar – an “Easy” mode offered input shortcuts whilst a Turbo mode (think Alpha 3) made gameplay faster. Later games would refine this maze of systems, but together with Marvel Super Heroes, MvC1 helped to lay the foundations for the series and how we view it when compared to the likes of Street Fighter. Marvel became the flashy cousin with so much spectacle and potential for countless team/assist configurations, whilst Street Fighter was the solid and reliable brawler that had its own depth but didn’t need to drown you with options before you’d even started the first round.
Describing all of the constituent parts of Mvc1 is all very well, but what did it feel like once you had made your selection and started a match? Even on the slower Turbo mode there was a lot going on; characters still moved quickly and the camera would pan all over the place as characters got blasted across the screen and up into the air. Dashes could be fast and travel far, but could also be interrupted with attack commands. Super jumps and launchers made the most of vertical scrolling but never made things too disorienting. Super combos were a single motion and three buttons, and when you ended with one you’d see the name – “GAMMA WAVE” for Hulk, for example – overlaid on the action whilst a super flash replaced the background scenery. Air projectiles were also a staple – Ryu could jump and then throw a fireball, and this didn’t only work as an offensive tactic; it also changed the way people used jump-ins and anti-airs. How can you prepare a dragon punch if you don’t know whether the opponent is going to do something else during their jump? The special partners kept things exciting as well – even though you’d already taken out the toughest of the two main characters, you still had to make sure that you didn’t eat an assist attack when trying to end things quickly. All of the elements for a fun and dynamic fighter were there, and the foundations for the sequels had been laid.
MvC1 in 2017 – worth a look?
Outside of the deep gameplay, going back to MvC1 in 2017 reveals that a lot of love has been poured into presentation during and between matches – character themes will play when certain heroes are onscreen (such as the Mega Man 2 title theme for the blue bomber) and the sprites easily do the characters justice. You expect Hulk to tower over the other characters, and you’re not disappointed when you see him onscreen – Zangief nearly matches him for size, but that’s because he’s Zangief. Going back to it today, I think it’s disappointing that it never quite took off like Marvel vs Capcom 2, but for a while PS3 and Xbox 360 owners were treated to Marvel vs. Capcom Origins – a compilation of MvC and Marvel Super Heroes developed by Iron Galaxy Studios (who are also responsible for Divekick and the excellent Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike – Online Edition.) Origins was removed from digital storefronts after licencing contracts expired, but I’ve heard that MvC1 still emulates well on PCs. If you’re excited for MvC Infinite and want to go back to the roots, it might be time to scour your MAME library…