Captain America and the Avengers (Arcade, 1991)
This game is the reason I ate my vegetables as a child. This is the game I use as a sort of litmus test for any new emulator I'm trying out. This is the game I've played to completion more than any other game. Clearly I am a sick person.
Long a staple of laundromats, local pizza joints, and other dingy, musty rooms where faded, lonely arcade machines languished, Captain America and the Avengers is a fairly typical beat-em-up; roaming the city streets, beating to a pulp any goon who approaches, getting killed by cheap bosses in lazy attempts to extort more quarters from your greasy little hand. This is the stuff childhoods were made of, when bragging rights were won, not by who started with the biggest cup of quarters, but by who had the most quarters left when the game was finished.
Except it's not entirely typical of the genre. You don't last long in the city streets, for one thing; soon enough, you're cruising high in the skyline in the game's surprisingly-not-frustrating shooter segments, and then down to a secret underwater fortress, and ultimately, to space and a secret missile base on the moon. Hardly the scenery for games of its ilk. If Captain America does one thing better than its peers, it's that it gives the player a sense of globe-spanning, cosmic adventure.
Never mind that the gameplay is standard stuff - the game never feels lazy. Faint praise, I know, but I think it's something the Marvel fan can appreciate, and brawler fans too. The game is always pushing the player forward at a brisk pace - there's no backtracking, and rarely do you face more than a single wave of enemies on a single screen. In a genre that usually outstays its welcome 15 minutes in, this is a welcome relief.
No one would ever claim it's a beautiful game, but it gets the job done. Backgrounds are fine, if too static - likewise, character sprites are decent but pale in comparison to its competition. But the entire package is more than the sum of its parts. It simply exudes a sort of Silver Age comic book joy that most Marvel games couldn't even come close to capturing. The comic sound effects that pop up on screen, the brisk pace, the cheesy voice clips, the wide variety of locations, the colorful bosses and their stupid meme-worthy dialogue, the cameos from Wasp, Quicksilver, Wonder Man, and Namor... this is as close as a young boy in the early '90s could get to playing a comic book.
And the music - sweet music! There is just something so downright heroic about it. And here's an odd twist for you: the Genesis port actually has the best music. Regardless, it's upbeat and perfectly captures the simple spirit of the game. In another neat little detail, the heroes' theme interrupts the menacing boss theme when you get a boss down to about 20% health.
I mentioned that the game isn't visually impressive, but it does have one little trick up its sleeve - seamless transitions. In just one instance, you start off on an aircraft carrier, fight a boss, hop into the sea for some shooting action, fight a boss, emerge into the underwater base, fight your way through it, including multiple bosses - all without a single transitory screen. It's an impressive little piece of programming wizardry (even more impressive when you consider it was replicated in the console ports), and it really adds to the sense of fast progression and always pushing the player forward.
I did mention the dialogue, didn't I? If you're familiar with the game, you're familiar with its absurd little banter:
Hell, they even got Namor right. Only that arrogant son of a bitch would give such "helpful" advice to Captain America:
Ah, still polite after all these years, even after they did this to Lil Cap'n:
As I said, the gameplay is nothing special - way too typical of the genre, really. Punch combos, jump kicks, the usual - each of the four heroes (for those keeping score, I believe this is the only instance of Vision being a playable character in a Marvel game?) has a special attack, which doesn't drain your health but isn't all that powerful. The stages are littered with all sorts of junk - you know, the usual: rocks, barrels, and, uh, soda cans.
Captain America and the Avengers
But wrapped up in such a fun little package, who cares? It's never frustrating - in fact, it's pretty easy. The game was later ported to Genesis and SNES, and those are even easier. The Genesis version is the one to go with - even though it takes a not-especially-attractive game and makes it look even more lackluster, it plays more smoothly and retains the juicy dialogue (and has the best music to boot).
The SNES port, on the other hand, is an abysmal game that plays like a lousy beta. It looks marginally better than the Genesis game, as it should, but has some terrible hit detection, and gameplay as a whole is sluggish. Weirdly, even the Genesis box art is simpler version of the exact same image.
Captain America and the Avengers
(Game Gear, 1993)
(Game Boy, 1994)
Data East ported the game themselves to Genesis (and also were responsible for the excellent NES gem, which will be covered separately), while Realtime Associates unleashed that terrible SNES port on us. They were also responsible for the rather terrible games released for Game Boy and Game Gear in the subsequent years.
First thing: it's neither a platformer not a beat-em-up. Levels are strictly limited to two planes, but with the odd caveat that they have that sort of isometric look of a brawler... but nope, you're only moving left or right, Avenger.
Another thing: the game is precisely the same on Game Gear and Game Boy. I suppose the former wins out of sheer visibility.
Yet another thing: the games are weirdly faithful to the arcade port, in their levels, bosses, and even enemy placement. The same animation (as much as can be allowed, given the hardware), the same music, the same chapter breaks and text, the same bosses and characters - just like the arcade game, they all pretty much play the same.
And another thing: forget what I said about the SNES version, this game has some of the downright worst hit detection I've ever experienced in a game. Getting in close will you send you flying back, but your ranged attacks are underpowered. Your best bet is to jump kick, but this requires pressing the jump button twice, and is quite finicky.
One more thing (I promise): Back in the day, I spent thirty hard-earned allowance dollars on the Game Boy port. Even then it was disappointing, but there was a weird satisfaction in knowing I owned three versions of the same game - along with the Genesis port and the (entirely different) NES platformer. Hopefully that will mark the last and only time I could make such an absurd claim...
All screenshots are my own. Box art from GameFAQs.