The Golden Avenger was far and away my favorite superhero back in my comic-reading youth. By day: a hard-drinking millionaire playboy; by the-rest-of-the-time: a garishly-colored, nigh-invulnerable, still hard-drinking robot man who took on many of his foes while three sheets to the wind and pantsed them all the same, thanks to the almost un-sportsmanly degree of technological superiority between Iron Man and whoever Iron Man was horribly reaming that month. After so many years of this, I began to sympathize with the villains instead, like they’re the friend you’re trying to talk out of a losing fight with the brick shithouse in a polo shirt at the end of the bar. “Just walk away, Crimson Dynamo.” you say, “He’s not worth it. Be the bigger man.” you plead, but they never do listen, do they?
That said, on those rare occasions where Iron Man encountered a villain he couldn’t just steamroll in two pages, when things looked grim and the situation called for some honest to god heroism, he did always rise to the occasion. By which I mean he had his black friend do all the work, after which he would grace everyone with his presence in the last few panels, half in the bag, to deliver the photogenic coup de grace. As an added bonus, Jim Rhodes, the black friend in question, also served as a handy barometer for what white comic book writers throughout the decades imagined black people sounded like. From the stilted jive-talking seventies to the awkward gangsta platitudes of the nineties, he’s a veritable dictionary of dated clichés with that added zest of borderline racism to keep things from getting too staid and dignified.
As you can probably tell from that heavily skewed rundown, Iron Manning is a really sweet gig. Saving the world doesn’t require all that “responsibility” nonsense Spiderman is always harping about; all you need is a vast corporate empire, an extensive history of self-destructive behavior, and a man-shaped, adamantine super weapon that murders accountability right along with everything else.
With all this going for him it may be surprising that for most of his nigh-on five decade existence, Iron Man has been something of a second-stringer, a sad fact borne out in much of his game-ography. Like any career b-lister he has a long history of bridesmaid syndrome, turning up in other people’s games, or as additional window-dressing in a large Marvel ensemble, but almost never in his own dedicated title. Sometimes these rampant cameos landed him in great games, like the cracked-out visual barrage of the Marvel vs. Capcom series, starting with MvC2, where he was among the better characters outside of the Storm/Magneto/Sentinel triumvirate of unfortunate balance decisions. While not in the god tier, he was still ROCKET PUNCH a viable choice for ROCKET PUNCH aggressive players who ROCKET PUNCH wanted ranged opROCKET PUNCHnd a solid assisROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCHinfinite comROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCH.
Other times, he’d turn up in crap like Avengers in Galactic Storm, in which herky 3D renditions of Marvel’s premier superhero team (alphabetically speaking) wailed all over a pack of cosmic villains so obscure that they had to read the name under their own life bar to remember who the fuck they were. All due respect to the nascent commercial potential of would-be comic legends like Supremor and Shatterax, but I can’t help but feel like they’re only present because Data East ran out of Avengers they could plausibly throw bomber jackets on. It was the nineties, you see, and puffy jackets with rolled up sleeves were considered the panacea by which all dated superheroes could appeal to the youth of the day. Black Knight – who is a literal goddamn knight in chain mail and plate armor – was made instantly more hip and relatable with the addition of that functionally moot jacket. The Vision, who at the time just looked like a paste-colored bald man in matching cape and jockies, was ineligible for a rad jacket for bullshit comic book reasons despite a dire lack of flair. Along with many other favorite Avengers shafted by continuity, he was doomed to an existence of pocketless monochromaticity, and Data East had no choice but to fill out the roster with villains no one had ever heard of, for a) only heroes may wield the jacket, and b) fans of well-liked villains may have become soured on them for lack of jacket.
His one weakness! Medieval Japanese farming implements!
This gimmick of pitting a pantheon of Marvel’s most beloved characters against a gaggle of anonymous twats reached its apotheosis with another one of Iron Man’s choice bombs, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. While basically a craven business venture between two entertainment giants trying to conjure a new superhero franchise out of thin air, the core game elements of Nemesis aren’t bad on paper: a pared-down, Smash Bros. style 3D fighter with exaggerated physics, destructible/interactive environments, starring a host of comic characters all of whose powers are faithfully reproduced. It’s just that standing between that concept and the game we got was a host of very poor decisions, chief among them being these rise-prone Imperfects, the Electronic Arts-owned characters invented specifically for the game. EA’s plans for the Imperfects were clearly ambitious, as each character got their own elaborate backstory, a comic book mini-series that integrated them into Marvel canon, and Jae Lee-drawn portraits and covers to lend them a little cred in certain circles. What scuttled the Benjamin-hewn future of action figure lines and cartoon spin-offs envisioned by the boys in marketing was that the Imperfects are to superheroics what Jim Belushi is to humor – they’ve got a lot of brand recognition backing them up, but they can’t help but remind you of other, better characters. With such luminaries as LINKS Witchblade-with-a-Scooter-Helmet, Jax-Only-Taller, Shirtless-Southern-Electro, and the big bad himself, Lex-Luthor-Only-Not-Somehow, the Imperfects were never poised to set the world on fire, and surveying them in the character select screen only makes you pine for the likes of Shatterax and Supremor.
The few early games that were based soley on Iron Man didn’t fair much better, given that both were no-frills 2-D platformers that could just as soon have been about a severely jaundiced man in a bright red onesie. 2002’s The Invincible Iron Man for Game Boy Advance was serviceable, but so familiar in its tropes and mechanics that it brought nothing to the genre or the character. It is the same C average sidescroller that developers have been churning out since Mario first started his long journey to the right; a game from 2002 that just as easily could’ve been from 1992. Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal is more noteworthy in that a) it was yet another high-profile corporate crossover featuring Iron Man and a somewhat less storied hero of indeterminate popularity, and that b) it failed so vigorously and so extensively at every single element of design and execution that it didn’t simply waste the intellectual properties at hand (manasteel88 has a great write-up about it here), it doomed both franchises to a cultural torpor that only a surprisingly good, inexplicably successful summer blockbuster years down the line could’ve hoped to release them from. James Spader’s X-O Manowar vehicle has yet to materialize, sadly.
But thankfully for Iron Man, the preposterously charismatic Robert Downey Jr. decided after years of critical acclaim but modest box office success (not to mention an impressive chain of drug arrests) that having lots of money, incredibly angular facial hair, and being balls-out super-famous was indeed for him. And thus Iron Man achieved a level of pop saturation the character had never come close to approaching, suddenly on par with the likes of Batman and Spiderman in terms of fame and recognition amongst the normals. Almost overnight he went from being a dependable face in the crowd to one of Marvel’s flagship characters, and with all that money and attention coming in, surely a decent game was just around the corner?
Two dedicated games, another MvC title (followed by the same MvC title done properly for forty more dollars), and three years after the fact, we’re still rounding that particular corner. Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were movie games, and carried all the baggage therein. They were clunky, slapdash affairs, designed firstly to look dazzling in trailers and previews, with fun gameplay and functional controls being a distant afterthought. It’s not even that they were that horrible, either (though don’t get me wrong, still bad enough to have spurred the publisher, Sega, to restructure, then close, the studio responsible for them). Mostly, they were a huge letdown. After the movie turned out to be such a pleasant surprise, with so many fledgling fans eager to take that armor for a spin, it’s a shame Marvel would squander that good will on something just another cheap, quickie movie game. Yes: a licensed game, no matter how crapped out, is going to make money. A good licensed game? That’s going to make a lot more money over a much longer period of time, or so my limited research and wide-eyed naiveté tells me. People are still buying Wolverine: Origins, are still fondly talking up Spiderman 2. Hell, a lot of us have bought Goldeneye twice now. I suppose I just don’t understand how the shovelware business model is still a viable one when it makes you less money in the long term and actively hurts your brand. Perhaps someone will set me straight in the comments.
Even though it hasn’t materialized yet, I’m still optimistic that a decent Iron Man game will come together somewhere down the line. With so much attention on the character, they’ll have to get it right eventually. It only took Spiderman ten some odd years of terrible, terrible games before he got a decent one, right? Besides, Iron Man is prime material for a current generation game, with his city-leveling fights, his huge selection of alternate outfits, a weirdly diverse rogue’s gallery that ranges from rival businessmen to nefarious Chinese sorcerers to a whole rainbow brigade of ray gun toting doofuses shooting every variety of concentrated energy a shaky grasp of science can conceive. What’s not to love? And while it’s a understandably tricky to integrate shooting mechanics with superhuman melee combat, tack flight on top of those and somehow cook up something that doesn’t control like the haphazard messes the license has already put forth, perhaps the HD remake of Zone of the Enders, of which I have publicly aired grievances, will give them a few pointers?
Note: It has come to my attention that my “Intellectual Properties that Deserve Better Games” segment bears a striking resemblance to SephirothX’s “Characters Who Need a Good Game” series. I suggest you read them over, and then choose sides for the inevitable West Side Story-esque jazzy knife-fight dance battle. I’m with him, because a Jack Burton video game would be ridiculously awesome.