"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
The Fantastic Four have never had it easy in the media. Video games are no exception. It really is odd that Marvel's first family has never achieved true popularity in any medium outside of their own. They cameo in quite a few games, but unfortunately they've lost the edge that they had 50 years ago.
Really, this team is the foundation of the entire Marvel Universe and they deserve a real chance in this medium. Since they aren't as popular now as Stan's later creations, let's break down the back story a bit.
In 1961, Martin Goodman (head of Timely) was playing a game of golf with Jack Liebowitz (head of National Comics). Like any game of golf between rivals, Jack was boasting about the success of his newest product, the Justice League of America. Martin, being the trend follower that he was, contacted Stanley Lieber (affectionately known as Stan Lee) and demanded a super hero group like the Justice League.
Stan Lee fed up with Martin's unoriginal pushes, decided to use this opportunity to create exactly what he wanted before he turned in his resume. He didn't want his hero hiding behind a costume and truly wanted his female counterpart to be an equal. If he had to put them on a team, he wanted one that acted like human beings. He wanted them to fight each other as well as their enemies. Kinda like a family would. With this concept set down, he handed his notes to Captain America's co-creator, Jack Kirby.
Kirby was brought over from National Comics to do the monster comics that were popular at the time. The popularity of monster comics is apparent even on the cover of the first issue. Kirby would take Stan's notes, create the art and concepts and Stan would then go back over the dialogue and flesh it out. This was the Marvel Method and for some reason Stan was able to create hit after hit based on his ideas and the story telling talents of his artists. It was a system that carried on for 102 issues until Kirby became frustrated with the lack of recognition and control over his co-creation.
This series would create the foundation for the entire Marvel Universe and would also allow Stan Lee to create some of the world's most renowned characters. I bring all this up because the Marvel Universe is nothing without the success of the Fantastic Four, and yet their popularity has fluctuated constantly.
In researching their history, I found 5 games exclusively based on the Four. The earliest is a lame old text adventure game starring half the team. This is followed by one of the worst Playstation games in history. If you haven't heard of it, watch the intro to see just how mind numbingly bad it is before you even start the game. The 2 mediocre films obviously produced 2 mediocre games. Finally, the best game on the list is a decent platformer for the Gameboy Advance loosely based on the films that only has the Human Torch as a playable character. It contains only a quarter of the team and isn't even as good as half the platformers on the handheld, but it still makes it to the top of the list. Sadly, even their slot machine is mediocre.
Fifty years of some of the greatest stories ever told and this is the best developers can come up with
I think that developers can only consider straight beat-em-ups when they develop the Fantastic four as none of the characters use a weapon. Also, two of the characters can only be considered for melee options making a beat-em-up for the team a natural progression. The Invisible Woman's self titled power is impossible to get across in any visual medium without some specific trickery. It really is one of the easiest genre's to start with.
The Thing and the Human Torch alone can fit very easily into any medium, but I'm looking at the Fantastic Four together for a game. Looking back at how Stan and Jack broke the team down really pushes a character focused story to the front. Down to earth characters are what set the Marvel Universe apart from DC's living legends, so anything that involves the Four needs to focus on who they are and how they react to any given situation.
Let's just look at the team. Mr. Fantastic is like the stereotypical dad from the 50s. Too busy with his newspaper and work to notice anything that's going on with his family. His fiancee and future wife Sue is the hardworking housewife who tries to keep the team together, even when nobody else wants to. It's not like Sue doesn't have other options either. Johnny is a hothead which is convenient for his powers. He's going to pick fights and piss every one off.
Ben Grimm however is a bit deeper. Ben was the only member of the crew that objected to the lack of research Reed did for the project. Sue goaded him into piloting the family into space, and this resulted in Grimm becoming the only member of the team who can not maintain human form. This leads to a long history of self loathing and anger from the Thing. This can be expanded upon in the medium greatly.
I think this is a nice angle that beat-em-ups simply can't get across. Ben is stuck in this form while everyone else lives a normal life. Reed and Sue should feel guilty about Ben. Ben should feel forced into staying with these guys in the hopes that they stumble upon a cure. This is a great dynamic that only an RPG can truly bring out.
Bioware is the current powerhouse in RPGs and honestly, I think they'd be a perfect match. Mostly because they are the only studio creating space epics, but also because Mass Effect can very easily be turned in to a Fantastic Four game.
The Fantastic Effect
Mass Effect is a series that has been given a lot of praise. I've shared my two cents on where it goes wrong, but I respect the series for what it is doing. It is creating a unique experience that RPG fans have been asking for. I'm impressed with Bioware for crafting an entire universe around a single group of crime fighters. I ask that they accomplish the same thing for four adventurers.
The main element that separates Bioware from the pack is the decision tree system. The decision tree system forces you to choose between three paths: Renegade (bad), neutral, and Paragon (good). This might not be an obvious quality since they are super heroes and nobody wants a bad super hero, but let's tweak the system. Instead of having polar opposites, make the situations that the four talk about correspond to a team dynamic. Make it so that if the Human Torch gets a bit annoyed at the situation, you can choose to tell the team exactly how he feels.
As with Mass Effect, this can lead to an end game scenario where the Fantastic Four might not finish the game as a complete group. Though none of the Four are going to die in this one, some might leave the team. In the 50 years that the team has been together, there have been numerous new members join the team for a short period of time. Namor, She-hulk, Luke Cage and many others have all been members. Think of it as a way to change up the dynamics of the team. If Johnny Storm is so upset by the decisions Reed is making, he can literally storm off the team before the last couple of missions. The game will then replace him with a new member depending on how you responded to the missions.
The way this would work is to have a fully integrated universe where these characters are a part of it. Only the Fantastic Four would go to space, Latveria, Atlantis, and Attilan in any logical adventure. They would meet aliens, evil despots, flirtatious prince and the Inhumans all while dealing with their own problems. If the player doesn't want to deal with these issues, then you can see how the team's dysfunction really plays out.
Here's a specific example. After meeting with the Inhumans, Johnny wants to stay with this new hot girl named Crystal. Depending on your actions in the game, Crystal could potentially replace the Invisible Woman the same way she did when Sue became pregnant for the first time.
Western RPGs have been synonymous with choice, and I find this to be a good way to change the course for the player. I'm not saying that every negative decision will result in a teammate leaving, just that if the player wanted to keep pushing the team apart, they could actually do just that. The leveling system of Mass Effect 2 would ensure that all teammates would level in a similar fashion so that new members wouldn't be too weak to matter.
This dynamic has to be integrated in to the gameplay system. At the beginning of the game you will have the option to play as one of the 4 members. This is a bit of a tweak on the system Mass Effect set up, but I think of it as alternating on the job system that forced you to choose from Engineer to Vanguard. Except now you'll be choosing from one of the four. This choice is up to the player forcing a system of replayability that would be consistent with Bioware's history.
This option also helps flesh out the locations that the Four visit. When you play as Reed, you can explore more of the technological growth of Atlantis. As Sue, you can explore the cultural aspects. Ben can feel the judgment of everyone around him and Johnny can hit on any piece of underwater tail he comes across. This creates a minimum of 12 separate outcomes and can really create an interesting way to approach the game.
For battle, obviously a shooter isn't the approach needed for this game. If you analyze the different abilities you can see where they all stand. The Thing is clearly straight melee. Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch are a mix of long distance and melee attacks. Meanwhile, the Invisible Woman is a long distance attacker. Pair an increase in defense stats for the Thing and support stats for the Invisible Woman and you can build upon the same power structure that Mass Effect 2 had.
Leveling doesn't have to be complicated as long as the story focuses on the birth of the team. It's only natural then that the characters would learn more abilities as they become acclimated to their powers. Even a carbon copy of the system Mass Effect has and uses could be applied to the Fantastic Four. Then all there is left is to put the Dragon Age battle system, with some tweaks of course, in to the game and you have the foundation.
The Invisible Woman is in this picture somewhere
Any good story has to start at the beginning. A group of kids fresh out of college heading in to space might not seem plausible today, but you can look to any number of re-tellings to find a suitable story. I particularly like the Ultimate take on the four where they travel to a parallel universe, but it really isn't important. They could just do the original story and present the entire world in a retro styling if they wanted to and it would stand up just fine as long as they keep Stan's original characterization.
Imagine this incident like the first level of Mass Effect 2. The team is on a spaceship like everything is normal and then it hits. Chaos wraps the entire ship and nobody knows what is going on. Then black out and you awaken somewhere unknown and everyone finds out they have powers. It's short, sweet and effective in setting up the next steps for the team.
Reed then rents out a large office in the Baxter Building and we have the beginnings of the Fantastic Four. Imagine the Baxter Building in the same way as the Citadel in Mass Effect. It is the home station where you get specific information, but you don't always have to stay there. There will be an entire universe to visit and that is exactly what the Fantastic Four do. Though as the story progresses, I would have the team's presence in the building expand into an even larger layout. Instead of adding trophies to the captain's cabin in Mass Effect, you add new wings to the Baxter Building. Though keeping trophies from every boss is still pretty cool so that stays.
Now that we have the beginning, I guess the only natural progression is to put the villains in their place. I see the game playing out in three parts similar to Mass Effect 2 on the 360's disc swaps.
With teeth like that, he definitely flosses.
Part 1: Heroes
The first major foe the Fantastic Four ever faced came from Jack Kirby applying his horror comics expertise. The Four fought a monster from the depths of the earth sent by the Mole Man. I picture this playing out as giant crack opens up in the middle of a densely populated street. Imagine the scene above, but running along 8 city blocks with monsters pouring out of the fissure. A scene like this was set up in Prototype and it can be applied here. The Four then take their time dispensing with the monsters and making their way up to the biggest one. They defeat him and head down to find the Mole Man taking Alicia Masters hostage. The decision tree takes over and the event ends with Ben and Alicia getting together or not. Alicia Masters creates a statue of the monster for the Four to thank them for saving her.
Now that the Four have become established heroes for saving Manhattan from a giant monster, they have a new found notoriety. One that the Skrulls scouting the planet for invasion find out about. So, this small team of Skrulls attack the Baxter Building as carbon copies of the four, get defeated and are forced to reveal their plans for an invasion. Decision tree pops up and they are dealt away with in any number of situations. Reed after finding their space ship has a means of understanding true long term space flight. He then builds a beacon to trick the Skrulls into thinking that the Earth's defense force is stronger than it currently is.
Finally able to sit down and enjoy their new home, Reed sets to work building a number of inventions. The first is the Fantastic-car to fly the team around in. The second is a means of traveling in between parallel universes. The first universe they enter is the Negative Zone which is currently in a war between Blastaar and Annihilus. The havoc they are causing, forces the Four to act and depending on which warship you choose to attack changes the victor of the battle. If you defeat Blastaar, Annihilus boards the ship to assume command and you must fight him as well. If you defeat Annihilus, you claim his Cosmic Control Rod, the source of his power, and Blastaar backs his forces off, not knowing the potential danger it's new owner presents. Reed thinking the rod could reverse Ben's transformation takes it with him with Annihilus screaming as they leave the N-Zone.
Upon their arrival back to Earth, they find the sky filled with flames and the world in panic.
Prepare to meet your doom
Part 2: Diplomats
Upon searching out the cause of this disaster, the team finds an angry Namor storming in to the United Nations building trying to stop the humans that caused this disaster. With nobody respecting his lineage, he takes it out on the troops guarding the building. The Four show up and duke it out with the Prince. Being the only one used to communicating with hotheads, the Invisible Woman is able to talk him down in a positive or negative way and relay that the human race has nothing to do with the effects in the sky. With the Four vowing to find the answer, Namor returns to his people to find his own answer to the problem.
Victor von Doom, leader of Latveria, stands outside the United Nations as the Fantastic Four take their leave to find the cause of the disturbance. Finding out what has become of his nemesis Reed Richards, Doom has rekindled his hatred for him and he sends his Doombots after him as he leaves for Latveria. After breaking through the first floor of the building, the bots come upon the Four relaxing. Not knowing the purpose of these bots, Reed questions the attack and seeing them losing the fight Doctor Doom reveals his past. As the last bot falls, he sees the Cosmic Control Rod and commands a broken bot to take it and flee. Reed, seeing some broken new toys keeps one of the Doombots in his lab to analyze.
After seeing the Four tackle aliens, the Negative Zone and world leaders, the Watcher appears before the team. Finding that Reed is the most knowledgeable of the group, he warns him of a great oncoming threat. Deducing that the Watcher was behind the flaming sky, Reed begs him to remove it. The Watcher informs them that it was to protect the planet from Galactus's herald, but he'll remove the flames if he can clutter the sky with asteroids to stop the threat. Reed agrees with the solution and follows the Watcher into space as he explains the situation in better form. Upon Reed's return, they vow to monitor the skies and stop this herald.
The beacon that fooled the Skrull's earlier has been malfunctioning due to the Watcher's meddling. Reed who has been monitoring space since the Skrull invasion has detected a Skrull armada on the verge of attacking Earth. The Four valiantly take off in to space to talk to the invaders and meet the Skrull army head on. Seeing the Four on his radar, the Emperor Dorrek sends one ship to meet them for some entertainment. This ship contains his newest experiment, the Super Skrull. When the Four board the ship, the Skrull attack. Finding no one wanting to talk, the Four must fight wave after wave of Skrulls (who have the single ability of the Four) and the super tough Super Skrull (that has all four abilities). After the skrulls are defeated the crew comes across a room where the Super Skrull was created. Inside the room they find a Skrull Cosmic Cube. The cube becomes drawn to the humans and they take it with them. An alarm rings throughout the ship and they leave it only to find the entire armada fleeing.
The Silver Surfer zips through the sky's debris swiftly and searches through the planet. As the Four return to Earth they find the Surfer ready to send his alert and they attack. Once enough energy from the Surfer is drained, Doom appears with his newly acquired Cosmic Control Rod and takes the energy from the Surfer. With this new found power, he declares that he will destroy Galactus and become the savior of mankind. Reed, doubtful of his intent asks the Watcher how to stop Galactus. He tells him of a device known as the Ultimate Nullifier and asks Reed to find the elements needed to create it.
The Surfer, powerless and confused, stumbles around until Alicia Masters finds him and takes him in. She nurses his wounds while the team is running around.
This has the Four returning to the N-Zone, and then heading out to Atillan or Atlantis to get the remaining piece. In Atillan, Reed uses his experience with the Negative Zone to penetrate a barrier surrounding the city. Maximus, Black Bolt's brother, has erected this barrier as a means of usurping power from the mighty leader. It traps all inside of the barrier and the Four has to help defeat Maximus. The consequences of choices made during this event will have a direct effect on what happens to the city. In one scenario Black Bolt can destroy the barrier (and parts of the city with his voice). In another, Reed figures out how to dissolve the barrier.
In Atlantis, the Four have to stop Attuma from leading his troops against Namor in a bid to claim the throne and Namor's wife Dorma. Namor enlists the help of the earth dwellers in exchange for the item they need. The entire background in Atlantis is one of Macbeth with Krang trying to usurp Namor to claim Dorma. Namor however could act like a king and have a normal family with Dorma or betray his race by falling in love with Sue. Once the revolution plays down, the World Devourer appears in New York.
Devourer of Shiny Things
As Galactus appears, the world is panicked by his size. Doom seeing his opportunity to gain this world conquering power, uses the rod to attack Galactus. Stunning the colossus, Doom siphons the energy out of him. Realizing what's happening, Galactus erects a barrier around himself (and a sizable chunk of New York), blocking out Doom's rod as the Fantastic Four return to the city. Doom, seeing Reed interfering has a chance to at least stop his nemesis for good. A battle ensues where the Four has to stop a super powered Doom who now has some serious strength behind him. When the battle ends, Reed acknowledges that Doom is still too powerful for the team and calls upon the Cosmic Cube to remove Doom's strength. Doom is defeated and it's time to focus on the big threat.
The Surfer finally restored with Galactus's return, but with his mind clear finds the Four standing up and fighting for survival. He uses his powers to get the team through the barrier to face him. From there, I see a battle much like the end of Mass Effect 2 with the team attacking a giant colossus, except he won't be actively trying to kill the flies bothering him. His defenses around him will be more than enough to fight off the group. I expect big energy beams and earth shaking blows to act as a simple defense mechanism. Once he is defeated, the Four get his attention. Reed brings out the Ultimate Nullifier, scaring Galactus off the planet and the heroes get to return to the Baxter Building to finally relax.
The world is saved...for now
Obviously this is a blueprint, but it is the foundation of the Fantastic Fourís universe and a sizable portion of Marvel. Kirby and Lee as a team struck gold and they deserve to have it represented in a proper video game.
Bioware is the only studio that I think that can put some presence behind the team without having them all fall flat. They have the space designs down. They have a nice home world mentality and they know how to present multiple locations as unique areas. Pair that with a pretty good writing team, and you can make the Fantastic Four better than any Marvel game to date. Or at least better than any Fantastic Four game to date.
In doing all of this, I'm trying to come across like Stan Lee. I can give you an idea of how to make this happen, I just need a Kirby to make it so.