Is it just me, or did it seem like Capcom habitually used the X-Men as a testing ground for larger Marvel Universe ideas? On the SNES, there was X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse which was followed by Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems. When the seeds of the Vs. Series were first being planted, there came X-Men: Children of the Atom which was precedded by Marvel Super Heroes. Then, once the cross-over phenomena started, it did so with Marvel Comics X-Men Vs. Street Fighter and then was followed by Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter. I don’t think this was something planned, but it certainly does look that way, doesn’t it?
I’d like to offer some full disclosure before I get into reviewing these two games, starting off with why I’m lumping them into one review instead of breaking them apart. I’m doing this mainly because I’m a very casual fan of fighting games that doesn’t have the keen eye to pick out the subtle differences in balancing between these two titles that a more seasoned, hardcore fan of the genre would be able to. Far that reason, to me at least, these games outside of their rosters and a few modes are nearly identical. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but if these games were released in rapid succession today like they were back then, I’m sure Capcom wouldn’t be able to escape the crosshairs of the internet at large.
Secondly, I didn’t grow up in close proximity to an arcade that housed these games, nor did I own a Sega Saturn or for that matter, knew anyone who even had one. Where I grew up, there was plenty of places to buy and rent N64 and PSOne games, however it was near impossible to play anything on the Saturn. I bring this up because I’m well aware that the PlayStation ports of both of these games were nowhere near close to being arcade perfect, with the most glaring omission being the fact that you can’t have true 2v2 tag-matches like in the arcade. This was something that was possible in the Sega Saturn port with the help of a RAM expansion, but the closest the PSOne ever got was being able to tag provided both people are using the same combination of characters (ex Spider-Man/Cyclops Vs. Cyclops/Spider-Man) in Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter. Now, on to the proceedings.
As 2-D transitioned into 3-D and consoles like the N64 and PlayStation overtook the aging SNES and Sega Genesis, the fighting game boom that happened in the mid-90’s was undergoing a similar transition. Whereas games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat previously ruled the roost, they were being challenged by games like Sega’s Virtua Fighter and Namco’s Tekken. After exhausting and burning out fans of Street Fighter with constant rereleases, prequels, and an underwhelming third chapter that too would undergo several revisions, Capcom injected new life into the mechanics they created by experimenting with characters from the Marvel Universe. After two successful outings in both X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes, Capcom dialed up the insanity to 11 and crossed over characters from the world of Street Fighter with that of the Marvel Universe to start a sub-franchise that is still beloved today.
The first outing in what is now known as the Vs. Series was Marvel Comics X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, or simply, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter. Though mechanically similar to games like Street Fighter II and the Alpha series, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter had its own set of characteristics that made it stand out from that series, and not just the fact that it happened to feature the children of the atom. X-Men Vs. Street Fighter was a fighting game that was meant to be less technical and thus more accessible to a wider audience than the Street Fighter series. Move inputs were the same, however screen filling super moves sometimes featuring energy blasts that filled the entire screen became the norm, as did performing massive super jumps in the air either by quickly tapping down then up or the triple-kick button on consoles. These mechanics and systems would go more or less unchanged in the first sequel, Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter.
Outside of the fighting engine for both these games, what made them stand out against polygonal fighters like Tekken was the gorgeous sprite work. Characters from Capcom’s long running fighting franchise have never looked better, while heroes and villains from the Marvel Universe never look like they were ripped straight from the pages of the comics and move exactly how you would expect them to. This excellent art direction doesn’t just translate to the fighters, but to the fighting arenas themselves. Each background is filled to the brim with beautiful colours that hold up better today than any of the early 3-D fighters that were become popular at the time.
Where the two games differentiate themselves most are in the roster of fighters present and the amount of play modes found in each. Though I’m a bigger Marvel Universe fan than an X-Men fan, the character selection in X-Men Vs. Street Fighter is both more recognizable and balanced than that of Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter. On the X-Men side are fan favourites that appeared on the Fox Kids animated series like Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit, Storm with villains like Magneto, Juggernaut and Sabretooth. The Street Fighter roster plays like a greatest hits of the series, featuring most of the cast of Street Fighter II simply replacing Guile with Charlie from Street Fighter Alpha.
The cast of Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter has a lot of recognizable faces like Captain America, Spider-Man, and Hulk, but weirdly subtracts characters like Doctor Doom and Iron Man for returning fighters Shuma-Gorath and Blackheart from Marvel Super Heroes. Similarly, the roster of Street Fighter characters loses a Ken in favour of joke character Dan and Sakura. These choices make X-Men Vs. Street Fighter a game that more casual players can hop into because at the very least, they know who the characters are from Street Fighter II and the X-Men cartoon. Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter loses some of that mass-appeal with characters that are more of a reward to long time fans of these games, but that being said, this is only a tip of the ice berg when compared to those who will eventually show up in the Marvel Vs. Capcom trilogy.
Whether you play either game, are a fan of Marvel, Capcom, or both, everyone can take comfort in knowing that every fighter is fully realized in these games and play and feel exactly how you think they should. Spider-Man shoots webs and swings, Cyclops fires optic blasts, Gambit throws cards and attacks with his bo staff and Captain America throws and charges in head first with his mighty shield. Outside of the obvious tight game mechanics that were built on the already sound foundation of Capcom’s Street Figther series that as this point were refined to near-perfection, the great thing about these games, and those that followed them, are not only how well the team crafted the licensed characters from Marvel, but also how they made them fit so naturally with the Street Fighter crew.
Outside of the cast, the biggest difference to be found in X-Men Vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter is the different play modes, and it’s here where Marvel Super Heroes easily tops X-Men. Though the best way as always to play games like these are head-to-head with a friend, there are times when you’ll find yourself having to play solo and as these released on the first PlayStation, it’s not like you could just hop online. Both have the traditional arcade mode where you fight through teams of two until you come face-to-face with a massive, screen filling Apocalypse, but outside of arcade mode, X-Men just has a survival mode and that’s it.
Marvel Super Heroes on the other hand, coming after a few years of Capcom working on the hardware, has an attempt at a cross-over mode where you play as the opposite team of one another (see above). There’s also a true versus mode where you pick a side, either Marvel or Street Fighter, and then play until every member of the opposing side is defeated. This mode turned out to be one of my favourites of the two games, as it really sells the “Vs.” in the title and causes you to experiment with characters you normally wouldn’t because you don’t want your side to lose.
As much as I love both of these games and have warm, nostalgic memories of playing them with my brother when he introduced the PlayStation into our N64-only household in 1999, I’m not sure exactly how much I can recommended people seeking them out. Both are very much worth your time if you like fighting games, and in particular the Marvel Vs. Capcom games, but they’re very expensive games to buy on sites like eBay, and neither were rereleased to services like PSN or XBLA. Purists also will probably want to seek out the Sega Saturn versions which are just as expensive as the PSOne titles, with the added cost of having to purchase the hardware and RAM expansion for true arcade play.
If you do have the means to play either of these games, or already have them in your collection, both are worth booting up to reexperience again for the first time. Though the Vs. Series really hit its stride in the Marvel Vs. Capcom trilogy, these two stepping-stone games to that series are a great way to understand how those games came to be as good and beloved as they are. Whether you’re playing on PSOne, Saturn, or are lucky enough to have a still open local arcade with these cabinets, go play a round or two, I promise you won’t be disappointed.