Monday, February 4, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy, final part.


Designing fighting game characters was an art form. It was something that I had been studying a long time. For the past 20 years I had been writing about fighting games, specifically dissecting the Street Fighter characters by Capcom. On occasion I had also looked at the designs from Namco, Sega, Midway, and SNK. The majority of the studios were Japanese. I never had reason to bring up the comic book fighting games because they were not my cup of tea. This changed with the Contest of Champions. Kabam was doing a brilliant job adapting the look of 2D characters into 3D models. Their figures were dynamic, colorful, and easy to read. Essentially all of the things that audiences needed fighting game characters to be. The models captured the details perfectly, whether from the pages of a comic book, film, or television. The artists and modelers at Kabam were really doing the characters justice. The heavy hitters, like the Abomination, and Juggernaut had mass, and heft. The small agile characters like Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Man looked elastic, and flexible. The characters the studio created for the game were among my favorite looks for these icons. These were the designs I wish I had seen in animated, toy, and game form while growing up. The reverence for each character showed in the details that Kabam included. This hopefully put the (sometimes) rabid fan base at ease. If not they certainly won me over.


Little by little Gabriel Frizzera and the team at Kabam in Vancouver introduced new things into the Marvel Universe, and they were accepted by the community at large. Their respect for the various properties was tangible. They didn't introduce a new character, or a new Chapter without a reason. Every hero and villain dropped into the contest served a purpose. They all helped drive a bigger story. Kabam had earned enough trust from Marvel to begin putting their own spin on the multiverse. They even created a few new faces in the process. The first of which was Civil Warrior. In the comic book story arc Dark Reign there was a star-spangled version of Iron Man, known as the Iron Patriot. In the absence of Tony Stark this armor was actually piloted by Norman Osborn aka the Green Goblin. Kabam presented an alternate timeline where Steve Rogers killed Tony Stark. Riddled with guilt he donned the metal armor and took on the identity of the Civil Warrior. Having both the Marvel, and Kabam originals be playable characters, each with their own library of moves and abilities was inspired design. It demonstrated the level of commitment that the studio had with the game.


Not every multiverse character featured in MCC was so serious, some were decidedly out of left field. An alien Symbiote infected Peter-Parker during the events of the original Secret Wars. It replaced his tattered costume, and covered him in a black and white mesh that enhanced his strength and abilities. He kept the new look for a while after he returned to Earth. He eventually tore away from this alien, and it stuck to Eddie Brock who was a rival of Peter Parker. This was when they became Venom. In the MCC there were timelines where the symbiote didn't end up with Brock but instead went to Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool. Venompool was an extreme party animal, but also a dangerous fighter. Again, having moves in MCC that were all his own. The most bizarre multiverse hybrid happened when Howard the Duck, inter-dimensional detective, gained the powers from the symbiote. Venom the Duck was a servant of darkness, and easily the strangest looking fighter in MCC.


It took much more to making a mobile game than filling the roster with fan-favorite characters. The game had to be balanced, no particular class of characters could have an overall advantage. This meant months of tweaking, updates and roster changes. The control had to be simple, and accessible. It had to be something simple to pick up but difficult to master. There had to be an object to playing over, and over again. A series of in-game rewards, daily missions, and more kept people engaged. It also had to to require some skill and strategy to play. Even without using the familiar Marvel characters that was a tall order. Any fighting game, let alone a mobile game, could be undone by the slightest oversight. If a studio spent too much time on the graphics while sacrificing game play then it showed. Fighting game aficionados were a fickle bunch. They wouldn't support a title that was poorly made. There were hundreds of fighting games that had come and gone in the past 30+ years. Few had been as successful, or had lasted as long as MCC. The majority of the survivors were created by Japanese studios, this was one of the few franchises created in the west.


Great fighting games also featured eye catching stages. Most of the levels in MCC had to be spectacles, like the remains of a Celestial in the deep cosmos. This site was better known as Knowhere from the Guardians of the Galaxy. MCC had gorgeous stages by the boatload. They were pulled from the various comics, live action films, and television shows. New audiences could identify the places in the Battlerealm that were pulled out of a movie screen. The Avengers Tower, the location from the first Avengers film was one such place. It was breathtaking when it was illuminated at night. Players almost expected Tony Stark to walk on to the helipad with a drink in hand. Then there was the golden throne on Asgard. Formerly occupied by Odin. Audiences could see ornate filigree carved on the throne and columns. Giant banners swung in the breeze over polished stone floors. It was a stage truly worthy of a king.


Long time fans were surprised to see classic locations also make the transition to 3D. Those that had grown up on the X-Men comics knew about Asteroid-M. It was an enormous planetoid floating near the moon, it had been pulled into orbit by Magneto. He used it as his base of operations, and treated it as a sanctuary for the persecuted mutants of Earth. This place was central to the original X-Men pilot cartoon. It was also used as levels in arcade games by Capcom and Konami. Then there was the Astral Plane, a nexus of magic users often visited by Dr. Strange in the comic books. Seeing this in game form left me giddy. Spreading out the locations for the Battlerealm across the different franchises worked in the favor of Kabam. The studio was not limited to a specific movie, timeline or event. It had room to grow and that was what excited me most about the future of MCC. The universe was completely wide open to them.


Kabam was celebrating four years with the Marvel Contest of Champions. This celebration coincided with Marvel regaining the rights to the X-Men, and Fantastic Four (FF) movies. A good number of mutant characters were already in the title, but the Fantastic Four were notoriously absent. All of this changed at the end of 2018. The Silver Surfer appeared in a trailer and teased their return. Over 2019 new Chapters were planned for the game. Each was supposed to bring back one of the four. January saw the introduction of Ben Grimm, aka the ever-lovin' blue eyed Thing. Who was next would be anyone's guess. Perhaps it was Reed Richards "Mr. Fantastic", or his wife Sue Storm "The Invisible Woman", or maybe even his brother-in-law Johnny Storm "The Human Torch." Gabriel Frizzera and Kabam weren't saying.


The Fantastic Four had always enjoyed some notoriety in comics. They were also the ones that helped lead the charge against two of Marvel's biggest bad guys. Dr. Doom had not appeared in MCC either. There were many timelines in the multiverse where he was the supreme ruler of the world. He was a brilliant scientist, and master of the dark arts after all. Imagine someone with the scientific brilliance of Tony Stark, and the magical abilities of Dr. Strange. He was also underused in cinema for too long, but would undoubtedly get his due in a video game. Having the Silver Surfer in the trailer also hinted that he would be a playable character at some point in the future. And if the Surfer was planned for the game then it also meant that his master Galactus, the "Devourer of Worlds" would not be far behind.

From this point on the game could only grow, and evolve. As long as Kabam continued to explore the Marvel universe there was no telling how long the series could continue. I eagerly waited to see what they had planned this year and beyond. If you want to find out more about this game make sure you pick up Marvel Contest of Champions: The Art of the Battlerelam by Paul Davies. It will get you caught up to the events thus far. Do you have a favorite character or team from this game? What were your favorite comic book games? I'd like to read about it in the comments section! As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Friday, February 1, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy, part 5...


Having a great comic book property meant nothing if it was mismanaged. When it came to making great movies out of comic books Hollywood did not always get it right. The studios often released big-budget let downs. They would sometimes pack as many big name celebrities as they could into a movie, hoping that star power was enough to win over the audience. They scripts were written by people unfamiliar with the comics, and directed by equally clueless people. They often ignored the elements that made characters appealing in the first place. Worse yet, they would sell a license to a game publisher to make a tie-in video game. They were almost all horrible, and sadly the only time a comic book fan ever got to play as their hero.


Look at the creative decisions of the previous generation of movie executives. They tried to cash in on the comic book trend some 30 years ago. They put films like Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom on the big screen. Those characters were darlings to the Silent Generation / Baby Boomer crowd. They grew up on radio serials, and black and white cinema. These classic figures couldn't entertain the Gen-Xers that grew up on the Superman, and Batman features. It was no surprise when the retro hero movies flopped. They showed how hopelessly out of touch the old guard was. Compare this to how well Marvel was handling their film and television properties in the current era. Executives Kevin Feige, and Jeph Loeb had intimate knowledge of the various franchises. They had far more hits than misses, in part because they didn't repeat the mistakes of the executives that came before. The other reason was because they understood each hero and selected the right screenwriter and director for each project.


Marvel's digital leadership was also on their A-Game. When it came to new media everything they experimented with seemed to strike gold. Especially Marvel Contest of Champions. It was not by accident. Marvel Games Executive Creative Director Bill Rosemann had been writing, editing and developing new IP for decades. He learned first-hand about the creative process and knew what fans expected. He knew that comic book fans had been burned in the past and were wary of any new titles. He had worked his way up the Marvel ladder by earning their trust. So had Marvel New Media Vice President and Creative Executive Ryan "Agent-M" Penagos. He originally started with Marvel's Digital Media Group. His focus had shifted as rapidly as the digital landscape changed, he soon found himself coordinating social media, podcasts and just about every major convention that Marvel was presenting at. They found the right studio in Kabam to take on an ambitious mobile game.


On the development side Chris "Cuz" Parry was a huge fan of comics, but he was also known for rewriting the skateboard game genre. In a few years The Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series had earned almost half a billion dollars for Activision. The publisher then drove series into the ground (same thing could be said of the music game Rock Band). Fans were feeling burned out on the annual releases with the same tired mechanics. At the tail-end of Hawk's legacy the rival studio EA introduced a different type of game, known as SKATE. It was a breath of fresh air. It was several years in development. During the decline of Hawk franchise when many other skateboarding games came, and went. EA's title turned out to be more realistic, and more in tune with how skateboarding had progressed. Parry was working for Black Box studio then, and was a good reason why the game was a hit. He stayed in Vancouver and went over to Kabam where he helped redefine the mobile fighting game. First with Marvel Contest of Champions, and later on with the Transformers Forged to Fight.


Kabam Creative / Art Director Gabriel Frizzera was possibly the most influential of the new faces. The Brazilian grew up on a diet of comic books and dreamed that some day he would also be a creator. Little did he know just how much of an impact he would have. He collaborated with Marvel Writer Sam Humphries on shaping the Contest of Champions. The series started small but little by little Kabam released new characters, and features in the form of Chapters. The game had over 40 million downloads, a certifiable hit when it debuted in 2015. It passed $100 million in revenue that first year. That was more than double what Marvel Future Fight had generated in the same year. It may sound odd considering that MCC was free to download, and free to play. Like many of the most popular mobile games it actually made revenue from micro transactions. Audiences could spend a dollar here and there to unlock rare items, and collectibles. They could also "grind" at the game and earn these things over weeks of playing. Think about how people could spend $6 on coffee every day without thinking about it. Paying 99 cents for an in-game item was a bargain. Now multiply that occasional dollar across 40+ million downloads. As of this blog post MCC ranked 38th on the top grossing iPhone games, earning over $60,000 a day in revenue (10 times the revenue of Marvel Future Fight). But those daily totals could change overnight with the release of a new Marvel movie.


In 2017 Marvel Contest of Champions was ranked the eighth most successful Android game, earning over $170 million from its customers. The title had been the #1 ranked free to play game on several occasions. It recaptured the #1 spot, when it passed $3.1 million in player spending on July 4, 2018. Thanks to the introduction of the Ant-Man and Wasp. It coincided with the release of the movie. For the month prior to that it was still earning over $640,000 per day. There was another spike on Cyber Monday in 2018 when it earned over $3 million in one day. Estimates that the Contest of Champions had generated over $400 million since its debut could be very conservative. Kabam and Marvel were sitting on a cash cow. As confidence in the developers grew Kabam was granted more creative freedom. A 10-issue Marvel Contest of Champions comic book was released in 2015. A new collaboration was long overdue. Frizzera and Marvel artist Luke Ross worked together on the Digital Comic, The Young Elders Tale in 2018.


Frizzera created a unique backstory to the Collector, and turned the eccentric Elder of the Universe into one of the more sympathetic figures. It would not be the only thing that he and Kabam were allowed to create in the MCC sandbox. We shall explore how the Contest of Champions created a template for successful comic book mobile games in the next blog. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy, part 4...


Thanos was a frightening villain in the comics, cartoons, and movies. Obsessed with Death, as in the physical embodiment of Death, the Mad Titan didn't see a problem destroying reality and reshaping it to his ideal. In order to do this he needed to tap into resources far older, and more powerful than his own. This was when the Infinity Gems, and Infinity Gauntlet came into play. The origins of the Infinity Gems were not the same in the live action movies, they actually went back to when the Marvel universe was still evolving. The first Infinity Gem, the Soul Gem appeared in Marvel Premier #1 in 1972. The comic written by Roy Thomas and the penciled by Gil Kane introduced audiences to a gold skinned alien known as Adam Warlock, owner of the stone. The other gems were introduced a few at a time over the next several years. All six would not appear until a Silver Surfer story from 1988. The majority of these gems were owned by one of the Elders of the Universe. There were almost two dozen Elders that had been revealed in Marvel continuity, but only a few had the Infinity Gems. The Elders were extremely powerful, even without the gems. Nobody thought however about how powerful one would become if they possessed all of the gems. That changed a few years later. Adam Warlock was acting as a cosmic detective, investigating the movements of Thanos. The clues were pointing to something catastrophic.


The original Thanos Quest, written by Jim Starlin, and penciled by Ron Lim, was a story from 1990. Starlin used to write and draw for Marvel in the '70s and had done a lot of the cosmic world building back then. He was keenly aware of the Infinity Gems and had plans to use them, but it wouldn't happen for decades. Not until he returned to the Marvel Bullpen. In his story he had Thanos scour the cosmos and take each Infinity Gem from the Elders, one at a time, often by tricking them. The Soul Gem he got from the In-Betweener, an agent and prisoner of Lord Chaos and Master Order. The Power Gem from the Champion of the Universe, an Elder that was like a blue-skinned, nine-foot tall Hulk Hogan. The Time Gem he got from the Gardener, and Space Gem from the Runner. The final two he got from the most familiar Elders. The Reality Gem from the Collector, and finally the Mind Gem from the Grandmaster. Each gem was capable of shaping a portion of reality to the will of its owner. All six combined were incalculably powerful. I was glad to see the Champion introduced into the game at the end of 2018. His martial prowess, and arrogance was legendary. I was sure he could easily hold his own in the contest, but I digress.


The Thanos Quest planted the seeds for a longer saga. It was something that Marvel editors played close to their chest and surprised the comic community. Marvel readers didn’t expect there to be a series with the gravitas of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Marvel would debut the Infinity Gauntlet in 1991, the Infinity War in 1992 and the Infinity Crusade in 1993. I remember when my little brother read the first few pages of the Thanos Quest he told my older brother and I that if Thanos wasn't stopped he would probably come to Earth and wipe out all of the heroes. We laughed at the idea. There was no way Thanos could stop the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, or Inhumans. We figured that any one of those super-powered teams would be enough to beat him. Heck, the Silver Surfer was arguably the most powerful cosmic hero. He could have stopped Thanos by himself. Fans expected MCC to give audiences another take on the Infinity War. This was when Kabam took things one step further.


The Contest of Champions was not just an adaptation of the Infinity War, but instead something more spectacular. It pulled together characters from different timelines, different dimensions, different realities, and dropped them into the middle of a new battle. This new showcase featured the alternate reality where Erik “Killmonger” Stevens was the King of Wakanda. He possessed something called the Infinity Claw, a gauntlet made of ornate vibranium, and had disposed of T’Challa, the Black Panther. The Battlerealm had its own Infinity Gems which were different than the ones Thanos originally claimed. In the Kabam title these gems were Evolution, Genesis, Chaos, War, Nightmare, and Death. They also shaped reality in different ways. The fight for power was on a scale not previously seen in any comic book or movie. From a fan perspective it was the best of all worlds. How this happened was an act of trust between multiple companies, and departments. At the heart of the project were a few faces that you should know about. Chief among these people was Kabam Creative / Art Director Gabriel Frizzera.


No less important was Creative Director Chris "Cuz" Parry, Design Director Tim Molyneux, Marvel Games Executive Creative Director Bill Rosemann and Marvel New Media Vice President and Creative Executive Ryan Penagos. This group worked well together, and accomplished something seemingly impossible. A mobile game that honored the Marvel canon, was able to keep up with the television, and film IP, and was still was fun to play. Very rarely had so many different branches of a major company worked so well together with a developer. The reason why was because everyone associated with the project was a die-hard Marvel fan. They knew the stories forward and backwards. They also knew that video games based on comic books were not always good. They were around when some of the worst Marvel games, like Captain America and the Avengers were released, but also when some of the best like the X-Men was in arcades.


There was enough creative freedom to allow Kabam to essentially add an entirely new chapter to the Marvel portfolio. All of the men pictured above were relatively young for their positions, they had grown up knowing the best stories from the '80s, and '90s. They saw what it took to make a good comic,  super hero movie, or game. They were able to bring that love, avoid the pitfalls, and corner the mobile market, even above the Marvel Future Fight game. In the next blog we will look at how solid leadership could make all the difference in the world. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Monday, January 28, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy. part 3...


When fighting game fans think of Marvel fighting games they often go to the long-running series by Capcom. The first game in the series, X-Men vs Street Fighter debuted in 1996 and the most recent Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite debuted in 2017. Before the crossover titles Capcom had developed two unique fighting games that focused on a particular Marvel license. X-Men: Children of the Atom, a fighting game featuring heroes and villains from the X-Men comics debuted in 1995. That same year the studio also released Marvel Super Heroes, a fighting game inspired by the events in the Infinity War. The games featured highly stylized designs, high speed game play, brilliant animations, and a unique combo system. The Marvel Super Heroes title in particular allowed players to earn and use various Infinity Gems to give them a temporary power boost or special ability against their opponents. Of course at the end of the game Thanos would steal all six of the gems and use them against the player in true final boss fashion.


Marvel Contest of Champions (MCC) differed from the classic arcade fighters in a number of ways. In traditional arcade fighting games the battles only lasted a few seconds. Some of the more difficult battles in MCC could take several minutes to complete. Then there was the scale and scope of MCC. This was not just a game with one inevitable outcome. The Marvel multiverse and its inhabitants all depended on the player, known as the Summoner in the story. There were dozens of characters to unlock and play as, pulled from different realities. The game was also not a linear fighting game where you fought through a few characters, and wrapped up the story. There were tons of main quests and side quests to explore, each with their own special rules, and rewards. Players could earn experience for their champions, along with all sorts of collectible goods by "grinding" through the various missions. Players had to learn what items they should use to boost their characters stats and abilities before an encounter. This all added an additional level of strategy to each match. It was more like a fighting game-meets rpg-meets dungeon crawler.


A touch screen limited how complex most mobile games could really be, MCC was no exception to this rule. Most traditional fighting games used a six button layout, usually with a joystick or pad for directional inputs. The complex moves, and split-second timing from the Capcom games would be all but impossible to perform on a touch screen. Kabam simplified this, and inputs to simple taps. This didn't mean the game was simplistic. It still required learning the timing, and strategies for hundreds of potential encounters. Players had to learn when to activate certain counters, special attacks, and combinations. Otherwise they left themselves wide open to a counter attack. Players learned that certain characters worked well against one of the six classes; Cosmic, Mutant, Mystic, Skill, Science, and Tech. So just because you have a character with awesome powers, like Quake from Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, she didn't have the fighting prowess of Daredevil. In this way audiences learned to experiment and see which teams worked best for their style, and ability.


Best of all MCC draws equal parts from classic Marvel comics, and Marvel cinema. Both long time comic book fans and people new to the stories could be dropped right into the experience without missing a beat. In the Original Contest of Champions comic book the Grandmaster had organized the contest whereas in the Secret Wars it was the Beyonder. In the MCC the Collector was acting as the host of the tournament. The MCC took place in what was known as the Battlerealm. It was a nexus of different dimensions, and timelines that the Elders of the Universe had been shaping for their own entertainment. The idea of a dedicated arena was pulled from Secret Wars II in 1985. During that story Dr. Doom had temporarily gained the powers of the Beyonder. He hosted his tournament in what he called the Battleworld. The various locations released thus far in MCC did call out to specific locations that had been featured in over 40 years of Marvel comics. To help clarify the stakes and explain the new organizers Marvel released a 10-issue series titled Marvel Contest of Champions in 2015.


So how did Kabam hook new audiences without losing the veteran gamers? How did they strike a balance between easing players to a new game while still keeping it challenging. Of course the big question was how did they raise the stakes over any previous comic timeline? People that were just getting into fighting games, or mobile fighting games were probably familiar with the Avengers movies. Over the past 10 years Marvel had been building a cinematic empire that connected the various properties together. Almost every person today, young and old recognized Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk thanks to these movies. They also knew the X-Men, and Spider-Man thanks to the films from other studios. What Kabam did was combine the live action licenses, including the characters that appeared on television, and placed them alongside their comic book counterparts. They managed to do all of this surprisingly well.


The contest organized by the Collector was simply one step in a much longer and more complex narrative. When Kabam released MCC only a few villains were revealed as organizers. Originally it was the Collector versus Kang the Conqueror, a time-travelling villain. They were battling over the ISO-Sphere, an item that allowed its owner to rewrite reality. This sphere was made up of ISO-8 crystals which champions earned in the game. All of this was explained in the comic. As the MCC series went on it changed organizers to include the Maestro. An evil version of the Hulk from the far future. In the "Future Imperfect" timeline he either killed or outlived all of the heroes and villains. The MCC also brought in the Grandmaster to act as an organizer. Of course what good was a contest if the Grandmaster could not participate, and show up his brother?


The ISO-Sphere was an all-powerful trophy, but long-time comic book fans were wondering if a different reality-changing item would appear in the series. Specifically one coveted by Thanos. The Infinity Gauntlet did exist in MCC, but not in the same way as the comic books, movies or even previous games had established. It took almost three years for Marvel Contest of Champions extend its version of the story, and the payoff was completely worth it. We shall explore this radical new world in the next blog. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Friday, January 25, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy, part 2...


In the previous blog I talked about how Marvel's Secret Wars was as influential to the development of the Contest of Champions mobile game as any other Marvel story arc. It was not however what I believe to be the most influential crossover event in '80s comic book history. That title would belong to DC comics. Writer Marv Wolfman did not like the different versions of the DC universe characters occupying the same space. Unless you had been following the DC comics for a long time you didn't necessarily know that Superman and Superboy were two different characters occupying two different Earths. You simply assumed that before Clark Kent became Superman he was naturally Superboy. There was actually a long-standing legal battle around who owned the rights to Superboy. To compound things there were different dimensions and different timelines happening where Clark landed on Earth in the '20s or '30s and thus interacted with different historical characters. Superman had been given lots of nonsensical powers through the years, super ventriloquism, super face shifting, super hypnosis, etc. There were also dimensions where there was a super dog (Krypto), a super horse (Comet), and even super cat (Streaky). To try and make sense of it all, de-power Superman and others, and streamline the DC canon Wolfman, artists George Perez, John Byrne, and the editors at DC agreed on an ultimate crossover, the Crisis on Infinite Earths.


What set Crisis apart from every other comic book crossover at the time was the finality of the events. Whatever the outcome it would determine which characters remained in publication, which "Earth" was officially canon and who lived or died. Thus when Barry Allen, the Flash, passed away it was a sacrifice that meant something to an entire generation of readers. His protege' Wally West, the Kid Flash, would have to become the new Flash. Comic books were starting to "grow up" and writers like Wolfman and Alan Moore made sure to write some complex and mature material that forever changed the way comics would be presented. In the Crisis series a villain named the Anti-Monitor was collapsing dimensions in his wake. Each alternate timeline, or dimension was labeled with a number. This is where you might have heard things like Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-Prime, etc. Imagine that in one Earth it was perpetually World War II, or that in a different Earth the Justice League was made up of criminals. It was a lot for fans to keep track of so DC needed to sort things out. Wolfman was using the gigantic Anti-Monitor as a sledgehammer to shatter each Earth. The fan-favorite characters that survived the onslaught managed to do so by traveling from Earth to Earth and joined all of the heroes for one final stand. If you are relatively new to comic books but have been to a movie theater in the past decade then this might sound like a familiar idea. Marvel had also created their own universe smasher and this one went by the name of Thanos.


The roots of Thanos and how he was worked into the mobile game Marvel Contest of Champions was inspired. In the previous blog I mentioned that the events in Secret Wars and the original Contest of Champions had a hand in shaping the development of the mobile game. But it went much deeper than that. Those comic runs from the early '80s focused mainly on the traditional Marvel heroes and villains, whereas DC had brought forward the idea of a battle royal across different dimensions, or the multiverse. In 2018 Sony Animated Pictures brought audiences the wonderful Spider-Man Into the Spider-verse. It helped introduce the concept of the multiverse to Marvel fans. Long time comic book readers knew that there were different Earths as well. Except they went by a different numbering system than DC. It was something that Alan Moore and Alan Davis made up. They called the traditional Marvel universe Earth-616, the events from other comics took place on other Earths, for example there were many different versions of Spider-Man. In one world we had Peter Parker, in another there was Penny Parker (Earth-14512) or Gwen Stacy (Earth-65).


There was a punk rock Spider-Man, the militant Hobart Brown from Earth-138. He wore sneakers and had spikes on his mask. There was Earth-8311 where all the Marvel heroes were cartoon animals, including the Goose Rider, Captain Americat, the Incredible Hulk Bunny and of course Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider Ham. These characters often appeared in one-shot comics or short run series, never to be seen again. Fans never forgot these characters and neither did the writers and editors at Marvel. They were waiting for just the right story to tell. Many of these alternate realities went into the Spider-Verse comic book run in 2014 and the Spider-Geddon follow up in 2019. The popularity of the original run gave Sony the inspiration to pursue an animated feature. Hopefully you have seen it because it is more than a great comic book film, or a great animated film, but because it is simply was a great film. MMC does feature the Peter Parker, Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy versions of Spider-Man but Marvel went much deeper than that.


There were many other alternate timelines in the Marvel U where heroes were not quite how you remembered them. There was the Fear Itself timeline, a crossover from 2011, where some heroes, and villains were given magical hammers. Similar to Mjolnir, Thor's hammer. Except the hammers possessed the bearer, and caused them to wreak havoc on the Earth. The mastermind behind this was Cul Borson, the evil elder brother of Odin. Then there was the Infinity Wars from 2018. This timeline had all sorts of weird twists. It was the dimension where Steve Rogers became the Soldier Supreme during WWII, and when Tony Stark was actually Tony Odinson. He created the enchanted Iron Hammer armor. These versions did make it into the mobile game Marvel Future Fight by Netmarble Games. Incorporating the idea of multiverse was really where the Contest of Champions shone.


The game from Kabam took cues from the live action films and television shows. Since the game took place during a nebulous period, far outside of whatever was currently happening in any one particular comic book it allowed characters from the past, future, and essentially any dimension to exist at the same time. For a Marvel fan this was the ultimate experience. Fans didn't have to worry about being locked into one canon, one continuity, one version of their beloved heroes and villains.  For example fans of the Hulk could actually take on the roles of at least three different versions of the Green Goliath. There was the classic green Hulk, the grey mob enforcer "Mr. Fixit" persona and even the evil future version known as The Maestro. Kabam had opened the floodgates for what it meant to be compete against other champions. The path that the company took and how they pulled the Marvel continuity into uncharted waters was nothing short of genius. We'll explore the adaptation process in the next blog. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Marvel Contest of Champions Legacy, part 1...


Thanks for hanging in there friends! The first blog of 2019 is to talk about an old fighting game, but not one from Capcom. In fact it's not one from any Japanese studio! This is a mobile game that is celebrating 4 years in business. That means it is a seasoned veteran by mobile standards. I don't talk very much about downloadable games on this site. In fact the last time that I did it was to talk about the Warhammer 40,000 game Freeblade. Without hyperbole I called it one of the best mobile games ever made. Freeblade was a great on rails shooter, but that was giant robots and monsters. The game I'm talking about today is an actual fighting game. Marvel Contest of Champions by Kabam is a fantastic game especially if you are a huge fan of the Marvel universe like me. I decided to write about the game thanks to the recently published book; Marvel Contest of Champions The Art of the Battlerelam by Paul Davies. The large hardcover by Titan Books, is the same publisher that brought us the gorgeous Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie by Ramin Zahed. If you are a comic book fan then you owe it to yourself to get both books, like right now, before you even finish reading the rest of this blog.


When the Contest of Champions art book came it out and made me appreciate how far the comic, mobile, and fighting game genre has come in the past few years. I got my first preview of the game years ago in Anaheim during the D23 Convention, which is like the Comic Con for the various Disney properties. I was skeptical that any mobile game would do the Marvel universe justice. Comic book fans had been burned in the past by sloppy adaptations. I kept an eye on the game and as it grew and garnered hundreds of millions of players I learned it was no accident. As I was going through the book it made me realize that we should be celebrating the renaissance of comic book games, films, animated projects, and especially the creators bringing them to life. That's what got me to start writing again.

The game itself borrows a name from a three-run issue series from 1982. In it the series the Elders of the Universe, immortal aliens that specialized in a certain pursuit had a contest of sorts. Well, to be fair the Elders could die if they were gravely injured by another powerful being. In the comic book series the Marvel heroes and villains did battle as part of a cosmic game. En Dwi Gast, the Elder better known as The Grandmaster, challenged Death to a contest so he could win back the life of his brother Taneleer Tivan, the Elder known as the Collector. The two Elders were seen in the Marvel live action features, respectively played by Jeff Goldblum in Thor Ragnarok and Benicio del Toro in the Guardians of the Galaxy. Death accepted the challenge and each side chose warriors to battle. Comic books have always enjoyed a hierarchy of characters that existed beyond the limits of normal humans. These characters rarely popped up on Earth but instead inhabited the cosmos. Some of the most powerful figures could bend reality at will and even destroy entire galaxies if they wanted. Having these characters exist in Marvel canon allowed writers the freedom to do the impossible. They could capture entire rosters of heroes and raise the stakes over a traditional comic book story arc.


Movie fans might not realize it, but crossovers didn't happen as often as they did in the Avengers films. Crossover events used to be rare for big publishers like Marvel and also for rival publisher DC. For the most part the stars of the comic books had their own story arcs, relationships and adventures. They sometimes shared a city like New York. This was the base for Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange. But these heroes didn't always cross paths. They each had to deal with their own problems and clean up their own part of the Big Apple. Often the enemies mirrored the heroes in their own way. The Fantastic Four would sometimes face a team of rivals, like the U-Foes or the Inhumans. Or it would take their combined efforts to stop one super-powered being like Dr. Doom. Daredevil would fight martial arts experts like Bullseye and Elektra, meanwhile Dr. Strange fought mystical opponents like Baron Mordo and Dormammu. The enemies were always at the appropriate level of challenge for the heroes. Despite his amazing abilities Spider-Man would be powerless against magic, but by the same token Dr. Strange would never be able to take a punch in a street fight. Some of the most unique figures in the Marvel universe have rarely appeared outside of the comics. When they did they were usually only recognized by fans of that particular character. For example I was happy to see the gamma-irradiated Leader and Madman in the Incredible Hulk video game. Their looks and abilities were unique but I could understand why some game players had no idea who they were.


The Hulk was famous for getting into fistfights with equally strong opponents but every so often he would sometimes pity his opponents and walk away. In some cases he would figure out their motive and actually outwit them. The relationships between the heroes and villains would change through the years. Even for those as timeless as the Leader or Madman. Like any great storytelling medium it was the growth of the character that kept audiences coming back. Sometimes the monthly issues would be a chance to develop a certain character, to see the world through their unique perspective. The X-Men, a team of mutants with special abilities debuted in 1963. It was a turbulent era in US history. The plight of the mutants in the Marvel universe paralleled the fight for civil rights in the US. While Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four were celebrated in New York, the mutants were feared and despised simply for being born different. It didn't matter when they fought for the safety and security of everyone. This lead to the radicalization of some mutants as well, showing two sides to the struggle. The X-Men had appeared in a number of brilliant multi-part story arcs, like The Dark Phoenix Saga (1980), Days of Future Past (1981), Mutant Massacre (1986), Fall of the Mutants (1988), Inferno (1989), Age of Apocalypse (1995). Many of these stories had now been adapted to animated and live action features.


The collective Marvel universe had very rarely crossed paths despite all of these story arcs. The Hulk would show up every now and then to take on a very strong mutant in the X-Men, and Ben Grimm (AKA The Thing) would help the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man deal with a crowd of bad guys. These crossovers were few and far between. A reason for this was because the writers and editors at Marvel needed to know months in advance how the stories would progress. They needed to hire artists, inkers and letterers to complete the panels before publishing. It would have broken continuity if a character appeared in one title when they were supposed to be dead in another. The three-issue Contest of Champions sparked the idea explored in the mobile game. A more influential battle royale could be attributed to the multi-part Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. The series from 1984 was actually created to help push a line of toys. Kids responded to crossovers, and the word secret during marketing tests. Thus the original arc had to fit in all of the big names and have them playing in the same sandbox in order to appeal to children. In the story an omniscient being known as the Beyonder summoned the great number of characters to fight for his entertainment. They didn't fight on Earth but instead on a makeshift dimension where anything went. Three decades later it was revisited during the 2015 run of the Secret Wars. This time however instead of featuring the characters from one Marvel universe, it expanded the scope to a multi-dimensional crossover. It featured the traditional heroes but also those from alternate dimensions, including the Ultimate (which inspired the live-action movies), 2099, Age of Apocalypse, House of M, and other arcs known to fans.


The stakes in the Secret Wars were pretty high. The Beyonder could shape reality to his will, drop teams of heroes and villains anywhere he wanted, and all of the cosmic forces seemed powerless to stop him. It was a scary opponent for our favorite heroes to face up to, but it was not the literal Earth-shattering event that would be most remembered. For comic book fans I would argue that the most influential crossover event in the '80s was not from Marvel but rather from DC Comics. We shall explore this series in the next blog entry. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

G, or the evolution of power-hungry characters in fighting games

Another year, another EVO and another few character reveals for some popular fighting games. I’m going to talk a little bit about G, the new character unveiled for Street Fighter V. We’re going to talk about the design roots of the character. If you want the punchline here it is: G is the self proclaimed “President of the World.” His design is rooted in American Imperialism. It’s as simple and as complex as that. Think about it for a moment. The absurd stovepipe hat and filigreed coat and tails hasn’t been en vogue in more than 150 years. G is a juiced up Abraham Lincoln and demanding of more patriotism than Uncle Sam.


G’s motives may be noble but there is a dark undercurrent carrying his inclusion in the series. Any man that forces himself as a leader on the global stage is a narcissist, a despot or a tyrant. G has delusions of grandeur and sadly, the physical properties to make him appear superior to normal people. G is a reflection of several world leaders that we are dealing with right now, especially in the USA. I’ll get to this comparison in a bit. Did you notice that G is covered in golden marks? They look like golden tattoos. In the original design notes these golden patches were shaped after the continents. Without his jacket you would be able to see that each golden patch outlines the nations of the world. The cover his arms, torso and neck. Visually it is an interesting look. There is a lot of contrast with gold, especially over bare skin. Gold has actually been used in cosmetics going back thousands of years. Some makeup artists actually apply gold leaf to to the skin for aesthetic reasons. I don't know if these markings on G are makeup, tattoos or even a skin condition.

Before G was introduced there was a lot of speculation to his design. He has a very unique look, however it is not completely original. Above I mentioned that he already takes cues from Lincoln and Sam, but in the fighting game world there have been others like him. Steven Chavez posted a theory that Du Nguyen and Xavier had circulated on Twitter. Namely that G was actually Greg, a character from Bloody Roar, a game by Hudson Soft released in 1997. Bloody Roar was a unique fighting game. There were masters of various arts in it, this was nothing new to the genre, however these characters also had the ability to transform into animal-like avatars. Audiences have seen werewolves and even werebears in popular culture but Bloody Roar also gave us weretigers, wererabbits and even weregorillas. Plus this game was another title built on 3D technology. Hudson Soft was not know for their fighting game library but they proved that the shift in fighting games from 2D to 3D was more than a fad. The similarities between G and Greg were eerie. Top hat, bodybuilder physique, large beard were all spot on. Plus there was an ape teased in Ed's ending in Street Fighter V. It stood to reason why some in the fighting game community saw this as the alternate form of G.


I've said it before and I'll continue saying it. No character design exists in a vacuum. Influences from pop culture help color each design. It doesn't matter if you're an artist in Japan, the US or anywhere else in the world. Whether consciously or subconsciously the artists creating these new fighters are all putting in their own insight and tastes. This can sometimes include elements seen in other fighting games, action movies, comics or cartoons. Changes in music, movies and even politics helped shift the public perception of fighting game characters. In the earliest days of the genre fighting games featured martial artists. They were easy to create and were universally recognized as being fighters. As the genre took off so too did the types of characters that could be considered fighters. The industry tried different things out and audiences responded accordingly. Robots, aliens, dinosaurs, demons and superheroes were all used to replace the tried and true kung-fu archetypes. G is the latest version of a more contemporary design. His look is rooted in ultra wealthy and ultra powerful villains.

Fatal Fury (1991) introduced the world to Geese Howard, a martial arts master that was also a crime lord that ran the fictional South Town. He was a break in tradition from the boss characters that were simply martial artists. Geese could have been a bad guy in a modern action movie. One which featured drugs, cops and murder instead of fantasy swordplay. Howard wasn't the first villain in a fighting game to be the kingpin type. Belger, from Capcom's Final Fight in 1989 and Mr. X from Sega's Streets of Rage were also mobster-type villains. Geese was unique in that he was in a fighting game and a powerful opponent. SNK pushed the concept of powerful leader even further in Fatal Fury 2 (1992). Wolfgang Krauser von Stronheim, the half-brother of Geese Howard, was the new sponsor of the King of Fighters tournament. SNK wanted Krauser to have the look of a European aristocrat. He was wearing a cape and sporting golden armor in his character intro. He did not have the same moves or techniques of Howard but he was still a powerful opponent. It was not the first or last time the aristocratic design would be featured in their extended universe.

King Leo, the main villain in SNK's Savage Reign (1995), also sported royal colors and golden armor. With his ornate mask and elaborate headdress he pushed the idea of eccentric villain even further. A somewhat subdued doppleganger named King Lion also appeared in the same game. Within two years SNK had established that rich, powerful, and corrupt men were the new boss templates. Sagat from the original Street Fighter (1987) was still an icon but he represented the first generation of villain. Someone with a limited role outside of fighting. Vega / the Dictator from Street Fighter II (1991) would become more influential to the story and boss designs for the universe. Vega, like Geese Howard, was not a traditional martial artist. Because of that he could be placed in much more interesting locations and force the playable characters to appear out of their element.


Without a doubt the biggest shift in villain designs happened in 1994 with the introduction of Rugal Bernstein. The newest benefactor of the King of Fighter's tournament was a groundbreaking opponent. SNK learned from all the design notes that went into Geese and Wolfgang and created a hybrid of the two. He had the size and power of Krauser, with the balanced techniques of Howard. Plus he was a very sharp dressed man. He didn't wear armor or any other martial arts costume but instead wore black and red tailored suits. Nobody looked half as fresh as Rugal when he debuted. SNK wanted him to stand out and they succeeded. Despite being a new to the universe audiences instantly gravitated towards his design. Nobody else in the genre looked or fought like him. His wide arcing kicks and powerful punches could take down the strongest opponents. SNK demonstrated in the game that Rugal could easily take on a team of three fighters, even if that group included Terry and Andy Bogard and Joe Higashi, the stars of the original Fatal Fury. To help frame how much influence this new boss had had the studio created one of the most memorable stages ever.


Rugal flew the best team in his tournament to his personal aircraft carrier, named the Black Noah. As a background detail this is important. An aircraft carrier of its size costs around $6 billion, when fully loaded with aircraft, supplies and a private soldiers that number rises to almost $30 billion. Now consider that we don't even see the extent of Rugal's personal wealth. We have no idea how big his private army is or what he actually controls. We do know that he has enough money and influence to buy a navy and even decorate the bridge with paintings, lavish rugs, a grand piano and keep a pet panther there. This level of opulence makes for fantastic storytelling. It helps frame Rugal's impact on the world. He is much more important to the SNK universe than just about any other villain. The King of Fighters '94 was a major milestone for the genre. It connected the timelines and characters from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting series. Also it connected the characters from arcade gems Athena (1996), and Ikari Warriors (1996). Other fighting games would be influenced by the direction of these new fighting games and especially from the new villain archetype. The introduction of Heihachi Mishima in Tekken (1994), and Gill in Street Fighter III (1997) solidified the shift in this design. Karate fighters and kung-fu masters were no longer doing battle against other martial artists, they were now literally saving the world from tyrants.


Capcom was actually close to creating their own version of Rugal. An ultra powerful, aristocratic, multinational, authoritarian villain. They were not the only studio that was on the same path. Dream Factory (developers behind Tobal No. 1) also happened to be headed in the direction of a blonde-haired, red suit wearing villain. Whether coincidence, zeitgeist or something else entirely the Antonov made his debut as the "first champion" of King of Fighter's tournament. He appeared as a cigar chomping mogul in the King of Fighters XIV (2016). His design is nothing new. Years ago I mentioned that he was pretty much based on a comic book character called Asimov. Antonov is a master of the Siberian Gold Fist. An almost unparalleled form of boxing. He is the most recent retelling of the power hungry despot but his roots are a bit on the nose in this current political climate. It is well known that Russia has been dealing with oligarchs for some time. A few very wealthy and very influential people are consolidating power, killing their political enemies, dissenters, members of the press, and destabilizing rival nations. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Antonov is the Putin of fighting games, any more than G is the Trump of villain designs. Both however are instead a reflection of the changing global perceptions. Antonov and G are examples of how power corrupts. A decade ago the world still saw the USA, specifically the US leadership favorably. An example of this in fighting games was with the character Andrew.


Andrew debuted in Samurai Shodown 6 (2005). The series by SNK was based around the time where firearms were changing the world. Guns were replacing swords, the era of the samurai was coming to an end and cowboys and indians ran the wild west. Andrew was a new American character, he was actually a young president that enjoyed fighting. His design was a mix of fantasy and aristocracy. The Japanese artists took tremendous liberties with his look. Soldiers in the early 19th century didn't look anything like this anime character. Had SNK done a little homework they would have realized that the continental army didn't have long red coats. Those were the colors of the British uniforms during the American Revolution. Blue however was already assigned to the other American character, the blonde ninja Galford. SNK went heavy with the pandering. The inclusion of the White House as a stage and an epic electric rock guitar version of the Star Spangled Banner-meets-Stars and Stripes Forever for his stage music were as gung-ho USA as you could possibly get. Despite being presented in a patriotic light there was something authoritarian about the character.

Andrew confessed to Galford in the story mode that he didn't fight for freedom as much as he fought for domination. He was trying to create a literal "New World Order" a sort of United Nations where unfortunately votes were not exactly equal. It would be Andrew that ultimately called the shots. This character was inspired in part by Andrew Jackson, soldier and seventh president of the USA. He stood up to a British officer as a young man and carried the scar from his fight. Plus he participated in many duels. As inspiring as this sounded he was also responsible for one of the worst atrocities of any administration on US soil. Jackson pushed for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which lead to the forced relocation and murder of thousands of Native Americans. This became known as the Trail of Tears. A version of that was retold in Samurai Shodown 6 with Andrew conquering South America and making sure that Europe and Asia all followed his lead. The developers at SNK knew that the US could be as imperialistic as the British and made sure to push the character in that direction. It was a light jab that predated the design of characters like G.

As for the gold over skin. Maybe it's a jab by Capcom at a certain president spending too much time with spray tans. Or maybe it's just a way to show off the neat effects that the Unreal engine can pull off. Sort of like the glowing tattoos of Necalli. I don't think it really makes or breaks the character. The solid black costume is a bit boring, despite the filigree and cut of the jacket. His top hat is painfully absurd, but no more than a red-skinned Turk or green-skinned Brazilian beast man. So is G a good design or a bad one? Me, I don't care much for his look. I do expect to see more villains with this shade of political coloring in fighting games as well as in other genres. Politics have always been a part of the genre. Whether it was saving President Ronnie in Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja (Data East - 1988) or having Zangief dance with Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of Street Fighter II. The next generation will end up putting orange-skinned politicians in their stories. Mark my words. What do you think of this character? Does he work for you? Why or why not? If you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!
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