It is a miracle Avengers: Infinity War exists. In 2018, the geeks have inherited the Earth as superhero movies gross billions of dollars and influence cultural conversations. But in 1996, things were different. During the Clinton years, when you got beat up on the playground just for reading a comic book, it was impossible to imagine Marvel making a star-studded, two and a half hour mega blockbuster based on Jim Starlin’s 1991 miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet. It was, however, totally plausible it could be an average Nintendo game. Enter: Marvel Super Heroes In War of the Gems, released on the Super Nintendo in 1996.
In the 1990s, Capcom, the gaming giant responsible for Street Fighter and Mega Man, held a license to produce Marvel video games for arcades and home consoles. The partnership would result in a handful of classics, like 1994’s X-Men: Children of the Atom and 2000’s Marvel vs. Capcom 2. But War of the Gems, released in 1996 for the Super Nintendo, would not be one of them.
War of the Gems is, in fact, a remix of Capcom’s previous Marvel game, Marvel Super Heroes, an arcade exclusive with a much simpler title from 1995. While the arcade version was a 2D fighter (and laid the groundwork for the wildly popular Marvel vs. Capcom series), the SNES version was a mash up of platformers like Super Mario World and beat ‘em ups like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, with Street Fighter style one-on-one boss fights. Sadly, it sucked at all of those things, as the game banks harder on its familiar Marvel make-up to mask aggressively average game design.
It’s not that War of the Games is offensively bad — that would make it interesting. It’s that it’s so average that it disappears before your eyes, rendering itself invisible. It was the Iron Fist of Super Nintendo games.
As the name and storyline it’s based on implies, War of the Gems lets players control a handful of iconic heroes — Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man, and Captain America — who team up with Adam Warlock to fight Thanos, who seeks the Infinity Gems (“Infinity Stones” was a movie invention). There are five stages total, with the first four unlocked and playable in any order.
The game gets points for its roster, which is an all-star line-up if I’ve ever seen one. But hardly any one of the heroes play any differently than the other. Their unique identities basically boil down to one or two neat tricks; Wolverine and Spidey can climb walls, Cap and Iron Man can fire projectiles, and the Hulk can smash. The Hulk is really boring to play.
But the biggest sin is the game’s level design. Being 20+ years old isn’t an excuse, because fantastic level design existed before War of the Gems (Hello, Super Castlevania IV). Instead of tailoring the levels to the specifics of each character, which would have been a ball of a platformer, Capcom chose the path of least resistance to let players pick their favorite hero every time, at the expense of an interesting experience. These are the most flat levels in gaming ever imaginable. No matter who you are, be it Wolverine or the Hulk, you end up walking to the right the whole time.
While emulators are free (and illegal), true enthusiasts seeking the real experience can dust off old SNES consoles (and buy expensive cables to connect them to modern TVs), or go big, like with Analogue’s excellent HDTV-compatible Super NT. But the Super NT and other HD SNES clones require the original game cartridges. Bad news: A lot of SNES games are expensive. Good news: They’re expensive if they’re good, and War of the Gems is dirt cheap. Here it is for $6.50 on eBay, a fraction of an IMAX ticket price.
At Inverse, we’re obsessed with the future, and dragging an old video game isn’t very future forward, admittedly. But with Avengers: Infinity War about to blow the lid off Hollywood, it’s worth looking back how the comic book was adapted in the most vanilla way possible. When you’re done, hunt down Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage. After all, that Venom movie is coming soon.
Avengers: Infinity War is out in theaters April 27.