X-Men games are a dime a dozen, or at least they were back before Activision stepped on its own rake. Most of them weren’t any good, as per usual with licensed games before the HD era. But one series stood out as a shining beacon of what superhero games could be, and it didn’t even have a massive AAA budget. Call of Duty map developer Raven Software used to do cool stuff, and perhaps the coolest stuff it ever did was a little game called X-Men Legends. We’ll probably never see Raven’s staff let out of Activision’s basement ever again, but now there’s a chance someplace else could give it a shot. That someplace else might be Koei Tecmo.
Marvel licensing has been a mess, somewhat ironically, since the comics publisher recovered from bankruptcy. It was a mess before too, mind you, but a very different kind of mess. It was more like the Wild West back in the Sad Marvel days, with the rights to classic characters in various forms going out to whoever wanted them. From that, we got classic games from Japanese developers like Capcom and Konami (and real stinkers from LJN, to be fair). Eventually, Marvel tripped over Hollywood luck and recovered, leading to the Activision deal. Activision had the keys to the Marvel video game kingdom, and the results were messy.
But X-Men Legends happened. Action RPGs on consoles in the early 2000s were a work in progress, with things on the level of Diablo not quite possible yet (or figured out at least). We had games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath, but they were much simpler and restrained. X-Men Legends looked at those games and opted for a flashier system that had more interest in mimicking tabletop games than PC classics. The result was a slower, less precise experience that was more about what powers you built your characters with and team synergy, rather than action and loot. The storytelling also went all-in on the geeky nitty-gritty of the comics world, tossing most of the movie stuff aside.
X-Men Legends was a hit, got a sequel, and needed to be expanded. Raven got the whole Marvel universe and made Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Basically, Activision met the HD era head on, while also porting it to everything else, and expanded the formula with fancier visuals, a huge roster, more easter eggs, and well, just way more of everything. Then… Call of Duty happened. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 went to Neversoft, and everything went to Hell in a handbasket. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took off, licensed games largely moved to mobile platforms, and eventually Disney bought Marvel and scorched the contractual Earth. Frankly, it seemed like the Marvel RPG games I loved were gone forever, and I’d just have to fondly remember them. Then the Nintendo Switch happened.
Somewhere along the line, the simulation glitched and Koei Tecmo began to grow in power beyond what anyone expected. The quirky house of Dynasty Warriors began expanding past its kitschy action titles (which I love, let’s not front), and into esoteric JRPGs and collaborations with larger publishers. The latter included Square Enix and, more notably, Nintendo. The two companies collaborated on Nintendo-themed Warriors games, which were so successful the partnership expanded. The details are fuzzy, but somehow Koei Tecmo and Nintendo not only got the Marvel license, but got the Ultimate Alliance IP on top of that. It’s a bit different in many ways, but Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 finally happened against all odds.
The best part was the return of the X-Men. It’s one of the few silver linings in Disney’s ongoing nightmarish takeover of all corporate-funded media. Marvel was being extremely petty during the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s expansion, as Fox still held certain rights including X-Men. So Marvel found ways to push the classic heroes into the background, lessening their roles in comics, replacing characters with new, lesser-known substitutes and removing them almost entirely from video games. But now that Disney has absorbed Fox, those doors are back open again and Wolverine is allowed to be on the cover. It’s the same deal with the Fantastic Four and a few other characters, all of whom are available or will be available in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 via DLC. And like every other big Switch exclusive, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 had done quite well. So what’s next?
I think Koei Tecmo and Nintendo would get all the street cred in the world if the two used their newfound arcane blood magic to bring X-Men Legends back. While it wouldn’t have the same appeal as All the Marvels, the original Marvel RPG has a soft spot in fans’ hearts that just isn’t the same as Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The X-Men have a long history in exceptional comic book storytelling, and being able to focus down on that specific set of characters and history would be amazing. Not having to include every major Marvel brand would also help diversify the roster, and shine spotlights on characters we wouldn’t get to see otherwise.
As a longtime believer in Koei Tecmo’s particular brand of button-mashing nonsense, I’m totally here for this new era of Marvel video games. Perhaps this was a one-off thing, but based on how things went, and with how much room there is to improve and explore this space further, it would be a waste not to do another one. But instead of an Marvel Ultimate Alliance 4, I think it would be much more of a bold and powerful move to go back to the beginning of this whole series. For far too long, lame corporate politics have kept the X-Men in bad positions that have only devalued the name. And while that situation is probably only going to get worse for bigger reasons, at least this tarnished legacy can continue getting polished back to its previous shine.