Most of the time, a licensed property in gaming is an instant indication that the ensuing game is going to be crap. It's just too easy to crank out poorly made garbage at the most minimal of budgets and reap major profit off all the kids who will naively buy the game anyway because they're hyped about the related license. Why put in effort when you can make major money without it? That's capitalism!
Every now and then, though, you see a game company go out of their way to treat a license with respect. A great example was Konami in the early 1990s, who crafted two of the most memorable arcade beat-em-ups while they held the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Simpsons licenses. Another fine example in the arcades was what Capcom did with the Marvel Comics license in the mid-to-late 90s.
They started out with an X-Men fighting game, Children of the Atom. Marvel Super Heroes is the follow-up to that game, expanding the one-on-one fighting action to the whole of the Marvel universe. The story in this one is lossely based around the well-known (to comic nerds) "Infinity Gauntlet" story arc spanning numerous Marvel titles in the early 90s. A collection of heroes and villains scrap it out to possess the six Infinity Gems, with the hopes of using them to challenge Thanatos for his all-powerful Gauntlet.
Among the popular Marvel heroes taking part in this scrapfest are Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, Wolverine and Captain America. Psylocke rounds out the cast of Good Guys, apparently as an excuse to get some giant jiggling breasts and tight spandex-clad ass in there somewhere. The villains roster contains a couple of even more obscure choices, however - Blackheart, a minor villain from several comics, and Shuma-Gorath, a REALLY obscure tentacle beast who popped up in a couple of old issues of Fantastic Four. The other two playable villains are Magneto and Juggernaut, both returning from Children of the Atom (and both nerfed to some degree here.) Prior to the end battle against Thanatos, you also take on Dr. Doom as a sub-boss.
The game uses the familiar stick motions of the Street Fighter games for its special moves, but the gameplay is really more reminiscent of Darkstalkers. The moves and the fighting styles of the characters really don't fit into the archetypes established by Street Fighter 2 (and its many clones). Characters have quirky attack ranges, and the moves are somewhat familiar but don't quite do what you've come to expect them to from the Street Fighter mold. For example, a Hadoken motion makes Spidey shoot a web blast, but it functions as a freeze move rather than a damage-dealer. Spidey also has a rendition of the Shoryuken, but he rounds it off with a second downward hit at the peak to catch a dodging/blocking player who might decide to follow him up to try to take advantage of him.
Marvel Super Heroes also retains the ability to launch high in the air by pressing down and then up, and though the levels do not have multiple floors the way that some did in Children of the Atom. New to the gameplay here is the addition of Gems as usable items. In single-player mode, each enemy you face possesses one, and you steal them from each other when you land a super move. Gems can be used to have different effects, which vary not only by the gem held but by who is using them. In a multi-player match, gems will sometimes randomly appear on the playfield.
The game is really a joy to look at, and great care was taken to make the art reminiscent of the Jack Kirby/Marvel tradition. Characters seem to effortlessly adopt the persona and unique charisma of their comic portrayal, no mean feat for something previously only seen in comic panels. The animation is really fluid, having a higher framecount than even the later V.S. games! The backgrounds are also a joy, with plenty of animation and shifting scenery, and scrolling a great deal both vertically and horizontally to accomodate the super-powered fighting action. The only thing in the aesthetics here that is unimpressive is the music, which is sort of generic rock/electronica that fades into the background.
There is really only one issue with the game, but it is kind of a big one - it is pretty well broken. Both Wolverine and Spider-Man have infinite unbreakable combos that work on any character with regularity, and Wolverine's is particularly easy to pull off once someone shows it to you. The unbreakable combos really aren't the end of the trouble, though they would be bad enough by themselves. A number of characters are spammy; Wolverine turns into an obnoxious butt with only a little rolling of the stick and punch button mashing, and Juggernaut has an annoying dive that the computer is particularly fond of spamming over and over. Experienced players can of course counter these things, but while you are trying to gain that experience, they are a headache to have to put up with. The game is also really tough to practice with, as the default difficulty is much higher than that of most other similar Capcom fighters, approaching the toughness of the average SNK fighter.
So what you wind up with is a game that is basically shot for competitive play, or in an arcade environment where you are just looking for random challenges. If you play with a bud, however, who agrees to not be a spammy cheese, this is a really nicely crafted fighting game with a unique feel and some wonderful visuals.
* Gameplay Video