Category Archives: Other Media
Comic book movies, games, and more!
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy return to theaters this week. I’m already a fan of the first movie, and of the comics — both old and slightly less so — so it didn’t take a lot of convincing to part with five bucks American to download the first chapter of Telltale Games’ Guardians of the Galaxy on my iPad.
I’d noodled around a bit with Telltale’s Walking Dead Game, and admired the conversational interface and the emotional stakes of that game, but I wasn’t especially eager to dwell in that dour world, and the game never grabbed me.
Guardians, though … Guardians is something different.
This game is frankly irresistible. You’re on the spot right from the opening screen, with ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” pouring from your speakers over an image of the Guardians punching each others’ lights out. It’s just a main menu, but it’s buoyant, happy, and demands your affection, like a puppy that’s jumped in your lap. And the game that follows is every bit as engaging, masterfully capturing the spirit and tone of the film, whisking us away on an adventure that promises a battle with Thanos, but is really more about the relationships at the heart of the not-so-dysfunctional family that is the Guardians.
The set-up could come straight from the comics — the Nova Corps calls in the Guardians to help run down Thanos, and after squeezing the Corps for future favors (or not, as you wish), we are off on an interstellar treasure hunt. There’s an alien enigma, and the Kree show up, and of course Thanos is there to chew the scenery. The game also takes a couple unexpected swerves that I won’t spoil, save to note they are completely in character and reinforce the story’s core theme of families and what makes them tick.
The interface is simple and easy to use — at least on touch screens. Back in the day we would have called this a point-and-click game. Now it’s about swiping and touching, but really, these kinds of controls haven’t changed all that much since Dragon’s Lair. Most action scenes are navigated with “Quick Time” events. Shooting and punching baddies is accomplished by tapping targets on the screen before they disappear. You dodge danger by swiping the screen when prompted. It’s pretty hard to fail, though I still managed it a time or two.
Sometimes you tap or swipe the screen to move things around. Sometimes you walk around and explore places. Star Lord flies around a bit, which was cool. There was a walking mechanic that required incessant screen-swiping that I could have done without, but for the most part, the game’s interaction economy is spot-on: not so much that you can’t appreciate the story, but not so little that you can afford to take your eyes away from the screen.
Even more engaging than the action scenes were the conversations, which don’t seem to find their way to different destinations so much as they unfold with differing tones — you can be thoughtful as Star Lord, or a dick (or both!), it is up to you. Sometimes the best response is to just let the timer run out and say nothing at all. I appreciated how the game let me do things my own way, even while guard-railing my characters — at one point, Gamora said that she’d never heard me talk this way before, causing me to reflect that, yeah, Peter is more self-centered than I was making him out to be. Gamora had rightly detected that it was me who was chatting her up, and not Star Lord! Cool.
And it is Star Lord that you control in this game. Aside from throwing a punch or two on behalf of other characters during the Thanos fight, it is Star Lord’s thoughts and actions that you will steer through each scene. Star Lord’s voice performance is probably the poorest turned in by the sound-alike voice cast, but that’s mostly down to Chris Pratt’s unique range — he really is a master at sliding between sweet and smarmy. The supporting voices are pretty strong, with Rocket being especially on-point. I would love to see succeeding chapters put other members of the Guardians in the driver’s seat, if only to see how Telltale handles a conversation tree when all I can say is, “I am Groot!”
The game’s technical performance left a bit to be desired. I played on my iPad Pro, and the textures still swam around on me from time to time, and a few of the load times had me tapping my toe. Prompts didn’t always respond to my first tap, despite hitting a static green bullseye dead-on. Based on this performance, I’d hesitate to recommend this game for lower-end mobile devices. I would expect console versions to run crisply, but fumbling for buttons on a controller doesn’t sound like a lot of fun compared to tapping screen prompts.
The art gets the job done. The ships and space scenes are tight, and the environments are adequate. The character models have kind of a second-tier CG animated series look to them, but they work — Telltale’s animators do a fine job of wringing sometimes subtle emotion from them. Body animation is about what you’d expect, though I found Star Lord’s walk cycle a little stiff (and he walks a lot in this game). Lip synching is (usually) convincing. Scenes are well-lit, somehow giving us clearly-visible characters even inside the murkiest spaceport dive bar.
But this isn’t really a game that’s going to win you over with screenshots. The heart of the game is … well … its heart. There’s plenty of derring-do in abandoned fortresses and Kree battlecruisers, and the game does deliver with a Guardians vs. Thanos beat-down that works in an Intergalactic Wrestling Federation sort of way, but the real action in this game comes through the conversations and the relationships between the characters. In this, the game reaches back to the core of comics storytelling. After all, in the long run, there’s little doubt our heroes will defeat the big bad … but will Gamora be able to deal with her daddy issues? That’s harder to predict, and its a unique pleasure to play to find out. Yep, it’s all about the feelz, and I welcome it. I already have plenty of games where you solve everything by shooting at it.
I also enjoyed the little touches and side-gags. Rocket and Drax both got off some zingers that were entirely in character. Helping Groot ride out a hangover was appropriately gross (and all I did was listen to it). I loved that a random piece of email from the Universal Church of Truth was helpfully flagged as spam.
The chapter was just long enough for me. I didn’t clock it, but it felt like it took a bit less than ninety minutes to play the whole thing. Content felt equivalent to about three issues of a comic series. The ending came at the right time and didn’t leave me hanging so much as feeling intrigued. Some of the asides clearly set up later chapters — like Gamora’s communication with her sister, Nebula — and I think I saw Moondragon in the bar, but for the most part the chapter can stand on its own, and in this it does a better job than your average, decompressed modern comics issue.
One area where this game was more setup than payoff was in development of emotional relationships. By the end of my play-through, I’d pissed off Rocket, softened-up Gamora, forged a strong bond with Drax, and sealed an alliance with the Nova Corps, but none of that mattered in a major way in this chapter. Given that this game is scheduled to run five chapters, I can’t blame Telltale for deploying their chess pieces for later, and if I wasn’t allergic to pre-orders, I might have opened my wallet for the season pass upsell that followed the closing credits.
Once I’ve cooled off a bit I might even go back and replay the game, to see what happens if I zig instead of zag, and I can see where a player might dive deep into this thing to ferret out the different permutations of every scene. The closing score screens provide a roadmap for where I took the story, compared to the community at large, hinting at the different outcomes.
But I don’t much care about multiple outcomes — for me, I was just glad to while away a rainy afternoon with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and feel a part of their family and their troubles. Emotional reactions of any stripe are difficult to elicit with games, so hats off to Telltale for not only accomplishing this rare feat, but also making it the center of their game. If I come back for the second chapter, it won’t be to learn more about the MacGuffin that permits Peter to speak with ghosts — it will be to see if I can continue to win Gamora’s trust, and to learn if Rocket really means it when he keeps acting like I’m driving him out of the group. The game-making side of my brain tells me the actual number of outcomes isn’t that large, but my illusion of control is such that it is easy to believe my decisions created a unique outcome.
I am happy to suspend my disbelief to ride along with the team. I wasn’t much interested in investing this kind of time and emotion in Telltale’s Walking Dead or Batman games, but this Guardians of the Galaxy game really was delightful. As an experience, it was a bit more than a comic, and a bit less than a movie, but thoroughly unique and enjoyable. I hope I walk out of the theater after seeing Guardians 2 feeling half so positive! Recommended.
NEXT MONTH: #168 Wonder Woman: All All-Star Sensation
Look — up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … Superman novel?
Guest blogger Ryan McSwain — author of Monsters All the Way Down and the upcoming Four Color Bleed, now on Kickstarter — offers this look back at a literary form that has finally come of age: the superhero novel!
There have been many attempts to capture long-underwear heroes in prose. There are the old Marvel Pocket novels, fast reads packed full of imagination. More recently fans have loved Soon I Will Become Invincible and It’s Superman! Jim Butcher of the Dresden Files even cast his hat in the ring with Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours. Add in indie hits like Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? and Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, and you have plenty to choose from.
If you’re looking for something really special, you want the Superman novels by Elliot S! Maggin, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday.
Maggin is no stranger to longtime Superman fans. He wrote many of the Man of Steel’s four-color adventures in the ‘70s and ‘80s, enjoying long runs on both Action Comics and Superman. He helped define Superman’s world in the Bronze Age, beginning with the landmark “Must There be a Superman?” in 1972.
Maggin wrote Last Son of Krypton based on his own idea for a Superman movie, and it came out the same day as the 1978 film. The book expands on Superman’s origins and early life, including a memorable retcon with Albert Einstein. Superman and Luthor have to work together to defeat an alien tied to Superman’s past.
Miracle Monday reads like a milestone event in the life of Superman. Luthor’s latest prison escape allows a demon to escape from hell, and Superman must save the earth without sacrificing his ideals. It’s a surprisingly modern story, but it holds true to the characters.
Maggin’s Superman, both in the comics and novels, resides in an era of the Big Blue Boyscout’s history that is currently overlooked. The collective consciousness of comic fans holds plenty of nostalgia for the frenzied creativity of the Golden Age, the naïve splendor of the Silver Age, or the crafted Post-Crisis continuity. For whatever reason, people aren’t reminiscing over the period when Clark Kent was a news anchor with Lana Lang and Luthor still broke out the purple and green tights.
Which is a shame, because the ’70s and early ’80s have a wonderful balance between classic Superman and mature themes. Nowhere is this more on display than in Maggin’s novels. At no point do you feel these stories are ashamed of their origins. Sure, Superman battles a mischievous imp from the fifth dimension. Why wouldn’t he? We’re here to have fun, right?
Maggin somehow takes these absurd elements and puts them into a believable context. He describes elements like Superman’s microscopic vision in detail, just enough to make you say, “Hey, that actually makes sense.” When Superman and Luthor head off into space, it feels natural in this fantastic reality.
Something modern adaptations get wrong, with the possible exception of Smallville, is the relationship between Superman and Luthor. The Bronze Age Luthor is still a villain, but he’s like the Flash’s Rogues Gallery. This Luthor has never killed anyone, which allows Superman to take a different approach to his capers.
In Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, Luthor takes on the role of almost a secondary protagonist. Maggin also explores the childhood friendship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, showing where things went wrong. It’s tragic and intriguing, and it adds so much to the dynamic.
A little bonus trivia for you: The title Miracle Monday comes from a fictitious Superman holiday celebrated on the third monday in May. The concept later appears in Superman #400 (1984) and Superman/Batman #80 (2011). Maggin later imported Kristin Wells, an important character from Miracle Monday, into the DC universe as Superwoman.
I have only one complaint about these two wonderful books. Superman exists in this fantastic world, but the rest of the DC universe is missing. Luthor is there, and other villains are mentioned, but none of them show up. The Guardians of the Universe make a guest appearance, but Hal Jordan is nowhere in sight. Superman and Luthor are on their own to save the day, which serves the story, but it leaves me wishing Maggin had written a Justice League novel to complete the trilogy. Fortunately, he wrote a fantastic novel adaptation of Kingdom Come and a Generation X novel I still need to read.
If the idea of an entire comic universe in a book intrigues you, I have good news. Four Color Bleed is my attempt at a massive comic book event in novel form. It’s all the fun of a summer crossover without having to chase down the tie-in issues. It’s inspired by my love for comics from the Golden Age to now, and it captures the fun and imagination of the paneled page. It’s for fans of series like Astro City, Starman, and All-Star Superman.
Four Color Bleed is currently on Kickstarter. I’ve lined up eight fantastic artists for the project. Their illustrations will accompany fictional encyclopedia entries in the style of the old Who’s Who series, to expand the world of Four Color Bleed and its huge cast of characters. Any support would be incredible, so head on over to the Kickstarter and help us make it happen.
Thanks, Ryan … now I’ve got two superhero novels I need to track down. No, make that three superhero novels … I’ve just backed Ryan’s new novel, and I hope Longbox Graveyard’s readers will join me! We Silver Age fans have got to stick together!
Mars Will Send No More is one of the oldest and most steadfast supporters of Longbox Graveyard, so when I learned he’d published a fiction collection about his Hell-raising space pirate, Meteor Mags, I knew I had to have a copy!
I’m only part way through this volume, but I’ve been consistently delighted with Meteor Mags’ own particular blend of anarchy, optimism, bloodshed, artistry, action, nostalgia, punk rock, and cats! (Can’t forget the cats!)
To celebrate the release of Red Metal At Dawn, I caught up with Matthew Howard, book author (and secret master of Mars)
LBG: Tell us a bit about Meteor Mags and this new collection of stories.
MH: Meteor Mags is a space pirate in the near future where asteroid mining has created a new frontier, one ripe for plundering, smuggling, and rebel rock bands. In ten thematically related stories, we learn Mags is no ordinary pirate. Her reckless violence and exuberant profanity hide a genius-level ability at math and a major musical talent. The daughter of a twentieth-century revolutionary, she’s lived a mysteriously long life, played a major role in the development of gravity control, and has a tail for no reason anyone can explain.
But all of that comes to light as the stories progress. When we first meet Mags on page one, she’s busy raging against the forces of law and order with the help of her new feline friend, Patches. Readers can expect to jump right into action, action, and more action, learning about Mags’ colorful, piratical heritage while braving a 118,000-word hail of bullets. If you can imagine Scorsese or Tarantino directing a film based on a science-fiction comic book, you pretty much have the vibe of Red Metal at Dawn nailed down.
LBG: Tell me about the cocktail of ideas that makes up Meteor Mags. Pirates! Music! Cats! These feel like interests you’ve carried around for a lifetime. How did they coalesce in the creation of Mags?
MH: As soon as you said, “pirates, music, cats,” my ears perked up. That sounds like a fun story to read! Welcome to my fantasy world, where everything I find awesome or interesting becomes something for Mags and her friends to encounter.
Some of them, as you point out, are lifelong interests, like space and stories about animals. Some are adulthood interests, like billiards and Coltrane and pirate radio. And some are things I read about one night and decided to write a story about the next day, like Benelli shotguns and Faraday suits.
Anything from poetry to politics might get drawn into the gravitational pull of the Meteor Mags project. In that regard, it’s heavily influenced by Baron & Rude’s Nexus, where the cocktail of ideas is just overflowing and anything is possible. And the text is only part of the fun, because the creative process involves drawing and music, too. When Mags sings Whipping Boy in Chapter 3, she’s doing a song I worked out on an acoustic guitar as part of writing that story.
Nexus, by Baron & Rude
LBG: Illustration plays an important role in Red Metal at Dawn, and I know you are inspired by comic book art. Tell me about the picture-and-prose connection of this project. Do your illustrations come first, or do they follow the text, or is it an organic process of one informing the other?
MH: I can’t put anything past you! They totally inform each other. A purely visual idea will inspire stories, and the stories sometimes demand a drawing. When you spend hours drawing lines with a fine-point pen and listening to music, it gives you a chance to ask questions like, “Just where does a cybernetic electric eel come from anyway? And what is its soundtrack?” And then you make up the answers.
Mags’ very first story was meant to be a comic book story anyway. (It’s Part 2 of Chapter 4 now, The Cat and The Cage.) I started working in prose because sequential art is beyond my abilities. So, I imagined comic book panels and then wrote out the action and dialogue in each panel. Then the prose took on an energy of its own, and raised even more questions about the characters, so I ran with it.
LBG: Does working visually — or, at least, thinking visually — drive the way you describe things as a writer?
MH: Definitely. I think about the camera angles and how a camera would follow the action. I think about whether something is a transitional “panel” on a page, or if it’s a “splash panel” we want to linger on. And, I think about how to describe comic book visual effects like Kirby Krackle.
Kirby Krackle, by The King
On the other hand, the narrator spends very little time describing some visual things like facial features and building interiors and spaceship design. The focus on action and dialogue and emotion takes priority over the kind of exposition I find really boring to read. I like to let the action and dialogue establish the settings, rather than break in as narrator to do some long-winded description. I think readers can bring lots of their own imagination that way, too, and personalize their ideas of what a character looks like, for example.
LBG: Do you have any plans to do a Meteor Mags graphic novel?
MH: Wouldn’t that be awesome? We’ll know Mags has “made it” as a character when people start cosplaying her at comic-cons! But seriously, it’s a huge project, and finding the right artist to collaborate with would be so important. Sometimes I think I’d rather license another studio to bring Meteor Mags to life in serialized comic book form, because I really want to get back to writing the next book!
LBG: What’s next?
MH: Red Metal at Dawn ends on an ominous note, less than two weeks before Mags’ birthday party in 2029. Mags and her friends want to record an album and introduce the biggest technological revolution since gravity control. But with the forces of law and order teaming up with hostile space lizards to destroy her, Mags had better be ready for the fight of her life.
Plus, we’ll be joining Mags and her Gramma in the twentieth century again to learn about the development of the GravGens and the relationship between these two powerful women.
But that’s far from the end of the stories. I’m aiming to have a novel-length collection come out every year, with no end in sight. Anyone who wants to keep posted on new stories and illustrations can join the resistance at MeteorMags.com!
Get your copy of Red Metal At Dawn on Amazon (print, Kindle) or on the iTunes Store. (In case you can’t tell, Red Metal At Dawn is intended for mature readers). And remember to visit Meteor Mags for the latest space-pirate news, and Mars Will Send No More for awesome comic book goodness!
Hoist high the Jolly Roger, crank up the volume, and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!
your humble correspondent’s copy of Red Metal At Dawn is approved by both Captain America AND the Mole Man — that’s what we call a four-quadrant property here at Longbox Graveyard!
For the past four-hundred-odd days I’ve been a daily player of Marvel Puzzle Quest, a free-to-play match-3 game featuring Marvel superheroes and villains.
Hear my confession!
This is a great game. It is also a terrible game. It’s addictive (and I’ve been addicted). I’ve also been entertained, and deeply engaged by the game’s many overlapping reward systems. It expanded my interest in Marvel’s characters and storylines and let me have some comics fun when I wasn’t actually reading comics or writing about them. It also took me away from friends and family and shoved other games and even some creative projects to the side.
So, definitely a mixed bag. A game that I recommend, but with reservations.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is a free-to-play game for iOS and Android — there are also versions available on Steam and console. It is a competitive game where you put together groups of characters to battle enemy teams in head-to-head match-3 play. Matching colors powers up your heroes to unleash special attacks, activate defenses, or otherwise affect the game. At its core, matching gems has little to do with superheroics (though the same might be said of shuffling cards, or maneuvering on a chessboard), but the theme of the game shines through when assembling your teams of heroes, building up their power sets, and matching complimentary character abilities to exploit the weaknesses of enemy teams, while guarding against their particular strengths.
It’s very clever, particularly for such a simple game.
But there is a price to pay. At first, it is a price of time and attention.
Later, it is a price of pain.
its price is pain!
The game’s user interface is optimized for experienced players, and it can be daunting for new players to figure out what the heck is going on. You have a group of three characters, and the enemy has a group of three characters, but those groups are often an arbitrary mix of heroes and villains, and you will sometimes see the same character fighting itself. Your guys are on the left of the screen, and the bad guys are on the right, but your characters move and shuffle themselves around a lot, and it can be hard to understand which of your own characters is taking action, or even when the bad guys are making their move. It is ultimately pretty simple — generate enough damage to knock out the other team before all your own characters are downed, and you clear the puzzle. There is a tutorial sequence, and it is adequate, but you should expect to invest a couple hours in learning the ins-and-outs of this thing.
You can watch some intrepid YouTuber play the game here:
Eventually the game will reveal itself to you. You will understand that characters generate different levels of damage based on the colors you match — for example, Hulk smashes great with green gems, while Captain America does great with red. When you make a match, the character on your team that best generates damage using that color will jump to the front of your line … where they will also become the primary target for enemy attacks. Meanwhile, the enemy character in front will be your target — and you can shuffle the order of the enemy to hit the weak link first. You will also learn how matching specific colors gradually powers up the abilities of your characters — each character has three special powers, a mixture of active and passive abilities that you can fire off when you’ve accumulated enough of your target colors. So, to continue our example, Hulk can blast off a shockwave by slapping his hands together when you’ve accumulated enough green power, and Captain America can throw his mighty shield when you’ve banked enough red gems.
Character powers are accompanied by pleasing animations, and for the most part the powers match well with their characters. Captain America stuns with his shield and protects his friends; the Black Widow snaps off precise sniper shots and blazes away with her pistols; Doctor Doom summons demons and progressively builds a master plan that can take down the toughest foe if allowed to come to fruition. Spider-Man … mostly heals people with web-bandages. Hey, you can’t win them all! (And the Marvel Universe really needs more characters with healing powers — who knew?)
(they’re actually very useful)
These three-on-three battles are available in two basic flavors — single-player events, and player-versus-player tournaments.
Single-player events are story-driven, based around the scramble for “Iso-8,” an extraterrestrial mineral that powers-up hero and villain alike and unleashes all manner of mayhem on the world. Through a series of rotating story events, which repeat if you hang around long enough (ahem), you’ll battle Harry Osborn’s Dark Avengers, and get involved in intrigue with Doctor Doom and Magneto as they variously try to capture Iso-8 and manipulate characters to their own ends. Stories are dialogue-driven, and do the job of getting you from one battle to the next … they are generally better-written than they need to be, and they add context to a series of strung-together match-3 puzzles. I did at various times feel like I was battling the Hood’s criminal gang, or fighting Hand ninjas, or trailing a rampaging Hulk around the globe — well done.
at select times in the story, Deadpool goes meta and directly addresses the player … nice touch
Player-vs-player events are identical in terms of gameplay, but the structure is very different (about which much more in a moment). As in player-versus-event mode, you will take your group of three characters up against enemy teams, but instead of progressing through a story, you are competing directly with other players to place well in tournaments and collect game rewards. Play is asynchronous, meaning that you aren’t trading moves one-for-one with other players in realtime — instead, the AI runs the enemy team against you, and informs the owning player if they won or lost when they next log into the game. It works well enough, but the AI is generally terrible … something you appreciate when grinding through the story events, but lament when you realize your team is at the mercy of that same AI to defend against live opponents in player-vs-player mode.
There are sundry lesser systems too — hourly “lightning round” player-versus-player mini-tournaments during weekdays; special story events when Ultron or Galactus attacks the Marvel Universe; story-based character intros for new-to-the-game characters like Ant-Man or the Totally Awesome Hulk; and the very welcome Deadpool’s Daily Quest, which affords players the chance of winning a specific character cover if they can beat that day’s challenge.
rewards, rewards, rewards!
All of these things feed into the heart of the game, which is the reward system — an ingenious chain of overlapping pushes and pulls that really makes Marvel Puzzle Quest more than another matching puzzle clone. The core of the game is characters — the more characters you have, the more you can do in the game. Characters are built from comic covers, which are awarded by progressing through the game, or by draws from blind packs. Covers come in three different colors, corresponding to different powers that character may have. A character can have five covers in any given power, but no more than thirteen total covers, leading to asymmetrical character builds (5-5-3, 5-4-4, etc.). Once you’ve cashed in your covers to earn powers, you level up your character by spending ISO-8, with the maximum possible level driven by a character’s relative rarity, or star level (one- through five-stars).
For example, here is one my fully-leveled three-star characters:
From the above three screens, you can see that my three-star Cyclops is at Level 166, and that he does the most damage by matching red, yellow, and black gems. He has five levels of Optic Blast, four levels of Mutant Revolutionary, and four levels of Full Blast.
And here you see how each of those powers breaks down. My Optic Blasts are at the highest possible level, but because I can only have thirteen total powers per character, if I want to boost (say) Full Blast to level 5, I will have to drop a level of something else (and I won’t be able to do that until I earn, find, or purchase another Full Blast cover).
Once you understand how the reward system works, it quickly becomes the most important part of the game. Your every decision becomes driven by the quest for covers. You will scan the rewards sequence of every story event to see if it is worth grinding for a specific cover reward, and you’ll determine how much time to invest in tournaments based on the covers they (might) award.
nice tournament rewards if you are looking for Luke Cage covers … and you should be!
Because there are dozens of characters at five different star levels to pursue — and because new characters are introduced monthly — the rewards system is overlapping and never-ending. If you get all the covers for a specific character, you may still wish to re-arrange the covers you have (like my desire to improve Cyclops’ Full Blast). Even if you build the perfect three-star version of a character, then there might be a better four-star version out there for your next project. And the way the characters work together becomes important, too — to compliment that Cyclops, you might also want to collect the Scarlet Witch, who hits hardest with the colors of purple, green, and blue. Paired with Cyclops, those two characters cover all the colors of the game’s rainbow … and you still have a third character to add to your team. Will they be a defensive specialist with a game-ending knock-out punch, like Luke Cage? Someone that manipulates the board, like Loki? Maybe an exotic character that drains enemy colors and builds up a damaging special attack over time, like Blade?
Remember that most awards in this game are random. You never know if the next card pull will give you the cover you most desire.
And that’s how you go down the rabbit hole with this thing.
the White Rabbit is NOT part of Marvel Puzzle Quest (yet)
So far, so good … but now we get to the bottom of that rabbit hole. The game’s best rewards come through the player-vs-player system … and that system is patched-together, un-thematic, and deeply flawed. Players join tournaments of a few days’ duration, built around a specific character (often one that has recently been introduced). The feature character fills one of your team’s three spots, and a low-level “loaner” is provided if you don’t yet have that character on your roster. Filling the other two spots is up to you, but you will wish to pick characters that synergize with each other while keeping an eye on who is buffed that particular week. This is a nice touch — by rotating required characters and buffs, the game achieves some variation in tournament teamings, though high-level four- and five-star teams still rule the roost.
Where the system comes apart is in tournament standings. Marvel Puzzle Quest player-vs-player tournaments are basically a greasy pole. There are treasures near the top of the pole, and everyone is trying to climb it at the same time. The only way to rise is to drive someone else down, which means these tournaments are a messy brawl, with everyone bashing everyone else in their attempt to get to the top.
substitute rare cover drops for bicycles, and you’ve pretty much got it
The problem is that you can only attack enemy teams one-by-one, while you are exposed to many more attacks at the same time. This means that you might beat Team A and score 25 points, but in the five minutes it took to beat Team A, you were attacked by Teams B, C, and D, and lost 75 points. Because your team is run by the game’s cruddy AI when it is attacked, it is practically impossible to defend in this game, aside from the intimidation value of having outrageously high-leveled characters. The result is a battle of eggshells armed with hammers, with everyone trying to bash the other guy faster than they are bashed themselves. Add to this that the penalty for losing a match frequently exceeds the benefit for winning and PVP mode quickly become a game of mutually assured destruction.
To solve this the developers have resorted to a patchwork solution — players can spend their high value currency (Hero Points) to erect a “shield” for several hours. While shielded, your team can still be attacked, but you won’t lose any points for a defeat. The winning strategy in PVP mode is thus to build a quick-strike attack team, smash a bunch of high-value targets as fast as you can, and then pop up your shield to avoid retaliation and to better hang onto your precious spot on the pole. Later, after your health packs have regenerated, you drop your shields and repeat, “shield hopping” several times over the course of the tournament to attain the highest possible ranking before time expires. It is a tedious process, and one prone to disappointment — it requires that you play the game at specific times of the day, to properly synchronize your shield hopping, and there’s still no guarantee you won’t get plastered in the minimal time that your shields are down. It is also unthematic — your heroes hide in the shadows, emerge just long enough to beat up someone weaker, and then go back into hiding.
Does that sound like a super-team beatdown tournament to you? Me neither.
MPQ Player vs. Player mode … or maybe In Pictopia, by Alan Moore and Don Simpson
After you’ve built out your three-star roster of characters, you will find that four-star characters are only awarded through these crapshoot player-vs-player tournaments, or through long grinding sessions with single-player story events … and by grinding, I mean playing several hours a day, every day, for the three-to-seven days that most story events require. The virtue of single-player grinding is that rewards are guaranteed — you know that if you play each day’s event three times inside of twenty-four hours, and repeat for most of the week that follows — that you will get whatever card you’re aiming for on the reward schedule. The downside is that your soul will be cauterized by the mindless reputation of mundane actions.
Pretty much all of these criticisms spring from the same source: the monetization methodology of Marvel Puzzle Quest. Before I dive in here, let me go on the record as a player who likes free-to-play games and feels developers should be paid for their efforts. I always buy something if I play one of these games for any substantial length of time. It’s the polite thing to do, and after all, these games are free-to-play, but they’re not free-to-make. And, yes, full disclosure requires that I state I work in the free-to-play games business, but I would have come around to this position sooner or later regardless of my profession. I think people should pay for their entertainment, whether it is a free mobile game, a web comic, or a story on the internet. You’d never walk out of a restaurant without offering a tip. Why not leave a buck for the people who create your entertainment?
here comes the pain
I have no problem with Marvel Puzzle Quest passing the collections plate — I’ve spent somewhere around a hundred bucks on this game in the year-plus that I’ve played it. But I would have spent a lot more if the game didn’t have such a regressive monetization system. In effect, MPQ inflicts pain on players, then expects them to pay to make it stop. They are not alone in this approach — plenty of games are set up the same way — but that doesn’t make it any more palatable, and the inevitable result is a player base bifurcated between payers and non-payers, which isn’t an attractive thing for a game driven by player-vs-player tournaments. And no matter which class you are in, you aren’t likely to feel very positive toward the game. Wouldn’t you rather spend your money on something fun? Who likes to pay money to stop pain?
(The answer to that question: addicts).
And what pain do those addicts pay to avoid?
Primarily the pain of losing what they’ve earned. The goal of the game is to accumulate comics covers, and use them to build characters to take on still greater and greater levels of opposition. These covers can be earned by placing well in player-vs-player tournaments and grinding through the story events. But only a select few of these characters can be retained by the starting player — if you wish a full and versatile stable of characters, you will need to purchase additional character slots with Hero Points, earned (infrequently) from grinding, or purchased with cash. If you fail to purchase needed slots within a few weeks, those covers you earned will expire, and turn into (low-value currency) dust. Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing covers it took you hours to earn? You Must Pay.
There’s also the pain of retaining your position in player-vs-player tournaments. Remember how I described them as a greasy pole? Well, you can kind of hold your position for up to a day by purchasing shields — and again, this will cost you Hero Points, most often acquired with cash. Achieving a Top 50 position in most tournaments will likely require at least one shield purchase. A Top 10 position will require many more. The alternative is to hope you don’t get hit too hard in the closing hours of a tourney by the players coming up behind you. (You can guess how that works out). Want to avoid the pain of sacrificing dozens of ranks in that tournament you’ve been playing for hours? You Must Pay.
the wrong kind of shield, unfortunately
The game does offer fun purchases, but they make for poor value. You can buy individual character covers directly, but it is prohibitively expensive. A three-star cover costs about six bucks in Hero Points, and the first cover in each color must be earned through a game reward or a blind draw, meaning that up to ten covers may be purchased, so a fully-leveled three-star character might cost sixty dollars. The cost of leveling four-star characters is in the hundreds, and five-star characters run into the thousands (!). It is satisfying to buy that last, key cover to complete a character to your specification — dropping prices to allow players to do this more often, and more profitably, might make players feel better about the money they spend on the game.
The game also allows you to purchase packs of cards, of varying rarities, quantity, and content, but given the poor draw rates, this quickly reveals itself as a mug’s game. Such purchases should be a highlight — it’s fun to open packs in Hearthstone, or even something like Star Wars Card Trader — but not so much here. The value of packs also diminish as your roster matures, as the odds of getting covers you can use dwindle, so veteran players (who might otherwise be the most inclined to spend) instead generally ignore pack purchase option. This is another place where I think the game’s very punishing and conservative rewards system is leaving a lot of money on the table for the developers.
But I can see where the developers are trapped — they’ve created a game where the value of their goods is established by the long and painful grinding needed to attain them. To avoid that grind, You Must Pay. If the grind is made less painful and time-consuming, then it undercuts their entire economy. This is the corner you paint yourself into with a pain-based economy. A solution might be allowing players to “power up” their experience for six or twelve hours at a time through cash purchase — pay, say, $1.99 or .99 to earn double or triple rewards during the time their power-up is active. This would keep the fundamental grinding economy in place while allowing players to speed up their progress with select cash purchase, feeling smarter for optimizing their playing time, and sending more cash to the developers by better monetizing a hardcore base of grinders who might never otherwise be convinced to pay. Better than offering sales — which trains players to wait for discounts before paying — this system would allow players to declare “sales” of their own whenever it suited them, and would get them making those small, regular purchases that are the gateway to larger spending. I hope the developers do something like this. It would get me back into the game!
Because I am out, mostly.
we’re free! let’s go!
From being a daily player and sometimes payer, I am down to playing once a week or so, and never paying at all. Having filled out my roster of one-, two-, and three-star characters, it’s just too daunting to make the transition to four-star play. The four-star characters are too difficult to attain, and it is dispiriting to play for hours only to earn duplicate three-star rewards that I end up burning for low-value currency. And with the developers introducing new four-star characters every month, I see the pool of four-star covers expanding and diluting even as my ability to draw from them diminishes, meaning increased chances of my pulling the first cover of a new character I cannot use, rather than the sixth or seventh cover for a character I have long nurtured toward viability. Finally, the recent introduction of five-star characters, like the Silver Surfer and Phoenix, indicates that yet another wave of power escalation is coming, pushing me even further down the pole in competitive play. I can’t even complete the jump to four-star level, and now the goal posts are shifting to the five-star realm?
And so my review of Marvel Puzzle Quest ends on a down note, but it should be a qualified down note. I played this game for well over a year, and had fun with it, most of the time. It was confusing to understand how the reward systems fit together at first, but once I’d tricked out a team of one-star heroes, and started to accumulate two- and three-star covers, the game became a lot of fun. Completing my first few three-star heroes was a great accomplishment, and joining an alliance and experiencing some small success in player-vs-player tournaments was also great fun.It was awesome to finally put together a killer team of Wolverine, Daken, and Hulk to bomb the board with escalating rage bonuses, or to team Professor X, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch to create match-5 events that unleashed Xavier’s instant-killing psychic attacks. But once I’d exhausted the three-star level of play, it just became too exhausting to play — the time and scheduling demands too onerous, the rewards too infrequent and too scattershot. Add to this the wholesale dilution of the card base by the rapid introduction of new characters, along with the specter of possibly having a critical character “nerfed” because that selfsame rapid pace knocks the meta-game balance out of whack, and it is easy to opt out of the game as an advanced player.
But for a beginning player, or more accurately an intermediate player, this game can be a ton of fun, and I’m glad to have had a year’s worth of joy with it. If you are a new player, I encourage you to jump in … just be prepared to jump out again! And remember that if the game starts to cause you pain, it isn’t a bug. That’s a feature!
And finally … a word about addiction. For a time I was deeply hooked on this game, and the near-four thousand words of this review have been part of breaking free from Marvel Puzzle Quest. Several times over the past year I have scheduled — and then rescinded — this review, which I always figured would be the exclamation point at the end of my experience with the game. It was only in the past month, when I found myself grinding away in a player-vs-player tournament to score a tenth Professor X cover … on freaking Christmas Eve … that I decided enough was enough. Since that time I’ve imposed rules for myself that make the game less available, and broke my many months long consecutive playing streak. It was the right choice, and I’ve already put time that might have gone into Marvel Puzzle Quest into more profitable ventures (like writing this blog!) I do expect to play in bursts from here on out, but the days of playing first thing in the morning, every morning, are gone forever. We geeky folk are prone to all sorts of dorky addictions, but a good match-3 game, with its swirling cloud of slot machine-like enticements, makes for an especially heady brew. With great game comes great responsibility. So if you do elect to play … play responsibly!
(And if you get whacked by LBoxGraveyard in PVP when I was supposed to have quit the game … then spare a prayer for this poor addict!)
NOVEMBER 2016 UPDATE: It’s been awhile since I published this article, and it continues to do well at Longbox Graveyard, so I thought it was worth updating, particularly as Marvel Puzzle Quest has changed and evolved in some key ways since this review first went live.
A key and welcome addition to the game are Champions. As fate would have it, this paradigm-changing addition went live right after I published this article … and, yes, it sucked me back into the game, big-time. Champions allowed players to continue leveling up their heroes after hitting what was the previous maximum limit. Now, instead of selling off excess covers for fully-leveled heroes, you can spend those covers for additional levels. You can also freely change around the cover schemes of your Championed heroes, allowing you to experiment with different character builds and fine-tune your teams on a battle-to-battle basis. This has been a great addition!
Sweeping in with Champions were changes to the game economy that loosened things up and made it easier to transition into those 4- and 5-star hero ranks. Legendary Tokens allow players to draw from packs that contain only 4- and 5-star heroes. The tokens are available for placing well in the game’s various competitions, and are also (cleverly and crucially) awarded by leveling up your Championed heroes. In effect, Legendary Tokens provided a bridge across that gulf I lamented between the 3- and 4-star level of play, and since their introduction I have added several fully-covered 4-star characters to my roster (and, yes, Championed them too!). Along with Command Points — a new high-level currency that let you earn Legendary Tokens on a slow drip — the developers have considerably improved the overall character leveling up flow and substantially increased the lifespan of their game.
New characters have continued to be introduced, of course — this past month saw Doctor Strange come out, in tandem with his movie. There have been a few new story events and boss events. There’s a premium “VIP” system that provides additional awards every day you play. You can now elect to view ads now and then if you want a little rewards boost. The game also introduced SHIELD Clearance Levels, which are effectively reward tiers that players unlock by earning experience points during regular play — they help provide a more guided path for new players as the game unfolds, and theoretically partition players into groups as they compete against each other in the game’s various events.
Unfortunately, the game’s multi-player structure is still as regressive as described above. The developers did tweak the way defensive teams are selected, to close a loophole where alliances were effectively throwing matches to each other to progress in multi-player tournaments, but they offered nothing to replace the very real (and often fun) alliance cooperation that powered that quasi-legal process. Now, PVP is back where it started — you build your team, you climb as high as you can, you get whacked by a wave out of nowhere, and you quit the game in disgust. Whee!
And that brings us up to the moment. Overall, the game has made great strides in the last ten months and continues to improve. If they can finally get PVP dialed in, they will suck me back in! Right now, I only play a little bit. Honest.
(If “every day” can be considered a “little bit.” Grrr!)
NEXT MONTH: #156 Beneath The Longbox Bookshelf
We interrupt your regularly-scheduled individual issue reviews of the All-New All-Different Marvel Now to bring you the latest installment of … Super-Blog Team-Up!
As you can see from the logo above, this edition of Super-Blog Team-Up celebrates the return of Star Wars! Today, all across the Internet, a ragtag group of bloggers have joined together to blog and podcast about the greatest space opera of them all!
It is impossible to overstate the impact Star Wars had on pop culture, kicking off a whole new era of cinematic spectaculars, and incidentally saving Marvel Comics and the whole comics industry along the way. The Original Trilogy came along at the turning of the tide for my adolescence — I saw Star Wars as kid, with my dad at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and six years later saw Return of the Jedi as a date film with the woman who would become my wife. Star Wars bracketed my transition from child to adult (or at least as adult as a fifty-odd-year-old guy with a comics blog can be!)
I loved the original pictures, but the years that followed would not be kind. I didn’t care for the prequels, and I resent that I can’t easily share the first films with my kids in unaltered form (not that they’ve shown much interest, frankly). Aside from dabbling in the surprisingly-good Clone Wars via Netflix, Star Wars has been in a long dry spell for me, but of course with a new movie on the horizon, my nostalgia has been reawakened for the series, so it was perhaps inevitable that I looked favorably upon an odd little app that debuted several months ago …
Star Wars Card Trader is a free digital trading card application for iPhone and Android. It offers several hundred different virtual Star Wars trading cards that are distributed through a bewildering array of collectable packs within the app. The app uses a virtual currency scheme, but Topps is generous with free currency — my card collection numbers in the thousands, and I don’t think I’ve spent more than ten bucks all year (and needn’t have spent at all — basic currency rewards and advertising incentives can keep you going indefinitely with this thing).
I was never a trading card guy. Cards never appealed to me the way comics do — in my view, you can’t do much more with cards than to own them and organize them. At least comics offer reading value. So, too, have I always resisted products with built-in rarities, and card sets, with their blind packaging and chase cards, fall squarely into that category. Finally, I hate waste and I hate sprawl, and hauling around legions of card boxes filled with duplicate cards seems to me the worst kind of pursuit.
very cool, but too much for me
But there are people who love card collecting, obviously, and I say these things not to cast shade on my card collecting friends, but to set the stage for why I’ve come to so enjoy this digital trading card app. For me, it addresses every issue I had with collecting cards — it’s free, it’s compact, it’s organized, it’s filled with endless content, and it’s Star Wars.
The only problem is that it isn’t real.
The app is real, but the cards are not. At least, they aren’t real in the physical sense. While the cards may look real on your phone, they exist only as digital images on your screen, backstopped on a Topps server someplace. Digital comics, at least, are usually available somewhere as something you can hold in your hand. These Topps cards, for the most part, don’t exist in the real world at all. There’s no gold standard tethering these things to reality. There aren’t even Midi-chlorians!
And yet the hunt to collect full sets of these things still drives a healthy daily user base of (by my estimation) about 70K players, enough of whom spend real money on this app to keep Topps busy releasing an endless and confusing string of core sets, inserts, and variants, with new releases coming every day! It is becoming too much of a good thing, to be honest.
But more about that later. First, the app.
Star Wars Card Trader is a free download for your smartphone, and there’s no harm in checking it out for yourself, but in a nutshell … the app gives you daily free currency awards, which are spent in a store to purchase packs of cards. Card packs vary by contents, quantity, and price, and are sorted by rarity. Base rarities are white, blue, red, yellow, and gold; on top of this there are variant colors and a storm of special inserts. The base cards are all photographs of characters and creatures from the six (and soon seven) Star Wars films and animated series, while the inserts cover everything under the sun, from concept art to weapons to locations to comic book covers that will be familiar to the Bronze Age comics fans that read this blog.
The reverse of each card has a slug of text about the character, and a notice of how many copies of that card have been “printed,” running from the millions for base white cards, to 100 or fewer for some of the very rare inserts.
The most common way to get cards is to open packs, and Topps has done a good job here, with a little sound effect and flourish when you open a pack, and a burst of laser fire and device vibration when you uncover a card that is new-to-you … a fine digital approximation of ripping open a real pack of cards, sorting through them, and going “Got it … got it … got it … AH HA!”
There are also torturous achievement-based means of collecting certain rare cards, by assembling parts of other sets, or following blueprints, or melding or shredding the cards you’ve already got, but to be honest I can’t be bothered. I mean, look at these instructions, and tell me they make the vaguest sense:
No, I’ve stuck to basic goals, gradually filling out a complete set of White, Blue, Red, and Yellow cards (the most commonly available), and a few Golds, along with some keen inserts. One of may favorite sets, as you can well imagine, was the 1977 retro set, a reproduction of original physical cards of the day, some of which are just so damn cool:
I also chased down some so-bad-it’s-good art from an old Empire Strikes Back set …
… along with some artsy original pieces that Topps has created just for their card sets.
Even the covers of the sets are cool. I never did get a single variant from this Women of Star Wars pack, but I loved the cover …
Alas, not every card is a work of art. This Skiff Guards card belongs in the Photoshop Crime Hall of Shame …
… but for the most part, I’ve been well-pleased with the app, especially for the price. It gives me a Star Wars fix a couple times a day, and has even engaged me a bit with trading.
Ah, yes, trading … you can’t have trading cards without the trading part, and here the app also delivers, albeit awkwardly. There are various text feeds within the app where players will post their needs and offers, and there is a painfully slow and awkward interface where you can propose and counter-propose trade offers to each other. It is a laborious process, with far too many clicks, and trades are limited to nine cards on a side at a time, but it is better than nothing. Just.
And it was trading that led me down the rabbit hole with this thing.
It doesn’t take more than a couple months of dedicated use to put together a basic set of cards with this app. Chasing down every insert and variant is basically impossible, so when my core colors were complete, I figured that I was done with the app. This made me sad, because I still wanted my Star Wars fix … but I was unwilling to flush the major bucks and time into the app that collecting inserts would require.
And so … I went to the Dark Side. I became a Hoarder!
We are getting into weird territory here, but stay with me.
When I first downloaded the app, the community seemed about split between those who Hoarded, and those who didn’t. It was the marvelous kind of nerd skirmish that our tribe does so well. On one side, the group who thought it was cool to compile lots (and I mean LOTS) of the same card through trade, and on the other, the group who felt this was contrary to the intent of the app (by artificially reducing the number of cards in circulation, and maybe by letting players pile up positive trade ratings through frivolous transactions). Nowadays, hoarding has been more-or-less legitimized by Topps through promotions that invite you to “shred” vast numbers of duplicate cards to qualify for rare variants, but you will still find a trader here and there with NO HOARDERS! in their trade offers.
Of course, this only encourages me.
I had hit the wall with casual collection, but I didn’t want to give up the app, so as I said, I became a Hoarder. Of digital cards. That don’t exist. A behavior that made me a pariah to some. This is awesome!
It was simple enough. I love Admiral Ackbar. I had a bunch of Admiral Ackbar cards. I thought … what if I had ALL of the Admiral Ackbars?
one of these things is WAY MORE than the others …
Yeah, that’s never going to happen. There are millions of White Ackbars out there. But I decided to make a dent by getting as many as I could.
This is deeply stupid behavior. Like I said, the trading process is arduous, and is capped at exchanging nine cards at a time. Calculating the time I have invested in building my collection up to nearly three thousand Admiral Ackbars, nine cards at a time, is left as an exercise for the reader.
Here’s the crazy thing. I am not King of the Digital Ackbars. Not even close. I know this because the Hoarding market for Admiral Ackbar is very, very tight. In examining other players card collections for potential trades, I see stacks and stacks of Plo Koons and IG-88s and Padmes … but I see very few Ackbars. Other collectors — thousands of them, in my fevered imagination — have been getting to the Ackbars before me. I have nearly three thousand of these bastards, even if all they are is a little number on an image, but it is not enough.
For awhile I hoped that I would be able to get an Ackbar Monument card when Topps inevitably announced shred time for the Mon Calamari, but I am seeing that weird dream recede in the distance. Based on past Hoarding challenges, it will take 5000 or more Ackbars just to get in the ballpark for that award, and I am never going to get there.
And so, with regret, I have been winding down my participation in Star Wars Card Trader, which is fine … it got me through the year and right up to the introduction of the movie. That’s great!
one of my final Admiral Ackbar trades …
But there is possibly an epilogue to this saga.
I told you that I haven’t chased the rare cards, but one of the rare cards chased me.
Sitting on the can one day, I “bought” a package of non-existent rare “mint black press” embossed Star Wars trading cards, that were neither really pressed or embossed. And out of nowhere I Iucked into a black General Grievous.
I don’t give a bucket of warm Rancor piss about General Grievous, mint, pressed, black, or otherwise … but this is the rarest card in my collection. It is one of the rarest cards in the whole set, with only 100 in circulation. This particular card is one sixth of a complete mint set, and the crazy guy who gets one of each of the six will unlock another nonexistent virtual reward when the last of the cards has been released.
For the effort and expense involved, you’d expect at least a handshake from C-3PO, but no … all that hunting for cards will just earn you another card!
(And did I mention that all the cards in this app, whether part of your collection or not, are always free to view via the trading interface?)
But I digress.
Here I am with this immensely sought-after card and no means or desire to collect the rest of the set. What am I do to with it? If I could trade it for 5000 Ackbars, I would … but the app doesn’t permit easy transactions on that scale. I could try to trade it for nine very rare inserts, but I’m really not that interested.
Or a clever fellow could truly turn to the Dark Side … at eBay.
Now, I’m not saying I did it, because that would be a violation of the app’s terms and requirements, but I see that quite a few little Greedos have taken to listing their digital cards on eBay for sale outside of the app. I gather that payment is accepted via eBay, with a card trading transaction via the app to follow. And I see that mint black General Grievous cards are listing for around thirty bucks a pop, which is about what it will cost to buy a couple tickets to The Force Awakens.
Hmm. This is very tempting …
May The Force Be With You. Enjoy The Force Awakens … and before you go, be sure to check out these other great Star Wars Super Blog Team-Up articles!
- Mystery V-Log: My Personal Star Wars History
- Superhero Satellite: Star Wars Episode 7 The Toys Awaken
- Bronze Age Babies: Season of the Force
- Between The Pages: A Long Time Ago, In A Bookstore Far, Far Away …
- The Retroist: Star Wars Book And Record
- The Crapbox Of Son Of Cthulhu: Growing Up Star Wars
NEXT MONTH: #155 Marvel Puzzle Quest