Looking back, there aren’t many games that meant as much to me as Marvel’s sequence of Ultimate Alliance related video games. There are games I played more – Super Smash Bros, Donkey Kong 64, and Metroid all come to mind – but you know, I didn’t wind up calling this site Banjo Kazooie Herald Dot Com (although… don’t tempt me).
It’s not just that the X-Men Legends franchise (which segues into Ultimate Alliance) was a piece of Marvel Comics lore in my life during the 2000’s, it was *the* primary touchpoint. The first X-Men Legends was released in 2004 when I was in high school, and I wouldn’t really start reading comics with any regularity for another four years. I wouldn’t step into a comic shop for another seven.
I hear the tired cliche that a lot of readers fall out of love with comics in high school as they discover sexy things, but honestly I didn’t really have comics to fall out of love with. I had never started reading, and wouldn’t even have known where to start.
My love of all things Marvel came inherited from my Dad, and from 90’s animated series starring X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man.
Ultimate Alliance would form the final touchstone before I started making inroads on how to actually navigate this occasionally confusing and frequently awe-inspiring medium. Through the two-part X-Men Legends and two-part Ultimate Alliance games there was cutscene after cutscene of mind-boggling comic book action lightyears beyond the capabilities of Spider-Man 2 or X2: X-Men United. There was also an incredible opportunity to spend countless hours with my brothers exploring the Marvel Universe one rampaging beat-em-up level at a time.
So yes, when I think about the Road to Ultimate Alliance 3 (now available exclusively on the Nintendo Switch), I think about my own road to Marvel Comics fandom. I think about how much I love hanging out with my brothers. I think about the ways Doctor Doom became my favorite character. I think about childhood, a time before comics, a time of discovery, disappointment, unfiltered joy and waiting.
And, Odin help me, I think about Magma training tutorials.
The Road to Ultimate Alliance 3
I) X-Men Legends
Release Notes: 2004, on GameCube, Playstation 2, and Xbox. Developed by Raven and Activision.
Favorite Character to Play: Nightcrawler
A thing I learned just now, reading about this formative game I’d play for hours on GameCube: the script for X-Men Legends was written in part by comics scribes Joe Casey and Joe Kelly!
A thing I knew always: Patrick Stewart voices Professor X in this game!
It’s not the best game in the series, but it’s the essential start, with a classic X-Men story where Magneto wants to do evil brotherhood stuff from an asteroid.
More than anything, X-Men Legends is the first game where I got to live the Marvel Universe with family and friends playing at the same time.
II) X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
Release Notes: September 2005
Favorite Character to Play: Magneto, Nightcrawler
Much like X2: X-Men United (still one of my favorite comic book movies of all time that I’ll probably never rewatch for fear of tarnished memories), X-Men Legends II is the successful delivery on the promise of the debut. It’s a frankly perfect concept for an X-Men game in 2005, with the Brotherhood forced to team with the X-Men in order to prevent the complete takeover of Apocalypse and his four horsemen.
Importantly, “Rise of Apocalypse” is the game that introduced Blur Studios CGI cutscenes. These mini movies within the game were genuinely astonishing in 2005, and an absolutely integral part of making “Rise of Apocalypse” and the subsequent “Ultimate Alliance” the two best games in the series.
Fuzzy memories include Apocalypse attacking Beast alone in the X-Mansion, an hours long boss battle with Mikhail Rasputin (I *still* barely understand this character apart from connections to Colossus and Magick), and the all time Astral Plane showdown with the Shadow King.
III) Ultimate Alliance
Release Notes: October 2006, quickly released for PS3 and Nintendo Wii.
Favorite Character to Play: Spider-Man, Dr. Strange
How do you increase the stakes of “Rise of Apocalypse”? You bring in the entire Marvel Universe and pit them against Doctor Doom on a quest for omnipotence.
I can’t even quantify the number of introductions I experienced during Ultimate Alliance. Off the top of my head, this game was the first time I’d heard of Deadpool, Luke Cage (my brother and I thought a hero just going by his regular given name was hilarious), and Blackheart, among many others I’m sure.
Even now, the fumes of nostalgia and familial bonds have me convinced Ultimate Alliance features one of the best Marvel Event stories this side of Avengers: Infinity War.
I love this game so much I spent every quiet moment of a summer internship writing a sequel story titled “Galaxy of Galactus” (Spoilers: The first issue opened with Galactus *succeeding* in revenge-consuming Earth, and the surviving Marvel heroes and villains on a cosmic quest to restore their homeworld.)
Simply put, Ultimate Alliance is one of my favorite Marvel stories of all time, and a huge reason Comic Book Herald even exists.
IV) Ultimate Alliance 2: Civil War
Favorite Character to Play: Spider-Man, Venom
Sadly, the sequel to Ultimate Alliance did not pick up on the threads of an angry devourer, instead opting to synchronize to Marvel’s insanely popular comic book event, Civil War (as well as the 5 issue Brian Michael Bendis and Gabrielle Del’Otto miniseries Secret War).
To its credit, UA2 is a very faithful adaptation, although I’d argue that does not work in the game’s favor. For my money, sticking to the Secret War and Civil War scripts (and honestly, the game does a nice job of blending the two stories together and into Ultimate Alliance continuity) limits those off-the-wall big picture moments from the previous game.
When you’re focused on heroes fighting heroes over Superhuman Registration, those crazy trips to steal something from Galactus just don’t fit in as well, you know? I don’t think the game was rough enough that it should have resulted in the heat-death of the franchise, but it’s definitely a comedown.
V) The Dark Decade
In one of the more confusing developments of the 2000’s, Marvel’s video game production came to a confused crossroads through the 2010’s, meaning as the MCU became the biggest entertainment franchise in the world, Marvel’s video game output alternated between hibernation and cashing in.
Yes, Marvel made a clear decision to concentrate on mobile gaming like Contest of Champions or Puzzle Quest, and yes, Marvels’ Avengers Alliance is borderline the first Comic Book Herald post to get any traffic, but those are not the games I’m looking for.
The MMORPG Marvel Heroes felt like a close relative to Ultimate Alliance, but something about it never captured the same 4 player co-op experience.
Intriguingly, reports are that Marvel’s attempt at an Avengers game during this time were halted due to unforeseen events. The Avengers game developed by THQ never made it to development due to the studios sudden bankruptcy.
Whatever the reasons, and whatever your opinions on the games from this era, the resulting gap lead to the Batman: Arkham series as the clear leader in superhero games, until Spider-Man PS4 finally cracked through in 2018.
VI) Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order
Which, ultimately, brings us to the return of the franchise in Nintendo’s rebooted Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. As you’d expect, I’m preposterously excited for the game and have taken the following steps out of pure love for the franchise:
- Pre-ordered game with all DLC
- Joined Nintendo online (for co-op play!)
- Watched approximately 12,000 Youtube gameplay videos prior to release.
Now that it’s here, these are my quick thoughts on the game (a more detailed review likely to come):
“The Black Order” is very much infused with the lifeblood of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the RDJ-ified Iron Man to opening with the “fun” Guardians of the Galaxy to Samuel L. Fury. Honestly, the only initial member of the “alliance” outside the MCU is Crystal of the Inhumans (what tv show? No, I have no idea what you mean by “She was on the ABC show”).
Speaking of the MCU, “The Black Order” is leveraging similar plot points as Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame by learning hard into Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet style quest for the infinity stones. How many times I can write infinity in a single point? … infinity?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marvel’s recent events Infinity Countdown and Infinity Wars by Gerry Duggan and Mike Deodato actually feel like very comparable comic book material. I don’t like these 2018 entries nearly as much as the original Infinity saga, but the idea of all sorts of different Marvel characters getting their hands on infinity gems aligns with the approach of these events.
After one hour of solo gameplay, I’m optimistic. I’ve fought three Marvel villain bosses, one of whom was oversized and cost me a member of the Guardians (I was playing primarily as Gamora!). The game’s premise is laid out clearly, with infinity gems cast to the wind, and the Guardians and Avengers dealing with a classic New Avengers: Breakout on the raft. I’m not sure much of anything has changed with the gameplay I remember, and that’s probably pretty intentional!