I want you to take a good look at the picture above. Upon first glance, it looks kinda cute, right? Shorty, super-deformed versions of classic Marvel heroes are absolutely adorable. Who can help but smile at the sweet lil' Silver Surfer? Cap is cute too, and even Wolverine looks positively huggable. Now, count the number of fingers they have. WHOA! They have three fingers and a thumb! That's a bit disturbing. This swing of emotion, from the initial "awww how sweet!" to the eventual "Oh gross, that's abominable!" exactly describes the feelings I had while playing Marvel Super Hero Squad.
It's clear that this game is made for those of the much younger set. Super heroes in general are very appealing for children, and yet most genre movies, TV shows, and comics these days are firmly in the PG-13 category. Super Hero Squad is Marvel's response to this, with a toyline, a TV show, and now even a video game for the little people demographic. The game has combos and special moves, but is essentially a button mashing brawler with platforming elements. It's a good game for kids to pick up and play.
The storyline is actually quite entertaining. While there is the typical maguffin that must be collected in order to save the universe, each character has their own side story. Squeaky clean and simple-minded, these stories are funny and entertaining even for older players. Wolverine's campaign deals with him looking for his stolen motorcycle. The best is the Hulk, who just wants some ice cream! For these campaigns, the main character is joined by a buddy, selectable from whichever heroes have been unlocked. I found myself wishing both heroes could be player-chosen, but it's not a big deal either way, really.
Once the buddy is picked, a second player can grab a Wiimote and nunchuk and drop in and control that buddy at any time. It is in this co-op mode that the flaws in the game become horribly apparent. I can hardly believe issues like this made it through any sort of quality testing. Some of the design decisions are absolutely nuts, reminding me of game design circa 1985. Quickly, my initial favorable impression of Marvel Super Hero Squad turned into a teeth-gnashing rage, similar to that of an ice cream-deprived Hulk.
The biggest culprit is the camera; it is atrocious. The entire game is played with the camera focused on player one only. Player two can run off screen, out of sight, and cannot do anything about it. This makes for some incredibly frustrating situations, as you can imagine. The camera swoops in and out, left and right, with dizzying speed, for no apparent reason. My son and I literally had to stop playing, at one point, as it was giving us both a headache.
Worse than the camera, though, are the pools of lava, radiation, and other instant-kill hazards all over the place. It is terribly easy to fall off a ledge and die, especially when your character is in one of the overly long combo animations. When one player dies in this way, action stops, and both players respawn at the last checkpoint. The checkpoints are spaced fairly liberally, but it's still irritating. I much prefer the system used in LittleBIGPlanet and other similar games, where a fallen player revives when his partner reaches the next checkpoint.
Most irritating of all are some really unforgiving platforming sections. An example would be in Wolverine's campaign, with floating rocks on a sea of lava. Half of the rocks are of the "jump on 'em once and they fall" variety. This means that you and your partner have to run and jump onto them at the same exact time. Challenging, but not too bad, right? Except for one tiny thing: you and your partner can collide with each other in midair, and when you do, you both fall straight down into the lava! I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I can't remember the last game I played where you could collide with another player in this way. It adds a level of difficulty and frustration that has no place in a game designed for young kids. I was getting frustrated myself, and I've been playing this sort of game for decades!
There are a few other minor and yet still irksome things about Marvel Super Hero Squad. Each campaign has a quick time event section, and these are very long, often over a dozen movements in a row. If these required just button presses, it might be okay, but many of the required moves are Wiimote waggles, which are very imprecise. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that these events take place at the end of unskippable cinematic sections. Trust me, you'll be seeing these over and over quite a bit. Another mind-boggler is the fact that heroes can hit and knock each other around, so watch out with Hulk's thunderclap, or the Thing might be knocked off to drown in lava.
Marvel Super Hero Squad does have a few redeeming qualities. The boss battles are different, composed of an arena style brawl on a raised platform. The first team to 10 points, scored via KOs or ring outs, wins. These battles are probably the best part of the game. In fact, an entire mode of the game is devoted to these arenas. Considering the flaws of the co-op campaign, I'd guess most of the enjoyment of the game will come from these fights, which support up to four players. You won't get a Smash Brothers Brawl level experience from it, but it is at least tolerable, which is more than I can say about the rest of Marvel Super Hero Squad.