It tasks me; it heaps me; I see in it outrageous gameplay, with an inscrutable dexterity sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be Marvel vs. Capcom 3 agent, or be Marvel vs. Capcom 3 principal, I will wreck that hate upon it.

After the jump, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tasks me

I’m kind of exhausted after trying to wrangle Marvel vs. Capcom 3 into a Moby Dick quote. I’m still not entirely sure it works, specifically with that stuff about “agent” and “principal”. It’s a bit like how I feel actually playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3, where I’m at a loss about how certain things work, and utterly out of my depth in terms of the reflexes required. But for some reason I don’t fully understand, it’s currently my favorite fighting game. And it is simultaneously the most disappointing and galling game I’ve played in a long time. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is my white whale.

I’m fascinated by how it’s supposedly accessible, which is true at a certain level. It beats the pants off Street Fighter IV for being fast without being daunting, detailed without being overwhelming, and just crazy enough to be entertaining. Street Fighter IV is so staid in comparison. I couldn’t care less about Street Fighter’s variously flavored punches. But in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the Hulk rips up chunks of pavement, Iron Man shoots beams 1/3 the size of the screen, Chris Redfield has a freakin’ flamethrower, and Dormammu attacks you with the universe itself, as if he’s got some sort of hadron collider in his pocket.

I’m also fascinated by the licensing potpourri. There’s some great wacky character stuff in BlazBlue, but it’s all cut from whole cloth. Super Smash Bros. Brawl has plenty of familiar characters, but I’m indifferent to half of them and I actively loathe the other half. But in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, I know most of these guys through cultural osmosis. Some of them I don’t hate. Many of them are topical. And the ones I don’t know are pretty, uh, intriguing. Yeah, I’m talking about whatever’s going on with Morrigan and Felicia. Japan, man.

I love the speed, the responsiveness, the feeling of being in the fight. I love the cheerful cartoon presentation. I love having a team of three fighters, with two of them actively covering my back instead of just waiting in the wings. I love the relatively simple move list, which is a delight to call up. I call up the move list in Soulcalibur IV and decide I’m better off not bothering. I love the way the combos intended to maximize damage are consistent and even somewhat intuitive. In fact, for the first time ever in a fighting game, I understand why they work the way they work (thanks in part to BlazBlue’s tutorial). I can’t do those combos, but I grok why they work, and that’s an important first step.

I love the character asymmetry, which can be hard to suss out, but it’s absolutely there. This is the first game where I’ve actually wrapped my head around the balance among speed, power, maneuverability, and reach, which I’d say are the four pillars of gameplay balance in a fighting game. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has taught me a lot, and in return, I’ve decided that this is a game I want to learn.

At which point I’m bitterly disappointed to discover that Capcom couldn’t care less. They simply cannot be arsed to teach me how to play their game, or to even give me options for how to play it. It is yet another instance of Capcom designing a great game, but only presenting it to members of its hardcore clubhouse. What a colossal waste of fantastic game design.

The more I play Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the more I despair at how it’s not made for me. It is so skewed towards online multiplayer, and I have no hope of finding anything there beyond a prompt beatdown. I go online and find myself matched against another beginner or rookie, at which point my character is almost immediately popped into the air and pummeled with aerial team combos. Intellectually, I know how to do these. But in terms of timing and muscle memory, it’s not going to happen. And without a wider player base, it’s going to be a long time before I reach the level of skill of a typical Marvel vs. Capcon 3 beginner [sic] or rookie [sic]. Compare this with the bronze league in the hugely popular Starcraft II, another technical e-sport of a game that allows you to be bad, but still have a reasonable expectation of winning. Marvel vs. Capcon 3 doesn’t have enough players like me online. And without more help from Capcom, I’m not going to get that good at the game any time soon.

The real shame of it is that I don’t feel any burning need to go online. Instead, Capcom could have easily given me other ways to play. If they did even 10% of what BlazBlue, Mortal Kombat, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl did in terms of providing single player content, I’d be in hog heaven. Instead, I get “missions” (what an awful name for Extreme Technical Timing Challenges), I can pay to download computer opponents that should have been in the game in the first place, or I can slog through the inflexible arcade mode of fighting a sequence of battles over which I have no control beyond difficulty level.

Furthermore, these excellent characters and this sleek gameplay system are all but undocumented. Why does every manual for a fighting game assume so much knowledge? Why are tutorials so half-baked? Why isn’t there a better introduction to each character? Why can’t I see their comparative strengths and weaknesses? For instance, why doesn’t Marvel vs. Capcon 3 tell me that Phoenix has so few hit points (she is the weakest character, and half as weak as the next weakest character)? And furthermore, why doesn’t the game point out Phoneix’s unique tweak or turning into the fire-spewing Dark Phoenix when she’s killed if the hyper meter is maxxed out? Because that’s a pretty cool gimmick. It makes me want to include Phoenix on my team and play a particular way, holding her back to keep her safe until the hyper meter is maxxed out, at which point I bring her out and wreak havoc. What a fantastic risk/reward dynamic. So why doesn’t Capcom provide a battle where the goal is to win as Dark Phoenix? Why do they dump something so cool in my lap without explanation?

What’s so disappointing about Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is that Capcom went to so much effort to design a friendlier and more accessible game, but they didn’t build up any sort of gameplay around that decision. They’re a company with no desire to reach out beyond their current player base. That’s cool with me if Capcom wants to keep Street Fighter the exclusive domain of their hardcore technical fighters club. But I can tell that Marvel vs. Capcom is supposed to belong to the rest of us. And I can tell even more keenly that they’ve failed to bring it to us.

But I don’t plan to give up. I’m not going to stand for Capcom’s wretched lack of confidence in their own cool game. I’ll show them. I’ve bought the strategy guide, which is an absolutely marvelous monstrously thorough tome. I’ve been poring over the strategy articles on SRK. I’ve downloaded the additional characters. I only just now discovered that you can set the training dummy to fight back in the training mode and thereby set up custom battles. I fully intend to keep trying to sell my friends on Marvel vs. Capcom 3 when we’re playing games locally. Now that I’m done revisiting fighting games for this series of articles, it’s going to be just me and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 for a while. Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering fighting game; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for 733t skillz’ sake I spit my last breath at thee.

2 stars
Xbox 360

Mortal Kombat review
BlazBlue: you are not ready
Dissidia 2: the real grindhouse
Soulcalibur IV: you’re wearing that?
Super Smash Bros. Brawl: amateur night