The History of Capcom’s VS. Series
Sometimes when you watch Thanos and Dante square off in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, you can’t help but wonder how we got here. How did the titans of Marvel Comics and Capcom Fighting games end up in a game together? How is this normal? How is Marvel vs. Capcom a thing that every gamer knows about? Well… it’s a long story. A story that started with Capcom’s first foray into fighting games and ends with their most recent tie in with the MCU.
The Games That Paved the Way
The VS series actually has its roots in games that never featured VS. in the title. It all started when a game developer struck arcade gold in the early nineties, drawing the interest of a comic book company that was seeing a similar popularity explosion. Before any of this to happened, we have to start by looking at Capcom’s fighting game beginnings.
Street Fighter II (1991)
It’s impossible to talk about any Capcom fighting game without talking about the game that started it all, Street Fighter II. It codified what it meant to be a 2D fighting game. It basically created everything from the concept of punch and kick buttons to the special move motions we still use today. While obviously not a VS. game itself, it’s influence can be seen in every fighting game, including VS. titles.
Darkstalkers, Capcom’s gothic fantasy themed fighting game, was responsible for introducing many of the iconic mechanics to the VS. series. From chain combos to air-blocking, this franchise took the original Street Fighter formula and turned it up a notch. You could say that Darkstalkers was the beginning of the “fast” fighting game era, and many of its design choices would survive in Capcom’s first major Marvel fighting game property.
X-Men: Children of the Atom (1994)
This is where most people feel the VS. series began. Video games were hot in the mid-nineties. It was a time when arcades were still alive and home consoles were also taking the world by storm. Licensed properties were huge. If you had a cartoon, movie, or comic franchise then you were probably looking for a video game developer to bring that franchise into the digital world. Fighting games in particular were very profitable; eating up quarters in the arcades and later selling like hot-cakes when the console versions were developed. This gaming environment combined with the popularity of the 1990s X-Men animated series led Capcom to score the rights to an X-Men themed fighting game.
However, they couldn’t just port in X-Men characters to the Street Fighter engine and be done with it. These characters were larger than life super-heroes, capable of world changing super powered feats. They needed to feel appropriately powerful.
So, Capcom decided to change up their fighting game system. They vastly increased stage size, allowing characters to be more mobile. Results of this increased size were quicker dashes and super jumps that traveled more than a screen’s distance. Many of these characters could fly which prompted Capcom to expand their aerial combat system, introducing longer air combos and more aerial special moves. This was the first game to introduce what we might think of as “hyper combos,” super-moves that are large, flashy, deal a ton of damage, and sometimes cover the screen with beams, projectiles, and hit-effects.
Marvel Super Heroes (1995)
The success of X-Men: CotA coupled with Street Fighter’s continued success led Marvel to team up with Capcom again for yet another fighting game, Marvel Super Heroes. This game expanded the roster to more than just the X-Men, introducing iconic faces like Captain America, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and Iron Man. Believe it or not, most of the moves that returning Marvel roster members have in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite come from Marvel Super Heroes and X-Men: Children of the Atom.
Once again the game focused on exaggerated, larger-than-life combat. In addition to air combos and super jumps, this game introduced the infinity gems as a tie in for Marvel’s Infinity War line which was recently published. Players could collect the different infinity gems to gain power-ups like increased strength, speed, or meter gain. This was a game that loved to be broken. It’s abundance of cheap moves, dirty gimmicks, and infinite combos were part of its charm, and it would set the tone for almost all the VS. games that would follow.
The Early Days
Capcom knew that the fast and frantic pace of their Marvel themed fighting games was something they had to capitalize on. Yet budget problems and time constraints made it difficult to create new assets. Luckily, they had a plan.
X-Men vs. Street Fighter (1996)
After the success of X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes, Capcom was eager to develop another Marvel property. Developing games was still expensive and a lot of Capcom’s resources were going to their Street Fighter Alpha series, which was similarly well received.
Fighting game “sequels” were basically expansion packs. Add a few new characters, balance the game a little, and you are done. This worked in the early days of arcade fighters, but by the mid-nineties the public had begun to tire of the release treadmill. While expansion pack releases did okay in arcades they didn’t perform nearly as well in the home console market. To keep the fans happy, Capcom was going to have to give them something new.
Capcom decided that they would kill two birds with one stone with X-Men vs. Street Fighter, the very first Marvel vs. Capcom release. Capcom kept costs down by re-using assets they already had. Aside from Sabertooth, Gambit, and Rogue (as well as a new Shadaloo version of Cammy,) every sprite was re-used from either X-Men: Children of the Atom or the Street Fighter Alpha series. Developing assets for three new characters was a work load similar to an “expansion pack” fighting game release, but the crossover roster made the game feel new.
The merging of the two properties caused Capcom to make some major changes to gameplay. Capcom didn’t want players to have to choose between the X-Men or Street Fighter sides of the roster, so they introduced tag team fighting that would allow players to control one character from both sides. This tag system forced them to change the normal “two out of three” round format to a single round; rationalizing that each character was effectively a “round” themselves. X-Men vs. Street Fighter was the origin of many of the MvC franchise’s tag mechanics. Tag counters, tag supers, even the very act of tagging originated here. To incentivize use of tag mechanics, Capcom introduced “red health” which would regenerate when a character was in reserve.
While the X-Men side of the roster was ported over directly from Children of the Atom, the Street Fighter side needed a bit of an upgrade. They were built for a slower paced fighting game and simply could not compare to the X-Men’s high flying antics. So, without altering any of their sprites, Capcom altered the properties of all of their moves. Ryu’s Shinkuu Hadoken became a laser beam and Ken’s Shoryureppa traveled across the entire screen. Everyone was scaled up in power to be capable of the same craziness the X-Men were known for.
Another Marvel vs. Capcom tradition started in X-Men vs. Street Fighter. The giant head final boss made its first appearance here. Players would fight against Apocalypse in this title, who would grow to an immense size in the final battle. Like most bosses in the series, Apocalypse had hyper armor, preventing him from flinching during normal attacks. However, he could be put into stun if you hit him enough. All you had to do was block his attacks and he was a piece of cake.
While the game was an arcade hit, the home version had some issues. The Sega Saturn port was nearly arcade perfect, but it never came over to America due to failing console sales. The Playstation port did come over to America, but unfortunately the console could not handle the game’s tag based gameplay. Instead, the game was reduced to a simple 1-on-1 three round fighter with your teammate only coming in when you used tag supers or tag counters. This tradition of severely limited console releases would become the norm with VS. titles for some time, which only strengthened their arcade presence.
Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997)
Capcom decided to follow up XvSF the same way they followed up X-Men: CotA, by adding the rest of the Marvel Universe to the roster. Capcom went even further with their cost cutting in this release. It was the first VS. title to feature no new characters. Aside from Cyber-Akuma, which was a hidden character, the entire roster was made up of re-used sprites. Stages were re-used, the character select screen, arcade endings, and other graphical assets were far less impressive than X-Men vs. Street Fighter’s, and in-general the game felt half-complete.
Capcom’s new game design philosophy didn’t help things. After seeing the broken nature of XvSF (including the plethora of infinite combos that you could perform) they decided to bring the nerf hammer down hard. Instead of amping things up to the crazy levels of X-Men: CotA, they toned everything down. Combos were short, mobility was limited, and the infinity gem system, arguably one of the most enjoyable systems from MSH, was completely taken out.
That’s not to say that MSHvSF wasn’t home to many series firsts. Most notably, this was the game that introduced assists to the VS series. The ability to call in your character to perform a single attack became a staple of tag-team Capcom games, and it made their tag system feel more like you were fighting as a team, rather than fighting two distinct characters in separate rounds. This was an important step in making the VS. series distinct from The King of Fighters’ own crossover team based battles.
This was also the beginning of Capcom’s obsession with palette swapped secret characters. Mecha-Zangief, Dark Sakura, Shadow, and more were all created by taking existing characters and modifying their properties.
Unfortunately, MSHvSF will always be remembered as a VS series flop. Capcom just didn’t understand what made the series fun. That’s why, as the title screen would later say, they decided to “go crazy” with their next VS. game.
Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998)
The lukewarm response to MSHvSF prompted Capcom to push the boundaries with their next title, Marvel vs. Capcom. If they were going to include characters from the entire Marvel universe, why not include characters from the entire Capcom universe? They chucked Morrigan from Darkstalkers into the game and teamed her up with nine recurring characters (eight if you don’t count War Machine as a palette swapped Iron Man which… he was). However, they took note of the negative response to MSHvSF’s re-used assets and decided to add quite a few new assets of their own. Captain Commando, Megaman, Strider, Jin, and Venom all joined the roster. Another new character, Roll, was added as a secret character among the normal roster of palette swaps. Some characters could even “change modes” like Ryu’s ability to mimic the moves of Ken and Akuma by spending a meter, or Morrigan’s “Lilith Mode” which copied her sister from Darkstalkers. On the surface it appeared as if the roster had only 15 characters but when you include mode switches and secret characters the roster ballooned up to 23.
Capcom decided to change up their assist system for this crossover. Instead of calling in your partner character, you chose a specific assist character that would join your team. This gave players another 22 characters to fool around with, 10 of which were made out of new assets. To limit assist spamming each assist was given a finite amount of charges, with better assists getting fewer charges.
The craziest new addition to MvC was the Variable Cross system. By spending all three meters, both characters would be called out to fight at once. In addition to this craziness they were given infinite meter. This system was incredibly abusable, letting players set up combos that could kill your opponents from chip damage alone. Coupled with already insane air-combos, crazy hyper combos, and exploitative glitches and infinites, MvC is known as one of the most broken games in Capcom history, and fans loved it.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes (2000)
It’s Mahvel Baybee! While MvC1 was a fan favorite, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is usually looked at as the pinnacle of the VS series. It was the VS game with the longest life-span, played in tournaments all the way up to the release of MvC3.
It’s unexpected considering Capcom’s design philosophy for MVC2 was essentially “screw it, put it in.” Nearly every sprite since X-Men: CotA was added to this game. In early versions of the title, including the arcade version, the roster started at 24 characters putting it on par with the rest of the versus series. Over time the rest of the game’s 32 secret characters would release ballooning the roster up to 56 characters, the largest roster of any VS title. Nine of these characters had new assists and three on the Capcom side were completely original. It’s funny that this was essentially the biggest re-use of assets in Capcom history, complete with palette swaps, yet the sheer size of the roster made up for the re-used characters.
MvC2 was the first in the series to introduce a 3 vs. 3 tag system. The assist system of MvC was rolled back to the previous MSHvSF style, allowing you to call in your characters from reserve. However, now these characters had three assists to choose from, letting you customize your team further. MvC2 also introduce the “snapback” which allowed you to spend a meter to force your opponent’s point character out and bring in one of their reserve characters.
MvC2 really introduced the concept of “team building” to the VS. series. Sure, you got to create teams in other VS titles, but they largely played as two individual characters with a few tag mechanics. MvC2 forced you to think about each character’s role. Some characters were chosen because of their ability to open the opponent up. Some were chosen for their ability to build meter. Some were chosen simply for their good assists.
MvC2 had one of the most volatile metas of any VS fighting game. Characters that were originally seen as broken, like Ice Man, were later considered low tier as the complex techniques were developed. MvC2 codified many of the hidden mechanics of VS games, including flight combos to rejumps, spikes to re-launch loops, double snaps to guard breaks. MvC2 was a game defined by how hard its system could be exploited.
And this was all we heard from the VS series for almost ten years.
The Modern Era
Most fans thought that the VS series was over with MvC2. Capcom had lost the Marvel license and 2D fighters had fallen to the background as 3D fighters rose to popularity. Little did anyone know that the VS. series would be saved by an unstoppable force of pop-culture, and that force… was anime!
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars (2008)
No one asked for this game. Few fans outside of Otaku culture know what the Japanese animation company, Tatsunoko, even is. Anime fans barely recognize most of Tatsunoko’s properties. Yet in 2006, Tatsunoko approached Capcom asking them to make a fighting game featuring their characters. Capcom’s response was that these Japanese super-heroes wouldn’t fit in a slow, deliberate game such as the in-development Street fighter IV. Instead, they were a perfect fit for the VS series.
Thus development on Tatsunoko vs. Capcom began, with some new design goals in mind. First, the game needed to be friendly to new players. Capcom targeted the Wii for the game’s home-version release, so they wanted it to be relatively easy to control. Second, it had to feel like a VS title. This meant the return of air-combos and team attacks.
To meet these goals, Capcom screwed around with the controls a bit. Gone were punch and kick buttons, replaced instead by a simple light, medium, heavy button scheme, with another button assigned to your partner. Assists returned were reduced back to 2v2, due to the smaller roster and the desire for simplification.
To make up for the changes, Capcom introduced some new VS style mechanics. For example, you could now tag in your partner in the middle of an air combo. The new “baroque” cancel let you spend your red life to extend combos and deal extra damage. You could also spend meter to perform the Mega Crash, a burst-like combo breaker.
TvC was built from the ground up in 2.5 D, which was an enormous undertaking. Without being able to re-use assets, Capcom needed to remake every single character. This fundamentally changed the way certain characters operated. Ryu, for example, would gain his signature donkey kick, which he didn’t have at any other point in the VS series. Chun-Li would receive a signature air-dash and become known as an aggressive character, compared to her more defensive style in Street Fighter. TvC featured one of the most diverse Capcom rosters ever. It featured characters from Rival Schools, Onimusha, and even Lost Planet. Unfortunately, many of these characters would be lost in future VS games, but some, like Zero, Viewtiful Joe, and Frank West, would survive.
Fans absolutely loved TvC. Its original version, Cross Generation of Heroes, was one of the most imported games of the era. Tournaments were held before it even hit American shelves. American arcades were mostly dead by the time it released, but any surviving arcade that had a TvC machine became a regular hangout for the fighting game community. After a number of licensing issues caused delays, TvC finally hit the Wii. One character, Hakushon Daimao, had to be removed, but five new characters were added in his place. It sold well and stuck around the tournament circuit for more than a couple years. It was clear, the VS series fanbase was aching for more content. Luckily, one of the biggest names in fighting games was ready to make a return.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (2011)
Shortly after the release of TvC, Capcom began development on a new entrant in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, a grand revival of the franchise after more than ten years on hiatus. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting established. Fighting games had made a major comeback with the release of Street Fighter IV. It was the perfect time.
MvC3 brought back 3v3 tag battles while the rest of its combat was loosely modeled off of TvC. The light, medium, heavy control scheme made a return. The ability to tag out during air combos also returned, although now it was associated with a mechanic that would provide an opportunity to counter it. The Mega Crash and Baroque Cancel had been taken out in favor of X-Factor, a one-time buff that greatly increased your team’s power, speed, and life regeneration based off how many characters had died.
Many assets from TvC were re-used. While characters received all new models, many animations were copied over directly from TvC to MvC3. Even so, most of the roster was built from the ground up.
MvC3 introduced many big-name Marvel characters. Deadpool was an inclusion many fans had been asking for. Much of the roster was also motivated by upcoming MCU movies. This motivated the inclusion of characters like Dormammu, Dr. Strange, Iron Fist, Hawkeye, and many more. Capcom’s roster was similarly fashioned out of a combination of current Capcom properties and classic characters that had not yet gotten their chance. C. Viper was iconic at the time due to being synonymous with SFIV, but it’s unlikely that we will see her return in any future VS titles.
MvC3 was heavily criticized by fans of MvC2. While MvC2 was largely focused on resets and mix-ups, MvC3 was heavily focused on touch-of-death combos. Later on in the MvC3 meta, projectile spam became the norm, making it difficult to play an aggressive character. Yet, it can be argued that we never fully understood the meta, as Kane Blueriver made many characters that would be considered low-tier, like Hulk, Haggar, and Sentinel, tournament worthy.
One of the biggest controversies at the time was the release of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, a new version of the game starring a few new characters and sporting a hefty balance patch which dropped a mere eight months after the original. Though received poorly by casual fans, it is considered the definitive version of the game and has been used in tournaments all the way up to Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite’s release.
Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite (2017)
This brings us up to date with the recent release of Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. This title brings the series back to its roots by focusing on 2v2 fighting. It also tries to keep team building aspects through its infinity stone system. Many mechanics have been removed to focuses on an active tag system that lets you switch characters at any time. The roster has largely been described as disappointing, but it also focuses on the MCU and current Capcom properties. Fans are once again mad that their beloved VS series has changed.
But has it really changed? If the VS series stood for anything, it stood for change and innovation. Every single entry in the franchise was an opportunity for Capcom to experiment with some new crazy mechanics at low cost. Every entry re-used assets. Every entry also changed its roster to fit current Marvel and Capcom properties. Every entry was a “cash grab” as some might complain about today.
Fans forget that’s exactly why we love it! We love the opportunity to try new things. We love seeing our favorite characters fight against each other. We love exploiting systems and breaking gameplay. We love it when the VS series lets us do gimmicky combos that wouldn’t fly in any other fighting game. This is true to the VS series spirit. If we trace it all the way back to its origin with X-Men: Children of the Atom, we see that Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite still feels the same. It’s still a licensed tie-in with breakable mechanics.
If we learned anything during this retrospective, it’s that sometimes things happen by accident. None of these VS titles were grand Capcom projects. None were works of fighting game art built from the ground up by a visionary designer. They were all just convenience. They were money saving measures, tie-in opportunities, and advertisements. Somehow, all these things that the gaming community frowns upon came together to create one of the best fighting game franchises ever.
So, the next time you want to complain about Wolverine’s absence from MvCI, just take a deep breath, pick up your stick, and remember that it’s all business as usual for the VS series. Here’s hoping that Capcom will continue to re-use assets and explore new mechanics for many years to come.