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'Marvel vs. Capcom 3' review: Colors! Sounds! Seizure-inducing nostalgia! Exclamation points!

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Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is what my mom thinks about when she thinks about videogames. It is relentlessly loud, fast, and stupid. It is utterly lacking in character complexity or narrative structure. It opens with a warning: “This game contains sequences with rapidly flashing images.” That’s an outright lie: The whole game is rapidly flashing images, and space-age sound effects, and cartoonishly overwrought visuals. It’s as if someone took a typical fighting game and pumped it full of every legal and illegal narcotic you can imagine. Take out the licensed characters, and you’d just have Battling Seizure Robots: The Videogame. In short, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is the silliest game I’ve played in a long time, and I mean that as a serious compliment.

Considering that the title sounds like the world’s most caffeinated elevator pitch, the Marvel vs. Capcom series was always smarter than it had to be. Besides obvious icons like Spider-Man and Street Fighter‘s Ryu, you could play as practically forgotten characters like Captain Commando, or fringe personalities like War Machine. (And then there was Shuma-Gorath, arguably the weirdest character in a fighting game that isn’t called ClayFighter.) From that perspective, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 — the first new entry in the series since the Clinton era — is a geek’s dream. On the Marvel side, you can play as franchise newcomer Thor, along with lesser-known-but-much-beloved villains like Dormammu, Super-Skrull, and M.O.D.O.K., everyone’s favorite angry robot head.

Even better is the Capcom side, which adds two beloved ’80s icons into the mix: Haggar from Final Fight and Arthur from Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The key, I think, is the detail. Haggar in MvC3 doesn’t just look like he did back in Final Fight: He moves the same way, right down to his flying double-footed jump kick and his jumping belly-flop. So part of the appeal of the Marvel vs. Capcom series is purely nostalgic. (By the way, Arthur is totally the “Mr. Game & Watch” of this game, and if you know what that means, we’re soulmates.)

But then you have the actual gameplay — which is insane, frantic, nonstop button-mashing at its mashiest. In the last week, I’ve played dozens of matches against my roommates, and I’ve noticed that, after your first couple matches, fighting someone in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 feels almost abstract, as if you’re battling with nothing more than images and sound. (Try to conceive of what it would look like if Mark Rothko made a painting out of Wrestlemania, and you’ve got a fair notion of Marvel vs. Capcom 3.)

There is a legitimate strategy to the game. Besides Chun-Li’s ridiculously powerful kick combo, the characters are pretty well-balanced. But I almost think it’s best to appreciate the game as pure adrenalized spectacle. Treasure the way the announcer screams “Live and Let Die!” before every match-up. Treasure, also, the geekishly precise humor scattered throughout the game — I still can’t get over the fact that Deadpool has apparently stolen Ryu’s Hadouken move.

There are, however, two major problems with the game. First, there are considerably fewer playable characters than in Marvel vs. Capcom 2. (In fact, two characters are only available as downloadable content, which is further proof that downloadable content might just be for videogames what many in our message boards feel 3-D is for movies: Much more fun for the companies than the consumer.) Second, the arcade mode hasn’t been updated much since X-Men vs. Street Fighter: The final boss is still essentially a face-off with a giant floating head. Considering how much material there is to draw from, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more variety in the gameplay. (You’ll find yourself wishing that Capcom had learned some lessons in level design from Nintendo’s similarly-themed Super Smash Brothers.)

When Marvel vs. Capcom 2 hit arcades in early 2000, the first X-Men movie was still a few months from release. Spider-Man was two years away. Robert Downey Jr. was in prison. Mark Ruffalo was still two reboots away from playing the Hulk. So, in a weird way, playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is doubly nostalgic: While you’re enjoying the pure geek thrill of pitting Devil May Cry‘s Dante against She-Hulk, you can also remember a time before superheroes were, well, everywhere. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is pure candy, but it’s also a fascinating artifact of the arcade era — and, perhaps, a portrait of the pure entropy that awaits us if pop culture ever collapses on itself like a dying star. GRADE: B+

Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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