I couldn’t help but play Marvel Super Heroes in War of the Gems next. Playing a video game with Justice League characters fighting against Darkseid made me yearn for a similar Marvel experience. And War of the Gems fits that perfectly, with a plot revolving around select Marvel superheroes in a race to collect the Infinity Gems. So how does a video game originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System hold up to today’s standards? Let’s find out.
War of the Gems is a beat ’em up style action game with platforming elements. Developed and published by Capcom for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, this game is actually a spiritual successor to X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse which came out two years prior. As previously mentioned, War of the Gems follows five of Marvel’s most popular heroes in their quest to obtain the Infinity Gems before Thanos is able to assemble them.
I think this is an unofficial spin-off to Capcom’s arcade title Marvel Super Heroes. The two games have a lot in common: the general plot revolves around the Infinity Gems. You can play as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Wolverine in War of the Gems. All five are fighters in Marvel Super Heroes. Blackheart is a boss on the former and a playable fighter in the other, while Dr. Doom and Thanos are boss characters in both games.
Unique Gameplay Mechanics
The combat in War of the Gems feels like your traditional beat ’em up game. Playable characters have a life bar, so you can sustain several hits before you die. Not all enemy characters have life bars, but the majority require more than one hit before they get knocked out, so expect to do a lot of brawling.
Unlike Capcom’s other beat ’em up games, this game uses flat platforms in their level design. Stages have verticality, requiring you to go higher or lower. There are sections wherein jumping between platforms will be needed. So even with combat that feels like a beat ’em up game, this game feels quite different.
Also, you can choose what to play among the available levels. Before you start with your chosen level, you are asked to choose the character you want to play as for that level. You also have an Item Selection screen that will allow you to heal up and equip Infinity Gems.
Each character only has one life. If they get killed, you get sent back to the level selection screen and start over. You won’t be able to choose any dead characters unless you revive them. Completing levels also does not heal up your characters, so you will need to cycle through your team if you want to preserve your health items.
The characters each have a different set of abilities and characteristics to represent their comic book counterparts. They also have regular attacks and special attacks. Unlike traditional beat ’em up games, you need to input special button combinations to do the special attacks, similar to Capcom’s fighting games.
Character Abilities and Move Sets
Spider-Man is fast and agile, but his attacks are weaker than the others. He can jump high, which is an advantage in levels that require a lot of platforming. He can climb up vertical walls too, helping you reach areas that other characters can’t. He’s only got two special attacks. He can shoot a web bullet that stuns enemies but doesn’t do any damage. He can also swing from a web-line and do a dropping attack, which hits hard but is really hard to land.
Wolverine is a balanced character whose claws provide a wide attack range. He also has some of the game’s most effective special attacks. He can charge forward with a piercing claw attack that can hit enemies multiple times. He’s got a dropping claw attack from mid-air that flows into a piercing claw attack which knocks down enemies. And he has his Tornado Claw attack from the arcade fighting game. He can also climb up walls like Spider-Man.
Captain America’s unique ability is to be able to toss his shield straight forward, diagonally upward, or diagonally downward. This makes him handy in multi-elevation levels where you expect enemies from above or below. He’s got his Charging Star move from the arcade game, but it does not have any protective abilities. For some reason, Cap has a three-hit air combo that is very useful when dealing with flying enemies.
Iron Man can shoot repulsor blasts straight forward while standing or jumping. He can launch a small grenade while crouched for crowd control. His strength lies in air superiority, as he can also dash forwards in a torpedo-like move. This helps him cross over distances faster and attacks any enemies in its path. Finally, Iron Man has can double jump which makes him a good option for levels with a lot of platforming.
And finally we have the Hulk. He has the strongest regular attacks in the game and his normal punches have a long range. He can charge forward to plow down enemies. His other special moves are very situational. One is a combination attack that launches a nearby enemy in the air, which he follows up with a jumping bashing attack. It’s hard to connect with the first hit and when you miss, Hulk will continue the move anyway. He can grab nearby enemies and toss them forward, but this requires a quarter circle forward motion. If you don’t execute fast enough, enemies can attack you first.
One of my few complaints is that the game’s characters aren’t well-balanced. Despite lacking good special moves, Spider-Man is often the best choice for majority of the levels. His high jumps and wall crawling help you with level exploration and platforming. His attack speed makes up for his weak attacks. Because he has a small sprite, his hitbox is smaller than the rest of the characters. Sometimes, he doesn’t even need to crouch to dodge attacks – they just go over his head!
Meanwhile, it’s really hard to find situations wherein the Hulk is useful. He’s too slow, and his jumps are low too. His special moves aren’t very good either. And his character is so large, it is hard to avoid enemy projectiles. Iron Man and Cap also suffer from having a large sprite. If you want to play this game effectively, you’ll have to choose Spider-Man or Wolverine more often than the other heroes.
Difficulty and The Infinity Gem System
I thought War of the Gems was quite difficult at first. Health items were rare, and some of them could only be used in the Item Selection screen. Dying in a level meant you’d need to replay that level from the beginning, with one less character available. And if you choose the wrong character for a level, you’re as good as dead. The game does have a password system, so you get to keep the progress that you make. What really balances this game’s difficulty are the Infinity Gems.
The Infinity Gem system adds customization options to this game. As previously mentioned, you can equip an Infinity Gem on your character before the start of every level. Throughout the game, you are able to collect five of the six known Infinity Gems. Equipping the Time Gem makes your chosen superhero move faster. This is quite helpful, especially for Iron Man and Hulk.
The description for the Reality Gem says it helps you to find hidden items, but I’m not sure exactly how it works. I think, when I equipped it, I found additional items that normally aren’t there. The Power Gem increases your character’s attack power. This is especially helpful for Spider-Man. The Space Gem lets your character jump higher. I didn’t find much use for this, because I would just use Iron Man in levels that needed high jumps. Finally, we get to the Soul Gem. In my opinion, this is the most useful of the five as it doubles the health of your chosen character. Once I found this, I had a much easier time with the remaining levels.
In addition to the passive buffs that each Infinity Gem provides, each character can perform a Gem Special move. You need an Infinity Gem equipped, and you need to equip the Gem Power item too. You can equip up to three Gem Power items per level. Each character has a specific Gem Special move and some moves are more useful than others.
These Gem Specials can be helpful in a pinch but not really necessary. They’re also a little tricky to do because of the required button combination. Botching the motions can result in taking damage unnecessarily. I wish Capcom showed a little restraint when it came to implementing fighting game controls here. War of the Gems only makes use of two buttons – one to attack and one to jump. Using another button for the Gem Special would have made it easier.
Visuals, Sounds, and Presentation
Aside from Spider-Man looking much smaller than everyone else except for Wolverine, War of the Gems looks amazing. The playable characters all look quite detailed. You can even recognize Iron Man’s mid-90s style armor. Some movements seem choppy but I think this is to replicate the fast attacks in Marvel Super Heroes. Most of the enemies that you’ll fight in this game are clones of other Marvel superheroes. Their sprites are done with enough detail, so I was able to recognize everyone. Sound effects are perfect and work well, with the expected “thuds” making attacks feel powerful. The music is also well done, always fitting the levels they accompany.
The game has static cutscenes with scrolling text to relay how the plot is progressing. I wish they had used comic book panels instead – a minor nitpick. To further connect this with the Marvel Super Heroes arcade fighting game, each character has a win scene at the end of every level that looks exactly what you’d get from a fighting game.
I mentioned fighting clones of superheroes earlier. This is actually taken from the comic book version of Infinity War. In that storyline, the Magus created an army of dopplegangers for each of the superheroes. I was always on the lookout for which doppleganger would show up in the game. Most were clones of familiar characters like the Thing and Daredevil. Although there were some really deep cuts that surprised me. I’m a little disappointed that the Spider-Doppleganger, the most famous one, didn’t make it in the game.
While I did have an issue with the balancing of the playable characters, I had an amazing time with War of the Gems. I played through it twice, actually. The first time, I didn’t know how to equip the Infinity Gems so I had a really hard time with the game. I needed to abuse save state scumming just to get to the final levels. I tried a second playthrough, only making use of the game’s password system. Knowing which hero to pick for each level, learning the patterns of the bosses, and figuring out that the Infinity Gems can be equipped helped me beat this game clean.
If you want to play a superhero video game that uses simpler, more traditional game mechanics, give War of the Gems a shot. With 16-bit pixel art that still looks great today, familiar characters and plot, and solid game mechanics, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy this game. Just don’t forget to equip your Infinity Gems.