After ten years of epic exchanges, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is finally bowing out as its long-awaited sequel shows up, looks nonchalantly at its watch and apologises for being late. But before we take the Sons of Sparda and Odin into the training room, two of the world's most accomplished Marvel 2 players want to show you their skills in one last high stakes money-match.
The two in question are Neo – a Sentinel, Storm and Captain Commando player with an unbeaten money-match record – and cl0ckwork – an old-school Strider, Sentinel and Doctor Doom player who took third place in last year's Evo Championship Series. The first to 15 takes home the victory, and with an alleged $15,000 on the line, the winner could feasibly buy their own Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition cabinet.
Neo starts by (spoilers) replacing Captain Commando with Cyclops in an attempt to counter cl0ckwork's Doctor Doom, but after he goes down 4 – 7, he changes back to Captain Commando and ties the game back to 9 – 9. The match then continues as the crowd audibly gets more maniacal in the background. When it finally draws to a close after an adrenaline-packed 90 minutes, you can see why this game is held dear by so many.
It took an Osaka-based developer to bring it all together but the fan-base has always been in the West. Indeed, Marvel 2 never created much of a stir on its home turf, and while this could be attributed to the game's notoriously unbalanced roster, the Marvel license – by its very nature – was always going to resonate more on these shores.
This is something which Ryota Niitsuma, Producer of Tasunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3, is acutely aware of. "Of course we hope Marvel 3 will be popular in every region, but we didn't really focus to the Japanese market," he says.
Marvel 3 is the fifth Vs. game to combine dragon punches with adamantium, and while it has a familiar mix of Hyper Combos, Snap Backs, Advancing Guards and Variable Assists, compared to Marvel 2, it's very much its own game.
This is initially noticeable through the lavish 3D presentation and slower pacing, but once you get to grips with the revamped system, it's clear that Marvel 3 is streamlining the complexity without diluting the depth.
The revised layout is a perfect example as the new Exchange button allows you to effortlessly chain from Light to Heavy before launching your opponent into the air. This process is the most intuitive it's ever been. Once airborne, it's easy to tag between your partners to dish out a hefty Team Aerial Combo.
But if you find yourself on the receiving end you needn't grit your teeth patiently, because if you can correctly guess the direction of your opponent's tag you can ruin their fun with a Team Aerial Counter. It also seems that while tagging up deals slightly more damage, tagging down nets you slightly more Super and tagging to the side is a happy medium.
Marvel 3 also borrows a reworked Baroque Cancel mechanic from Tatsunoko. Imaginatively called the X Factor, this technique can be used once per match and temporarily buffs your active fighter – and if it's a case of last man, woman, cyborg, wolf, succubus or dimension-lord standing – the effect will be more substantial.
"If you lost all characters and couldn't beat any, you'd feel like you just lost three nil," says. "To prevent this sort of de-motivation, we wanted to make sure there was always a way to come back."
X Factor activation also cancels whatever you're doing, so if you time a Hyper Combo badly and need to escape punishment, or just want to combo two Hyper Combos together, then a well timed X Factor cancel is only four simultaneous button presses away. And when you factor in Delayed Hyper Combos, it's fair to say that linking four harbingers of doom into one satisfying combo has never been easier.
But the epitome of meter-burning pyrotechnics is the Level 3 Hyper Combo. "Everyone had a Level 3 initially," Niitsuma says, "but because we wanted to continue the tradition of a purposely unbalanced roster, we intentionally left a few characters out. They don't all have an over-the-top style, and for these characters, we balanced it out by adding in something else."
Niitsuma's comment of "purposely unbalanced" seems like an odd choice of words - doesn't every fighting game strive to be as balanced as possible? But on reflection, it seems he's alluding to the sheer variety of playstyles which Marvel 3 offers. Indeed, with the roster split almost equally between new and returning characters, settling on a definitive squad isn't going to be easy.
Our personal favourite is Okami's Amaterasu. This deity in wolf's clothing can switch between her Reflector, Glaive and Rosary stances, and when you factor in her multiple counters, easy to combo normals, icy projectiles and time slowing Hyper Combo, you have a highly versatile character who is effective whether playing defensively or offensively.
Not something which can be said of the feisty X-23. This female Wolverine clone shares the same rushdown focus as her biological progenitor. One of her key features is her variable leap attack that can hit either low, mid or throw the opponent skywards for a guaranteed Hyper Combo. In addition to her dragon punch, air dive and stealthy dash specials, she also has the Dirt Nap. This Level 3 turns her temporarily invisible while unlocking her vicious command grab.
But out of all the new faces, it's Dante who represents the most intriguing proposition. It's no joke that the Devil May Cry star has somewhere in the region of 40 specials – with highlights including a dashing combo with the Agni and Rudra scimitars, Dante's own take on Chun-Li's Lighting Legs and a full-screen "Get over here!" grab courtesy of a rocket launcher mounted bayonet.
A repertoire this comprehensive makes Dante a combo exhibitionist's dream, but there have been concerns that maybe he's is a little too good. "In terms of Dante being overpowered, I don't think that's possible," Niitsuma says.
"No matter how many moves he has, he can only use one at a time. So it's just a matter of balancing to make sure he doesn't have a move for every situation."
Niitsuma is also keen to provide some insight into his unfulfilled wish-list. "From Capcom's side, I wanted to include more characters from Darkstalkers, as I'm personally a big fan of the series," he explains.
"For Marvel, there were several characters we wanted to bring back from Marvel 2, but Marvel preferred other newer characters. So that had to be the way." But while Marvel 3 has fewer characters than its predecessor, it arguably offers more diversity.
Every character feels different, and whether it's Super-Skrull's half-screen command grab, M.O.D.O.K.'s Analyze Cube zoning game or Crimson Viper's EX-specials and focus attack, everyone has a unique set of tricks.
"We categorise characters as either speed, technical, power or standard," Niitsuma says. "My team is Wolverine, Amaterasu and Dante. These are all speed characters. It's easier to do chain combos with faster characters, more things happen on the screen and they generally make me look a better player."
Unfortunately for Niitsuma, my near identical team of Amaterasu, X-23 and Dante pretty much negated any speed advantage he was expecting. When we finally played a match at the end of the interview, I found myself apologising to a tired and possibly jet lagged producer for showing no mercy. Niitsuma's translator even described it as a "total annihilation".
But despite my apparent lack of interview etiquette he was still willing to impart one last snippet about what he wants to do after Marvel 3.
"I'm thinking of taking the whole thing to the next level. So rather than just Capcom doing a crossover with one more franchise, we'd like to look into doing three at once. Now, obviously the whole co-ordination issue is huge, but it would be very interesting if we could do that."
With Yoshinori Ono musing over Nintendo vs. Capcom and Ryota Niitsuma suggesting some kind of "Marvel vs. Capcom vs. SNK" (or possibly even "Namco x Tatsunoko x Capcom"), it seems the longevity of the Vs. series is all but assured. But before we get ahead of ourselves and start contemplating what could happen next, there's the matter of what's going to happen now.
Marvel vs. Capcom 3 boasts an extreme fighting system that pays homage to its forbearer while being accessibly deep. If the modes and features can complement the solidarity of the gameplay mechanics, then Capcom may have a fighter to match the undeniable success of Street Fighter IV. Better late than never.