I like to think that I've managed to suppress the more extreme elements of my geeky nature. I don't write crossover fan fiction. I've not had the urge to dress up as a superhero since I was at primary school. The daily march of adult responsibility means I've even forgotten some of the more esoteric nerd trivia that had accrued in my brainpan.
And then I see Mega Man fighting Magneto, blasting him across the screen with a Rush Drill Super Move, and it all comes flooding back; a deluge of every base geek impulse, those long lost pleasures stimulated back into life by joyous cartoon sprites crashing into each other's universe and walloping the pixels out of each other. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is back.
With a staggering 56 characters to choose from, all unlocked from the start for this downloadable edition, there's no end to the unlikely moments you can recreate. From the reliable ranks of Street Fighter to outlandish inclusions like Mega Man's Servobots on the Capcom side, to the heavy hitters of the comic world like Hulk, Captain America and Spidey, it's brilliantly surreal and maniacally paced.
For those who already played the game in its arcade or Dreamcast incarnations (it's the latter being revived here), all you really need to know is that this is a blisteringly fast translation that more than does justice to the exquisite combat design that Capcom is famous for. Thankfully, for a game where frame-by-frame precision is vital, the shift to widescreen HD hasn't impacted the gameplay at all. There are a couple of weird graphical moments at the edge of the screen where the playfield of old stretches to accommodate its new home, but these quirks are fleeting and strictly visual in nature.
The sprites default to their new "crisp" look, which is a little smudged but certainly better than the smeary look that the "smooth" filter provides. Purists will still favour the classic pixels, which look chunky but fantastically detailed when blown up to size. The backdrops also warrant praise, and it's here that the move to HD is most favourable. Rendered in lush animated 3D, they never overpower the 2D action in the foreground.
Online play is the big addition for long-time fans, of course, and the good news is that on the basis of the matches we played on Xbox Live it's smooth and lag-free. The pre-match set-up is a little bare bones - for a game so steeped in tournament lore it'd be nice to choose which rules and exploits to use - but with six-player lobbies it's easy to recreate and enjoy the old round robin battles of old.
Dedicated lovers of the game, therefore, shouldn't really need any more convincing. This is Marvel vs. Capcom 2, one of the finest 2D fighters of all time, in a near-perfect port. True perfectionists may prefer to wait for the PS3 release on 13th August (also tested), purely to avoid the slippery sticks of the Xbox 360 pad, but that's the only real drawback.
For those who are hovering uncertainly over the Download Full Game option, drawn by the game's impressive reputation but wary of the ultra-competitive nature of the spritey-fighty crowd, a little more illumination is probably required.
First things first, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is nowhere near as complex to control as many of its peers. There are only four main attack buttons, offering the expected light/heavy punches and kicks. The other two buttons from the classic arcade layout, now mapped to the shoulder buttons, are used to call in your support characters.
Far from being a simple one-on-one brawler, this pits teams of three characters against each other. Each can be assigned a specific support function, although the game will nudge you towards the one best suited to their skills. You can also swap characters during play, which allows damaged fighters to recoup some of their lost health, and combine their powers by unleashing Hyper Combination Finishers using energy amassed by successful attacks.
Not only does this make the gameplay more varied, but it adds a deeply tactical element. There's always been a chess-like quality to the rapid-fire ballet of attack and counterattack in Capcom's games and that finds its more rewarding incarnation here. There are hundreds of team possibilities, and it frees up the character selection from being too samey.
Naturally, titans like Hulk have had their powers quelled somewhat - otherwise he could punch poor Ryu's head clean off - but even some of the more jokey inclusions prove useful when teamed up with the right partners, and deployed at the right time. All the same, there are some curious choices. The inclusion of long-forgotten Marvel characters like Marrow and Spiral dates the game as a relic of the grim late-nineties speculator boom that damn near killed the US superhero comic industry. Likewise, the inclusion of Iron Man and War Machine, not to mention two Wolverines, seems a little redundant when the likes of Thor go unused. It's all about balance rather than fan service, so while my inner Marvel nerd bristles, the game benefits.
Such phenomenal depth comes at a price, however, and novice players unsure of taking the plunge should certainly be warned that this is a ferociously tough game. Even the single-player campaign, on Easy, is a stiff challenge and anyone thinking of jumping straight into an online confrontation should be prepared to be pulped in less than a minute. The hardcore have been waiting for this re-release, and they're already out there, waiting for fresh blood.
You'll need patience and discipline to restrict yourself to the robust Training Mode, learning the moves, cancels and snapbacks essential to victory, not just for your preferred characters but for those you're likely to face. Experiment with different line-ups, test them against various combinations, keep practicing until you've absorbed as many combos as possible, and then you might be ready to tackle a live opponent. It's like the Karate Kid, only without wax or fence-painting.
The game demands that sort of devotion and investment, but repays it in spades. There's a reason why Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has been so eagerly awaited, and so revered, still being played on the pro-gaming circuit after the best part of a decade. This really is the fighting game evolved to the level of artform, and while mastery can be a long, tough slog, it's also its own reward. There are few fighting games better.
9 / 10