Nothing is more unlikely in 2016 than the massive popularity of Captain America. The Dark Knight and Iron Man might have established comic book movies as Hollywood’s biggest cash crop at the end of last decade, but did anyone really think we’d all be going to see pictures about a dude wearing what looks like a super patriotic gimp suit? He throws a shield painted like the flag—-—and he’s supposed to have tiny wings on his head. Yet the absurdity of Captain America, the fact that he is a walking anachronism, has made him a captivating and useful character since the 1960s, and even more so today when he’s become the only onscreen hero that’s not either a snarky jokester or broody ball of darkness.
Whether he’s used in outsized, entertaining political commentary like The Winter Soldier or Civil War, or completely ridiculous schlock fantasy (cough, , cough), the surreal presence of the Captain is a grounding force. In bombastic fantasy, he’s a familiar guide to make the strange stuff digestible. In the political allegory, his nature as an impossibly perfect ideal—physically, morally—makes it easy to highlight the complexity of everything that surrounds him. This is why Steve Rogers is such an ideal fit for video game stardom: it’s a medium that thrives on contrasting weird as hell characters with mundane situations and vice versa. Let us revisit his digital history; its successes, and many missteps. Each one will be rated based on a previous television or film incarnation of Captain America. Why? Why not.
Captain America Defies The Doom Tube
Many questions pop up immediately. Is that really the title? What in the hell is a Doom Tube? What is it trying to do to the captain that’s so intense that he has to defy it? What is happening to him on the title screen? Look at his sad, desperate eyes. is awfully close to being good, an almost Legend of Zelda-style mix of action and puzzle solving where Captain America moves room by room through the Doom Tube fighting robots. Here’s what’s terrible, though: he has a limited number of shield throws. Captain America doesn’t use multiple shields, Doom Tube. Get your act together.
Rating: One perturbed 1966 cartoon Captain America.
Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom's Revenge
Once he escaped the Doom Tube, Captain America decided he hated everything doom-related. Then he called up his buddy Spider-man, they waltzed up to Doctor Doom’s castle and just started beating the ever-loving crap out of everything that lives there, politely taking turns. Maybe it was the limited power of the Amiga that forced them to fight all the werewolves and robots in the castle one by one. That would also explain why the Captain and Spidey seem to be suffering from crippling arthritis every time they move. Also, it seems like Doctor Doom’s revenge is justified. The Captain is brazenly committing home invasion here, not to mention declaring war. He’s a working officer in the United States military just busting down the door of Latveria’s commander in chief. Ease down, Captain.
Rating: One super uncomfortable 1979 TV movie Captain America.
Captain America and The Avengers
Now we’re talking. Data East doesn’t do subtlety. These are the people that made Bad Dudes, a game about meatheads in sweatpants punching ninja kidnappers who stole Ronald Reagan. Captain America gets pretty much the same treatment in this outing. Why did he get top billing over fellow Avengers Hawkeye, Iron Man, and Vision? Because he’s the best dang character in the game, whipping his shield directly into the face of robots in even weirder fetish suits and throwing haymakers like nobody’s business. He even gets a fancy little air moped that shoots lasers. Admittedly, all the home parts of this arcade game were terrible, but the cabinet itself was magic.
Rating: One 1944 serial Captain America so confident he still kicks ass despite being so dated
Marvel Super Heroes/Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter/Marvel vs. Capcom 1-3
Capcom’s fighting game Captain America is the greatest video game incarnation of Captain America ever conceived. First of all, it’s the only series that matches the preposterousness of both the character and his comic book world. Across these five games, the Captain gets in fist fights with a planet-devouring god, starfish, a Japanese school girl, a medieval knight wearing boxer shorts, and occasionally himself. He also feels as impossibly fit and capable as the Steve Rogers on screen in modern Marvel movies but filtered through the manic mind of a child. “And then! And then! He uppercuts an Interpol agent so hard lightning erupts from his body!” Just spectacular.
Rating: One ripped, kicking in the door and ruling everyone Captain America from 2011's The First Avenger.
The Avengers in Galactic Storm
At the same time that Capcom righteously captured Cap in amazing fighting games, Data East returned to the character for The Avengers in Galactic Storm, a sequel to Captain America and the Avengers. Rather than a sweet brawler, Galactic Storm was a one on one fighting game with 3D characters. Not necessarily bad, Galactic Storm is a simplistic fighter that’s just awkward compared to Capcom’s Marvel universe. Even if the action is serviceable, the Donkey Kong Country-style 3D characters look creepy rather than cartoony. It’s a lamentable end to Data East’s time with the Captain.
Rating: One creeper 1944 serial Captain America you want to back away from slowly.
Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems
As though they were swapping roles with Data East, Capcom turned to Marvel brawlers after starting with fighting games in 1996. War of the Gems is a competent, albeit strange and profoundly difficult Super Nintendo game. Missing the smooth flow of Capcom’s arcade beat ‘em ups like Final Fight and Dungeons and Dragons, Captain America and his cohorts move with a stiff brutality that can feel good once you master it but frustrating when you repeatedly die fighting regular old grunts. If you acclimate to its rhythm, though, War of the Gems’ action can charm you. It helps that Cap is the most well rounded character in the game, both fast and powerful.
Rating: One mystifying, but admirable because he leans into it, 1979 Captain from Captain America 2: Death Too Soon.
Captain America: Super Soldier
Credit where credit is due: Next Level Games did an admirable job with Captain America: Super Soldier. It’s got an original story set during World War 2, developed with comic book writer Christos Gage, and most of the principal cast including Chris Evans reprised their roles to coincide with the game’s release alongside the first Cap movie. The fights are also an almost exact imitation of the famous fisticuffs in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games. Everything unfortunately feels off in Super Soldier. From the war-ravaged villas Captain America explores to the combat itself feels like it’s about to topple over like the set on an Ed Wood movie. Maybe if they had some more time and money, the game could have been as great as Joe Johnston’s movie. Not this time.
Rating: One well-intentioned but still embarrassing 1990 movie Captain America.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance
Ultimate Alliance is on point. Developer Raven Software was famous for taking popular characters and making games that truly captured what made them great. Like its Star Wars: Jedi Knight and X-Men action RPGs, Marvel Ultimate Alliance plopped you into a massive conflux of Marvel characters doing ridiculous Marvel stuff and made it all feel perfect. Captain America was just one of 25 characters you could control and level up as you played through the game’s greatest hits plot, taking you everywhere from Doctor Doom’s castle (he started it this time) to the Shi’ar Empire in outer space, but he’s also one of the best. Strong and with killer buff abilities, using Cap is also super useful because he’s on so many different teams like the Avengers, New Avengers, Shield and others, granting stat bonuses when he’s paired with other team characters. Much as in The Avengers and the new Civil War movies, that Captain America flavor shines when paired with other zesty character ingredients.
Rating: One crazy sexy incognito Captain America in Winter Soldier.