From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, crime meets its match in the streets of New Jersey! Bad guys, meet the world's baddest team of superheroes! No, wait. Worst. I meant worst.
When evil rears its ugly head, the cry for justice echoes throughout the post-apocalyptic streets! Which brave, valiant, daring, fearless, hardy, indomitable, unabashed, valorous, thesaurus-owning heroes will arrive to save the day? The Superhero League of Hoboken, of course. And if you need to see inside pizza boxes, tread water really well and make robots rust a little faster, then citizen, relax!
(But if you know how to make a mini-Batsignal with a torch, definitely try that first.)
At some point in the future, computers as we know them will cease to be. Games will no longer be things of code and pixels, but carefully constructed ideas that we download into our brains, where they'll exist in a state of pure imagination, as incapable of disappointing us with the cold harsh nature of reality as a pleasant dream. Until that day though, we have to take a lower-tech approach, and in the 80s and 90s that form was the good old magazine review. On the surface, they were simple buying advice. In fact, they were primitive game simulators in their own right. Long before online forums turned casual discussion into a heated deathmatch, long before the internet made it possible to play demos that didn't come mounted on the front of a magazine, there were kids holding screenshots up to their eyes and jiggling them around to pretend they were moving. Even before Tomb Raider came along.
This was easily the best way to play many games, letting the concepts behind them live and breathe free of control issues, sadistic difficulty curves, or just plain Not Being Very Good. In many cases though, the issue was more that the ideas that stuck in your head towered over the actual execution, making the actual game feel far flatter than if it had just been a dull idea in the first place. Here is where Superhero League of Hoboken stands—not in the corner of shame, but spending its afterlife eternally mingling with the ghosts of games like It Came From The Desert. "You know, we had great ideas," they sigh to each other over watered-down cocktails. "We could have been so much more..."
The premise is that a couple of hundred years into the future, America is a melted slurry of toxic waste and the remnants of the polar ice-caps, and its post-apocalyptic world reliant on brave mutated superheroes stepping up to the plate to defend the innocent. Unfortunately for New Jersey, the best they've got is the fearless but useless Crimson Tape, whose sole power is creating organisational flowcharts. This power is never, ever used in the game, and it's a game that finds a use for a hero called Robomop. Not to mention Princess Glovebox, mistress of maps. Specifically, paper maps. That need refolding. She's good at that. And only that. Still, it comes in useful. Exactly once.
Isn't that a cool idea for a game? Crap superheroes can be almost as much fun as the good ones, from The Tick to Mystery Men to Kick-Ass to those other two superhero movies that came out at the same time as Kick-Ass, but not Superhero Movie because that was rubbish. Add to the pitch that it's an adventure/RPG hybrid, give it what for the time were solid graphics, and the clout of universally recognised makers-of-good-games Legend, and you surely have a recipe for a great game. At the very least, a great idea that you could smile at for a good long time. "Superhero League of Hoboken," you'd think, many years later. "That was a funny game. I really should ask Richard to write about it."
You may want to stop reading at this point and keep those fond memories.
Superhero League of Hoboken has been one of the most requested games since Crapshoot started, mostly I suspect thanks to those fuzzy memories. Don't get me wrong, it's far from a dreadful game. For the time it was a clever idea, it scored and reviewed pretty well, and plenty of people will defend it to the hilt. No, the action hasn't aged well, but most games of this era really haven't. That said, it was honestly never a great adventure even in its prime, and there's a reason most of the really memorable stuff tends to be along the lines of "You get attacked in the streets by killer wardrobes!"
(Incidentally, you totally get attacked in the streets by killer wardrobes.)
In short, move the individual gags from a description to the screen and it's just not that funny. When it's not being funny, there's not much here. Case in point, McMutants—mutated hamburger mascots who may or may not represent any multinational fast-food chain with a team of itchy-fingered lawyers. The first time you get attacked by one, wielding chips as weapons and grinning a malicious smile in lettuce and probably pickle, it's weird and wacky. The 70th time, they may as well just be a kobold for all the difference it makes. The one-off jokes obviously work better, but are incredibly spaced apart and often lost in a slurry of maybe-important, maybe-joke filler text that's a real pain to sift through.
I'm reminded of another Legend game, the wonderful Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. That was even more text-heavy, but got away with it because the individual bits of writing were punchy, with fun characters and puns bad enough to suck your life essence through your eyeballs. Here, everything is lost in the interface. A long infodump revealing that the reason nobody's heard from the Superhero League of Scranton recently isn't down to evil Dr. Entropy, but because they found a whole load of Playboy magazines... well, it just doesn't have the same oomph. The gag's fine. The delivery? "Eh."
What little story Superhero League of Hoboken has is split into several rounds, each split into unrelated missions that can be anything from acquiring guacamole for a forthcoming party to stopping a supervillain's plan to use a confusion ray that will reverse all the world's signs. Each is solved by trekking across the post-apocalyptic wasteland, surviving random encounters with the crazy mutants and homicidal furniture that gets in your path, and solving puzzles when you get to the other side. RPG, meet adventure. Adventure, meet RPG, and— put down that knife! Stop stabbing adventure in the back, RPG! I said stop!
The RPG side is very, very simplistic, with combat borrowing from the Bard's Tale school of thwackery and only limited upgrades for your team. There's some amusing parody in it, with enemies making your heroes feel itchy instead of poisoning them and subsequently missing their turn, and the enemies are a fun batch, but it soon becomes a drag. Mostly, it serves to split up the adventuring bits and scatter them to the corners of the Earth... or at least New Jersey... and that in turn only makes sifting through the adventuring bits where most of the original jokes happen even more of a chore.
Why a chore? Well, you know how irritating pixel-hunting is? Scanning the screen for something usable, trying to figure out what you're meant to do? Right. Imagine pixel-hunting when every screen is separated by a long walk, guarded by enemies trying to gut you, and the map is entirely blacked out. Exploring takes forever, and it's not helped by more than a few outright 'screw you' moments. That example a bit earlier, with the Superhero League of Scranton's Playboy addiction? You literally trip over the item you need to fix that—a 'bowdlerising gun' (and hopefully you get the reference, because the game doesn't help out much there), but you can only use it if the one female member on your own League's books is in your team. If not, you get a loooong walk back to swap her in thanks to the rest of the gang's less than heroic commitment to Truth, Justice, and the American Hey Are Those Boobies?
It doesn't help that Superhero League of Hoboken ranks as one of the least rewarding games ever. In most cases, your attaboy/girl for finishing a mission is returning to base and being politely informed of the fact, then being sent straight back out with another shopping list of injustices to foil. Okay, you also get bonus experience points and similar rewards, but the occasional ticker-tape parade in honour of your valour... even if it was only in service of stopping your arch-enemy Dr. Entropy creating a precision-pooping pigeon... really wouldn't go amiss. This hits a low hitherto plumbed only by Syndicate when you finally face-off with Entropy in a fight for the future of reality itself. Your ultimate reward for heroism? The text box: "The other members of the party boost you onto their shoulders, carrying you off to a well-deserved retirement." And some credits. And an advert for the sequel that never was.
Hurm. Suddenly the wages of sin sound positively generous.
The puzzles themselves aren't too tough—and you're told where each mission objective is. You still have to be lucky, or observant, to figure out what you're meant to do, and willing to wade through a lot of filler text. Throughout most of the first set for example, you find yourself carrying around a rag that you can dip in various substances. This won't make sense until you get to the last bit though, where you're suddenly told in a throwaway line that a particular type of material's warranty will be void if it comes into contact with a mixture of "ovine saliva, automotive lubricants and loam".
A ridiculous request? Bah. To an old-school adventure gamer, it may as well be eggs, bread, milk.
Coincidentally, this is the reason you should never accept cake from a Monkey Island fan.
What's always most frustrating about a game like this is that you can't stop thinking about how much better it could have been, 'if only'. If only it had been more of an adventure game. If only the puzzles had been more built around using your team's abilities in clever and awesome ways, not simply lucking into the one situation where their skill happened to be useful. After all, you'd be amazed what you can do with even the crappiest sounding powers. Even lactokinesis can be a weapon in the right hands.
But hey, them's the breaks. Imagining it was a better game made Superhero League of Hoboken terrific for its day. What better legacy could it have than for us all to keep up the tradition? Killer wardrobes. The Crimson Tape. Robomop. You've got to smile, right? Right. And so do we save its reputation.