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The Marvel Cinematic Universe recently exploded into a Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, and the new Disney+ show What If…? showcases the infinite possibilities brought on by this development; but this is far from the first time that Marvel has presented stories about its many heroes and their lives in alternate timelines – Marvel games have played with “what if?” scenarios for years. The show is based on a long-running series of comics that present the same questions as the show, and that has also inspired several of Marvel’s video game efforts over the years. While there are many games based on the silver screen adaptions of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Thor, there are almost just as many that choose to dive into presenting comics-accurate interpretations dealing with scenarios they’ve never faced before.
Unfortunately, Marvel has never directly adapted What If…? into video game form. The Disney+ cartoon is the first thing outside the comics to bear that name, but the concept behind the show is familiar to anyone that follows Marvel media. Just look at Spider-Man’s various adaptions. There was the 1990s cartoon’s grand finale, a battle featuring numerous variants of Peter Parker that gave an early look at what Into the Spider-Verse would bring to the silver screen decades later. That show’s immediate follow-up was Spider-Man Unlimited, a galactic detour that took Peter to Counter-Earth and teamed with a friendly version of the Green Goblin. These alternate characters and scenarios are at the heart of what What If…? brings to the table, and game developers have had their own success bringing them to players everywhere.
The Marvel games players are most familiar with nowadays are Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers. While these games do toy with alternate versions of characters through cosmetics and Easter eggs, they’re set in their own strict timelines that run concurrently with the MCU and the comics universe of Earth-616. The games that really dig into What If…? scenarios take place farther back in our own timeline when Marvel was less of a global cultural powerhouse. Without the watchful eye of Disney and the producers behind the MCU, Marvel games used to be able to branch out on their own more often, which led to some of the best interactive What If…? moments in Marvel history.
The last Marvel action RPG under the watchful eye of Activision, 2009’s Ultimate Alliance 2 adapted the original comics version of Civil War but changed around enough of the elements to make for a fun alternate take on the adventure. Players can pick between supporting or rebelling against the Superhuman Registration Act, and that choice temporarily locks out certain characters from their playable roster. Perhaps because the developers didn’t want to force players to go without signature Marvel heroes for too long, the story takes a detour involving a swarm of nanites controlled by the Tinkerer that threatened to rob everyday citizens of their free will. Instead of a big battle between Iron Man and Captain America, this iteration of the tale ends with the two teams of Avengers standing side by side against the mad doctor and a temporarily evil Nick Fury.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is one of the few instances where the movie tie-in game is undoubtedly better than the source material. Not only does this hack and slash game expand on the origins of Logan before he took on the Wolverine mantle, but it also presents an alternate future that continues past where the movie leaves off. Introducing Bolivar Trask years before X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine must take on his army of Sentinels both during the main campaign and in an epilogue that sets up an urban conflict between a hardened hero and a newly cyborg Trask. This interlude hinted at a possible sequel, but developer Raven Software never got the chance to pick up on that thread.
Due to his immense popularity, Activision made more games based on the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man than any other Marvel hero. This led to some out-there concepts that stretched the imagination of Spidey fans beyond anything the comics had to offer at the time. Take Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, an action-adventure where Peter Parker can switch between his regular abilities and the darker powers of his black suit at the push of a button.
He needs all the help he can get against symbiote-infested versions of famous Marvel heroes and villains, including Electro, Vulture, Black Cat, and even Wolverine. In a time before there was an entire universe of symbiote characters to explore, Web of Shadows offered a unique hook for fans of Venom, Carnage, Scream, and all the rest.
While modern console games set in Marvel’s multiverse are less likely to divert from the typical comic book tale, the mobile games are all about presenting new and different variations on familiar heroes and villains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Marvel Contest of Champions, a long-running fighting game with a roster filled to the brim with characters from all corners of the Marvel pantheon. Not only can players pit comic and movie-based characters against each other, but the game often introduces What If?-style offshoots from unseen dimensions. Everyone from the Civil Warrior (a Starktech-powered Captain America) to the unlikely Venom the Duck join the Marvel Contest of Champions battle, giving modern players a chance to explore playing as the most unusual of Marvel heroes.
What If? has been a staple of Marvel stories throughout the company’s existence, and the new Disney+ show will no doubt open a window into a whole new batch of alternate universes. Considering that alternate universe characters like Spider-Gwen, Old Logan, are some of Marvel’s most popular heroes today, it will be interesting to see if a newly introduced variant hero makes their way over to the main continuity and the video games inspired by it.