The awful 'Justice League' game that ultimately led to the creation of 'Diablo'
This weekend, Warner Bros. unveiled its new trailer for the upcoming megaton Justice League film. It stands as yet another attempt to resuscitate the DC brand at the box office, which has become a laughing stock after the critical failures of Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman. Between Marvel vs. Capcom, and the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s certainly felt like the star-studded DC cast has lagged behind their primary competitor in crossover media, and surprisingly, that can be traced back to a 1995 video game published by Blizzard.
Blizzard is pretty open about its heritage. The Lost Vikings, of the eponymous 1993 Super Nintendo puzzle-platformer, were reprised as bosses and quest-givers in World of Warcraft. The gun-toting everyman Kyle Vlaros, from the Out of this World-aping Blackthorne, will someday be added to Heroes of the Storm. A rocket-powered car, from the isometric vehicle battler Rock n' Roll Racing, jumps out of a dormant void cluster in a Starcraft II easter egg. These games represent a wildly different era for the mega-studio – it's hard to imagine a reality where Blizzard exclusively makes single-player console adventures – but I think they keep referencing them as a reminder of how far they've come. The creators of Azeroth have an inauspicious origin story. Sometimes, you have to make Olaf, Baelog, and Erik before you can make Thrall, Jaina, and Arthas.
However, there is one game from Blizzard's early period that they don't talk about, and that's the 1995 Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis fighter Justice League Task Force.
Justice League Task Force goes down in history as the only truly bad game produced under the Blizzard imprint. It was released a year after the original Warcraft and a scant six months before the titanic, legacy-securing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. We all know what happened next: Blizzard continued their unparalleled hot streak with Diablo, StarCraft, Warcraft III, and eventually, World of Warcraft, which blasted the company into the stratosphere, eventually resulting an industry-shaking partnership with Activision. But right at the beginning of all that success, they made a crappy DC-themed fighting game.
Over the past few decades, Blizzard has won a hard-earned reputation for building thoughtful, dutifully polished games. That is categorically not the case with Justice League Task Force, which feels exactly like the cheaply-licensed, low-passion flotsam that many lesser studios subsist on. It's essentially a copy-paste adaptation of the console versions of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, featuring 10 heroes and villains and all your favorite DC multiverse locales like Metropolis, Gotham City, and "Forest Clearing." Unfortunately Task Force also came with bad animations, poor balance, and frustrating controls. It feels like it was worked on for exactly six months, and five of those months were spent on the finer details of Superman's ridiculous mullet. Basically, it's like the Bizarro version of Injustice. According to Patrick Wyatt, a programmer at Blizzard in the 1990s and early 2000s, the limited scope could be blamed on the console hardware of the era.
"One thing to remember is that the 16 bit Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis platforms we were working on with were not as powerful as even the limited PC/DOS 80286/80386 computers of the day," he says. "In that era programmers, designers, artists and sound engineers were working with incredibly constrained console systems and so had to make a lot of sacrifices along with clever hacks to make games fit within their limitations. One of the best things that happened to Blizzard, in retrospect, was the death of the 16-bit game console market, which encouraged us to look elsewhere. We switched to doing PC development to survive, and I was given the chance to lead a project called Warcraft."
YouTuber DragonCharlz has an excellent video detailing the numerous bugs that muck-up the fighting mechanics. One of my favorites comes at the six minute mark, where he demonstrates how cancelling a throw into a special leaves your opponent in a permanent, frozen-animation stasis.
It's a total bummer when you think about it. Imagine if today, in 2017, Blizzard announced a partnership with DC Comics. You'd probably lose your mind, right? It's hard to think of a video game company that does a better job bringing out the absolute best in everything they touch. It'll likely be a long time before Blizzard touches anything outside of their own properties again, so it sort of feels like we missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
This wasn't the B team, either. The credits of Justice League Task Force reveal some huge names. For instance, this is the first game Chris Metzen worked on at the company. Yeah, the brain behind the Warcraft lore – and one of the most influential designers in video game history – got his start piecing together janky Superman animations. Other notables include Frank Pearce, and Bill Roper, who's credited in the the game, according to MobyGames, as "dunsel," a Star Trek term for a starship component that serves no useful purpose. Current Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime is also listed in the special thanks. To put that in perspective, Mike Morhaime is currently worth $1.8 billion. 20 years ago, this soon-to-be-billionaire oversaw a fighting game where The Flash's victory pose looks like this.
But frankly, you shouldn’t tease Blizzard too much, because this business can move in surprising ways. In fact, Task Force directly opened the door for the one of the most important gaming franchises of all time.
"One interesting thing that did result from Justice League Task Force was that folks at Blizzard started talking to people at Condor, the studio working on the Sega Genesis version of the game," says Wyatt. "That later led to Condor pitching a game idea to Allen Adham, Blizzard's president, and me. Their proposal was for a game named Diablo."
So there you go. Without those broken Batman animations, we might not have Tyrael.
Honestly, if there's one thing you take away from Justice League Task Force today, it's the desire for Blizzard to make another fighting game. This company has an amazing way of simplifying familiar mechanics into sublime, distinct experiences. They've done it for the MMO with World of Warcraft, for the CCG with Hearthstone, and for the arena shooter with Overwatch. Fighting games aren't the cash cow that they were in the mid-Nineties, but there's no doubt in my mind that Blizzard would make something unbelievable. If nothing else, it would let them atone for that mullet.