Dabble in Design: Marvel Puzzle Quest’s Vulture and Narrative Condensing

Events have conspired to prevent more frequent blogging; in tandem with my usual blogging reticence, I had over a hundred students, three courses, and no teaching assistant last semester, which will put a damper on non-work related activity. Let’s dip a toe back in, with a quick examination of the Vulture from Marvel Puzzle Quest, as a beginning lesson on how the game distills a comic book character into its minimalist traits.

I’ve been playing Marvel Puzzle Quest for a long time; 1402 days, or nearly 4 years, as the in-game counter tells me. For me, it’s the perfect background game. I put on a TV show, or a movie, or a podcast, and spend some time matching tiles. It was one of the two games (the other being Love Nikki!) that I kept playing over the past four months, as it can easily accommodate a quick single match or prolonged play.

The basic gameplay is an extension of the original Puzzle Quest: you and an opponent take turns matching colored tiles. Each tile is associated with a specific statistic, so if you have, say, a 40 in blue tiles and match a set of three blue tiles, you do 3*40 = 120 points of damage. The complicating factor is that you also have gauges; making that blue match gives me three points in the blue gauge, and once that gauge reaches a certain level, I can fire off a certain special move.

What Marvel Puzzle Quest adds to formula–well, it adds a lot of little things, but the big one is that you go into each match with three chosen heroes and villains that, generally, have three abilities each. Here, for example, is match between my team (composed of Silver Surfer, Scott Lang Ant-Man, and teenage Jean Grey)  and a team of three symbiote aliens.


Note that in addition to the colors on the tile, there’s also clear shapes for the colourblind, and that for each colored tile, there’s a symbol on them corresponding to the character who has the highest statistic for that colour.

And here’s the board a few rounds into the fight, when there’s just one symbiote left. This shot also illustrates some of the complexities that can be introduced to the board: timed tiles that perform special actions when their counter reaches 0; strike tiles (the fists) that do an accumulative amount of damage at the end of a turn; attack tiles (the swords) that add a number bonus to all damage that team does; a “trap” tile (the crosshairs around the pink triangle in the middle of the fair right column) that does a special effect–in this case, turn three regular pink tiles into strike tiles at the end of each turn if there are any available–and the “charged” tile, that does triple damage and provides triple the gauge value when matched. In each case, the effect can be neutralized by matching the tile with two or more of its colour; in this case, for example, I’m about to match out the green attack tile near the top of the middle column. This board should convey the complexity that can come into the game, that you’re constantly making choices about what effect you want to create or mitigate.

All of that, however, is besides the point; mostly, I want to bring your attention to the colour gage of my team in the upper right, because I now have enough accumulated to fire off the Silver Surfer’s blue power.

Here’s the description of the power: “Silver Surfer glows bright with cosmic energy, removing any imperfections and spreading cosmic radiation across the battlefield. Restores 7540 health and converts 3 random tiles of a chosen color into Charged tiles. (PASSIVE) Silver Surfer cannot be stunned.” In terms of effect, it gives Silver Surfer a health boost, and creates three charged tiles in a colour of my choice. I select it, and it shows a brief animation of the power in action.

In terms of my interest in the game, what’s most interesting here is that the power reflects a certain interpretation of the Silver Surfer’s character–he’s a being of immense power but also somewhat negligent in the effect of that power, as the charged tiles he creates here can then be used by either team, if successfully matched. And that’s what I really like about Marvel Puzzle Quest–the way it boils a character down to three moves, and the way those moves can be combined with other characters’. As an example (and I may go back and do more of these at some point–with 150+ characters, there’s a lot of examples), let’s look at the Vulture’s move set.

First, the Vulture is a longstanding Spider-Man foe, but not, to put it kindly, one of his bigger threats.

This is not a look that will strike fear into the hearts of your foes.

There have, however, been attempts to update the Vulture into a more serious threat, such as his design for Spider-Man: Homecoming (which I’ll get around to watching, some day).

The Puzzle Quest version is clearly building on that template, in look and description: “When a failed business opportunity left him desperate, Adrian Toomes became a black market power-player by scavenging the advanced tech and alien weapons left behind from previous Super Hero battles. Outfitting himself with a massive winged vehicle assembled from these scraps, the Vulture has set his sights on stealing technology so advanced that nobody would be able to stop him once he has it.”

Let’s take a closer look at his move set (note that I don’t have a fully levelled Vulture myself, so these powers are still relatively undeveloped).

Hybrid Tech Slicer (1 pt out of 5, blue power): POWER COST Blue 10 “The Vulture lets loose with a terrifying weapon of his own design, getting a better vantage point from the sky. Deals 958 damage and destroys up to 2 random enemy Strike, Protect, or Attack tiles. (PASSIVE) Whenever the Vulture goes Airborne, drain 10 Blue AP for the same effect, also targetting Invisibility, Countdown, and Repeater tiles.”

One Fell Swoop (5 points out of 5, green power):POWER COST Green 9 “Vulture swoops down from the sky to rend his enemies with his sharp talons. Creates a 3-turn Countdown tile that deals 5344 damage. (PASSIVE) If this tile exists when Vulture returns from being Airborne, he removes it dealing damage to the enemy team instead.”

Circling Prey (2 points out of 5, black power): POWER COST Black 6. “Vulture flies far above his target, getting in position to strike. Vulture goes Airborne for 2 turns. (PASSIVE) At the start of turn, if Vulture was Airborne, gain 3 Green AP, 2 Blue AP, and 2 Black AP.”

First, a quick explanation: when a character is Airborne, they’re essentially off the field for a certain number of rounds, and no damage can be done to them (except by characters with powers that specifically target airborne characters); at the same time, they can’t do any damage. For most moves, Airborne is either a penalty to countdown to a powerful move (like when Colossus picks up a character and throws them at the other team, in his Fastball special move) or a way of crowd control, temporarily removing an enemy from the fight (like Ironheart). Vulture is somewhat unique, as one of the few (maybe the only?) character who goes Airborne to gain advantage.

In fact, this move set is clearly based around the idea that Vulture will be airborne whenever possible, as both his other moves have a second state that become more powered when combined with airborne: Hybrid Tech Slicer can target more tile types, and One Fell Swoop goes from being a single attack to hitting the whole team. At 6 black tiles, it’s also a relatively cheap ability to cast, and a move that’s easy to sustain–just make sure one of the matches while Vulture is up in the air is black, and he’ll generate enough black himself so that when he touches back down, you can send him right back up. Considering that a single match generally yields 3 tiles, he basically at least doubles your energy accumulation rate; I can say from experience that fighting against a team with Vulture is a massive pain because he’s not just feeding them energy, but also hard to get rid of, as he spends relatively little time in reach. The Circling Prey move is so useful that the other two powers are almost superfluous, adding injury to the insult. Vulture is easier to deal with after the other two enemies are off the field (in that case, the player can do their own accumulation of energy as the enemy team can’t make matches when Vulture is gone), but getting to that point is a massive pain.

I love the narrative implications of these powers. They sum up a character who stays out of reach, letting the others do the fighting. He’ll either unleash a big attack then fly off (Hybrid Tech Slicer) or swoop back into battle with a massive blow (One Fell Swoop). Most of the time, he’s not even present at all, staying on the fringes of the battle and maneuvering into place, forgotten but not unfelt. It conveys the sense of someone who’s calculating and aloof (literally and figuratively), coldly watching from afar.

For a character who started his career looking like this, that’s pretty neat.

Not every character is a great match of powers and character, but for every one that’s a success, I’m immensely impressed; condensing a superhero/villain into three powers that are meaningful in a swap-three arena (not to mention doing it 150+ times) is quite the feat. And part of the reason I’m still playing, 1402 days later.

(This has nothing to do with the rest of the post; I just wanted wanted to say that I take a screenshot every time Mockingbird appears in her alternate costume t-shirt, because I love it that much In case it’s not clear, it says “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda”; the writer Chelsea Cain was once attacked virulently online for daring to say a female superhero would have an opinion on feminism, and any representation of it in other media is a Good Thing.)


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