Released in 1984, TSR's Marvel Super Heroes is, in many ways, emblematic of the trends I so dislike in the post-Golden Age history of the hobby. It's all here: a licensed IP, the assumption that players would use pre-existing characters, "goodies" in the form of character tokens and information cards, and an auctorial voice intended to imitate its source material but which only succeeds in sounding condescending even to young children. Despite all that, I find it very difficult to dislike this game, as it's extremely well designed and fun to play -- so well designed, in fact, that it became a template for most of the RPGs produced by TSR in its wake.
The genius behind Marvel Super Heroes is its universal results table, an extremely elegant way both to present and to adjudicate any action a character might attempt in the game. Although a character's seven attributes (Fighting, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Reason, Intuition, and Psyche) did have a numerical value associated with them, that value played minimal role in the game mechanically. Instead, it was an attribute's adjective -- Good, Incredible, Amazing, etc. -- that was more important, since each one was associated with a column on the results table. The greater a character's attributes, the more likely a chance of success in any action governed by it.
Difficult actions could be handled in two ways. They could either suffer a column shift, which meant using a "lower" column on the table, or they could require a specific level of success within a column, since each column divided its success range into color-coded bands of decreasing size. Normally, only a white success was needed, but difficult actions might need a green, yellow, or even red result to be successful. These two additional aspects of the results table made it very easy to model even complex actions with ease and, more importantly, on the fly, which is essential to any good superhero RPG.
Marvel Super Heroes included karma points. These points, earned by completing adventures and behaving in an appropriately heroic fashion, pulled double duty as both experience points and as a means to improve the success of rolls on the results table. Again, though simple mechanically, karma points gave players a lot of options, enabling them to emulate comic book action without placing a straitjacket on them. In my experience, players tended to try and accumulate lots of karma by behaving heroically and then hoard them for use at important moments in an adventure rather than spending them to improve their characters. I suspect that's exactly how designer Jeff Grubb intended it work.
The game's most serious flaw is the lack of anything other than a rudimentary -- and random -- character creation system. Marvel Super Heroes assumes, not without good reason, that players of the game don't want to make their own heroes but would rather play Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, and the like. Consequently, the need for official, pregenerated stats for every hero, villain, and incidental character of the Marvel Universe was high, creating both a regular column in the pages of Dragon ("The Marvel-Phile") and many adventures and sourcebooks that provided such information. It's here where my fondness for the game takes a nosedive and why I wonder about the hobby's fascination with licensed properties.
Still, Marvel Super Heroes was the superhero RPG I played the most, as I was too math-impaired to handle Champions for any length of time. My friends and I nevertheless bucked the trend and created our own characters, such as the geneticist who could turn into The Troll and a blind crossbowman known as Quarrel. They rubbed shoulders with the Avengers and battled Dr. Doom, of course, but they were heroes of our own imaginations and, as such, much more satisfying for us to play, as we were free to develop them through play as we wished rather than hewing to a script laid down by decades worth of comic books written by someone else. That's what roleplaying has always been about for me; it still is.