Spider-Man Video Games: A Look Back
It's time for us to cross the streams, true believers.
There's a lot of talk about comics here on NRW, and rightly so. Joey has his own awesome strand of articles wherein he sheds light on the old and exposes us to the retro-new, and we love it, because Joey is to the medium of comics what I am to sitting on my ass in front of a CRT monitor with a controller in my hand: he's a passionate expert on the subject. It's worth diving into; when done well, the comic book or graphic novel is an art form capable of deftly transporting the reader to new worlds – some like our own, and some realities away from it.
What can't be overlooked is how the comic book multiverse has been thrust into the colored-light beams and binary rows of the VG grinder time and time again in the plodding quest to juice franchises for more revenue. Here's the dolorous stroke, folks: We're going to take a look at how they've done this with one of Marvel's undisputed icons, their bread-and-butter household name... Spider-Man. Peter Parker, the world's most beloved wise-cracking web slinger, has been dipped in silicon and code frequently throughout video gaming's history, with results that I will be kind and describe as “varied.”
Everyone's pretty familiar with Spidey's origins and powers. He got bit by a radioactive spider, got some powers, lost his uncle to crime, and got serious about cleaning up the Big Apple (and sometimes beyond). The wall-crawler has made tons of friends and enemies since his appearance in the 60s, from goblins to murderous hunters to symbiotic aliens that abandoned him and sought out his unstable and disgruntled colleagues for revenge (Venom is the man!) Pete's powers, coupled with his nifty web-shooting devices, make for the possibility of great dynamic gameplay if translated creatively into digital form. Right?
Ah, shit, kids... let's just do this. I'm not gonna look at every game, but we'll examine the prominent titles that most of us may have seen or played.
Platform: Atari 2600
Culprits: Parker Brothers/Atari
You'll probably expect me to be cruel here, because I do lean on the side of bastardry when it comes to the 2600. I mean... eh. Let's stay in context... this isn't bad for a 2600 game. Considering the limits of the system graphics- and sound-wise, you get a good representation of the key elements. Gameplay consists of getting up on top of the building and kicking Green Goblin's ass, which to be fair, ate up a lot of Peter's logged superhero hours in the 70s/80s either together or as separate activities. Using your web shooters is a little tedious, but once you've got the hang of how to do it in a rhythm and pull yourself up, it's pretty fun. I suppose my only knock on this one is that it's not enough to do. But then, not every 2600 game can be Burgertime and crush your soul with raw chaos.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1990)
Platforms: Amiga, Atari ST, PC Compatibles
Culprits: Oxford Digital/Paragon Software
Let me start off with something nice before I put my hands under the table and fucking lift. The Amiga has always stood out for its time as a system capable of audiovisual richness, and this game really turns her out. The ST and PC versions are decent in that regard too, although the audio quality varies.
Now, let's talk about HOW they chose to turn her out. The controls are pretty fucking far from intuitive; while I expect translating Spider-Man's iconic means of locomotion to be a challenge for a game developer, this shit is just abyss you'll keep falling into until you start being meticulously careful... which isn't prudent in 90% of the situations you'll be navigating. Move fast? Move really carefully? The answer to both is usually no. Again, I can't knock the graphics, but there's something inherently wrong about this image, seen during the intro. Something that reminds me of “non-Euclidean shapes,” “lightless gulfs across time and space,” and “red-haired woman being forcibly abducted by a fishbowl-headed mannequin.” Poor Mary Jane.
Almost as bizarre is the choice to represent your life bar as a picture of Spider-Man that turns skeletal from the feet upward as you move closer to death.
Last gripe: the game is, at least to me, unreasonably goddamn long considering the tedium it is to play. You can watch a longplay here, and be sure to listen to the entire intro music, or at least sit through it for as long as you can before reaching for that little red track-bar to skip through it and save your sanity.
Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six (1992)
Platforms: NES, Game Gear, Master System
Culprits: LJN (OF COURSE), Flying Edge, Bits Studios
This game is mercifully short, but still feels like being hurled into a black hole and somehow kept alive to slowly lose one's mind via time dilation. Spider-Man, despite being fully human height, has the same general proportions as Wee Man from Jackass. His ability to leap through the air is admirable, and the controls aren't too bad... until you try to do any of the shit Spider-Man is known for doing in terms of movement. The graphics are candy-colored palettes of pure hell wherein men are depicted universally as shoeless mongoloids and no light seems to penetrate anything (despite the garish coloration of everything).
A small handful of farty, tooty pieces of music cycle as you penetrate deeper into the Sinister Six's criminal kingdom, presenting a strange yet totally-LJN mix of jazzy swing and “I ate so many tabs I can't even tell what genre this is.” The drums punch at the listener's mind, almost as if they are intended to pummel you into accepting the rest of this musical affront as tolerable. It's like a rave in a Civil War graveyard, and someone invited Dizzy Gillespie. Actually, fuck that... that'd rule. This doesn't.
Again, I can't flush this game completely; it's a decent effort overall, but LJN had a tendency (with a scant few exceptions) to attach its name to something and then pile drive it into the floor until no amount of reconstructive surgery could fix it.
Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (1994)
Platforms: Genesis. SNES
Culprits: LJN, Acclaim, Software Creations
We're ending on a positive note. We have to. We owe it to ourselves.
I really liked the Maximum Carnage story arc in the comics. It's held high by some and shit on by others, but there's something about a villain so terrifying that two bitter enemies (not to mention a wild cross section of Marvel's 90s line-up) combined forces to defeat him as he rampaged across New York with his own wrecking crew. I love big events, and I LOVE villains. And Carnage... well, he's one burning hell of a villain.
This effort did decent justice to the source material. I'll keep this simple and just tick off some pros and cons.
-Venom is a playable character
-Morbius shows up, along with Deathlok, Black Cat, Iron Fist, and a few other underrated Marvel good guys
-it's a beat-em-up, and not a bad one, either
-comic book style cut scenes, and they're not done poorly
-LJN didn't set this one on fire and stand back playing pocket pool while it burned to slag
-The music did not sound as good in the Genesis version
-This game is also long; why the hell does Spider-Man mean “long fucking game” almost uniformly to game designers
-It's incredibly unfair to put bad-ass characters like Black Cat, Iron Fist and Morbius in here and not have them as full-on playables
-I feel like a lot of the villains get undersold in terms of their powers and badass-ness
-Still, to make an understatement, a bit fucking cumbersome to do the web slinging thing, although it must be acknowledged that it's better in this than in any predecessor
Overall, Maximum Carnage is fun as hell. I owned the Genesis cart as a kid and got a lot of replay value out of it. It's a net win due to presentation and the choice of formatting it as a beat-em-up, which makes it approachable on a level far beyond its ancestors in Spidey's video game library.
That brings us to 1994, folks, so I guess I'll put the brakes on it here. Thanks for reading, and before I go, I suppose I owe you some number ratings on these hunks of pop media history.
Atari 2600: 6/10
See you at the end of the month, RetroFans! Excelsior!!!