A brief history of Spider-Man gamesAugust 31, 2018
Next week, Sony and Insomniac will release Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4. The game explores the story of Peter Parker eight years into his career as the masked web-slinger, and it’s the most ambitious game of its kind to come in the wake of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham trilogy. With Marvel and Sony trying to bring the character to a wider audience than he’s had in games in years, we decided to look back at Spider-Man’s legacy in the medium.
The story of Spider-Man games is one of Herculean technical achievement and problem solving, and to delve into its history is to begin seeing countless echoes, in-jokes and homages. From Monster-Ock in Neversoft’s Spider-Man to the Atrocity in Edge of Time, or Mysterio’s fun-house games in the Sega CD Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin and Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2, these ostensibly mass-market products often reveal themselves to be products of intense love and passion.
The 8-bit webhead
The years haven’t been kind to the Spider-Man games of the 1980s. The first arrived in 1982 for the Atari 2600, from Parker Brothers. A rudimentary affair with blocky 8-bit graphics and the most basic mechanics, Spider-Man on the 2600 is largely notable for being the first game to feature characters licensed by Marvel Comics. At a glance, it somewhat resembles the core design of Donkey Kong. The Green Goblin awaits Spidey atop various skyscrapers and other towering structures, and the wall-crawler has to use his web-shooting abilities to scale each of them while dodging henchmen and defusing cartoonish-looking bombs. (“The Goblin’s time bombs are ticking away,” a print ad for the game noted. “And his Super Bombs sit fiendishly up on High Voltage Towers. The city is on its knees. Only Spider-Man’s spidey powers can get us out of this!”) Today, the game’s greatest charms are its pastel color palette and the simplistic sprite used for Spider-Man himself; it is, in effect, a novelty item.
More impressive, by today’s standards, were the next two Spider-Man titles that emerged in the 1980s: Scott Adams’ Questprobe Featuring Spider-Man (1984) and Paragon Software’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge! (1989). Each of these early efforts, while wildly different from one another, foretold the struggles of the decades to come. Adams’ graphic adventure was a sequel to his first Marvel game, Featuring the Hulk, that guided the player on an investigation centered around the fan-favorite villain Mysterio. Questprobe — released on the Apple II, Atari 8-bit and ST, BBC Micro, Browser, Commodore Plus/4 and 64, DOS, Electron and ZX Spectrum — allowed for full-sentence text commands to navigate and interact with its 2D environments. The Spider-Man version also spawned a three-issue comic series, and established the long-standing tradition of including as many of the hero’s foes as possible in a single, original video game story.
Doctor Doom’s Revenge! began a tradition of its own. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up for Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, C64, DOS and Spectrum, the game leaned into the limitations of both two-dimensional space and the era’s consumer-oriented hardware. It told its story using conventional comic book panels between stages, and combined platforming with one-on-one fights involving character-specific movesets and health bars. Along with similar tie-ins, like Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game for the NES, Doom’s Revenge! helped to forge the template for what superhero games, and especially Spider-Man ones, would look like throughout most of the decade that followed.
Spidey in the 1990s
The ’90s saw a glut of new Marvel content thanks to the Fox Kids Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons and the enormously successful comics they were based on. Iconic artists such as Erik Larsen, Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane came to prominence alongside writers like Chris Claremont and David Michelinie, and video games based on Marvel’s biggest properties flourished. Nintendo also released the Game Boy in 1989, and by the early ’90s home gaming consoles had become more or less ubiquitous. Arcades hadn’t yet gone anywhere, either.
In 1990, a company called Oxford Digital Enterprises put out a colorful puzzle-platformer called The Amazing Spider-Man, in which Mary Jane Watson — Peter Parker’s longtime love interest in the comics — gets kidnapped by Mysterio. Released on Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and MS-DOS, it made use of Spider-Man’s web-swinging ability, and had some amusing character animations, but it effectively served as an uninspired sequel to Doctor Doom’s Revenge! Rare, Ltd., meanwhile, developed a wholly separate Amazing Spider-Man title for the Game Boy that shared some similarities, storytelling-wise, with Oxford’s game. But Rare’s Spider-Man was of a different caliber. The feat of shipping an NES-quality title on a handheld, coupled with its superior monochrome aesthetic, made Rare’s effort an important piece of Spidey-game history. It showed players what a truly competent and tasteful Marvel video game ought to look like, regardless of the technical constraints the studio had to contend with; this was, after all, the studio that would go on to launch Battletoads a year later.
And so 2D, side-scrolling action titles like Rare’s Game Boy cartridge became the norm. Games such as Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six (1992), inspired by the comic-book story of the same name, and Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (1994) offer a fairly complete picture of what Spidey tie-ins would continue to be, essentially, until Y2K arrived. However, the fighting game genre also developed into an indispensable piece of Marvel’s legacy, beginning with ’90s arcade cabinets like Marvel Super Heroes (1995), Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997) and the legendary Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998).
“My playground, my responsibility”
At the turn of the millennium, an Activision studio called Neversoft tried its hand at ushering the character into the era of 3D gaming. This turned out to be a monumental success. Neversoft’s Spider-Man (2000) opens with an endearing, if primitive, cinematic that sets the scene: Otto Octavius is delivering a keynote speech intended to show the world he’s a changed man when a Spider-Man impostor takes the stage and steals Ock’s latest invention. This is a fully animated 3D action game with professional voice-over work, a playful rock-and-roll soundtrack and VO “barks” that sound as much like Spidey’s cheeky quips as could be expected from a nearly two-decade-old piece of software. It’s got fourth-wall-shattering narration from Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee; it’s got complex platforming, wall-crawling and web-swinging mechanics; and it offers up inventive boss battles with seven of the comics’ most recognizable baddies.
There’s a simplicity and a purity to the game that speaks to its time and place. It predates the modern superhero movie craze, though it exudes a fondness for the animated Fox Kids TV show that began airing in 1994. Many fans in and outside of the game industry cite it as their favorite game to feature the character, and it kicked off a sort of five-year golden age for Spider-Man video games. Nevertheless, its 2001 sequel, Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, was ultimately developed by Vicarious Visions, a separate Activision-owned studio.
In 2002, Treyarch — another small Activision developer that had ported the first two Tony Hawk games to Dreamcast, and had done a Spider-Man port for PS2 — shipped a tie-in based on Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film. “One of the many ways that you could describe [the 2002 Spider-Man] is ‘us just trying to keep up with Spider-Man.’ And, in a lot of ways, it became us mimicking the Neversoft game whenever possible,” Tomo Moriwaki, the game’s lead designer, said recently to USgamer. “We just tried to cope with and adapt to the movie script and fulfill our responsibilities. It was our first experience with a really big license client, and so I think, even though we might’ve had terrible attitudes, we kept our heads down and did the best we could.” Regardless of the attitudes or the scheduling involved in getting the game out in time for the film’s release, the 2002 game adaptation was a massive hit.
Immediately tasked with handling a sequel, this time based on Raimi’s beloved Spider-Man 2, the crew at Treyarch was given the freedom to do pretty much whatever it wanted with the project. Thankfully, success hadn’t dulled the team’s ambitions, and it spent a lot of its time and resources expanding on a prototype that lead programmer Jamie Fristrom had put together during the first game’s development. The idea was simple in theory: build a vast streaming city encompassing all of Manhattan, Grand Theft Auto 3-style, and let players go wherever they wanted in the environment, playing however they wanted. A true open-world superhero game was something that hadn’t been done before, and Spider-Man was the perfect property to make full use of that kind of design.
In the end, the game didn’t sell quite as well as its predecessor, but its pendular web-swinging and complex trick system set a new standard for what licensed video games were understood to be. And, to this day, Spider-Man 2 remains the benchmark by which Spider-Man swinging tends to be judged.
Web-slinging in HD and beyond
It’s probably not an oversimplification to say that the decade that followed Spider-Man 2 was dominated by a mix of near misses and utter failures. Treyarch’s Ultimate Spider-Man (2005) was a gorgeous, cel-shaded experiment featuring an original story by fan-favorite comic scribe Brian Michael Bendis, and it commands a cult following, but the same can’t really be said for anything else released between 2005 and 2018. Spider-Man’s inclusion in Marvel Ultimate Alliance (2006) gave the webhead a chance to shine in an action-RPG context, but without the core web-swinging in the Neversoft–Treyarch sense, it hardly qualifies as a “Spider-Man game.”
With the arrival of the HD era, beginning with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, developers like Beenox, Shaba Games and Treyarch put a lot of stock into the notion that an original narrative in the vein of Neversoft’s Spider-Man was the best way to do the IP justice. And they were right, but their efforts highlighted the challenges inherent in doing a lot of story-heavy, cinematic storytelling in games involving player choice, branching dialogue or alternate endings.
Of the games to come out of this period, Web of Shadows has the most satisfying and robust open-world gameplay, even if its epidemic plotline feels a bit grim and out of character for a Spider-Man title. But Beenox’s duology of original Spider-Verse stories, consisting of Shattered Dimensions (2010) and Edge of Time (2011), made for probably the most commendable projects, overall, from the latter half of Activision’s time with the license. They offered deliriously creative takes on familiar characters — each with multiple Spider-Men — in settings like Peter David’s cyberpunk future as seen in the 2099 comics. As for Beenox’s Amazing Spider-Man movie tie-ins from 2012 and 2014, suffice it to say that Treyarch did a far better job a decade prior.
With Insomniac’s Spider-Man setting a new age of big-budget Marvel games in motion, the future’s looking bright for fans of both Peter Parker and traversal-focused open-world titles. If players embrace the freerunning and web-swinging systems Insomniac has in store, it seems possible we could see a resurgence of high-quality, authentic Spidey games. Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy has already given the industry a solid template for blockbuster stories that straddle the line between comic-book absurdity and realism. And the New York City of the Marvel universe will always be in need of a hero.