Easily Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and popular superhero, unsuspecting teenage nerd Peter Parker was first bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the true meaning of power and responsibility in Amazing Fantasy #15, which was first published in August 1962. Since then, the Amazing Spider-Man has featured in numerous cartoons, live-action movies, videogames, action figures, and countless comic book titles and, in celebration of his debut and his very own day of celebration, I’ve been dedicating every Wednesday to talk about everyone’s favourite web-head!
Having achieved success with the creation of the Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics editor and head writer, the immortal Stan Lee, was searching for another title to match the success of Marvel’s first family. Inspired by a spider climbing up a wall, influenced by pulp vigilante the Spider, eager to capitalise on the surge in teenage demand for comic books, and working alongside artist Steve Ditko, Lee conceived of Spider-Man and was granted permission to feature the teenage superhero in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy. Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was shocked to find that Amazing Fantasy #15 was one of the publication’s highest-selling comics and a solo Spider-Man series soon followed, with Spidey quickly becoming Marvel’s most popular comic book character. Since then, Spider-Man has seen success in numerous other media; in 1967, he featured in a self-titled animated series, he famously appeared as a guest character on The Electric Company (1971 to 1977) and starred in his own live-action series in 1978, and heavily influenced my childhood through the fantastic Spider-Man cartoon (1994 to 1998) before eventually featuring in a number of live-action films. Furthermore, Spider-Man has also featured in numerous videogames, the first of which was the aggravating Spider-Man (Parker Brothers, 1982) for the Atari 2600. Before debuting in arcades, the majority of Spidey’s videogame efforts were sidescrolling action/platformers but this was the early nineties and button-mashing beat-‘em-ups were all the rage thanks to titles like Double Dragon (Technōs Japan, 1987), Final Fight (Capcom, 1989), and The Simpsons (Konami, 1991) so Spidey’s arcade debut naturally came in the form of a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up.
Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime in New York City, has sent his minions out into the city to retrieve a mystical artefact and only Spider-Man and his allies (Prince Namor McKenzie/The Sub-Mariner, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and Felicia Hardy/Black Cat) can hope to defeat some of Spidey’s most powerful and iconic villains and oppose the Kingpin’s plans for domination.
Spider-Man: The Video Game is a fairly standard sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which players can pick from one of four characters (Spider-Man (obviously), Sub-Mariner, Hawkeye, and Black Cat) and make their way from the left side of the screen to the right beating up wave-upon-wave of nameless thugs. The game allows any player to select any character and allows for up to four players to play simultaneously, which is always an appreciated feature of such titles.
Upon selecting your character, you’re dropped into the streets of New York and quickly learn that the game is quite limited in terms of the moves available to you. Each character controls in exactly the same way, with a few subtle differences: Spidey and Black Cat can swing from webs/lines to attack enemies (if you can pull off the attack, which kind of requires a very specific combination of jumping and attacking) and each has a slightly different jumping attack (Namor dives fist-first down into enemies, for example) and melee attacks (Black Cat is much more about the fancy kicks than Hawkeye). While you can perform a signature special attack (shooting webs or arrows, for example) at the cost of some health points, each character is just as sluggish and apathetic as the next thanks to a lack of a dash function. However, after beating up a few thugs and taking out a sub-boss, the game suddenly shifts to an entirely different perspective; the camera zooms out and the game becomes more of an action/platformer as your character must scale a vertical and horizontal map taking out more goons as they go. In this zoomed out mode, your characters are no longer able to perform melee attacks and must rely on their projectile attacks: Spidey shoots webs, Hawkeye shoots arrows, Black Cat attacks with a grapple hook, and Namor….shoots lightning…? Spidey and Black Cat can also scale and climb walls to navigate these areas faster and Hawkeye and Namor can hang on to overhead platforms to shoot at enemies but it’s a bit weird that you’re not given full access to each character’s abilities in this mode.
Unlike many videogames and beat-‘em-ups, inserting coins not only allows you to continue from death but also boosts your health, which is represented by a series of numbers under your character’s name. Your health numbers also double as a time limit as they’re constantly ticking down and this is quite a unique and clever way to get kids to waste their hard-earned pocket money as, while you can find health (in the form of hearts) strewn around the game’s stages at various points, you’ll quickly be pummelled into submission by the game’s enemies and forced to drop more coins to pump up your health and continue on a little further. Sadly, in a marketplace crowded by fantastic beat-‘em-ups, Spider-Man: The Video game fails to stand out in a lot of ways; you can attack and destroy parts of the environment but there’s not much motivation to do this as there are no weapons to find and use and no items to pick up to increase your score. Your score isn’t even displayed onscreen as you play, for God’s sake, which is really unusual, despite the fact that your progress is rated at the end of each stage. Instead, the game’s primary selling point appears to be exclusively the Spider-Man brand and the odd inclusion of action/platforming sections.
Graphics and Sound:
For the most part, Spider-Man: The Video Game looks serviceable enough; sprites are large and colourful but, like the backgrounds, are a little lacking in variety and detail. None of the playable characters have an idle animation, which lets the game down somewhat, and Spider-Man, especially, just looks bored and depressed as he plods around at a sluggish speed. When the game zooms out for its platforming sections, sprites take on a largely pixelated appearance but the backgrounds become much bigger and more detailed. Stages initially seem quite short as you come up against your first sub-boss in almost no time at all and, after defeating them, you’re tasked with climbing up to the rooftops of New York’s skyscrapers and the stages really open up.
As you attack enemies, and are attacked, big comic book-style sound effects appear onscreen (as is pretty standard for comic book beat-‘em-ups) but I found sprites go a bit transparent when they pass over other sprites and graphics (though this could be due to emulation issues rather than a flaw of the title itself). The game does feature some limited voice acting but, despite featuring a female voice (who just loves to cry out “Spider-Man!” every time you insert a coin), no female voice work accompanies Black Cat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the male voice acting is the same for every character and hardly of a high standard and when you realise that Namor and Black Cat’s attacks are accompanied by some really weird sound effects that make them sound like they’re drowning or a robot, respectively. As you might expect, comic book-style cutscenes tell the game’s story; these take the form of still images with some accompanying text (though these don’t change depending on your character and mostly just feature Spidey by himself) and in-game cutscenes with some fitting word balloons. Finally, while the game’s stages are fairly standard (the streets, the rooftops, flying through the skies, construction sites and the like), they don’t really stand out much until you crash-land into the hellscape of “Latvelia” and the game suddenly busts out some decent fire effects. Finally, the game’s music, while interesting and serviceable enough, doesn’t really feel very unique to the Spider-Man brand or compared to other beat-‘em-ups.
Enemies and Bosses:
The majority of the enemies you’ll encounter throughout your journey are literally nameless, faceless goons; weird kabuki-mask-wearing, purple-spandex-clad thugs are the order of the day here but they are soon joined by such cliché beat-‘em-up enemies as martial artists (who can duck your attacks), rotund enemies (who can belly flop you), and robots (which shoot projectiles). Spider-Man: The Video Game honestly doesn’t have much going for it in terms of enemy variety; you’ll fight the same enemies over and over and only encounter some weird and memorable foes with you reach “Latvelia” and encounter some weird ape-like monstrosities. However, Spider-Man: The Video Game is absolutely loaded with some of Spidey’s most iconic villains; after only a couple of minutes into the first stage, you’ll encounter Mac Gargan/Scorpion and, just as you’re getting into that fight, a massive containment unit opens up and Eddie Brock/Venom emerges.
Although Scorpion soon runs off after a few hits, you’ll have to endure a handicap situation for a while as enemies spawn in, Venom teleports around the arena and chokes you with their goo, and Scorpion attacks you relentlessly. Once you whittle down Venom’s health, they use a mysterious artefact to grow to monstrous size and you’ll have to chase them to the rooftops for another encounter. This becomes the basic set-up for the majority of the game’s sub-bosses and bosses; you’ll fight them at one point and then have to give chase and battle them again in a slightly different situation after navigating the game’s zoomed out sections. You’ll battle Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard (who has a nasty tendency to chomp down on your crotch), Flint Marko/Sandman, and Venom in a pretty standard beat-‘em-up format where you’ll be confined to an arena and have to fend off waves of additional enemies. Each boss reappears for a rematch later in the game but the strategy remains largely the same; keep your distance and land attacks while dispatching their support and things only really get hairy when Venom spawns a bunch of symbiote clones to fight alongside them!
Boss battles are mixed up a bit when you take on Norman Osborn/Green Goblin and Jason Macendale/Hobgoblin; while you’ll battle the Green Goblin on the ground, dodging his weird glowing hand attack, these two bosses stand out by taking to their iconic gliders and rushing at you from the air while tossing pumpkin bombs at you. These can be troublesome encounters as it’s difficult to judge where the Goblins are positioned to land your attacks or to successfully hit them with your jump attacks. Plus, when you battle Hobgoblin, you’re limited to your zoom-out attacks and will have to blast him with your projectiles and destroy large cannons to make things easier. You’ll also do battle with the Kingpin in a standard beat-‘em-up encounter; Kingpin’s attacks are limited to headbutts, swipes, and a shoulder barge, making him little more than an inconvenience than a formidable boss fight even in his second phase. Still, at least he actually gets a proper boss fight; Max Dillon/Electro and perhaps Spidey’s most famous foe, Dr. Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus are relegated to mere semi-sub-bosses who randomly appear as you’re navigating the game’s later platform stages and they’re little more than a joke as you can easily damage boost through their attacks and pummel them into submission.
After defeating the Kingpin, though, Dr. Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom randomly appears to claim the mysterious artefact and reveal himself to be the game’s true big bad. When you reach Doom’s Castle, you’ll have to dodge mines and battle through the game’s previous sub-bosses and bosses to confront Doctor Doom…only to find you’ve battled a Doombot all along! However, when you finally do get your hands on the real Doctor Doom, the fight is still little more than a standard affair once you take out Doom’s nifty floating battle craft: Doom is fast and slippery but doesn’t attack with magical bolts until the final confrontation and even then he’s not much more of a threat than the likes of the Sandman or the Lizard.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As mentioned, there’s pretty much nothing on offer to spice up your gameplay in Spider-Man: The Video Game. You can’t pick up and use weapons or power-ups and the only thing for you to pick up is hearts to increase your health, making gameplay decidedly more repetitive and monotonous compared to other beat-‘em-ups.
Again, there’s basically nothing here (as is pretty much the standard for most arcade games). However, the fact that you can select any character to play as and play with up to four players, each who accumulate their own separate score at the end of each stage, does add some replay value (if you have friends to play with, of course…)
Spider-Man: The Video Game is a decent enough beat-‘em-up; it’s bright and colourful and includes all of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains but it doesn’t really offer a whole hell of a lot when it comes to gameplay or variety. Beat-‘em-ups are generally quite monotonous as a rule but they usually compensate for this with kick-ass music, detailed sprites, and some cool weapons and super moves; Spider-Man: The Video Game has none of these attributes, meaning it’s a step behind other arcade titles released at the same time and even ones released years prior. The game’s unique selling point of having action/platforming sections incorporated into the usual beat-‘em-up formula is interesting but its execution is flawed thanks to the graphics taking a hit. Throw in an odd assortment of playable characters (I get why Black Cat is there but why are Namor and Hawkeye here?), some repetitive boss battles, and disappointing use of some of Spidey’s more visually striking foes and you have a gameplay experience that is fun enough (and probably better alongside friends) but hardly worth choosing over the likes of Final Fight or even Double Dragon. Put it this way: X-Men (Konami, 1992) released the very next year and is everything Spider-Man: The Video Game wishes it could be; hell, even Captain America and the Avengers (Data East, 1991) offers more in terms of gameplay variety and character abilities despite being graphically less impressive and that’s really saying something.
Could Be Better
Did you ever play Spider-Man: The Video Game out in the wild? Which character did you pick, or get lumbered with, and which did you think was the best or the worst? What did you think of the game’s unique incorporation of platforming elements and the way it handled Spidey’s villains? Which characters do you think would have been more suitable to play in place of Namor and Hawkeye? Which Spider-Man videogame, or arcade beat-’em-up, is your favourite? Whatever you think, feel free to drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Spider-Man content next Wednesday.