Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be swinging our way through Spider-Man’s tangled web of gaming history. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Famous comics superhero Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962 with credits going to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. He went on to become the most popular solo character in the company’s history and has over the years transfixed fans via diverse media projects as film, TV, animation, and video games. As the early creators of the Marvel Age will tell it, the first decades of the company were like a ramshackle ship that was only kept afloat by selling off its licenses across other media. At times this was done out of desperation to keep the company afloat. Stan Lee himself wanted to get out of the comics business and his main occupation for several decades was trying to get the Marvel properties attached with Hollywood adaptations. Either way, the timeline matched up with the emerging gaming industry that was seeking to license properties from companies that were looking to earn a quick buck.
The first console release of a Spider-Man game was developed by one woman working on her own. Laura Nikolich was an engineer working for a nuclear power plant when she attended an employment fair and found herself recruited by a representative from Parker Bros. Working alongside employees who were working on Star Wars games, Nikolich was assigned the Spider-Man license and given no additional directions. She decided to make it a vertical-scrolling game.
In the first game to feature Spider-Man or any Marvel Comics characters, the player controls Spider-Man as he scales a skyscraper to dismantle bombs that were planted by his arch-nemesis the Green Goblin. Spider-Man could shoot a web and travel either vertically or diagonally. Random criminals would appear in windows during his climb, knocking him from his web if they cross paths. Spider-Man could catch himself with another web before falling to his doom. Alternatively, the enemies could be defeated by swinging diagonally across them.
Critics were generally positive while also pointing at its similarity to other vertical-scrolling games. The sprite design for the protagonist received special recognition. Most important of all, the game was a financial success that left all parties satisfied and paved the way for more adaptations down the line.
Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin (1991)
Even with the success of licensed titles on PC and handheld platforms, it would be nearly another decade before a home console release would feature the popular web-slinger. Sega of America obtained the license and went through its first independent developers to produce this smash hit title for the Sega Genesis. After a false start from Innerprise Software, west coast developer Technobop took on the reins. When Technobop similarly imploded, one of its employees was asked to assemble a small team and develop the title on their own. The result was the most faithful depiction of the license in a video game to date.
Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin depicts New York as a city held hostage by Kingpin, who has planted a nuclear bomb in the city. The player is given 24 hours to progress through a series of levels in which Spider-Man must take down iconic bad guys to obtain 5 keys to disarm the bomb. Health could also be replenished by returning to Peter Parker’s apartment, but at the steep cost of losing time more quickly while you are there.For the first time, Spider-Man is able to use his famous webs to sling his way through unique stages at the cost of dropping his web fluid bar. Web fluid could occasionally be replenished by items in each stage, but was more reliably refilled using the game’s interesting photography mechanic. Taking advantage of Peter Parker’s job as a freelance photography, the player can capture 3 images during each stage. Afterwards, J. Jonah Jameson will award the player with cash depending on the quality of the image as well as the subject.
The game would be a smash hit for the Genesis and another success in Sega of America’s winning strategy of luring gamers with popular licenses. Sega would capitalize by porting a slightly redesigned version to both the Master System and the Game Gear. Recognizing that the newly launched Sega CD was fledgling and needed new content, Sega commissioned the developers to create an expanded version that could make up for what the team had to leave out to fit the cartridge space of the Genesis.
The newly retitled The Amazing Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin had improved character animations, new stages, extra boss battles, and fully animated and voiced cut scenes. Expecting that most players had already gone through the original – which was owned by roughly 2/3 of the system’s install base – the developers also added a level select option. Both the Genesis and Sega CD iterations were heralded as the most faithful depiction of a superhero license by that point and are still regarded fondly today.
Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six (1992)
Coming from a company that was happy to sell its licenses for a quick buck, Spider-Man would only see his first release on the Nintendo Entertainment System after he had already made his 16-bit debut. Released late in the life cycle of the NES, Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six was loosely adapted from the similarly titled comics storyline from David Michelinie and Erik Larsen. British-based developer Bits Studios earned the assignment after delivering satisfactory work on some Game Boy titles that used the license.
Return of the Sinister Six was a fairly typical sidescroller that featured combat against basic thugs, climbable objects, and occasional puzzles that could be solved by finding a key or a detonator. The entire game could be completed within 30 minutes, but the developers would artificially extend the play time by employing tactics that were not generous towards the player. Health could not be restored between stages or by using an item. On top of that, only one continue was granted and so the player would have a total of two life bars to complete the entire game.
The game was the first major disappointment on a home console for Spider-Man fans and was an early sign of the downsides of licensing IP without enforcing quality control.
Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (1994)
Spider-Man’s next console game appearance would be a co-headlined title with Venom. UK-based Software Creations was hired by Acclaim to adapt the recent popular 14-issue crossover from the Spider-Man comics line. The event featured a wide array of characters on both sides of the hero/villain divide. The titular villain was accompanied by a crew of readymade bosses in Shriek, Demogoblin, Carrion, and Doppelganger. In addition to a Venom who had taken a turn towards becoming an anti-hero, there were also cameo appearances from characters including Deathlok, Cloak, Dagger, and Firestar. The story was seen as an opportunity to feature many characters beyond the typical Sinister Six and would include Venom as a playable character for the first time.
The game would move between a few different gameplay types across many chapters in an attempt to break up the typical formula of sidescrolling beat-em-up games. In addition to the standard brawler stages, there were levels in which the player would have to scale a wall vertically or web-sling horizontally while avoiding objects. At certain moments, the option to select between Spider-Man or Venom would appear and lead to slightly different paths.
Critical reception was mixed at the time of release, but that did not prevent the game from being a huge hit on both consoles. It certainly did not hurt that the game differentiated itself from other games on the SNES and Genesis by including a limited edition red cartridge during its first print run. In spite of its initial complaints about the high difficulty level and repetitiveness of its design, the game would gain a better reputation over time for its faithfulness to the comics and its uniqueness.
During the 1990s, Marvel launched their first in-house animation studio. Marvel Films Animation’s sole project was the Spider-Man animated series that had a successful run from 1994 to 1998. For their last game with the Spider-Man license, Acclaim and LJN would produce an adaptation of the series for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
The game follows Spider-Man as he attempts to capture 4 enemies who escaped from Ravencroft prison: Dr. Octopus, The Green Goblin, Alistair Smythe, and the Alien Spider Slayer. At the end of the game, the player also faces Venom as a last boss. In each stage, the player could also collect items that could summon individual members of the Fantastic Four for assistance.
Although both versions of the game came from the same publisher and developer with an identical story and character designs, they would each have completely different levels. The SNES version had 6 levels while the Genesis version only had 5 levels. Regardless of the platform, the game received a lot of criticism for having poor collision detection, forgettable graphics, and inconsistent use of Spider-Man’s powers including web-slinging and wall-crawling.
Venom/Spider-Man: Separation Anxiety (1995)
Due to the massive success of Maximum Carnage, Software Creations was quickly tasked with creating a sequel. Only 9 months after the release of the previous game, Venom would receive first-billing in a game that reused the engine and assets of its predecessor while incorporating a hodge podge of story elements from various Venom comic mini-series. The plot follows Venom as he is captured by the Life Foundation and has 5 Symbiotes extracted from him. Spider-Man comes along for the ride to assist as they take down the new Symbiotes along with a private militia known as the Jury. Similar to the previous game, there are cameos from various Marvel characters like Hawkeye and Captain America through support power-ups.
With a tight deadline on turning around a brand new game, Software Creations was able to address some complaints that critics cited for Maximum Carnage. The most notable one was that players finally had the option to play as both Spider-Man and Venom side by side using two controllers. Progression along the game became much easier with a new password system that allowed players to pick up the game at a later point with 3 extra lives. These additions made Separation Anxiety a game that gamers were more likely to complete across more than one session.
In a step backward from the previous game, the lack of a specific source material meant that there were no more digitized panels and instead they had to rely on basic text screens to convey the plot. The short turnaround also resulted in longer stages with more repetitive opponents. The gameplay also seemed to be optimized for two players, meaning that a solo player would get spammed from all directions.
Separation Anxiety received a cooler reception than its predecessor and was unfavorably compared to other 2D brawlers of its time. In addition to the standard SNES and Genesis versions, the game also received a Windows 95 port. Reviews of all versions indicated that critics and audiences were getting tired of the 2D beat em up formula.
The Amazing Spider-Man: Web of Fire (1996)
Sega’s long run with the Spider-Man license would reach an ignoble end with a title that would also serve as the swan song for the 32X system. Seeking to bolster their 32X roster in its waning days before the next proper generation of consoles, Sega matched the license with developer BlueSky Software which had demonstrated previous success with titles like Vectorman and Jurassic Park. In The Amazing Spider-Man: Web of Fire, New York City has been trapped under an electric grid by HYDRA. Spider-Man must defeat HYDRA soldiers and the New Enforcers to save the city.
Due to licensing limitations, BlueSky was not given access to any of the usual Spider-Man villain roster who had exclusive rights elsewhere. They also were not granted the bountiful supporting heroes that other recent games were allowed. Instead, the developers had to settle for only Daredevil support against an unusual array of villains including Dragon Man, Thermite, and the Eel. Sega of America was also not paying much attention because their focus was on the impending launch of the Sega Saturn. BlueSky was able to use their proprietary engine from previous Genesis sidescrollers with the added horsepower of the 32X.
Web of Fire was released in 1996 after Sega had already announced the demise of the 32X. Because of the impending arrival of the new consoles, most outlets did not even bother to review the game. Those that bothered found it to be a disappointing product that felt rushed to market. Only an estimated 1,500 copies were produced, which has given it a surprisingly legacy as one of the rarest and most expensive superhero games in existence.
The popularity of Spider-Man meant that the character could not be solely confined to the console experience. The near-decade gap between the initial Atari and Genesis releases was placated with exclusive titles for PC and handheld platforms.
First was Questprobe featuring Spider-Man (1984), a text-based graphic adventure from Adventure International. The developers proudly were the first ones to create adventure games for microcomputer platforms. Their 1984 entry was the second game in a trilogy using Marvel characters. The player would control Spider-Man using “verb noun” inputs as he faced off against Mysterio.
The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America in Dr. Doom’s Revenge! (1989) introduced more interactivity for computer-based platforms in a team-up title that had the player alternating between the two titular heroes as they ascended Dr. Doom’s castle in a rudimentary plot conveyed through comic style panels for the first time. Battles took the form of one-on-one battles that resembled the fighting games of the time. The graphical presentation received much praise, but the unresponsive controls and poor combat system made the game a poor approximation of the console experience.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1990) would bring full Spider-Man platforming action to PC gamers for the first time. Arriving on home computer systems like the Amiga and the Commodore 64, the game was a puzzle action game in which Spider-Man must navigate his way through stages by activating switches and finding keys. Although seen as an improvement on Dr. Doom’s Revenge, reviews considered the game to be merely passable and drew special attention to Spider-Man’s ridiculously tiny sprite.
Around the same time, publisher LJN also released a trilogy of handheld titles for the Game Boy. The Amazing Spider-Man (1990) was developed by Rare and had the typical features of a sidescrolling action game but on a two-button layout. The game was criticized for having underwhelming platforming and ugly large character sprites. Spider-Man 2 (1992) and Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider-Slayers (1993) were handed off to developer Bits Studios instead. They created a new graphics engine that went too far in the other direction by having a Spider-Man that was too small again. Otherwise, the games faced the same criticisms as their predecessor.
When Sega obtained the Spider-Man license and made a game for each of their available platforms, they also included arcade cabinets in the mix. Spider-Man: The Videogame (1991) is a traditional arcade-style beat-em-up game that supports up to 4 players. To round out the roster, Sega added a sensible choice in Black and less obvious selections in Hawkeye and Namor. Throughout the game, players alternate between two different gameplay types. Most of the time, players approach the game in a traditional multi-directional approach that resembles other beat-em-ups at the time like the Simpsons and X-Men arcade games. At other times, the game switches to a sidescroller view that plays more like a Shinobi game. Spider-Man: The Videogame was well received but has had less of an impacted legacy than the other aforementioned licensed multiplayer arcade games.
Spider-Man would next return in his second co-headlined title in Spider-Man / X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge (1992). The story follows Spider-Man as he attempts to rescue the X-Men who have been kidnapped by their murdertrap-loving nemesis Arcade. There are 5 varied gameplay types split among Spider-Man and 4 of the X-Men. Spider-Man’s levels are designed to resemble a traditional Spider-Man game. Storm must navigate underwater mazes with limited air supply. Wolverine fights against clowns in a Fun House. Gambit escapes from a giant spike ball in a cave. Cyclops explores an underground mine until he encounters a Sentinel. The game went through tremendous problems during development with 3 teams working on it simultaneously. Eventually releasing on SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, and Game Boy, the game would end up disappointing children on all platforms with its brutal difficulty and unresponsive controls.
The Super Famicom finally received its first exclusive Spider-Man title in The Amazing Spider-Man: Lethal Foes (1996), but it never received a Western receive for reasons that are unknown. The game has the typical mix of platforming and spider powers, but with smooth animations that more faithfully replicate the animated style of the character than other titles that hit the platform. Lethal Foes eventually received a fan translation in 2015.
PCs would get their final exclusive Spider-Man game with Marvel Comics Spider-Man: The Sinister Six (1996). Brooklyn Multimedia designed the game as a point-and-click adventure in which the player navigates a basic story designed for young children. As Peter Parker, the player selects between basic dialogue options with a few opportunities for a branching narrative. As Spider-Man, the player faces off against each member of the Sinister Six using one of two play styles. The first has Spider-Man in a first-person perspective as the player controls where he shoots his web. The second has Spider-Man dodging attacks based on the directions chosen by the player. The game had decent cut scene animations for a mid-90s adventure game but the gameplay did not quite measure up compared to what other developers were offering at the time.
The Spider-Man license exploded right out the gate with games that pushed to innovate ways to demonstrate the webcrawler’s varied powers while retaining its comic book roots. This innovation began to stifle throughout the 90s as more games were being produced with designs that mimicked their predecessors or copied other popular trends at the time. Due to the strength of its popular license, these games generally sold well regardless of their quality. It would take the advent of the next generation of consoles capable of 3D polygonal gaming to allow the licensed Spider-Man game to evolve.
Check back in two weeks when we return for Franchise Festival #107: Spider-Man (3D)!