“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required…”
-The Gospel of Luke 12:48 [NASB]
In the 90’s, Sega and Marvel Comics came together to produce a Spider-Man arcade game, one of the forgotten Spidey games in history. I remembered this game chatting with readers in our comment sections since we recently covered beat ’em ups in our Elemental Challenge, and also because they’ve released yet another Spider-Man movie, Homecoming. In case you don’t want to see Uncle Ben get shot and hear his “Obligation of Nobility” again (spoiler, Uncle Ben dies?), or if you don’t want to stir up old nightmares about Tobey Maguire’s cry face, you can read the following review on a Spider-Man video game that’s actually good. Please disregard that Sinister Six game on the NES… it’s LJN.
Spider-Man: the Videogame was something that really fascinated me as a kid, for a few reasons. One, it was a beat ’em up, in other words: a highly accessible and straightforward coin-munching romp representative of a genre I enjoyed. I always sought out these sorts of games in the arcades I frequented and infrequented.
Two, it featured frickin’ Spider-Man. Spider-Man and later Batman were my childhood favorites before I turned to the dark side (colloquially DC Comics). Spider-Man comic books were the earliest comics I remember buying with my own ill-gotten gains. The 90’s Spider-Man animated series was a perennial staple in my diet of cartoons, until I grew up and wondered why they all talked at the pace of Speed Racer. I loved Spidey’s candy-colored world, his villains, and his powers. His snarky optimism was a big draw for me as a kid. I collected Spider-Man action figures and trading cards (remember those Marvel cards you put together in sets of 9 to make bigger images?).
Reason three why this game captured my heart: I only saw and played it once. I never played it again, as a kid. I now remember looking for it in the arcades whenever I went but its elusiveness eventually let it slip out of my mind. I wouldn’t rediscover it until I was an adult and then all those memories came back, how I first encountered that four-player cabinet in some dark, brick room at an airport, how I pumped in quarter after quarter but had to give up anyway when it was time to go. Walking away from an arcade machine you’d just put real money into before getting a game over, just so you know, makes for a horrible, sinking feeling in your gut, causing you to hate your parents until dinner time.
Spider-Man: the Videogame was notable for the sheer amount of characters that populated it. Their designs are based on the work of Spidey artists from the 60’s through 80’s. A lot of these, if not all of them, are the character designs I usually think of when you talk about Spider-Man, Black Cat, Kingpin, Hobgoblin, Scorpion, Venom, and so on. The game is populated with tons of bosses and mini-bosses that cover the bulk of Spidey’s baddies but there are also other Marvel antagonists thrown in, namely Doctor Doom, the last boss. Doc Doom is one of the better Marvel villains, so that’s alright by me. Plus, there are Shy Guys (bottom-left corner)?
The game places great emphasis on preserving its comic book aesthetic. Between stages there are short sequences that look as if they’ve web-slung out of comic panels. Characters throw out word bubbles with threats and exclamations, and there’s Spidey snark included. Compared with other Spider-Man games that don’t take the time to do this, this arcade game makes the others feel hokey and inaccurate.
Playable characters include Spider-Man, of course, as well as Catwoman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow… uhh I mean Black Cat, Sub-Mariner, and Purple Arrow… dangit Hawkeye! One typically ubiquitous feature in beat ’em ups are different special attacks across the different playable characters. Some games cut corners on this but in this one the four heroes each get a unique special: Spidey sprays a blast of webbing, Black Cat swings around her whip, Hawkeyes shoots arrows (surprise), and Sub-Mariner summons up the elements. The game takes the approach of reducing your character’s health every time they use a special attack, so these must be implemented in battle only sparingly.
As far as beat ’em ups go, there’s not a whole lot brought to the table in the appropriately named Spider-Man: the Videogame. Sixteen stages can seem like a bit much for a style of game where the gameplay doesn’t deviate too far from button mashing. So they changed up the gameplay here.
The game’s stages are divided up by platforming. What? Yes! I wish more beat ’em ups did this. It’s hugely innovative in a genre that could use more innovation and I’m not sure why we don’t see it more. After completing the first boss fight against Scorpion and Venom, the black symbiote grows to massive size and starts wreaking havoc across the city. The screen zooms out and Spidey and his pals must climb up the sides of buildings and across billboards and scaffolding to chase down giant Venom. It was as surprising as it sounds!
After that first encounter, the stages will switch between this zoomed-in side-scrolling beat ’em up and that zoomed-out platforming run and gun. Your characters trade their fists and kicks for projectile weapons and climbing and hanging from the ceiling. There will be boss fights in both styles of gameplay. This innovation really prevents the game from feeling like it’s dragging its feet.
You can add this game to a list of arcade games that should’ve been brought to home console but for some reason never were. This game would be really fun to play in a decent remaster with modern consoles and their wireless controllers that easily make for four-player games. One of my biggest gaming wishes would be to see forgotten arcade gems like this in one modern collection. They brought Konami’s X-Men: the Arcade Game and The Simpsons to home console on PSN (for like a day before they took it down), so why no love for Spider-Man?
Maybe the dudebros who run Sega are all DC fans, now.
The 8-bit Review
Despite its early date, Spider-Man: the Videogame is one of the best looking pixelated Spidey games. Compared with later Spider-Man games, even on the SNES, like Maximum Carnage, Separation Anxiety, and the Spider-Man game based on the animated series and the differences are palpable. Spider-Man: the Videogame has large character sprites with physiologically accurate proportions. Occasionally their head-ducking punches and movement speed make them look a little old-man-ish but that’s a small trade off for all the detail and articulation. The characters look less like toys for it.
Even the color palette of the game seems deliberate for comic book accuracy. Note the comparatively muted colors and heavy gray shadows. The artists who drew Spider-Man through the 60’s and 80’s had to have been proud to see their work so lovingly rendered with such articulation, especially with a crowded screen of four heroes fighting off mobs of enemies. For that extra comic book effect, onomatopoeias pop up whenever you land a hit or perform a special.
If the soundtrack sounds very much un-Spidey like, that’s because a portion of it was lifted straight from Sega’s earlier arcade game, Quartet. That’s why this OST sounds so… shmupy. I guess Spider-Man music was in short supply in ’91, or there was little inspiration for it at the time beyond the jangle “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does what ever a spider can!” Genius wordsmithing, that.
It’s not just a forgettable and borrowed soundtrack that brings this score down. We’ve also got to consider the vocal effects. A lot of the enemies sound like putties from Power Rangers when you put them out of there misery. Whenever characters say their lines, the words are so garbled I really can’t understand a word. Exceptions to this are (thankfully) Peter Parker’s lines between stages and a scant few boss line deliveries. Ah and the punch sound effects are not too varied so they become almost instantaneously monotonous. At least most arcades were noisy enough to prevent this game’s sound from being truly upsetting.
This is “Oki Rap” with the original vocal effects from Quartet. Skip to 7:58.
There’s nothing quite like a beat ’em up with four player simultaneous play, at least I imagine it’s pretty great. I’ve played with four or more players on other arcade games in this fashion, such as X-Men, but the most I’ve done with this game is two. The screen doesn’t seem quite wide enough to support all four players, though, and the beat ’em up action is pretty zoomed in. This becomes transparent when you accidentally throw an enemy into your own ally, again and again and again. Luckily, punches and kicks won’t hurt your own teammate but these throws and flying kicks will.
Bizarrely, Sega came up with a way to ensure that it’s extremely difficult to make it through the whole game on one credit: your life steadily decreases every few seconds. That means you’ll need to plow through enemies quickly in order to find the rare health items scattered through certain areas. That coupled with the fact that your allies can hurt you on accident and your own special attacks deplete your health means that you’re living on borrowed time as soon as you drop in your first quarter. Of course, you’ll soon want to pick up the pace more than what the game allows.
If only the developers knew what a dash move was! Why is this such a problem in so many beat ’em ups of the time? I had the same irritation with Streets of Rage (unless there’s some esoteric input for dashing in that game). Here, the characters are so slow they seem practically geriatric, Bernie-esque with age! Flying kicks aren’t really the most convenient way to get around but at least there’s always plenty going on in each screen.
That all sounds like a lot of complaining, so then why such a high score for this game? As a beat ’em up, primarily, there’s nothing too impressive about it beyond the inclusion of its characters and the graphics, but the platforming elements make this game sing, breaking up the boredom of the beat ’em up class.
This multiplayer function… couch co-op is all but dead in some circles of gaming so it’s wonderful that games like this existed at one point in time that could bring not two nor even three friends together, but four. That’s fantastic.
Beat ’em ups are inherently accessible with easy to learn and intuitive attacking and moving inputs, and the combos aren’t more complicated here than merely mashing a button. You’ll catch on quickly about your health decreasing, usually after a few special attacks used in haste. It’s not the most obvious thing that all the characters (Sub-Mariner and Hawkeye in particular) can crawl on walls and the ceiling to get around in the platforming sections, and I do remember actually “getting stuck” for a bit before figuring this out.
I was thinking to myself earlier and I said: “Self, if a game can’t teach you how to play itself in less than a minute than you’ve got to realize that you don’t even really want to play it.” Amen to that. So much gets lost in the minutiae of rules and combos and stats and HUDs and sidequesting and interfaces and grids… in the end these are just games, y’know? If the methodology of rules a game adopts prevents you from interacting with it without great difficulty, then why play it at all?
No secret endings that I know of, no secret levels, no secret bosses… you played this kind of game back in the day just for the fun-factor and for being with other human beings, forming an unspoken connection with them, allying yourself with them even if they were perfect strangers. With so much to play these days, there’s not a ton of reasons why you’d come back to play this again and again, if you can even find the cabinet, unless it’s just to enjoy the experience. But then, shouldn’t that be a part of why we play games, anyway?
Combining run and gun platforming with side-scrolling beat ’em up was this game’s singular genius move. To my mind, that puts it on the map in terms of gaming history. Like I said, I wish I saw this more in other beat ’em ups. Lifting music from Quartet and adopting an existing franchise isn’t going to get this game all the way to a 10 for Uniqueness, though.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Spider-Man: the Videogame makes me look forward to the Arkham-styled Spider-Man game coming to PS4. This game is now a relic of the early 90’s, an artifact in museums we call arcades, but it’s a fine example of innovation and engaging gameplay. It’s proof that Sega was stellar at making arcade games. Its parts come together for the Spidey fan to make it one of the great Spider-Man games of any era. Is that too much to say? Well, without a home console port, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Aggregated Score: 6.8