The article series "Why Do I Keep Playing Movie Games?" was a semi-regular piece I wrote on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor.
Presented here, and in honor of the recent announcement concerning Insomniac Games' upcoming PS4 exclusive Spider-Man, is a post I wrote on May 9, 2014 relating to games featuring the Webhead, with most of the focus being on the entries tying into the film releases.
With Spider-Man back in theaters this month for his latest big screen adventure, the onslaught of advertising on TV and the web (ha!) may inspire you to seek out some other Spidey adventures. There are certainly a lot to choose from, with four previous films, numerous television series, and over fifty years of continuous comic book publication featuring Marvel’s most recognizable superhero.
This also, of course, extends to video games, and like most superheroes, Spidey has had a rather tumultuous tenure on the front of interactive adventures. Still, though, gems do exist in Spidey’s video game library, so in this edition of “Why Do I Play Movie Games?”, we’ll take a look at a couple of bright spots that lie outside of Spider-Man’s movie-to-game adaptations, while also looking at the efforts related to the big screen outings.
The first licensed video game featuring the Webhead was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, and from there it was an onslaught throughout the early systems. It led to later releases on Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum, PC, and the Apple II, before a couple of other more notable releases arrived on the MS-DOS platform. When Spider-Man started showing up on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Game Boy, it would lead to a nearly constant stream of Spider-Man games up through the 16-bit console era.
When Spider-Man made the jump onto the Super NES and Sega Genesis, things started to get really interesting, and for many, one of the more definitive Spider-Man games ever released arrived in 1994, inside a very distinctive red cartridge. That game was…
Maximum Carnage and Separation Anxiety
Spider-Man/Venom: Maximum Carnage has the distinction of being one of the first comics-based video games to be based directly on a story arc from the source material, and featured cutscenes taken directly from comic book artwork. The comic book story unfolded throughout 1993 in the five Spidey monthly comics in publication at the time: The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, and Web of Spider-Man, and told the story of Cletus Kasady, aka Carnage, on a rampage across New York that required Spider-Man, Venom, and other Marvel characters to join forces in stopping him.
The game featured a soundtrack composed by rock band Green Jelly, and is a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. (This basically means that it consists of walking to the right and literally beating up each enemy that appears.) Players control both Spider-Man and Venom during different levels, also consisting of web-swinging and wall crawling areas. While it’s not the most complicated game, it has the virtue of being pretty damned satisfying, and was a massive success as a result.
Although the next year released a sequel called Separation Anxiety, changes in the development staff and less attention paid to its presentation resulted in it lacking the same brand of recognition enjoyed by Maximum Carnage. Nevertheless, video games were about to trade up to the third dimension, and Spider-Man was going to swing along with them.
Spider-Man Games from 1995 — 2001
1995 saw the release of a side-scrolling platform game based on the Spider-Man animated series of the 1990s, which later led to appearances by the Webhead in Marvel arcade games, including the first two entries in the Marvel vs. Capcom series.
While the late 1990s saw Marvel face difficulty that ultimately led to a bankruptcy declaration in 1996, they were out of hot water by the beginning of the 21st century, largely symbolized by the success of the original X-Men film. With their financial solvency renewed, Spidey again began appearing in more video games.
The year 2000 saw Spidey land in his first major solo 3D video game, the aptly titled Spider-Man that was released on Nintendo 64, PlayStation, Dreamcast, and PC, in addition to a version for Game Boy Color. For the first time, players could leap in the air and web swing in a three-dimensional environment, and the attention paid to telling a representative story for the character and his supporting cast, on top of an exquisite gameplay foundation, was absolutely infectious. Critics and gamers ate up Spider-Man, and it provided a basis that many of today's best comic book games follow to this day.
The success of this game led to the release of Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro a year later, which wasn’t particularly well received.
By now, though, Spidey was on his way to the big screen, and with that came an entire new series of games based on those cinematic adventures, along with a couple of surprises based on the source material.
Movie Game: Spider-Man (2002)
The game based on the first Spider-Man film directed by Sam Raimi was a relatively straightforward beat-‘em-up adventure game, developed by Treyarch. While the gameplay itself wasn’t dissimilar from the 2000 effort on previous consoles, Spider-Man’s presentation was far better, creating a visual palette very similar to the film it attempted to represent. Not only did it have a strong visual design, but it also featured the voices and likenesses of many of the primary actors, most notably Tobey Maguire as Spidey himself, and Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin. While Maguire does a fine job in his role, Dafoe brought the trademark craziness to his turn as the Goblin directly to the game, giving it a bit of a pop.
For the most part, I still enjoy Spider-Man to this day. It’s not particularly complicated or groundbreaking, but the style and the aesthetic design of the maps (particularly the ones based in the high skyscrapers of New York) all still strike a fun chord, and as far as movie tie-in games go, Spider-Man is definitely one of the better efforts made.
Movie Game: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
As of right now, the movie Spider-Man 2 stands as the most critically acclaimed film in the entirety of the franchise thus far, and as far as Spider-Man games that are well-regarded, surprisingly enough, Spider-Man 2 may also top that list. Leaving behind the action beat-‘em-up of the first game, Spider-Man 2 is instead an open world New York City for Spidey to swing through. While there is a story based on the film present (that features the return of Tobey Maguire in the title role, as well as Alfred Molina as Doc Ock), the open world allowed Spider-Man to explore and participate on the player’s terms for the first time.
As a result, Spider-Man 2 has largely set the standard for what a Spider-Man video game is supposed to be, and most of the video game outings since 2004 have taken place in an open world New York. With strong swinging mechanics, diverse side missions, and a wealth of other content, Spider-Man 2 is still seen by many as the absolute best of Spider-Man in gaming.
It made some notable sacrifices in the graphics department, but it more than made up for that in the form of in-depth exploration that, for the first time, made you really feel like you were Spider-Man. While the last game is one of the better efforts in translating a movie to a video game, Spider-Man 2 still stands as one of the best game translations of both movies and of superheroes.
Comics Game: Ultimate Spider-Man (2005)
With no movie to quell the need for Spider-Man in 2005, Treyarch and Activision turned to the comic books, in this case, the modernized and reimagined continuity of Marvel’s “Ultimate” imprint. Ultimate Spider-Man partially adapts and expands on story elements from the comic book series of the same name, which was written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Mark Bagley.
It also marks the first major release since Maximum Carnage that allows players to take the reins of both Spider-Man and Venom, with the mechanics for Spidey being largely familiar from the previous year’s Spider-Man 2, and the Venom mechanics being creative derivations on the same movements (with Venom, for instance, you don’t exactly “wall crawl.” You just dig your massive claws into the sides of buildings as you ascend).
Ultimate Spider-Man employs a unique form of cel-shaded graphics technology that allows the three-dimensional game models to look like their hand-drawn comic book counterparts. A perfectly competent game in its own right, Ultimate Spider-Man helped satisfy gamers’ appetites on the proven formula of Spider-Man 2, and was very successful as a result.
Movie Game: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
So…what went wrong here? Similarly to the weirdly in-sync reputations for both the film and game of Spider-Man 2, the same can be said for the film and game versions of Spider-Man 3. Although the game expands on the SM2 formula of an open world New York City, and though it was released on the recently-released Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Spider-Man 3 fell pretty far short of expectations.
This seemed mainly because it merely subsists on the formula of the previous game, and doesn’t really add anything substantive to it. Ultimate Spider-Man felt like a truer sequel, mostly because it actually managed to add to the proven open world formula rather than simply clone SM2.
While all of the major cast members lend their voices and likenesses (including Thomas Haden Church as Sandman and Topher Grace as Venom), the game, oddly enough, doesn’t end up representing the movie as effectively as it could have. While one of the major criticisms of the film centered on too many villains present, the game adds even more to the mix, like the Kingpin, Scorpion, and Kraven the Hunter. Beyond that, though, the bosses just aren’t very fun either, which ultimately makes for a sub-par Spider-Man game.
Comics Game: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (2008)
Falling again on a year without a film, Treyarch and Activision released Web of Shadows, a game featuring an original story based on then-recent comic book continuity. Spider-Man’s an Avenger, and the story makes several references to stories like Breakout and Civil War, and we get to see the return of Venom. Only this time, the alien Symbiote that created him has attached to Spider-Man once again, along with the rest of New York City.
Further expanding on the open world New York begun in Spider-Man 2, Web of Shadows is an ambitious game featuring a Spider-Man that can move between his traditional red-and-blue duds and the black, rage-fueled Symbiote suit at will – even in mid-combat. There are some interesting new air-combat mechanics, but overall, Web of Shadows has many of the same gameplay problems as Spider-Man 3 the previous year: it feels too similar to what we’ve played before. That’s not to say that it’s bad, though.
With multiple endings possible, great graphics, fun nods to comics history, and some cool boss fights with multiple classic foes (Vulture! Awesome!), Web of Shadows is a better game than SM3, but not the definitive Spider-Man game fans were likely hoping for.
From there, Spider-Man appeared in a number of other games, like the mediocre movie-based Friend or Foe, both stellar Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, as well as other offerings on handheld and mobile platforms that were fine, but far from great.
It wasn’t until a new developer joined the mix for Spidey in the form of Beenox that things started to kick into higher gear for the Webhead once again, and right out of the gate, the new developer differentiated itself from its predecessor by making a really fun and different take on the character in video games, as well as what currently stands as my personal favorite game featuring Marvel’s wallcrawler.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (2010)
Until recently, movie studios and game developers alike seem to have been timid in treading on what could be considered confusing waters: alternate comics universes. Most major characters actually have several alternate dimension counterparts, from Superman and Batman all the way down to Squirrel Girl and Stilt-Man.
Of course, Spidey is thrown into that category as well, so when Beenox started looking into four alternate Spider-Men as the basis for a brand new video game that aimed to provide a different experience, one of the employees in the room blurted out, “I wish we could play all of these!” As a result, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions was developed and released in September of 2010. The first new Spidey game in several years not to opt for an open world New York, Shattered Dimensions instead gives four distinct gameplay experiences through four different Spider-Men.
The four in question: “The Amazing Spider-Man” that we all know and love, “Spider-Man Noir” from a twisted and dark 1930s New York, “Spider-Man 2099” from a corporatocratic and technologically advanced future, and “Ultimate Spider-Man,” from the Ultimate Comics universe and trapped in the black symbiote suit.
Each of them has a different primary strength: agility (Amazing), stealth (Noir), speed (2099), and power (Ultimate). Adding to the cool factor is that four previous Spider-Man animated voices lend their pipes to a different Spider-Man (including Neil Patrick Harris as the Amazing one), and Shattered Dimensions still stands as one of the more unique Spidey games in the character’s interactive history.
Spider-Man: Edge of Time (2011)
Hot off the heels of Shattered Dimensions came Edge of Time, partially carrying forward the idea of the previous game, but now limiting the Spider-Men to two: “Amazing,” and “2099.” The idea behind the story is that something occurs during the Amazing Spider-Man’s time period which has serious ramifications going into 2099, and a rift between both dimensions allows the two Spider-Men of their respective eras to talk to each other as they try to repair the timeline. While it’s a respectable effort, it’s a less diverse affair than its predecessor, which largely led to its lukewarm critical reception.
It would be much easier to praise this game if it weren’t the direct follow-up to Shattered Dimensions. Lesser mobility, less diverse gameplay, an admittedly less focused story relying on pretty abstract fringe-science, and an all-around duller experience make this kind of a lesson about what not to do in superhero game sequels.
From here, though, Beenox had the keys to the Spider-Man movie kingdom, and it would be up to them to see if they could put a stronger foot forward than Treyarch’s later efforts with a fresh new Spidey movie universe to call home.
Movie Game: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
After establishing their Spidey dominance for the prior couple of years, the time had arrived for a brand new Spider-Man film to hit theaters, which by default placed a video game project in the laps of Beenox. The Amazing Spider-Man video game would return to the open world New York format established by 2004’s Spider-Man 2, while also including more characters from the comics that had not appeared in the movie this game would be based on.
Unlike previous movie games, though, ASM would instead serve as an epilogue to the events of the film, instead of having a portion of the film’s story as a playable group of missions.
Without beating around the bush, The Amazing Spider-Man was a pretty impressive video game, especially for a movie-based tie-in. While the combat system was styled a bit too obviously on the successful Batman: Arkham games, ASM reintroduced web-swinging across New York City in a manner that was arguably the best that mechanic has ever played, and a diverse set of optional side missions helped make The Amazing Spider-Man a very respectable and fun addition to the Spider-Man video game library.
Unfortunately, this year, things seemed to go a little wrong, and you can find out why in my full review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 game.