All Your History: Spider-Man Part 1 – Bit by the Gaming Bug
In 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were working together on a Marvel Comics magazine scheduled to be canceled with its fifteenth issue. With nothing to lose and nothing to prove, the two decided to debut a new character in Amazing Fantasy #15: Spider-Man. The book, starring a nerdy teenager who gained super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, turned out to be one of the most successful comics Marvel had ever sold. Since then, Spider-Man has become one of the most enduring characters in American pop-culture. Not only that, but Spidey’s also managed to find more success in video games than most—if not all—of his superhero peers.
Bit by the Gaming Bug
When Lee and Ditko introduced Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker, readers identified with the character and his story almost immediately. Part of this was because he had so much in common with the adolescent audience that shared his adventures: young, misunderstood, and trying to find a place in the world. But his real-life, relatable problems weren’t all that had readers hooked. Spider-Man had a unique set of powers and a distinctive look that set him apart from the other heroes on the newsstands.
Unlike many comic book superheroes, Spider-Man’s face was completely covered—anyone could’ve been under that mask. It’s been said that readers are better able to identify with the character because of this visual anonymity. While the decision to conceal Spider-Man’s identity in total may not have been deliberately done for this effect, it’s likely that it helped make Spider-Man the perfect super-powered stand-in for players wanting to immerse themselves in his video game adventures.
But it would be a while after Spider-Man’s introduction in the early 1960s for him to swing into the digital world. In the intervening years, Spider-Man appeared on television in cartoons and live action series. By the early-1980s, Marvel Comics had learned the value of licensing its characters into other media. So when video games began to gain in popularity, the company saw an opportunity.
In 1981, Parker Brothers snapped up licenses to make video games based on Star Wars, Care Bears, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. A year later, the company released Spider-Man for the Atari 2600. Despite its hardware limitations, the game still managed to provide players with a relatively authentic Spider-Man experience. Spidey crawled up the side of a building and defused bombs set by his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. Players could even swing from webs while trying to avoid the Goblin’s webline-cutting thugs in the building’s windows.
According to a 2005 interview with Laura Nikolich, the lead programmer on the project, she and her team were free to make the game they wanted to create…within the limits of the system’s capabilities, of course.
“No one ever told me how to do Spider-Man. We had a few conversations with the marketing people but we would just explain the limitations of the system, and then we’d get our way. […] They gave us a bunch of comic books, which I read, but I knew about Spider-Man; I’d seen the cheesy afternoon shows! So it really wasn’t too hard to come up with a game.”
Despite the Marvel’s lack of input on the title, Nikolich and her team managed to come up with an inspired choice for the game’s antagonist, the Green Goblin. The decision, it turns out, was made mostly for technical reasons. Nikolich said that the Goblin “was the easiest to do because he could fly.”
All in all, the Atari 2600 game wasn’t a bad debut for the Webbed Wonder. The game was enough of a success that Marvel wanted to put more of their characters into players’ hands. For that, they tapped Scott Adams.
Adams was a game-maker whose company, Adventure International, was making a name for itself in the burgeoning computer game industry. Marvel and Adventure International inked a deal for the developer to create twelve new text-based games based on the publisher’s characters, while Marvel would publish tie-in comic books that fleshed out what happened in the games. Adams explains how the arrangement came about in an email interview with Machinima.
“We were contacted by Joe Calamari at Marvel. He was Vice President at the time and later he became President of Marvel. He was always looking for new tie-ins for Marvel characters. He wanted to get Marvel into the computer gaming and it appears my name and my company came highly recommended as the place to go!”
In 1984, Adventure International released Questprobe: Spider-Man, the second in the series after the company had published its first Questprobe game starring the Incredible Hulk. The text-based adventure game was paired with static images that changed based on the players’ in-game actions, which were drawn by actual Marvel Comics artists.
“All the artwork for the characters in-game was set up by Marvel and then transferred by my artist into the game engine or approved by Marvel when we made changes,” recalls Adams. The programmer also served as plotter for the published Questprobe comics. “I did the complete storylines for the tie-in comic books and then they storyboarded them, I approved them and then they went to final creation.”
In the game, Spider-Man was sent on a puzzle-solving, gem-hunting expedition by a brand new villain named the Chief Examiner. The villain wasn’t just created by Adams, though—he actually was Adams. Adams explains how Marvel decided on the Examiner’s unique design:
“The Chief Examiner was going to appear throughout the series. When asked how I wanted him to look I said, ‘model him on me!’ Marvel asked me to send in a picture and they would discuss it. When I heard back, they said, ‘Yeah, you look evil enough.’”
While it might not impress modern gamers, Questprobe included many of Spidey’s signature villains, as well as his powers, like his spider-strength and the ability to crawl on the ceiling. However, the action never took the hero to the New York City skyline, a pretty important part of the character’s stories and a prominent feature in the Atari 2600 outing from 1982. Much like the Parker Brothers’ game, though, technical limitations dictated certain creative decisions, like setting the game indoors.
“I had to put Spider-Man inside,” says Adams, “as his travel abilities would mean folks would be trying to take off in all directions.”
Ultimately, despite the game’s positive reception, Adventure International couldn’t stay in business as tastes in video games shifted away from text-based adventures. The company folded in 1985 with only three of the Marvel games made. Spider-Man wouldn’t make his way back to video games for another five years.
In 1989, Marvel’s license went to a computer game publisher named Paragon Software. Paragon managed to release only two titles featuring the character: a 1989 team-up called Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge, and 1990’s The Amazing Spider-Man. Both improved on the gameplay elements featured in ones from earlier in the decade, featuring the character’s acrobatics and wall-crawling skills, yet neither one was able to offer gamers the same kind of experience seen in the comics.
In Doctor Doom’s Revenge, players switched off between the two titular characters and fought villains one-on-one. But while some villains like the Rhino or Machete appeared, there were some odd choices of antagonists, too. At one point, Spider-Man takes on…a robot. Shortly thereafter, Captain America tussles with…a gorilla.
Needless to say, the game’s devotion to comic book continuity didn’t seem to be much of a priority.
In The Amazing Spider-Man, the hero had to infiltrate Mysterio’s hideout in an effort to rescue his wife, Mary Jane. While the range of Spidey’s wall-crawling and web-swinging powers were on full display, he never threw a punch, lacking any offensive moves. The emphasis here was on the hero using his agility to solve puzzles and make it to the end of the game in one piece. After these two entries, Paragon didn’t publish any more Spider-Man titles.
As Marvel entered the 1990s, the great American comic book boom was waiting right around the corner. In addition, it was becoming clear that home consoles were beating computers in the battle for video game dominance. Soon enough, kids everywhere would be inundated with more superheroes than ever before, in four-color funny books, on Saturday morning cartoons, and, of course, on video game consoles. But how much Spider-Man is too much? Fans were about to find out…
Tune in next time to see Marvel send in the clones…