All Your History: Spider-Man Part 2 – (Almost) Whatever a Spider Can
As the 1990s began, comic books were a cash cow. Business for Marvel and their publishing rivals, DC Comics, had been picking up steam since the late-eighties. Collectors and speculators flocked to comic shops to grab every new number one issue they could find, hoping valuable comics would pay for their kids’ college funds. In 1991, Marvel released X-Men #1 from Chris Claremont and Jim Lee. The issue became the highest selling comic book of all time, moving over 8.1 million copies and generating almost $7 million for the publisher. It was a watershed moment for the industry, and today can be seen as the official birth of the comic book boom. But by the middle of the decade, the industry would go from boom to bust in spectacular fashion, taking the webbed wall-crawler with it…
(Almost) Whatever a Spider Can…
Marvel’s flagship character, Spider-Man, was just as caught up in the comics explosion of the ‘90s as the X-Men. From 1990 to 1996, there would be eleven video games with the character’s name in the title—not counting ports, handheld Tiger electronics games, or Capcom’s infamous fighters featuring Marvel’s characters. While a few of these games brought gamers closer to the experiences they’d read about in comics, many were simply rehashes of what had come before.
Spider-Man’s video game saturation started small, with Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy system. Marvel forged an agreement with Acclaim subsidiary LJN to handle the character’s appearances on Nintendo’s family of consoles, and for their first game, The Amazing Spider-Man, LJN tapped developer Rare Ltd.
If that name sounds familiar, it should: a few years later Rare would become the company behind the Super Nintendo hit Donkey Kong Country and the legendary GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64. While Amazing Spider-Man never gained such celebrated status as those games, Rare infused it with a sense of action and an understanding of Spider-Man’s powers that hadn’t been seen in games to this point.
Spider-Man fought several villains from his rogues gallery in the action side-scroller, including Hobgoblin, Scorpion, Mysterio and more. His powers were also better represented than they’d ever been, featuring spider-strength and agility, not to mention his trademark webslinging. Gameplay also shifted between fighting in Manhattan’s streets and subways to building-crawling segments reminiscent of 1982’s Atari 2600 installment. The character’s “spider-sense” also got its first representation in an action game: while climbing to the top of the building, players were warned of oncoming dangers.
The action and constant barrage of foes Rare’s title offered players the a pretty authentic Spidey experience, considering the comics’ high stakes and non-stop action. It’s not surprising that Rare made such a great Spider-Man game, considering their track record for quality titles in the years to come.
However, LJN went a different route with the two sequels they published for the Game Boy in 1992 and 1993. For those, called Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider Slayers, LJN chose Bits Studios. These sequels offered some new mechanics, like wall-crawling abilities throughout whole levels and being able to enter and explore buildings in an almost open-world style. But ultimately, the two Bits installments weren’t nearly as polished—or fun to play—as the one that spawned the Game Boy trilogy.
Nintendo’s chief rival during the early-90s was Sega, and in 1990 they published the first Spider-Man game for their 8-bit Master System, with a port to the Sega Genesis console coming a year later in 1991. Called The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, it was the first project taken on by developer Technopop, a company that was also the first independent American developer for the Genesis.
Technobits’ title brought even more of the character’s unique qualities to the video game world. In addition to fluid acrobatics and action-packed fisticuffs, Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin was the first game to incorporate aspects of Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker. In order to earn money to buy supplies for web-fluid, players could equip Spider-Man with his camera and sell photographs of villains Spidey encountered. Taking photos of bad guys helped clear Spider-Man’s name within the context of the story, but from a gameplay standpoint the mechanic offered players the most faithful representation of the character yet.
The game was a hit. According to the Randal Reiss, Technobits’ founder over two-thirds of the Genesis’s entire install-base bought it. In fact, Reiss said that it was such a huge success that Marvel Comics reversed course on a decision to pull its property license deal with Sega.
The publisher took advantage of that license again in 1991, releasing a coin-operated arcade game aptly called Spider-Man: The Video Game. A four-player cooperative beat-em-up in the style of Capcom’s Final Fight, Sega’s game was plenty fun and had some impressive visuals and animations for the time, including a memorable scene where Spider-Man’s villain, Venom, grew to gigantic proportions.
But beyond the game’s title and a few of its characters, it didn’t have much to do with the character in terms of gameplay. Each of the four characters was more or less interchangeable, and only one of them—Black Cat—could be considered a cast-member of Spider-Man’s adventures. Hawkeye was a member of the Avengers, and the Sub-Mariner was…an undersea prince. Needless to say, he and Spidey didn’t cross paths too often.
It wasn’t apparent at the time, but Sega’s coin-op arcade game marked the beginning of the end for innovation in Spider-Man’s games. Once it was clear that kids would buy anything called “Spider-Man,” the effort to make his games push the boundaries of what had gone before disappeared. The deluge of uninspired and cloned games was about to commence.
In 1992, LJN relied on Bits once again to make the first and only game starring the character on the Nintendo Entertainment System: Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six. Much like Bits’ efforts on the Game Boy, this was a somewhat lackluster action side-scroller. The same year, LJN worked with Software Creations to put out yet another side-scrolling action title, Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge for the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo. Arcade’s Revenge was a team-up game where players controlled one cast member at a time while trying to survive Arcade’s death traps. The team-up aspect was spiritually similar to 1989’s computer game Spider-Man and Captain America in Doctor Doom’s Revenge. Revenge was clearly a popular theme.
By this point, the age of comic book excess was in full swing. Superman was killed in 1992, and Batman’s back was broken in 1993. Massive events and shake-ups were the recipe to drive up sales, and Spider-Man was no exception. In 1993, Marvel published a story arc in which Spidey teamed up with his opposite number, Venom, to take down their common enemy, the murderous Carnage. If Venom was basically an evil, extreme version Spidey, then Carnage was an evil, extreme version of Venom—an example of too much of a good thing if ever there was one.
So it was fitting that at the height of the boom in 1994, LJN and Software Creations released Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage for the Super Nintendo and Genesis consoles. Another Final Fight-style beat-em-up, the game itself wasn’t anything special. But it was notable for being the first video game based on a specific comic storyline, something of a rarity even today. Symbolically though, it encapsulated the boom era’s spirit because of the overall package: the cartridges manufactured by LJN were blood red. Colored cartridges were basically the video game equivalent of gold-holofoil-variant covers of comics: impressive on the surface, but more flash than function. Unsurprisingly, the red cartridge is what’s best remembered about this game today. The soundtrack composed by the forgettable alternative band Green Jelly didn’t hurt its nineties-esque legacy, either.
LJN’s corporate parent, Acclaim, teamed up with Software Creations in 1995 to release yet another game based on a comic story: Venom/Spider-Man: Separation Anxiety. While its cartridge wasn’t colored, it still managed to multiply the “extreme” factor. Instead of fighting just Carnage, this time Spider-Man and Venom took on five more spider-symbiotes. A year after that, Acclaim published a game based on Spider-Man: The Animated Series, which itself was based on the comics. Overall, it was more of the same, and by this point, Acclaim’s Spider-Man franchise suffered from over exposure and lack of originality. The Animated Series would be the publisher’s last title with the license.
In 1996, Sega published Spider-Man: Web of Fire for their short-lived 32-bit Genesis add-on, the 32X. The system tanked, and the game failed to gain an audience. Today, it’s one of the rarest Spider-Man games, and is highly sought after by collectors—mainly because no one bought it the first time around and it’s hard to find.
Web of Fire would be the final Spider-Man video game of the century. Marvel filed for bankruptcy in December of 1996. By the mid-nineties, the comic book industry had collapsed, a victim of its own excesses. Speculators realized that the comics they’d collected were barely worth the prices printed on the covers and largely stopped buying. Spider-Man fell victim to the industry’s pursuit of style over substance, getting caught up in “the Clone Saga” from 1994 to 1996. The arc featured a never-ending cast of Spider-Man’s genetic duplicates, a nonsensical storyline, and the ire of fans who’d been reading for years.
Both in the comics and in video games, Spider-Man’s endless clones drove fans away and tarnished what had been one of Marvel’s best brands. It would take a miracle to make Spider-Man interesting to fans again. Well, a miracle or a brand new video game system…
Tune in next time for Spider-Man’s brand new day…