Tuesday, January 26, 2016

With Great Power... blah blah blah: Spider-Man (Arcade)

Spider-Man: The Video Game (Arcade, 1991)

Three arcade beat-em-ups based on Marvel heroes are well known to both genre and Marvel fans, all developed and released by different publishers: Data East's Captain America and the Avengers (1991), Konami's X-Men (1992), and Capcom's The Punisher. Captain America is a particularly breezy, satisfying brawler that really captures the feel of Silver Age comics. X-men, of course, is famous for its impressive double-monitor, six-player action. The Punisher is considered one of the best games in its genre, and is notable for the relative rarity of its hero in gaming. All three are excellent beat-em-ups, and all three are excellent Marvel games. And then there's Sega's Spider-Man.

When LJN/Acclaim was otherwise dominating the Marvel-licensed games in the early '90s, Sega struck a (non-exclusive) deal with Marvel to produce Spider-Man and X-Men games. As far as I can tell, that's all the deal covered, because Sega itself never published anything else. The games were limited to a pair of solid X-Men games on the Genesis, a trilogy of terrible X-Men games on the Game Gear, and the unremarkable Spider-Man Vs. The Kingpin, which was released for pretty much everything with a Sega name on it. Oh yeah - and the abysmal Spider-Man: Web of Fire for the doomed 32X. And a single arcade brawler. You'd be forgiven for not even knowing of its existence. Beyond its relative scarcity - I've only ever encountered the genuine arcade machine once in my life - it's not a particularly good game. But it's definitely one of the oddest Spider-Man games around, and it has a few tricks up its sleeve that might interest brawler fans.

At its core, Spider-Man is the epitome of mediocrity. It's the kind of game that makes you realize why the classics are considered classics; something is just missing from this game. You can perform your standard beat-em-up combo, and that's it. Each hero does have access to a special signature move, which, in typical brawler fashion, drains your health every time you use it. Except it's not all that useful! The average goon can take 2 of these hits before dying, which makes its health drain not even worth it. That's the extent of your offense. You can use a typical brawler jump-kick, but movement is so slow that it renders it fairly useless. With no dash function, our heroes' casual stroll becomes pretty infuriating when it keeps you from dodging enemy attacks. And that's it. No throwable weapons, exploding barrels, whatever. There are some destructibles - trash cans, etc. - but they only hide health power-ups, and in any case they disappear altogether after the 2nd level or so.

The game's real calling card is how it briefly changes genres, sorta. Throughout each level the gameplay shifts to purely 2D sidescrolling-platforming; your standard attack becomes a ranged attack. It actually plays pretty much the same as the SNES version of Batman Returns, except with a bigger emphasis on platforming and cheap hits. This is the style of game that Capcom and others produced en masse in the late '80s, with games like Bionic Commando and Rygar. But the action-platformer quickly gave way to brawlers and fighters, especially once developers realized that home consoles were much more suited to the genre (the NES versions of both Bionic Commando and Rygar are notably superior to their arcade counterparts). So this style of gameplay's inclusion - in the middle of a brawler, no less - in 1991 was a bit strange. What's impressive, though, is that the transitions are seamless (as far as 1991 goes) - at the end of a brawling segment, the camera simply zooms out and the game changes to a platformer, and then zooms back in for another brawling segment. The platforming sections are as bad as you imagine, but they do a nice job of breaking up the monotonous brawling, and they give a nice sense of scale and vertical progression that is often lacking in the genre.

You might have noticed I keep saying "heroes," and you might have noticed the characters in the screenshots; this is a 4-player game, after all. This is where the game transforms from a minor brawler into a curiosity, at least for Marvel fans, because the hero roster seems so random. Aside from Spidey himself, you can choose from the Black Cat - OK, that makes sense. And Hawkeye, of the Avengers. Right. And - Namor the Sub-Mariner. The story gives no reason why these guys are joining Spidey, and it's just as random and weird as it sounds. It's the only instance in a Marvel game where Black Cat and Namor are playable characters (though I believe Black Cat is planned for Marvel Heroes). That alone makes it worthwhile to the True Believer. The villains are all Spidey's - and you will fight them, with their very basic (read: lazy) patterns multiple times throughout the game - but the big bad is Dr. Doom, who is definitely not a typical Spider-man villain. Maybe this really only applies to Marvel fans, but the whole thing is weird and incongruous. The rest of the goons - there aren't many - sort of look like the white-mask guards from the X-Men's Hellfire Club, which feels even more off.

Speaking of feeling off - wait until you hear this game. The music is forgettable, at best, but the digitized voices range from passable (at best) to some of the weirdest, distorted warbling I've ever heard in a game. If I didn't know better, I would have thought there was something wrong with my ROM. And every time a goon jumps or dies, he gives out an entirely strange, high-pitched yelping sound - imagine Street Fighter's Vega, but even more annoying. It's a nice enough looking game, with big, detailed sprites and fine (though unremarkable) backgrounds. The hero animations, though... like everything else about the game, they're just off. They're too tall and lanky, and the three male heroes walk and punch like old men. Really. Imagine Larry David in a Spider-Man outfit - or in Namor's green speedo - and you're halfway there. I do love the casual way Namor just tosses enemies up into the air, though.

Spider-Man has a few features to pique the interest of genre fans, and it serves as an interesting curiosity to Marvel fans; unfortunately, it has very little to offer anyone else, just looking for a fun game.

All screenshots are my own.

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