Friday, January 22, 2016

With Great Power: Spider-Man (Atari 2600)

Spider-Man (Atari 2600, 1982)

If you didn't grow up with them, playing Atari games today for longer than 5 minutes at a time is something only the obsessive and bored can do. The games' simplicity isn't really the problem, but rather how limited they are after a few levels; most Atari games recycled palette-swapped, speed-increased levels rather than feature anything new (necessary, given the hardware). The only real goal is to get better, which isn't a bad thing, but the industry and everyone else has moved on. There's a reason you don't see as many Atari compilations and twinkle-eyed fondness as you do for, say, the NES - it takes a hell of an imagination to play an Atari game today and pretend it represents what you see on the box cover.

Spider-Man would never see a re-release anyhow because of license issues. It's notable simply for the fact that it's the first game released using a Marvel Comics license. No exceptions this time - literally the first game. A few games were released for home computers in the mid '80s (think Amiga, Commodore 64, etc.), but the next true console release would be the disastrous X-Men on NES. As for Spider-Man himself, the character wouldn't see another non-PC release until 1990, when two separate games were released for the Game Boy and Genesis. And so we begin a rich and very rocky history of Marvel Comics in video games, one that continues to this day. Most recently Marvel and its licensees seem content to churn out iOS garbage and the odd LEGO game - but then, who knows what kind of licenses Activision is sitting on? But I digress.

Specifically, Spider-Man marks the start of a long history of developers struggling to translate the character's unique skills to unique and intuitive game design. Here we have a character who is agile, can stick to walls, has tremendous strength, and can use his web shooters in any number of ways, particularly for swinging. Throw in a real New York setting, a strong supporting cast, a unique photography job (which he often does as Spider-Man), and the most colorful rogues' gallery this side of Batman - and you have a license ripe for video game interpretation.

And yet developers, for whatever reason, have struggled to really capture the characters' essence. Not that they're entirely at fault - blame limited hardware or rushed development windows. But still, the bulk of Spider-Man games have ended up as action-platformers with a few Spidey-like extras thrown in. Nearly all of them offered a rudimentary web-slinging mechanic (even the atrocious NES release, Return of the Sinister Six), even when it amounted to nothing integral to the game. Some were beat-em-ups that managed to capture the look and feel of a comic book, but they still could have been done with any other character. It wasn't until Activision's excellent 2000 PS1 Spider-Man (and later perfected in the second movie game) that the character was given true justice, not just because of superior hardware but also because the developers knew the key to any Spider-Man game was going to be his web-slinging mechanic.

The reason I bring that up is because, back in 1982, developer Parker Bros. at least had the right idea with their Spider-Man game for Atari 2600. No one is or ever will call this game a classic, but it does at least focus on a simple thing that most of the '90s Spidey games either didn't or couldn't: web-slinging. The goes goes like this: as Spider-Man, your goal is to swing to the top of a building, defuse any bombs you find on the way, and avoid the Green Goblin who blocks the end goal. The only way Spidey can move, actually, is by web-slinging. The action button releases your web (combined with a direction, it can be sent straight up or diagonally up). Holding it down longer makes the web longer; the entire crux of the game, really, is knowing when to let go. If the web ends on a window or any surface that is not part of the building (i.e. yellow/red in the screenshots), Spider-Man will fall. You can recover from the fall by throwing out another web, but you still have a limited time to reach the top.

No offensive abilities to speak of. That's it. Yes, it's primitive, it gets old very quickly, and it's very limited. And while the graphics aren't especially good for the system (compare with the likes of Frogger or Kung Fu Master), our hero and villain are at least somewhat recognizable. But even for people like me, who don't think of Atari games with a fond nostalgia (uh, because we weren't even born yet), once you get into into the rhythm and timing of the game's sole mechanic, it actually does feel like Spider-Man swinging up a building. Because subsequent developers focused more heavily on basic platforming and brawling, it took nearly 20 years for anyone to really capture that feeling again.

For a little fun slice of gaming history, check out this commercial below, which at least featured a better Goblin costume than anything Willem Dafoe or Dane DeHaan ever wore:

All Atari screenshots are my own. Box art is from GameFAQs, while all other screens were sourced from Moby Games

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