Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Friendly Neighborhood Misery: The Amazing Spider-Man trilogy (Game Boy)

The Amazing Spider-Man (Game Boy, 1990)

History hasn't been kind to Nintendo's all-conquering Game Boy. Like all of the best-selling consoles - the Playstation 2, the Wii, the DS - its library is filled with loads of garbage and shovelware. But it's easy enough to find the vast assortment of classics released for those other systems; not so much with the Game Boy. Or maybe there's just a big gap in my knowledge of games... but I'd be hard-pressed to name even twenty true classics for the handheld. Sure, there are plenty of games we can point to and say: hey, this is pretty good, for a Game Boy game. We would never need to make that kind of qualifier for classics on other systems... maybe it's the fact that the Game Boy (and its barely-an-upgrade successor, the GB Color) dominated the market for more than a decade, and its games already felt dated by 1995.

Most of the mediocre junk that fills the system's library suffered from some pretty common issues: repetitive gameplay due to lack of memory; sprites that were too big to compensate for the small screen; and games rushed out to take advantage of the massive install base. The Amazing Spider-Man suffers from all of these! I get the sense that early Game Boy games were either poorly adapted NES games from developers who assumed they would translate perfectly; or the opposite, light-on-content fluff that was sold merely for the sake of portable novelty. Spider-Man, developed by Rare and published by LJN (here we go again...) falls in the former camp. It's not even an NES-quality game, but it wants to be.

The story goes: Spidey's villains know his true identity (without any explanation), and decide to kidnap Mary Jane and prank call Peter's house. Really, I can't figure out what this story was trying to do - in between levels, Spider-Man and the next villain trade barbs over the phone, and that's it. Gameplay is typical side-scrolling action, with some light (horizontal only) platforming. Every so often the game switches gears, where Spider-Man must climb up a building while dodging junk being thrown at him. The problem with the game, and most 2D Spider-man games, is that developers don't really know how to incorporate Spider-Man's signature webs. It's even worse on the 8-bit systems, limited to two buttons. Swinging is something of a crapshoot - it's automatic, but it doesn't always activate. I still couldn't figure out - usually jumping and holding does the trick, but not always; I got stuck in the same terribly-designed spot that the AVGN did. Limited webs don't help much, either.

Like too many other Game Boy games, the sprites are simply too damn big. Batman may not have impressed with its visuals, but the small sprites worked wonderfully and helped give the game a real sense of space, which was integral to its game design. Combined with the game's iffy web-swinging mechanic, it makes the rooftop levels in particular a miserable experience. In all honesty there is absolutely nothing remotely remarkable about this game.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Game Boy, 1992)

Its sequel, developed by Bits Studios, is an inferior game; but it's also a slightly more interesting one. The controls are loose and inconsistent, hit detection is a joke, and the overall game design could best be described as incoherent. But it's vastly less linear; the first level drops you into a typical urban setting, with buildings that can be entered or scaled and some much needed verticality. Progression is locked behind some quite arbitrary obstacles, most of them involving the location and use of various items. In the first level, Green Goblin (or was it Hobgoblin?) flies high above, throwing pumpkin bombs at you. You can make it to the top of the building, but he's invulnerable. Instead, you must hit his glider with your web, dragging him down to the street, where he can be fought hand-to-hand. At the end of the level is an impassable electric fence; the only way around it, it would seem, is above it. Maybe you can ride the Goblin's glider! That doesn't make a lot of sense, but it would be cool. It's just sitting there. Nothing happens. Maybe it needs oil! Where's the oil? Maybe it's here! Ah the door is locked. Here's a crowbar! Problem solved!

I'm not actually making that up. It sounds kind of neat, to lock progression away behind semi-logical impediments, with a series of key items that make sense within the context of the game. I admire the way it strives for this type of non-linearity - I really do - and it continues in the rest of the game (finding a serum before you can take on the Lizard, for instance). But it's all rendered pretty moot by the terrible gameplay, with its cheap, frustrating combat, loose physics, and poorly-implemented web controls. Again, you have limited webs, and if you run out - there's no way to take down that Goblin.

Level-by-level, the game is much less logical; stages take a rather odd tour through an industrial plant, the sewers, and an amusement park. It's here you'll fight Carnage, but you can't defeat him - you just sort of avoid him and leave him there to his own devices. It's pretty much all downhill from there.

The Amazing Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider-Slayers (Game Boy, 1993)

Which still doesn't make it as bad as the third game! Seeing as it was also developed by Bits Studios, I expected more of the same - a few ambitious ideas wrapped around an incompetent core game - but there are no ambitious ideas here. Whereas the second game felt too loose and imprecise, the third game is stiff and sticky (don't go there); jumping results in not just a little delayed crouch, but also a delayed crouch upon landing! Hit detection is even worse - nearly as bad as Return of the Sinister Six (NES) - and the web mechanics are even more unintuitive than before. It combines to make platforming not just abysmal, but damn near impossible. Spider-Man 3 does away with the non-linearity of its predecessor, and instead relies heavily on its miserable web-swinging mechanics to progress. When I say near-impossible, I mean it; eventually I gave up, feeling mildly bitter about life and thinking about hundreds of other ways I might spend my time.

Which isn't a bad way of summing up the entire trilogy, really. This trio of games represents the only Marvel games developed exclusively for the Game Boy (not including GB Color). I don't think anyone would be expecting much from an early Game Boy game based on a Marvel property, but I don't think anyone would expect one of them (the third game) to result in the downright worst game with the Spider-Man name on it. But hey - leave it to LJN. They always manage to surprise me.

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.

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