My first video game system was a Game Gear, followed very closely by the Sega Genesis. I was a Sega products kid in the same way that literally every single one of my friends was a Nintendo kid. I loved the Genesis so much and I loved so many of the games I had for it. I even loved the games I didn’t love. But when I got my hands on the PlayStation, it felt like stepping into another world. Every blocky, barely rendered 3D tunnel was like seeing actual magic at work. On every single gaming system I have ever had, from Game Gear to Genesis to PC to the four iterations of PlayStation thus far, I have had at least one if not several Spider-Man games. He’s my favorite superhero and I’d stick out just about anything with him. Hell, I even made it through that animated series where he was stuck on the furry planet.
Most of the Spider-Man games I had when I was young were aggressively difficult, and I pretty much had them all. The self-titled debut album Spider-Man (or Spider-Man vs The Kingpin, as I knew it on Game Gear) was a really basic side-scroller and just about everything else was more or less an update on the same formula. I barely got past the first level of Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge. The game based on the animated series felt like the hardest of them all, even harder than the notoriously difficult X-Men game of the same era. I was terrible at these games, but I played them anyway, but I didn’t feel compelled to really push my way through the story and stick a game out until I got my hands on Maximum Carnage. That game was without a doubt the crown jewel of that era. Maximum Carnage and its sequel Separation Anxiety were two of the games I played religiously in the Genesis days.
When I made the transition to PlayStation, those side-scrolling beat-em up Spider-Man games were the only Spidey games that I had ever known. I was not, by any means, prepared for what was coming. But I distinctly remember the moment I got it, opening it up one Christmas morning and seeing that cover art of Spider-Man crawling his way directly toward me. (Intentionally or not, this cover art was basically mimicked for the poster of the eventual movie) Just for me, personally, as a kid who had never even owned a Spider-Man game that wasn’t a 2D side-scroller, it was a game changer.
But I don’t think anyone was prepared for what an industry-wide game changer it actually was. I don’t think anyone could have expected the impact it would have or the way it would ultimately change superhero games forever, with ripple effects that we are still continuing to see to this day.
At the time, there were a lot of superhero games for PlayStation. I had a good chunk of them and most of them were really, really bad. There were a couple of fun 2D fighting games like X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel Super Heroes, but for the most part, I’m talking about things like Iron Man and XO Manowar in Heavy Metal, Incredible Hulk: The Pantheon Saga and Fantastic Four. These had super lazy graphics, the bare minimum of level design. More to the point, they simply felt like an afterthought. You could tell that these games were put together quickly and cheaply, with some of them not even reflecting the source material in any way shape and form. Even things like Fantastic Four, which technically featured 3D graphics, still operated on the side-scrolling nature of gaming systems gone by.
Along came Spider-Man. This game was completely different from anything I had even seen at the time, let alone any of the games Marvel was kicking me in the teeth with at the time. This was an immersive game. With Spider-Man, I went straight from side-scrolling to an open world game that I could barely wrap my head around at first, but that excited me more than life itself. It was, at the time, state-of-the-art. It changed things. It was a big game full of longer missions and Easter Eggs, story-driven but action packed. And it proved that you could have a game that was successful and that moved the industry forward, a product based on a massively popular brand, that was still entirely reflective of the material to its core.
This wasn’t just a Spider-Man game, this was a game that was completely reflective of Spider-Man on absolutely every level. Every single time you played it, no matter what level or what villain you were chasing, it instantly reminded you of everything you ever loved about the character. This game was not just the distilled essence of the hero, but was also reflective of his whole world. From the moment the game starts, the odds are stacked against you. The city’s filling up with gas, some dastardly villains are behind it and you have to find out who, Venom is back, you have to save J. Jonah Jameson even though he’ll publicly shame you for it, the cops naturally think you’re responsible for everything and you have to basically figure out a way to solve all of these problems at the same time. And that is so purely and simply Spider-Man.
While there is so much about Activision’s Spider-Man game that raised the bar for superhero games, this is ultimately the major lesson, it’s the number one thing that these kinds of games desperately needed to learn at the time: The game is going to inherently be better if it understands and respects the material that it is adapting. You’d think it would be obvious, but between Die Hard Trilogy and Superman 64, this was an extremely shitty time for licensed games. As great as this game was, it’s made so much better by the fact that it gets who Spider-Man is. It’s made with a total understanding of that world, and not just in the main storyline. When you can swing around the (very) limited cityscape on your own terms and find not only the Baxter Building but the answering machine of the Fantastic Four, you know that this is a game made for fans and by fans.
In terms of the story, Spider-Man pulls off what almost feels like an impossible balancing act. This game hits you with pretty much the A-list of Spider-Man villains. Just about everyone you would think of is there, with a few notable Goblin exceptions. But every single villain was given their due, as well. Even if their appearance was brief, their character came across clear as day. When you’re fighting the Scorpion, his hatred of J. Jonah Jameson is immediately noticeable and it’s the defining trait of his character in general. Rhino is a big dumb idiot who likes to run at things and that’s exactly who that character is. Mysterio has nothing to offer once you break through his illusions and Doctor Octopus has an extremely convoluted plan for world domination. These are all entirely faithful representations of these characters.
Venom takes up a large portion of the game because even though the ‘90s were over, he was still the most popular Spider-Man villain at the time. And the recent continuity made his appearance somewhat tricky. Venom was no longer a villain, technically. Due largely to his popularity, he had become something of an anti-hero, a protector of innocents but who still used lethal means in his pursuit of justice—basically a slime-covered Punisher for the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel Universe. Because of that, some people thrown off by his appearance in this game, which starts off intimidating when Venom kidnaps Mary Jane but quickly devolved into a buddy cop comedy. This plays up the humor a lot, but the game nails the dynamic between the two, which is that one not only feels responsible for the other, but is the only one of the two who even vaguely grasps the concept of responsibility.
Reluctant team-ups were basically the thing that had begun to define the Spider-Man/Venom relationship post-Maximum Carnage and Activision’s Spider-Man does it as good if not better than all of them.
The game also features a ton of other Marvel heroes as well as villains, which I think is incredibly important in as faithful a representation of that character and that world as this one. Spider-Man has always been somewhat defined by his relationships with other heroes. In the very first issue of his own comic, Amazing Spider-Man #1, he tries to join the Fantastic Four, who promptly turn him down flat. When Marvel began to publish a regular Marvel Team-Up series, every issue saw Spider-Man teaming up with a different Marvel hero because he’s a character who perfectly bounces off of just about everyone.
For the most part, though, this game did a terrific job of including not only recognizable heroes, but ones that had a particularly strong connection to Spider-Man in general. Obviously, a longtime ally and sometime romantic partner like Black Cat is a must. But there’s also a cameo from Daredevil, who shows up because Spider-Man is a wanted man and he wants to know for himself what the truth was. Daredevil was hardly a household name at the time, but for fans of the comics, it was stunning to see him show up because those characters have a bond that the developers recognized. They understood the reaction a character like that would get over simply shoehorning in a more well known X-Man. Plus, when it’s a character that people aren’t as familiar with, it gets the chance to be a lot of young fans’ introduction to that character, so including those lesser known heroes is almost always a win-win when they serve a purpose.
The Human Torch is an even bigger example of a superhero perfectly picked for a cameo. He shows up during one of the game’s few genuinely small, tender moments. These two characters have such an important relationship, starting out as bitter rivals before evolving into best friends, two people who are so close that they almost feel like brothers. These are characters that it only makes sense to include because they’re not just heroes that comic fans will get excited to see, they’re integral people in Spider-Man’s life.
The game is undeniably a product of its era, but Spider-Man remains influential to this day. The effect it had can still be seen. Even if the open-world nature and the combat system are archaic by today’s standards, you can see them even in the new game, as dramatically evolved as they might be. Even so much of the extra content, like the unlockable costumes, were a huge part of that original game. At the time, it floored me to be able to play in the black suit or as the Scarlet Spider. All of these things still continue to this day, all of these things have remained integral part of Spider-Man’s gaming world ever since. These things still define the best superhero games in general, and it all started here, with blocky graphics, Stan Lee narration, and more villains than you can shake a web at.