Monday, April 28, 2014

Spider-Man: Web of Fire on the Sega 32X!

It’s definitely one of the strangest Spidey video games ever released -- and is it also one of the most underrated?


I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and my hopes for its upcoming sequel aren’t very high, either. Sure, sure, there’s a possibility that a movie about Pig Vomit turning into a Transformer and teaming up with Django -- now a super-dork Blue Man Group castoff with electricity-powers -- to beat up that dude that got screwed out of Facebook royalties might not suck, but odds are? That thing is going to be a monumental cluster fuck of 2007-sized proportions.

Alas, while we can simultaneously fawn and fume over Spider-Man’s shaky record as cinema icon, I think its safe to say that Spidey -- especially compared to most other super hero IPs -- has fared quite well as a video game character. Whereas Batman, the X-Men and especially Superman have starred in their fair share of interactive turds over the years, I have a hard time thinking of an out-and-out awful Spider-Man game -- shit, even that game on the Atari 2600 was fairly above-average, considering its competition at the time. From Peter Parker’s sole foray on the NES to his eighteen bajillion Xbox 360 appearances, Spider-Man video games have been largely enjoyable, and some of them -- like “The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin” on the Genesis and especially its Sega CD upgrade -- are among the best platform titles of their respective eras.

Which brings us to one of Spider-Man’s most unusual video game sojourns ever -- “Web of Fire” on the Sega 32X.

Yes, yes, the 32X -- the cartridge-based peripheral that allowed Genesis owners the ability to play games like “Virtua Racing” and “Virtua Fighter” without their consoles catching on fire (or, in the case of the first mentioned title, spending upwards of $90 bucks because the in-game chips were so damned expensive to manufacture.) While pretty much everybody reflects on the 32X as a major business blunder, the reality is, it wasn’t a bad console (add-on?) at all, with a fairly respectable library that, with just another year or two of support, could’ve given us some TRULY awesome experiences -- I, for one, weep knowing that none of us will ever know what it feels like to commandeer a “Virtua Hamster.”

“Web of Fire,” then, is basically a Sega Genesis game, only with amped up environmental effects and some glossier visuals that kinda’ sorta’ makes the title look like its 2.5D -- i.e, an attempt to “Donkey Kong Country”-fy the experience.

Apparently, all 32 bits went towards maximizing tackiness

From the get-go, there is good reason to get excited about the potentiality of the game, since it was made by Blue Sky -- the same folks that gave us the beyond awesome “Vectorman” games on the Genesis. Indeed, the gameplay structure is very similar in “Web of Fire,” and even the opening title screen -- which allows you to monkey around with a Sega logo -- is directly inspired by the Genesis forerunner.

Plot-wise, the 1996 release has a fairly comic book-y premise: the nefarious neo-Nazi terrorists in HYDRA have entrapped the entire city of New York underneath a gigantic laser web (hence, the name of the game), with the Daily Bugle informing us that all of Manhattan is being held hostage for one billion dollars -- which, to me, sounds like a bit of a discounted rate, considering the actual dollar-to-dollar value of the real estate there, but I digress.

So, the New Enforcers (talk about an obscure super-team there!) have captured Daredevil, and it’s up to Spidey to save the day and rescue a certain blind lawyer who may or may not be Ben Affleck incognito.

The controls are pretty intuitive, the animations are really good and the attacks are quite varied for a mid-90s, cartridge-based release. As old Webhead, you can fire web globs, tie up bad guys with webbing and throw a variety of strikes, including some mean looking uppercuts and a few Jose Aldo-style leg kicks. Keeping with the MMA, theme, you can even tackle enemies and “ground and pound them” Tank Abbot style, which is certainly as cool as it sounds. You can also wall crawl, and of course, the game employs liberal usage of web slinging, although -- as was the case in “The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin” -- you have to constantly refill your web fluid to pull of such feats. Overall, the gameplay here is quite fast, which is one of the things that makes it stand out from other Spider-Man games from the era, most notably the glorified beat ‘em up “Maximum Carnage.”

Stage one takes place amid the New York skyline, with Spidey swinging from rooftop to rooftop fleeing generic thugs, falling debris and killer Roomba vacuum cleaners. After avoiding the DEADLY air conditioner fans, you get to free Daredevil (trapped in a gigantic birdcage, for some reason) and if you go to the select screen and highlight him, he’ll swing across the stage, make everything blink red for a moment, and do considerable damage to your enemies. Of course, you have to pick up special power-ups to use this attack, so unfortunately, you just can’t spam bad guys over and over with it.

Spider-Man, seen here running from a purple exploding person while a dude standing on top of a propane tank curses the sky above.

The stage itself -- cloaked underneath a dark violet sky, with the laser webs ominously hanging overhead -- is actually quite large, and even has a street level floor to explore. In the background, all of the buildings are either on fire or partially destroyed, and satellite dishes are goddamn everywhere -- you know, like NYC was modern day Giza or something. Anyway, after enough dicking around, you come face to face with the game’s first boss battle…against Fantastic Four D-Villain Dragon Man? Ok. Beating him requires the use of a roping strategy -- in essence, you tie him up, sock him a few times, retreat, dodge his attacks, re-rope him, and repeat until the game lets you move forward. After roughly three billion hits, he ultimately explodes…because he’s a robot in this universe, I guess? After you destroy a doomsday device (which is found at the end of every stage), you get a brief “Daily Bugle” message, and then, it’s time for stage 2.

Stage two takes place in a purple-colored power plant (why all of the generators have blue and yellow, Egyptian-looking coils on them, I have no clue) with only slightly modified music from the first stage -- the entire soundtrack, it is perhaps worth noting, consists of very warbled, static-sounding Genesis beats, by the way. Here, you encounter more robots and goons, but now, you can actually punch through certain infrastructure -- these panels, thankfully, are conveniently darker than the surrounding ambiance. Since it’s a power plant, electric hazards are all over the place, and the labyrinthine design of the stage prevents you from web slinging throughout most of it. Eventually, you’ll encounter these cobalt metal dudes that clink when you punch them, which is a nice touch. The end boss is a generic looking blue and purple guy, who is hardly distinguishable from all the other goons in the level. Per the Wikipedia, the adversary is supposed to be The Eel, but he doesn’t do many eel-like things when you fight him -- effectively, you can defeat him using the same strategy you used to best Dragon Man, only this time around, the fight as a whole is WAY easier.

Stage three takes place on the George Washington Bridge. Under heliotrope skies, you hop over abandoned cars while seagulls with metallic-sounding squawks periodically fly by in the background. For the first part of the stage, you’ll be beating up more of the same old robots and thugs, but now you can pummel phone booths, “Streets of Rage”-style, too! Eventually, a new enemy appears -- a laser cannon toting goon -- but since the stage is so linear, you can pretty much swing through all of it without engaging with any opposition. This leads to the second part of the stage, which takes place within a burning oil refinery. With all the orange and flaming drum obstacles, its definitely the most impressive level, visually, in the entire game. And also, be prepared to hear lots of “ooos!” and “awws!” from Spider-Man, as he’s going to be constantly getting hit by fire obstacles.

More thugs, robots and metal blue guys await you as you traverse your way through the maze, which, like in level two, has plenty of breakaway floors. Eventually, you’ll encounter a new kind of Roomba enemy, which looks like a piranha and shoots these really fat laser beams at you. Soon, you’ll start seeing this dude in a business suit (The Vanisher, according to Wikipedia) start appearing atop exploding propane tanks in the background, but as his name implies, he just safely teleports out of harm’s way. Since you never actually face him -- and can’t even be harmed by the explosions -- you really have to wonder why the game designers even bothered including him in the title…boredom, obsessive fandom and/or autism being the only rationales I can think of here.

Needless to say, HYDRA really needs to rethink their interior design blueprints. 

Which brings us to our third boss fight, against a dude named Thermite. Rocking a white and blue track suit -- with what appears to be one exposed bare leg, and a yellow boot -- he might just be the gaudiest looking enemy in the entire game, and trust me, that’s saying a lot. His fireball attacks have really long reach, but he can easily be swarmed with punches in bunches from close-range. Randy Couture him a few times in the grill, and you’re rewarded with a Daily Bugle message letting us know that Spidey saved the city, and that Hydra is hauling ass on a fleet of spaceships.

The fourth and final stage takes place aboard a Hydra airship. Lots of blue and yellow infrastructure here, with ominous grey clouds flying by at 10,000 miles per hour in the background. My favorite touch is all of the hyper-pastel, super antiquated looking technology aboard the craft -- it even looks like they have one of the original “Pong” machines” onboard! Blast through some facile bad guys, and you’ll encounter an enemy rocking a Green Bay Packers uniform, who is joined in battle by one of those blue metal dudes with Mohawks for a mini-boss fight. The Wikipedia informs me that the Green Ranger looking adversary is known as Blitz, but I’m not really seeing the resemblance. Once the blue dude explodes, he’s replaced by a really fast dude who kinda’ resembles Batman. They gang up on you while the air ship plummets into the ocean, but once again, they can easily be dispatched with the punches in bunches technique.

From there, you’ll find yourself in a completely submerged shuttle, complete with sharks and shit swimming by in the background. Here, you’ll have to rely on your wall crawling to literally move on up the vertical stage (an excuse, perhaps, for the designers to show off a really cool “flipping animation” for Spidey, most likely) while avoiding cacti-shaped sentient cannons, mechanical rollers and goons on floating platforms. Yes, it does feel like a mediocre NES platformer, circa 1989, at times.

The third act takes place inside a pastel vomit-colored bomb chamber -- what, with all of that eye-scorching green, red and yellow all over the place and all. You begin the level by battling what appears to be a white and pink clown, whom the Wikipedia calls “Tangle,” which is precursor to a stage rush that forces you to haul ass across the stage while the ceiling collapses above you. After that, you do battle with the game’s final boss, SUPER-ADAPTOID, a generic silver guy who can shape shift into all of the previous bosses. Beating him really isn’t all that difficult at all, since you can just perch yourself in the top right hand corner and punch his head until victorious -- a permutation of the old “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” trick, it seems. Failing that, you can just drop down with more punches in bunches, and if that doesn’t work, you can just rope him up and ball punch him until he’s dead. Once he’s vanquished, you have a minute to escape the soon-to-explode air-ship, “Metroid” style! This is easily the hardest section of the game, since web slinging is complicated by all of the damn robots everywhere. Once you finally do escape, you’re greeted with a final message from the Daily Bugle, and a post-game sequence in which Spider-Man beats up all of the game’s enemies one more time.

That's how I always envision Spider-Man...surrounded by heaps and heaps of dead bodies. 

Obviously, “Web of Fire” has a lot of obvious flaws, beginning with the fact that it’s just so damn short -- it’s just four levels long, and pending you can make it through the last stage, most seasoned gamers could probably triumph over the title in less than an hour. As a solo-player affair with hardly any replay incentives, its hard to see much longevity stemming from this one.

As for the pros, however, there are a few noteworthy ones. The graphics are pretty interesting, and the animations are downright fantastic. Spidey’s moves feel very fluid and fun to control, and the levels -- although frequently annoying -- are generally pretty fun to explore. It’s nowhere near as much fun as the “Vectorman” games, clearly, but for a mid-90s’ comic book game, it’s slightly above average…which, I know, ain’t exactly saying too much.

To me, the thing most people would hate about the game -- the weird-ass villain selection -- is the thing that makes the title so weirdly appealing. Sure, we could’ve done battle with The Green Goblin and Venom for the four millionth time, but when was the last time you’ve ever gone toe-to-toe with The Eel or Super-Adaptoid in a video game? Granted, it may not be as cool as that one Game Boy title that lets you steal Green Goblin’s glider and fight Graviton, but the novelty factor of “Web of Fire” is pretty hard to ignore, regardless.

As a Spider-Man game, it’s probably a mid-tier offering; a bit better than “Spider-Man 3” and “Arcade’s Revenge,” but definitely a step or two below “Enter Electro” and Sega’s 1991 arcade game that nobody ever talks about, for some weird reason. As the last true North American release on the 32X, probably the game’s biggest claim to fame today is its alleged rarity, with copies of the game fetching well above $100 USD on eBay. And to think: I saw it in the bargain bin at one of the fly-by-night video stores in my hometown, circa 1998, for about five bucks.

If you’re a hardcore Spider-Man fan, it’s probably a game worth tracking down on the emulators, although most non-fans would probably (and perhaps rightfully) call it just another mediocre platformer and go on with their daily business. Beyond being so weird, is there much to talk about regarding “Web of Fire?” Well, not really, but as a wacky piece of yesteryear, it’s worthy of at least minor praise, I reckon…

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