Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Fond Look Back at Spider-Man on the Game Boy!

Just in time for Homecoming, how's about we revisit Spidey's monochrome adventures on Nintendo's pioneering, AA-battery-sucking handheld?

By: Jimbo X

When it comes to comic-book based video games, Spider-Man is certainly an aberration, seeing as how he's starred in more good games than sucky ones. Yeah, he's been featured in some real duds, alright - the sundry iterations of Return of the Sinister Six immediately springs to mind, as does that one SNES and Genesis game based on the '90s Fox cartoon - but by and large, Spider's games have been much better than your usual superhero titles. 

From his first outing on the Atari 2600 to his unheralded Sega arcade adventure to the superb Criterion edition of The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin on Sega CD to his appearance on the 32X to his games on the PS1 and Dreamcast to his tenure in all those Marvel vs. Capcom games to all those way-better-than-they-had-any-right-to-be spinoffs based on the Sam Raimi movies to his latest and greatest adventures on the PS4, Old Webhead has no doubt given us plenty of memorable interactive experiences. Lost in the silk strands of time, however, are the slate of Spidey games released on the original Game Boy.With no less than five games on the original Game Boy, Spidey was definitely one of the more prolific branded characters on the platform - yet, strangely, you rarely hear anybody talking about the iconic Marvel character's monochrome escapades these days. 

Well, with the third live-action, big budget Spidey franchise making its debut at the multiplexes, what better time to revisit these long-forgotten Spider-Man titles and show today's young 'uns what they missed out on back in the early '90s?

Grab your web shooters and make damn sure the Spider-Mobile has a full tank of gas - it's time to take a spin down memory lane ...

The Amazing Spider-Man (1990)

This LJN game stays astonishingly true to the comics, beginning with a splendid cutscene in which Spidey cracks wise on Mysterio on a walky-talky, promising to, among other things, "pop your plexi." Really, those inter-stage character exchanges are the best thing about the entire game - say what you will about LJN's game programming prowess, but they at least know how to write entertaining Spidey dialogue.

*Snaps fingers, bobs head side-to-side* "Oh, no you didn't, Spider-Cracka!"

All in all, this is a pretty rudimentary side scrolling beat-em-up/platformer hybrid. In the first stage you thwak dudes with mohawks and hop on The Lizard's head as he tries to emerge from the sewers, than you fist fight Mysterio. You can punch, jump, shoot a web line and spray web bullets - the controls are very basic, but nonetheless functional. From there you'll crawl up some buildings to battle Hobgoblin, ride a subway and punch bats(!?!) in the face, come to blows with Rhino, get attacked by eagles and engage in fisticuffs with Dock Ock. There are only six stages, and each one repeats with mild aesthetic and structural changes; for example, the final hurrah against Venom (whom looks downright emaciated) is practically a clone of the third stage, only with more enemies and slightly harder platforming sequences.

Of course, since the final stage is in a sewer, naturally the end boss had to look like a sentient pile of shit.

It's a pretty short game (I beat the whole thing in just 20 minutes) and there isn't a whole lot of replay value. The control set-up is a little bit better than you'd expect for an LJN offering, but still, there's not a whole lot of meat to the game. The graphics are pretty ho-hum, and the boss battles aren't that interesting (for example, you can beat Venom by simply standing in the corner, ducking and hitting him with web bullets.) Still, it has some interesting elements (the very least of which is a pre-fight cutscene in which Venom kinda' sorta' threatens to RAPE Mary Jane), and for an early, EARLY licensed Game Boy title, it's definitely better than it probably had any right to be. Oh, and you will LOL plenty when you finally rescue Mary Jane and she literally looks like a monochrome crack whore ... I mean, damn.

The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback (1991)

OK, so technically, this Acclaim offering isn't a full-fledged Spidey game, but seeing as how he plays such a major role in the game as an assist character - not to mention the fact he's prominently displayed on the game's cover artwork - it probably deserves at least a passing mention.

Yeah, I believe in rehabilitation ... through hot lead, you junkie scum.

Not unlike the LJN NES game, this Punisher is likewise a rail-shooter. Obviously, this one uses an entirely different engine, which in many ways, actually outdoes its' 8-bit counterpart. Like the first Spider-Man Game Boy outing, the title uses dialogue exchanges in between stages to advance the story. Right from the get-go we've got The Punisher giving awesome-ass Rodrigo Duterte monologues about how drug pushers need to die, and what's really hilarious is how Spider-Man seems not only unfazed by his lethal vigilante actions, he's practically complicit in them!

Yep, just like in this movie ... and this one, too.

The gameplay is super-basic - you use the directional pad as a reticle and hit the B button to spray hot lead at everything that moves. Along the way you're able to pick up faster firearms and grenades, but be careful - if you accidentally pop a cap in an innocent bystander, you lose a life. The first stage takes place in a mall (complete with a boss fight against a fat dude wearing an over-sized, novelty hat and holding hostages in a grocery store, a'la the opening scenes in Cobra and Stone Cold), the second stage is at a dock (you have to avoid hitting dudes operating forklifts while shooting at a yacht filled with cocaine smugglers), the third stage is at an airport (which, for all the rubles in Russia, looks just like the first stage of Operation: Wolf) the fourth level is in the jungles of some unnamed South American country (LOL at the bad guys who disguise themselves as rubber ducks) and the final go-at-it entails a run through a cavernous drug lab, culminating with a lengthy shootout against Jigsaw (with the post-battle cutscenes depicting the Punisher literally blowing up the bad guy with a stick of dynamite while he begs for his life - which, yeah, is probably the most hardcore thing that you'll ever see on the handheld.) All in all, it's a fairly solid game that doesn't try to do anything more than it has to - it doesn't have a whole lot of replay value, but there's no denying it's a surprisingly fun little 20 minute time-waster. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (1992)

In this LJN follow-up, the walky-talky intros are out and these new animated comic panel transitions are in. Just like in the beloved Genesis classic The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, the plot revolves around Spidey being framed for a crime he didn't commit. And speaking of crimes, LJN certainly committed a video game felony this time around, with TAS 2 representing a HUGE graphical downgrade from the first game. Seriously, Spider-Man looks like a midget in a black t-shirt, and it's annoying as fuck.

The worst part of operating the Pumpkin Glider? Having to steer it with your cock, naturally.

The gameplay is essentially the same, though. You punch bad guys (some of whom carry around flamethrowers) but now you can enter buildings and collect items, a'la Metroid, to advance from stage to stage. The controls are slightly more fluid than in the first game, and you can do a whole bunch of new tricks, like crawl through air ducts and stick to walls. And the music is surprisingly decent too - indeed, it's some of the best music you'll probably ever hear on the Game Boy.

Hey, now that Spidey's under the Disney umbrella, do you think they'll retcon Venom into a canonical "tar baby" now?

There are definitely some cool touches in this one. For example, in the first stage you actually have to drag the Hobgoblin down from the sky before you can fight him, and when you do, you can actually JACK HIS PUMPKIN GLIDER, GTA-STYLE. There's also a ton of cameo appearances from the likes of the Human Torch, Captain America and the X-Men, plus some rather unorthodox selections for boss fodder (would you believe Graviton, of all people, is one of your adversaries?) Alas, the core gameplay is stil pretty rudimentary, with repetitive levels, way too much backtracking and an especially uninspired grand finale against Mysterio set inside an exploding blimp. While it's cool being able to fight Carnage on a rollercoaster (well, more like fight Carnage after riding a rollercoaster, if we're being sticklers about stuff), the game as a whole feels a bit underwhelming. All things considered, I'd rank this as a considerable step down from the original, in terms of both presentation and gameplay, but if you're a hardcore enough Spidey fan (or just a general fan of action platformers), you probably won't hate it too much.

Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider-Slayers (1993)

The third and final installment in LJN's standalone Spidey trilogy doesn't just drop "The Amazing" from its title - in the gameplay department, it definitely dropped the ball as well. While the graphics are marginally better than they were in the last game, the controls have gotten a lot crappier while the overall gameplay took several steps backwards.

Spidey is no doubt giving that Xenomorph an earful about how much its last movie sucked copious amounts of dick.

It's clear whoever designed this game really didn't give a shit about what they were doing. The first stage has you romping around a park, and you can't advance until you - for whatever reason - punch out 20 muggers. After that you do battle with the titular creature (which, naturally, bares no resemblance whatsoever to any H.R. Giger designed monster movie icons) and attempt to climb up some buildings so you can hop on the back of a giant, mechanical dragon and shoot web globs at its head until it dies. And, astonishingly, I know, the game gets lamer from there. 

Now what kind of "hero" gets his jollies kick paraplegic's in their unfeeling extremities, Spider-Asshole?

After an Electro-themed stage where the lights keep flickering on and off (boy, that ain't a pain in the ass when you're trying to time your jumps), you'll have to climb up a very Metroid-like vertical labyrinth (where toy helicopters sent by THE TINKERER, of all villains, try to kill you), make your way through a Mega Man-esque factory stage and fist fight the Scorpion, battle a giant spider that shits smaller spiders on you at a construction site, beat up some dudes in wheelchairs and - for the grand finale - have a really, really underwhelming final battle against C-lister villain Alistair Smythe, which is just barely a step above having the game end with a death duel against Spot, Tarantula or, heaven help us, Humbug. While it isn't the worst game on the Game Boy, it's definitely one of the crappier licensed games on the system - and trust me, that's saying something.

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge (1993)

And we come to the last Spidey appearance on Nintendo's monochrome wonder, the Flying Edge-developed Arcade's Revenge. While the game is conceptually similar to the same-named games released on the SNES, Genesis and Game Gear, this one, obviously, takes a few shortcuts - most notably, decreasing the number of stages by half.

So even after five games, the guys at LJN just couldn't find a way to make Venom look like anything other than Amos and/or Andy.

The controls are spotty at best. Nothing really feels intuitive and jumping is especially problematic - and this becomes a humongous rectal ache in Gambit's stage, where pixel perfect precision is required. You start off the game as Spider-Man, but once you make your way through the first stage (which doesn't have an end boss), you're free to play one stage each as Spidey, Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and Gambit. In the second Spider-Man stage you dick around a construction site and fight Venom (who, somehow, looks even more like a minstrel show character than he did in the original Game Boy offering); in the Wolverine stage you fight giant toy soldiers and killer jack in the boxes (or is that jacks in the box?); in Cyclops' stage you get to ride a mine cart and shoot what appears to be Nimrod with optic blasts; in Storm's stage you swim around avoiding obstacles and trying to find emergency oxygen bubbles for survival; and in Gambit's stage, you take on sentient chess pieces and have a boss fight against a possessed, oversized poker deck - and since your own projectile throwing cards are finite, you can actually lose the ability to fight back and thus make the game completely unwinnable. So yeah, not that I really need to tell you this, but fuck that stage.

So I take it we're all just going to pretend that Arcade ISN'T trying to kill Spidey with his giant robot penis?

In the final boss fight against Arcade (who looks more like Willy Wonka than anything else) you once again take control of Spider-Man. Basically, you just run around a room avoiding projectiles and pick your own shots when the coast is clear. It's not a terribly thrilling way to end the game, but on the whole, I don't think this is that bad of a game. For one, the graphics are probably the best Spidey ever saw on the handheld, and the music - arranged by some dude named John Loose - is actually surprisingly great. Of course, the iffy controls and way too short/way too cheap stages definitely lower the replay value, and since there are no unlockables or secret endings, there's pretty much zero reason to re-experience the game after you beat it the first time. Or, to put it another way; the presentation is good, but the execution is just slightly above mediocre. 

Implied rape in a Game Boy game ... now you're playing with power!

Needless to say, the quintet of Spider-Man games on the Game Boy aren't exactly the best the system has to offer. Compared to other popular licenses - such as Batman and the Ninja Turtles, which each got three good to outstanding titles on the handheld - Spider-Man's GB games really can't be considered anything other than relatively disappointing. That's not to say the games are necessarily bad - except for Spider-Man 3, though, that game just plain sucks aloud. If I had to rank them in terms of overall quality, I'd put The Punisher first, the first Spider-Man game second, Arcade's Revenge third, Spider-Man 2 fourth and the Spider-Slayers absolutely dead last. While I can't really recommend any of the games for non-fans, if you're a hardcore Spider-Man mark you'd probably be content with all of the above, even the subpar third Spider-Man game, pending you have a lot of patience and a super high tolerance for sloppy controls.

Everybody, else though? Yeah, you're better off getting your virtual dose of the Web Slinger elsewhere - especially if it involves Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 on the Dreamcast, the way the Gods of Gaming intended.


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