Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sega’s “Spider-Man: The Video Game!”

It’s a really fun beat-em-up from 1991, featuring a star-studded line-up of villains, some inventive platforming sequences and some really odd choices for supporting cast members. 

The early 1990s were really the heyday of the side-scrolling-beat-em-up genre. What started with “Double Dragon” and “Bad Dudes” blossomed into an array of all-time arcade classics, including Capcom’s “Final Fight” and “Captain Commando,” Konami’s “The Simpsons” and “X-Men” and SNK’s “Burning Fight” and “P.O.W.: Prisoners of War” -- and that’s not even taking into consideration all of the weird-ass, one-off coin-op brawlers, like “Night Slashers,” “Ninja Baseball Bat Man” and both “Sonic Blast Man” games.

While Sega released arguably the most iconic console beat-em-up series of the 1990s, they sadly had few forays into the arcade brawler market. While most of their genre offerings were fairly forgettable (anybody remember “Arabian Fight?”) they did wind up releasing at least one really memorable beat-em-up title in 1991 -- and seeing as how it starred arguably the greatest comic book character of them all, you really have to wonder why it never gained the widespread popularity of some of its contemporaries.

Released in 1991, “Spider-Man: The Video Game” was a very well-made little side-scroller, with a ton of things going for it. Obviously, it had the Spidey license, and it is clear that the designers of the game held the property in high-esteem. It’s filled to the brim with iconic villains, there are a ton of neat little nods to the comics (Spider-Man’s webbing comes complete with a corresponding “thwikt” sound effect bubble) and it even incorporates some inspired platforming levels into the mix for good measure. Outside of the fact that the game just wasn’t as ubiquitous as its more famous genre kin, I just can’t figure out why this one isn’t universally hailed as a mini-masterpiece.

A perfectly reasonable retort when goosed by a Putty from
"Power Rangers."
Since beat-em-ups are more or less designed to be multiplayer experiences, the game allows for up to four players simultaneously. Since it would be weird (although not unheard of) to have four different Spider-Men at your disposal, the designers included three additional playable characters, and my goodness, are they ever the mixed-bag. I suppose it makes sense for the Black Cat to make an appearance, and even a good bit of sense for Hawkeye to make the roster, but you really have to wonder what the suits at Sega were smoking when they decided to throw Namor the god-damn Sub-Mariner into the fray. I’m sure he and Spidey have had their fair share of adventures together in the comics, but for the life of me, I just can’t figure out why they didn’t choose a more orthodox character, like Iceman of the Human Torch (or Firestar, if we’re aiming for the “Amazing Friends” trifecta here.) Alas, as weird as the playable character choices may be, it’s the gameplay itself that matters most, and you better believe Sega’s coin-op “Spider-Man” brings it in spades.

After you watch the character bios scroll in attract mode, the first thing you will probably notice about the game is the faithful-to-the-comics aesthetics. The backgrounds have a very pulpy, washed out texture to them, and the characters speak in text bubbles -- heck, you even get some very melodramatic cut-scene intros before each stage! Much like the iconic Genesis “Spider-Man” game from Sega (which was made even better in a criminally underappreciated Sega CD port), this is definitely a game made by people with a reverence for the source material, and their attention-to-detail is to be lauded.

Chapter One (i.e., the first level in the game) is titled “The Mystic Power Stone.” As does 90 percent of all 2D beat-em-ups ever made, it begins on a city street, which is suspiciously devoid of pedestrians … and even more suspiciously, populated solely by ninja warriors in matching robes. After being taunted by the Scorpion, you make your way to the right, beating up assorted no-goodniks, including purple and blue glad henchmen carrying stun guns who look like Putties from “Power Rangers” and coo like quails when you hit them and really, really fat dudes with mohawks who literally roll at you like boulders. After pummeling 1,500 of them into submission, you engage in fisticuffs with the Scorpion, in front of a gigantic semi-truck. After besting him in battle, the tractor trailer collapses and reveals none other than Eddie Brock in a hyperventilation chamber. This being a video game, of course he escapes from the containment unit and emerges as Venom.

It's not everyday that you see a guy with a starfish head zapping a
naked dude with electricity. Even if you live in Venice Beach.
After duking it out with him for awhile, he becomes absolutely massive (easily three times your character’s sprite size) and all of a sudden, the game switches genres from beat-em-up to vertically-scrolling platformer. With the in-game camera panning out, the title turns into the most kick-ass “Ice Climbers” rip-off ever, as you continue to battle Mega-Venom. Eventually, you find yourself boarding a gigantic green aircraft, which drops you atop a different building. At that point, the camera pans closer to the action and we once again go into full-on brawler mode. You beat up some more cooing Putties, and you encounter a new enemy -- a bunch of ethnically diverse, really tall dudes with hammerhead haircuts wearing khakis and basketball jerseys of various hues. Before long, you wind up starring down the Kingpin and his goons (in matching pimp suits, no less) standing over a fallen Venom. Mr. Fisk tells us the “Sorcerer Stone” has worn off, which cues up yet another boss fight with the Symbiote (who, this time, is flanked by an army of skinny dudes in Kingpin/Colonel Sanders outfits and grey tuxedos.)

Once Venom is bested (and you can tell, because he makes this really weird, garbled noise that sounds like a duck quacking) we head to chapter two, titled “Big Brother Kingpin.” The stage, which takes place primarily on a green and grey metal catwalk thingy, immediately throws the Green Goblin at you, who quickly flies off-screen almost as quickly as he enters it. Once you make it through the next wave of rank-and-file, non-canonical cannon fodder, the metal platform beneath your character’s feet starts moving. You get an opportunity to pick up some health (taking the form of red hearts in mustard-colored jars), and then you encounter a dude in a white lab coat, who is violently shaking. Why, who would have guessed, it’s the Lizard, and you have to fight him, too.

Are Hawkeye and Kingpin still refusing to speak to one another?
Once that bout is over, the camera pans out and things once again get all “Metroid” final-stagey on us. This time around, there is a bit more horizontal exploration, with plenty of new bad guys (including flying robot drones and guys in red lugging around shotguns) to dispose of. With your feet and fists replaced by a standard projectile attack (Spidey shoots web globs, Namor shoots electricity blasts, etc.), the game really does feel a bit like “Mega Man” during these sequences. After navigating your way past some falling ledges (it’s very reminiscent of  the platforming sequences in “Super Smash Bros. at this point), you encounter the next boss, Electro, who shoots really hard to evade energy bolts at you.

Next, you climb abord Kingping’s zeppelin, and the camera zooms back into beat-em-up-a-vision. Much like Konami’s “X-Men” arcade game, the playable characters in this game also have a finite number of “super-attacks.” Hawkeye launches arrows, the Black Cat swings a grappling hook, Spidey shots a big web blast and Namor hits people with lightning. They are quite useful for getting yourself out of jams when enemies swarm on you, but more importantly? They also look cool as fuck.

A boss battle with the Green Goblin ensues. As you’d expect, he chunks pumpkins at you and zips around on his glider, meaning you can only damage him with jump kicks. He also has this really weird glowing orange-arm wrist-flick attack, which to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen him actually do in the comics.

This brings us to chapter three, “The Lair of the Kingpin.” After crashing into a casino, you fight more fat dudes and guys who look like Mitt Romney, before facing the Scorpion yet again. He’s a lot harder this time, swinging his tail at you like a helicopter propeller and ensnaring you in his vice-like grip. Fortunately, he’s pretty predictable, and you can probably beat him just by spamming him with the jump kick. Interestingly enough, all of the playable characters have their own “swinging attack” and at least one throw -- for an arcade brawler, they really do give you a surprisingly high number of attacks to monkey around with.

Forget the pumpkin bombs ... those carbon monoxide fumes will
kill you just as fast.
And it’s platform time once again! You work your way past more red shotgun guys, drones that zap you with electric-onion-rings and Putties tossing hubcap-sized boomerang ninja stars, and then, it’s time for a boss battle against Doctor Octopus. Old Otto is hard as fuck in this game, with a tentacle attack that is all but unavoidable. Really, the only strategy that works here is getting in close and hitting him with a constant barrage of projectiles. Yeah, you may die a time or two, but it’s WAY easier than trying to dodge all of that shit. And, an aside: have you ever noticed just how many of the Spider-rogues are green? The Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion, Dock Ock, The Vulture, The Sandman … all known for their emerald duds. A subtle anti-environmentalism statement from Marvel, perchance?

Once you cross lava pits, laser traps and rising platforms trying to crush you, the camera zooms back in and you fight the Kingpin in his office (you can tell its his office because he has a gigantic portrait of himself hanging over the desk.) A platoon of multi-hued fat people (Fisk’s illegitimate children, maybe?) roll at you while the Kingpin himself charges at you, laughs, and chokes you, Homer Simpson-style. By the way, the animations in this game are just tremendous. Every character walks with a different hunch (they even appear to breathe differently) with enemies dropping their weapons in all sorts of weird ways once you knock them out (for extra LOLage, some of them even lose their hats once getting punched unconscious.)

There are a lot of things you expect out of a Spider-Man game. Namor
fighting the Lizard and monkey people in hell probably isn't one of them.
This segues into a totally, unexpectedly awesome battle against the Sandman (you are so jacked about “beating” the Kingpin that you don’t even notice the floor turning into a beach for seemingly no reason whatsoever.) He has all the attacks you’d expect (absorbing himself into the dirt and floating around the floor, turning into a giant hand and transforming his fists into anvils to beat you mercilessly), but unlike in the aforementioned Genesis classic, you don’t have to defeat him by dropkicking a fire hydrant and turning him into a mud puddle.

Another platforming sequence follows. After climbing up some metal girders (they even have these faint little support pillars, explaining how they can appear suspended in mid-air), you hop aboard a green helicopter with a fa-jillion blades and BAM! Sneak attack from the Hobgoblin!

Good old Spidey, spraying volatile chemicals on minorities before 
it was the trendy thing to do. 
As machine gun turrets fire at you from every direction, the Hobgoblin does his fruit-tossing shtick. The strategy here is the same as it was against the Green Goblin -- just jump kick the hell out of that mother, while firing periodic projectiles you just hope will connect. Afterwards, the camera zooms back in and we get our final, for real this time duel with the Kingpin. Granted, it’s not as tough as the concluding battled in the Genesis game, but he’s still tough as fuck. And once you defeat him, you are greeted by a hologram message from none other than DR. FREAKING DOOM!

The final chapter, “Doom’s Day!” takes place in Latvia … or whatever the hell Dr. Doom’s country is called. After working your way through an underground cavern (complete with lava pits and an armada of half-man, half-monkey abominations wearing teal pants) you fight the Lizard once more.

I guess now is as good a time as ever to discuss the game’s biggest flaw -- the audio. The music, while decent, seems really out of place (it’s this weird jazzy stuff that feels more at home in the stage select menu of a racing game) and it is quite repetitive. Furthermore, the audio samples are used over and over again, so if you are playing as the Black Cat, you will literally hear “you’ve hit the jackpot!” every five seconds. Since arcades were usually a cacophony of noises and bleeps anyway, I suppose that’s an issue you could’ve written off in 1991, but when you are ROM-ing this shit on your laptop? Trust me, it gets annoying fast.        

The final battle plays out exactly as you'd imagine -- with Dr. Doom
trying to find his contacts. 
You emerge from the hellish caverns and go into platform-mode. Then, you enter the rocky mountainside of Doom-land, working your way downhill while pummeling the usual baddies and avoiding water obstacles. Eventually, you zoom back in as you enter Doom’s castle, which is littered with landmines that are virtually impossible to leap over. You battle through a few more chambers, beating up more fat dudes before a mid-level return engagement with the Green Goblin -- and this time, it’s even harder than the first go-around, since there are scores of basketball-jersey goons to deal with while you are kung-fuing Norman O. Afterwards, you fight a couple of more monkey people, and since the foreground begins to look a little sandy all of a sudden, take a wild guess who you fight next? That’s right, Hydro-Man.

This leads to our first battle against Dr. Doom, who has this really annoying “Psycho Crusher” type attack that’s really hard to avoid. After you beat him, however, he explodes, as another Doom hologram appears in the background to taunt you.

We go into platform mode, as we make our way up a huge staircase while evil cow skulls puke magma and the soundtrack turns into a really bad variation on the casino level theme from “Sonic 2.” You jump over some more mines, and you fight Dr. Doom in mini-sprite mode again, this time while he commandeers a very Dr. Robotnik-like flying device. Then things go into full-sized brawling mode, as you go toe-to-toe with Dr. Doom inside his murky chambers. Avoiding his mean backhanded slap and jet-propelled clothesline tackle of death, the background eventually crumbles, revealing a lab with electric bursts going everywhere. Now he has this powerful orange-pink laser attack … and its revealed he’s just another damn Doom bot! You step aboard a moving platform, and we come to the game’s grand finale … a climactic boss fight against not one, but three different Venoms, who keep re-spawning after you kill them. Hang in there long enough, though, and eventually, the last Symbiote will go down (you are notified of this by a mean electric guitar shriek and the quacking duck death gurgle from earlier.)

And the game formally concludes with all four playable characters watching Castle Doom implode from a safe distance, with the ominous post-script suggesting that Victor is still out there somewhere, probably plotting some mean Hitler-caliber shit.

Clearly, there is a lot to like about this game. Yeah, the visuals may not be as good as some of its genre competitors, and the music definitely leaves a lot to be desired, but in terms of presentation and sheer gameplay, this one is just a hoot and a half to slog through, especially with an amigo or amiga or two. As has been the fate of most licensed arcade games from the era, the title never had a shot at an official re-release on the newer home consoles, and it never actually made it to the 16-bit consoles from its own timeframe. Alas, the unique blend of platforming and brawling, in tandem with the excellent license use, has made this one something of a retroactive classic, an unsung gem from the George Herbert Walker years that's definitely striking a chord with fans today -- many of whom were not even born when the game first came out!

As good as the game was, you really have to wonder what Sega would have been able to do with a follow-up. Imagine, a six-player cabinet sequel, with Nova and Speedball joining the fray ... or possibly even the Prowler, or Power Fist! Oh, my goodness -- what dreams could have come, no?

1 comment:

  1. I was born in 1991 the year Spider-Man: The Video Game nice game love it my birth year 1991 is like that real popular good game including characters like Spider-Man Hawkeye Black Cat and Sub-Mainer good 1991 Beat Em up video game from the year we was born with all the villans best game ever of the early 1990s what a 4 player game for Sega System 32 26 years ago it was and I will 26 years old this year in 2017 nothing the old classics.