How Spider-Man Evolved Into A Video Game Icon
With roots as far back as 1982 in the medium, over 35 years of Spider-Man games have cemented him as an icon.
If you were asked to think of the most iconic video game characters of the past three decades, chances are you’d fall on the same handful of culprits. Some may say the moustached plumber that dominates Nintendo’s first-party, others may land on Xbox’s notorious khaki green space marine, and some will definitely sing the praises of a certain wise-cracking adventurer belonging to Sony. While these are all fair answers, one name that people often forget to mention is a certain web-slinging superhero who’s been spearheading defining video games for over thirty-five years.
Despite his prominent standing in both the comic and feature film worlds, Spider-Man is as much a dominant video game icon as any of Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo’s retrospective mascots. Since his days on the Atari, he’s featured on near every major console the industry has put on the market – the gameplay that has become synonymous with Spider-Man evolving with every new platform he’s found a home on.
As he’s grown in the medium of video games, we’ve seen the teenage superhero be handled by various studios and development teams; some treating him well and others making a mockery of his name. With Insomniac Games taking the reins in their newly released – and critically acclaimed- new take on the superhero, it’s worth swinging back to see how your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man came to be a staple of modern video game history.
Like most major icons of the video game industry, Spider-Man’s legacy on consoles spawns from humble origins. With the success of the web-slinging superhero in the comic world, The Parker Brothers (a major American toy and game manufacturer at the time) decided to bring Spider-Man to Atari 2600s all over the world, in turn, setting in motion a video game trend that would last for decades to come.
In 1982, Spidey made his console debut. Clearly inspired by the medium-defining gameplay of Donkey Kong, the player was tasked with climbing a vibrant yellow tower rigged to explode by Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, The Green Goblin. Using Spider-Man’s webs and wall-crawling abilities, the goal was to fire strings of web both vertically and diagonally to manoeuvre the web-slinger up the building while avoiding Spidey’s menacing green counterpart, his eerily identical henchman and the bombs he’d laid in his path.
Although it appears dated now, Spider-Man’s debut introduced a lot of what made the web-slinger’s later appearances so special. It put an emphasis on Spider-Man’s web-slinging and naturally ingrained traversal mechanics, while it was also the first game to ever feature a Marvel-licensed character. Although it may have been simple, it had enough influence to put in place an investable franchise for the wall-crawler as well as kickstarting a long history of video-game brilliance to come.
The Rest Of The 80s
Following Atari’s success with Spider-Man, a slew of varying adaptations followed in its midsts. The first of these titles was released in 1984 under the name Questprobe: Featuring Spider-Man. A text-based adventure that allowed players to input commands, Questprobe saw players take the role of the web-slinging superhero as he attempted to thwart Mysterio and a host of other villains. It was hugely successful, however, the company behind the game went bankrupt shortly after developing it and couldn’t follow up on plans to create more games in a similar vein.
Another prominent title during the 80’s came in The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America in Dr Doom’s Revenge! A side-scrolling beat em up centred around its two titular heroes, this collaborative effort was not only impressive due to how unbelievably cheesy its name is – seriously, that’s some pure 80’s cheese – but also through the template it set for Spider-Man games going forward. Its style, combat and level design came to represent much of the web-slinger’s future outings and was the first of his games to dive head first into the action side of the superhero genre.
The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin (1990)
As Spider-Man entered the 90s, he found himself starring in three different games for three different platforms. The Amazing Spider-Man for the PC was a platforming heavy action game that saw you climb walls, fight robots and go head-to-head with evil mummies. Meanwhile, its Game Boy counterpart – developed by Rare – was a side-scrolling beat ‘em up that focused more on fun and extravagant boss fights than wall-crawling and platforming.
It wasn’t until the release of The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin that the perfect balance between both combat and traversal was founded. Releasing on the Sega Genesis, this adventure finally saw players able to swing between buildings and exteriors, finding critical and commercial acclaim due to its enhanced Spider-Man experience. It also featured similar boss battles to the Game Boy version of The Amazing Spider-Man, bringing together the two styles of gameplay available on each console.
On top of this, it came equipped with state-of-the-art graphics, non-linear level design and – upon release on Sega CD – fully voiced cutscenes, providing players with an experience that felt much more advanced than any other Spider-Man adventure to date. This was the first landmark in defining what a Spider-Man game should feel like to play, the title truly understanding the character and providing an experience that put you squarely in his boots.
The Rest Of The 90s
Lots of games followed Spider-Man And The Kingpin’s success in the early 90s. Spider-Man: The Video Game – a beat ’em up side scroller – was released in arcades in 1991 and a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man on the Game Boy followed suit as well in 1992.
With a few other notable exceptions, Spider-Man didn’t come back into the spotlight until Spider-Man And Venom: Maximum Carnage. A beat ’em up that allowed players to take control of both Spider-Man and his evil counterpart Venom, Maximum Carnage was met with poor reviews and was merely the beginning of a downhill spiral for the arachnid inspired superhero.
From here, all Spider-Man’s nineties outings were critically panned. A sequel to Maximum Carnage called Separation Anxiety was released but quickly met with similarly underwhelming reviews, while Spider-Man: The Animated Series’ video game adaptation was critically undermined as well. After 1996, the web-slinging superhero was left to lie dormant, fans disappointed in his recent video game appearances and wishing for a game that launched him back into the stratosphere.
Spider-Man managed to reclaim his notoriety at the entry point of the 2000s, Activision snatching up the rights and instructing Neversoft – developers of Tony Hawk Pro Skater – to make the first 3D Spider-Man game.
Fortunately for both Neversoft and the fans, this new realisation of Spider-Man was the most authentic to date, the 3D nature of the game’s Manhattan allowing players to zip across the city’s vast skyline in a way they never had before. It was finally the game that truly let players become Spider-Man, setting them loose to swing around wide expanses and fighting crime at high vantages.
Better yet, it also had a varied combat system for its time, allowing players to web up enemies, launch punches and kicks as well as craft a protective web shield that could explode to cause massive area of effect damage.
Small touches, such as a full voice over from Stan Lee, collectable comic covers, and a story full of iconic Marvel characters’ made Spider-Man not only a fantastic innovation for the franchise but an authentic comic book game as well. Going forward, this would become the base for the typical Spider-Man game, the blend of satisfying traversal and fun combat becoming a defining staple of what made Spidey so fun to play as a character.
Following Neversoft’s success with Spider-Man, a sequel was soon commissioned and put on a fast track for release. However, Neversoft was removed from the project, developer Vicarious Visions taking lead on the sequel and eventually producing Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro in 2001. The game was unfortunately hit with mixed reviews, leaving Spider-Man’s next video game outing to be overseen by Activision’s newly acquired – and prior to Call Of Duty stardom – development team, Treyarch.
Tying in with the beginning of Sam Raimi’s now beloved trilogy, a new video game once again titled Spider-Man (because we didn’t already have enough of those) released in 2002. While it played similarly to Neversoft’s design, it came with enhanced graphics, cutscenes and voice acting from the cast of the movie, its presence only seeking to build on the wonderful fundamentals its PlayStation 1 counterpart introduced in droves.
More importantly, however, it introduced Treyarch to a franchise they’d soon have a massive hand in revolutionising. During development, designer Jamie Fristrom began to take issue with the swinging mechanics that made up the core of Spider-Man’s gameplay. He thought web-slinging felt too similar to flying and designed a prototype that saw Spidey’s webs anchor to buildings instead of into the sky. While not used in the final build of the title, this prototype would go on to define Spider-Man’s video game future.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
As Raimi’s second Spider-Man film released in cinemas, Treyarch’s follow up to their first movie tie-in hit shelves all over the world. Putting Fristrom’s web-slinging prototype at the core of the game, Spider-Man 2 became a soaring hit for Treyarch, the innovational new take on the franchise leading many to cite it as the greatest Spider-Man game ever to hit consoles.
Much like Neversoft’s Spider-Man did back in 2001, this sequel redefined what it meant to play the Web-Head in a video game, the physics of the free flow web-swinging system allowing players to traverse the streets of Manhattan with unparalleled freedom.
Another widely praised element it introduced was a huge open-world New York to play around in; it came complete with spontaneous crimes to stop, collectables to find and pizzas to deliver. This too became a staple of the franchise, allowing fans to be able to swing around stopping crimes in a way they’d only ever seen on the pages of a comic book.
Not only that but it implemented a physics-based combat system, giving players the chance to throw enemies in the air and juggle them with attacks or even knock them off buildings when the chance arose.
All in all, it was the first of a new wave of Spider-Man games that made you feel like the titular character. Not only was the gameplay fluid and fairly realistic, but it was also a lot of fun to play, lacking the tedious nature of a lot of physics-based games at the time and delivering something superbly polished.
Ultimate Spider-Man (2005)
Moving on from Spider-Man 2, Treyarch decided to take a more cartoony approach to their next title, Ultimate Spider-Man. Releasing in 2005, this loose adaptation of the cel-shaded Ultimate Spider-Man comics was notable for its refining of Spider-Man 2’s swinging system. It also received a lot of praise for its superb boss fights, which saw players battling opponents on the ground, walls and air while smashing through impressively destructible environments.
To players’ delight, it also saw Venom used as a playable character for the first time since Separation Anxiety in the 90’s. His control set differed from Spider-Man’s and facilitated an interesting parallel gameplay style to that established in the base game. While it wasn’t as highly regarded as its predecessor, Ultimate Spider-Man is often seen as one of the best of the web-slinger’s portfolio, its beautiful art style as well as its refining of Spider-Man 2’s central gameplay mechanics proving that the titular superhero thrived even under varying styles.
2005 – 2010
Unfortunately, Spider-Man had a rough few years following his previous cel-shaded debut. Spider-Man 3 released in 2007 to poor reviews, the swinging system that defined the previous game being simplified and reduced to a simple one button prompt. This was especially disappointing as it was the game’s first foray into next-generation consoles, but to Treyarch’s dismay, it was deemed a failure by both fans and critics.
Following this came Spider-Man: Web Of Shadows in 2008. Garnering a cult following for its interesting delve into moral choice systems, this darker take on the Spider-Man franchise was a valiant effort that, unfortunately, came with a mixed response. While it does have its fans due to its fun swinging mechanics and interesting combat system – the game giving you the option to switch between red and black suits for different strengths – it couldn’t save the web-slinger, marking the end of Treyarch’s time as the name that defined good Spider-Man games.
Spider-Man: Friend Or Foe didn’t help matters by releasing in this same time period either, meeting negative critical response due to its lack of challenge and generic gameplay.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (2010)
After the uninspiring releases from Treyarch, Spider-Man development was handed over to Beenox. The developers decided to try something a little different for their take on Spidey, opting to base his outing around levels rather than the open-world setting that had dominated his past slate of games.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions released in 2010 to good reviews, the company deciding to split the game into four parts and have players take control of four different Spider-Men. While it didn’t feature the now quintessential web-slinging, it refined the combat systems and boss battles, being praised for the variations of its gameplay through each of its separate Spider-Man characters.
It also introduced stealth through its interpretation of Spider-Man Noir, unwittingly inventing a gameplay mechanic that would come to be used in future Spider-Man titles. While many forget about its presence in the lineage of Spider-Man games, Shattered Dimensions was one of the more critically successful of the superhero’s modern outings.
2010 – 2018
Following Shattered Dimensions’ success came years of disappointing Spider-Man games. Beenox’s sequel, Spider-Man: Edge Of Time, released in 2011 but was met with more critical disdain than its predecessor. While many enjoyed the tighter focus it had on story, its simplified gameplay and reduced variation caused many to lose their interest in this new take on the franchise.
Following this were the two adaptations of Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films. Beenox decided to rejuvenate the open-world format of Spider-Man’s earlier titles for these licensed tie-ins, implementing a vast sandbox of Manhattan and a swinging system reminiscent of Spider-Man 2. Unfortunately, it was met with mixed reviews. While some additions to the gameplay were intriguing – such as entering first-person mode and choosing where to web-zip to add precision – the game’s visuals, simplistic design and repetitive side-missions received the brunt of the criticism, The Amazing Spider-Man garnering low scores as a result.
The sequel found even harsher criticism. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came in as Beenox’s worst rated Spider-Man title to date, critics lambasting the technical design, story, combat and poor graphics. It was the last Spider-Man game that either Activision or Beenox had any hand in, the reins eventually being passed down to a worthy successor.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018)
And so we reach the present day. With Insomniac Games deciding to take up the challenge of developing Spidey’s next title, we recently received what many agree is the greatest Spider-Man game of all time.
Featuring the anchored swinging and fluid combat mechanics of Spider-Man 2, the more comic-centric focus of Ultimate Spider-Man, the stealth of Shattered Dimensions and the loving references to other Marvel properties from Neversoft’s Spider-Man, it’s clear to see how this franchise has evolved throughout its lengthy stay in the video game industry. Better yet, Marvel’s Spider-Man feels like a loving ode to all the developers who have innovated what it means to play the character before, its fun traversal and satisfying combat coming from the best parts of his lineage.
As Insomniac innovates and evolves the character and inspires even more developments to Spider-Man’s core gameplay, it’s worth acknowledging how influential and important the web-slinger has been to the industry. He’s been a developing icon for over 35 years, and without him, there’d be a large hole in the superhero genre. As we go forward, it’s worth acknowledging that while your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man may be a revolutionary comic-book character and blockbuster icon, he’s also a staple of the video game industry as well.