In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT! We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.
Last year saw the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man, a first-party Sony title released exclusively for their Playstation 4 console, and plenty of fans were slightly upset over the game’s exclusivity. Many of these upset fans wound up buying the console just for the game, and it quickly became the fastest selling Sony first-party game since the company got into video game market. Spidey’s PS4 outing wasn’t the first time his games were locked into a singular console ecosystem, though. Back in the 90’s, Sega did it first because of course they did.
Surprisingly, Spidey’s first appearance in a first-party Sega title wasn’t in his own game. Released in 1989, The Revenge of Shinobi cast Spider-Man as one of the game’s bosses. The original Japanese version of the game’s Spider-Man wasn’t actually the real Spider-Man at first, however – halfway through the battle, he turns into Batman, and is eventually revealed as some sort of superhero impersonator. This iteration of Spidey also sports a red and black color scheme. When the game was released outside of Japan later in the year, Spider-Man’s color scheme was changed to the more familiar red and blue, and Batman was completely ripped out and replaced with Go Nagai’s Devilman; another rerelease in 1990 added a Marvel Comics copyright notice to the game’s opening copyright notice, making the appearance official. Spider-Man would remain in all of Revenge of Shinobi‘s subsequent rereleases until 2009, when the game was released on the Wii Virtual Console and Spidey was turned into some sort of generic pink guy. All currently available versions of the game on modern devices use the revised 2009 ROM, but earlier versions of Revenge of Shinobi featuring Spider-Man are not difficult to find. Owners of the Steam version can even download a patch on Steam Workshop that reverts the game back to its first International release!
Spidey’s first actual first-party Sega outing, Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin (or just simply Spider-Man according to the game’s box art), would release in 1991 for both the Sega Genesis and Master System. As explained by a 4-page comic by Steve Englehart and John Romita contained in the Genesis version’s manual, Kingpin has hidden a massive bomb in New York City, rigged it to explode in 24 hours, and blamed the whole thing on Spider-Man during a TV appearance in which he offers a $10,000 reward to whoever can apprehend him before the city is destroyed. Spidey must clear his name and defeat Kingpin, as well as a menagerie of villains including Doc Ock, Venom, Lizard, Hobgoblin, Electro, and Sandman. There are some twists too – at one point, Mary Jane is kidnapped, and, after finally defusing the bomb, Spider-Man must defeat Kingpin in hand-to-hand combat before she is lowered into a pit of acid.
Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin featured several revolutionary (at the time) game mechanics. The 24-hour timer on the bomb isn’t just a plot point in the manual or a cinematic – the game has an actual 24-hour timer that counts down in real time at the bottom of the screen. Now, the game doesn’t actually take a full 24-hours to beat (according to HowLongToBeat.com, the average player can complete the game in around 2 hours), but it’s an interesting detail that adds some tension to the game. Health and web regeneration is tied into this mechanic too, as the game gives players the option to take off the Spider-Suit and go home at any time during gameplay to decompress and reset their status. Going home forces the player to start whatever level they were on over again from the beginning, costing them precious time; again, the 24-hour timer is way longer than needed, but the illusion of needing to juggle Peter Parker’s time as Spider-Man and his self-care time at home is a neat touch.
Spider-Man’s moveset here more accurately reflects his character than any other Spider-Man video game adaptation released up to this point. He can shoot webs, swing around, climb on walls, and make a shield out of webbing. These are all par for the course for the character, but, in a stroke of brilliance, the game’s developers added a feature that lets Spider-Man take photos during gameplay. The process is a little unwieldy, involves navigating a pause menu (the same menu that allows players to change the function of their web shooters or go home) to do it, and only allows players to take 3 photographs before they have to go home and get more film, but it is still incredibly cool to see the developers embrace this side of the character when they could’ve just made a simple beat-em-up like so many other companies (Sega included) that have handled the character both before and after Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin. Players can even sell pictures to the Daily Bugle and use the funds to buy more web fluid! Unfortunately, this feature didn’t make it into the Master System version, but it’s understandable – according to Ken Horowitz’s Playing at the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games (an essential read for anyone even remotely interested in the video game industry during 90’s), the mechanic was not fully implemented in the Genesis version until the game was roughly 75% of the way through development. Programmer Burt Sloane had to figure out how to get around memory issues before the photography functions could work properly.
Playing at the Next Level contains a full chapter on Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin‘s development and goes into every imaginable detail on both the creation of the game and its impact on Sega of America and future game development for the Genesis outside of Japan as a whole but, of the most relevance to this piece, it’s important to note that the game went through a temporary development hell situation at the beginning of its development. Before reaching out to Technopop, the developers who would create the finished version of the game, Sega contracted Innerprise Software, an outfit out of Denmark who had previously worked on a few projects for Electronic Arts, to handle the game, but it quickly fell behind schedule. A demo of Innerprise’s game greatly disturbed Sega’s contacts at Marvel, who threatened to pull their license if the game didn’t shape up. Sega cancelled Innerprise’s contract and wound up giving the game to Technopop, who was working with Sega of America on tools for western Genesis developers at the time. Sega’s gambit paid off – Technopop was staffed with Spider-Man superfans who crafted a technologically impressive game playing to the character’s strengths, Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin was a huge success for all of the companies involved, and Sega was allowed to continue working with Marvel franchises.
While Sega of America was busy with their Genesis Spider-Man game, Sega of Japan was busy crafting their own take on the character. Spider-Man: The Videogame released worldwide in arcades in 1991 and, like many other licensed games at the time, dropped the character into a beat-em-up. Up to four players could beat up goons as Spidey, Black Cat, Hawkeye, or, in one of his few playable videogame appearances, Namor the Sub-Mariner across 4 massive levels. It’s an interesting game – the rogues gallery consists largely of the villains featured in Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, but with the addition of Green Goblin, Scorpion, and Dr. Doom, who serves as the game’s primary antagonist. The final boss, however, is just three Venoms. Not separate symbiotes, but three Venoms that fall from the ceiling after Dr. Doom explodes dramatically (note – YouTube broke linking to specific points in videos a few days ago so fast-forward to about 46:10 to see this in action). Also Spider-Man’s web attacks drain his health for some reason. This mechanic makes a lot of sense for a beat-em-up game, I guess, since special attacks typically cost health to perform in those titles during that era, but it feels a bit strange to play a Spider-Man game where the titular hero can die from web overuse.
Spider-Man: The Videogame also features sections in which the screen zooms out and turns into a platform action game. The game ran on then-new Sega’s System 32 hardware, which was capable of handling all sorts of fancy 2-D scaling effects, and while Spider-Man: The Videogame wasn’t as much of a fancy showpiece for the hardware like the previous year’s Rad Mobile, it wasted no opportunity in leveraging the new technology for gameplay purposes. Unfortunately, the game would never receive a home port – it wouldn’t have worked on the Genesis without major re-designs and, like many other System 32 titles, was considered outdated by the time the Saturn came around. It would, however, make a reappearance as a prize in a Fox Kids contest during the airing of Spider-Man: The Animated Series in 1995.
Fast-forward to 1993. Sega’s CD add-on for the Genesis, available to consumers for a little less than a year at this point, is relaunched with a new form factor to fit their second revision of the core Genesis console. The first year of the console was a little bit of a software desert, with the system’s killer apps consisting of stuff like the Make My Video multimedia CDs and FMV-heavy games like Night Trap and Sewer Shark (this is probably too harsh of an assessment, there were also ports of The Secret of Monkey Island and The Adventures of Willy Beamish and honestly the FMV games have their charms). For 1993, Sega readied enhanced CD ports, sequels, and spin-offs to their most popular games. Ecco the Dolphin, Sonic the Hedgehog, Joe Montana’s NFL Football, and Batman Returns, among others, would all make appearances, as would another breakthrough title from a few years before.
A very heavily re-worked version of Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin released for the Sega CD that Summer; among other things, it changed the title of the game to The Amazing Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, reworked Spider-Man’s moveset a bit (particularly his web shooting abilities, which were much more fleshed out in this one), added a map screen that allowed players to choose their next destination instead of ferrying them across levels in a linear fashion, and brought in Vulture and Mysterio, complete with levels playing to their strengths, in to fight Spidey alongside the villains from the original game. A CD-quality hair metal-esque soundtrack, composed by future Sega superstars Spencer Nilsen and David Young, replaced the chiptunes of the original game – Eric Martin, vocalist of the band Mr. Big, even lent his voice to the game’s theme song, “Swingtime”. Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin even features bizarre, cheesy animated cutscenes, one of the most important 90’s CD-ROM game staples! The photography mode, unfortunately, was removed from the game, but in an interesting marketing twist, the game came with a scavenger hunt metagame of sorts. Players had until March 31st, 1994 to finish the game on its hardest difficulty while also finding all of the hidden comic book covers in the game during their playthrough, after which they were given a code. By writing their code, their high score, and the amount of time left on the game’s timer after reaching the ending on an entry form included in the game’s instruction manual, players could enter to win prizes like a complete set of Marvel Masterworks trades, a guitar signed by Eric Martin, subscriptions to the Amazing Spider-Man comic, and Game Gear consoles.
Sega gave Spider-Man a rest for a few years after The Amazing Spider-Man vs. Kingpin. A new Genesis add-on called for a new Spidey game, though, and Spider-Man: Web of Fire would release for the Sega 32X in 1996… a little less than a year after the add-on’s launch, yet right at the literal end of its lifespan. Developed by BlueSky Software (Vectorman, the Genesis version of Jurassic Park) and designed by X-Men 2: Clone Wars designer/San Francisco punk legend William Novak, Spider-Man: Web of Fire takes some weird departures from the rest of Sega’s Spidey-related output and feels very much like a product of its time in ways the other titles didn’t.
Darkly colored computer-rendered graphics replace the more traditional comic-looking pixel art of the previous games. Kingpin, Venom, and company are gone, replaced with HYDRA and the New Enforcers (possibly due to conflicting licensing issues with Acclaim, who were also releasing Spider-Man games on Sega consoles at this time), and the whole thing feels slightly cyberpunky I guess a little bit. The basic plot of the game involves HYDRA putting up a giant laser net thing above Manhattan and also kidnapping Daredevil for some reason. Spider-Man has to stop them by destroying electric generators (each guarded by a member of the New Enforcers) and rescuing Daredevil by punching the cage he’s in to death during the first level, which enables players to summon The Man Without Fear as a sort of smart bomb attack from the Pause menu provided they have enough Daredevil coins. Destroying the laser net only takes up three of the game’s five levels; the rest of them are dedicated to Spidey storming a HYDRA ship and fortress to attack them head-on. It’s a strange game for a strange piece of hardware, but there’s some bright spots to it – the graphics can look nice at times, especially in the opening level, the web swinging feels pretty great even though Spidey’s overall moveset has been severely toned down compared to his previous Sega CD outing, and, as far as I could tell, it is the only Marvel videogame to contain the character Thermite. Glen Orbik’s painting for Web of Fire‘s box art deserves a special mention too – it’s absolutely stunning.
The synopsis on the back of the box is stunning for other reasons, especially if you’re a fan of late 90’s tech-sploitation.
Web of Fire‘s really not a terrible game – its dark tone, semi-futuristic tone is a little weird compared to the rest of Sega’s Spider-Man output and, like other games of the era that used pre-rendered graphics, looks a little off on modern displays, but there are far worse Spider-Man games out there. It’s definitely worth trying but, be warned – as it was the last 32X game released, it is exorbitantly expensive. As of this writing, the lowest price copy on Amazon is $293, roughly $50ish less than the current average price on eBay.
Post-Web of Fire, Sega wouldn’t touch any Marvel franchise for over a decade, when they’d get the license to make games based on the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man would bounce around between companies like Acclaim and Capcom until 2000, when Activision scored the license and gave Tony Hawk Pro Skater devs Neversoft the chance to make Spider-Man for the original Playstation, providing the blueprint for the next decade or so of interactive Spider-Man adventures.
Thank you for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!