This past Sunday marked the 13th anniversary of the launch of the Sega Dreamcast. That’s not a nice number that people usually break out the retrospectives over, but I have a soft spot for the system and that gives me an excuse to talk about it, and one of my favorite superhero games: Spider-Man.
Now, Spider-Man didn’t start out as a Dreamcast title. It originally debuted on the PS1, then eventually found its way to the N64, PC, MAC and finally the Dreamcast in April of 2001. I don’t have any experience with the PC or MAC versions of the game, but as far as the console versions are concerned, the Dreamcast version is the best. The N64 version lacked the FMV cut-scences found in the CD/GD-rom based versions, and the models in the PS1/N64 versions lacked little details, such as the web’s on Spider-Man’s costume, Black Cat’s mask, and individual fingers for the character models.
The title was developed by Neversoft, in one of the very rare cases that they could make a game that wasn’t either Tony Hawk or Guitar Hero. In fact, Spider-Man would be an unlockable skater in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 that year as well. Porting duties for the Dreamcast version were handled by Treyarch, who would go on to make all of the Spider-Man movie titles excluding the Amazing Spider-Man and would share co-developer credit with Shaba studios for 2008’s Web of Shadows.
The game starts off at a science expo where a reformed Otto Octavius (that’s Doc Ock to you and me, folks!) is showing off new technology that will better mankind. A skeptical Peter Parker is snapping pictures in the crowd when who should appear other than Spider-Man to steal the device. It’s up to the real Spider-Man to clear his name, find out who planned the heist and for what purpose.
When most people think of Spider-Man in videogames, they think open world but that wasn’t the case with Spider-Man due in fact to the limitation of the hardware and that this was the first time anyone tried to make a 3-D Spider-Man game. The levels were broken up into six chapters, combining a mixture of outdoor and indoor areas and boss fights with classic foes such as Scorpion, Rhino, Venom, Mysterio, Doc Ock and Carnage.
The game did an excellent job of letting the player feel like they were Spider-Man. You could stick to any surface and transition from climbing to a wall onto the ceiling. Web swinging, a spidey staple and the gimmick which all future games would be based around, was present but rather limited. You could manage about two swings before you were forced to the ground. Your webline could also be used to zip out of sight of targets, to aid in stealth take downs with your webbing from the ceiling.
What made Spider-Man stand out at the time was the respect that the creators had for the property they were working with. At the time, the only games based on comic characters were shovelware created by Acclaim. Neversoft crafted a game that not only let you use Spider-Man’s powers, but live in his world. Spider-Man runs into other street level New York heroes, much like he would in the comics, and they are treated with dignity as well.
Daredevil knows that he’s telling the truth about not pulling off the heist with his ability to detect lies…
… and when he needs someone to talk to, Spider-Man goes atop the Baxter Building to speak with the Human Torch.
As mentioned above, the game has a fair number of villains who are handled very well and mirror their motivations from the comics. Spidey breaks up the Scorpion attacking J. Jonah Jameson who he feels is responsible for trapping him in his battle armor, Mysterio is the man behind the science heist deception using his parlor tricks, and Venom is tricked in the beginning of the game by Mysterio into thinking that Spider-Man is the one who spoils his chance to be a photographer again when he destroys Eddie Brock’s camera while exiting the crime scene.
Each boss fight has its own clever gimmick that makes each of the battles memorable. In the final battle with Venom, Mary Jane is dangling above a pool of water and you have to keep hitting levers throughout the arena to keep her from drowning. Rhino is the classic “make x character run into y object”, Mysterio grows to giant size and you have to mind your environment while knocking out power conduits on his armor, and in the Carnage battle you have to keep him trapped within a sonic bubble, as sonics are one of the symbiotes prime weaknesses next to fire. The developers even thought of a plot reason to have a sonic device present.
To speak of Spider-Man, one must also reflect on time the game came out. It was right after the dreaded clone saga and two years before the characters popularity would skyrocket thanks to the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and film from Sony and director Sam Raimi. I don’t think Spider-Man has ever ceased being popular, but his approval rating wasn’t going through the roof at the time. For a mega publisher like Activision to allow a team to make a game like this today would almost be unheard of.
As much as I praise this game, I will admit it is a bit dated. The combat is pretty basic, with combos being either three punches or kicks that can’t be mingled mid-combo. The FMV’s are also not very good to look at, especially in the PS1 versions where for some reason every characters spine is visible. You could call it a problem with the hardware, but this was the machine that made the iconic Final Fantasy movies. They look a little bit better in the DC port, but still not that great. I do appreciate how the developers made the fog a plot point similar to PS1 classic Silent Hill. Camera angles are also problamatic, as there is no way to manually control the camera and sometimes it’s hard to see when your crawling on the wall or transitioning from the wall to the ceiling. The game itself is also rather short, I literally finished it in about two hours this afternoon, but there is replay value in collecting hidden comic book pages in the levels, some of which are difficulty specific and unlocking costumes with different abilities.
Despite being a little dated, everyone should check this out on whatever machine you have that can play it. I would call it the Arkham Asylum of its time: a game that pays great respect to the source material it’s based material and proof that given the right team, good superhero games are possible.