Comic book video games come in a variety of categories: Some use the comic solely as their source material, even calling on comic writers for story input, (The “Arkham” series,) others take inspiration from animated series (Batman: Vengeance,) and then there’s those that exist in the world of a feature film (The Amazing Spider-Man 2.) On a rare occasion, such as with the recent release of the mobile game “X-Men: Days of Future Past, a developer will craft a game that adapts popular story line from the pages of the comics into the interactive medium.
Games based on comic book characters were not a brand new idea in the 1990’s, but in 1994 two different companies released games that not only starred super heroes, but followed the plot of an established comic story line: First out of the gate was Sunsoft with “The Death and Return of Superman” followed mere months later by LJN’s “Spider-Man/Venom: Maximum Carnage” or “Maximum Carnage” for short.
Despite both games coming from different companies and one being based on a DC Comics story line while the other came from a Marvel Comics event, the two shared a common bond in their genre. Both fell into the brawler/beat-em-up genre that exploded in the 16-Bit era thanks to the like of Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, among countless other examples. What Software Creations, the developer behind “Maximum Carnage,” did to differentiate itself from their competition that year was something that had not been tried, nor rarely tried since in a comic book game: they used the source material to communicate story.
In between stages in “The Death and Return of Superman” the player was given a black screen with some scrolling text that may contain an image:
Whereas “Maximum Carnage” transformed a comic panel into a cut-scene:
Simply using panels from the comic however isn’t what makes “Maximum Carnage” authentic to its source material, it’s how the story lends itself to the genre that Software Creations chose, and for that we need to discuss the “Maximum Carnage” comic book. “Maximum Carnage” was a bloated 14 issue story line that took place across every Spider-Man ongoing series at the time and it saw Spider-Man team up with his arch nemesis Venom to combat the rising threat of an escaped Carnage and his newly formed followers Shriek, Doppleganger, Demogoblin and Carrion.
The idea of the story is how Spider-Man, a hero not known for taking life, handles a villain whose sole purpose in life is his namesake, and the places he may have to go in order to save the day. In simple terms it is an interesting place to put Spider-Man, and this in many respects justifies the creation of a one note villain like Carnage, but the story pads itself out by having Spider-Man being pushed to the breaking point where he feels taking a life is a necessity, being presented with the opportunity to kill only to remember that being a murderer is not how he operates, leading to Carnage escaping only to have the situation repeat itself, ad nausem. On top of that, the creative team threw in countless “B” and “C” list characters like Deathlok and Morbius for cameo’s sake that ad little to the story.
Where the repetitive nature and cameos don’t make that compelling of a comic, they more than lend them to the beat-em-up action game. “Maximum Carnage” as a game is pretty typical of the genre: as either Spider-Man or Venom you beat down waves upon waves of similar looking bad guys until you reach a levels end where you’ll more than likely be challenged by a boss fight. Bosses start out as more powerful regular enemies, like the symbiote piercing hair whip female enemies, but pretty soon the player will slowly encounter Carnage’s army in various combinations until eventually you fight all of them at once in succession.
It’s fun to encounter Carnage’s flunkies for first you’ll only be handling either Shriek, Dopplganger or both. This escalates rather quickly as more super villains get thrown into the mix and you’ll have to quickly adapt your tactics in order to survive the encounters. After you start seeing Carnage show up in the fray, you start to realize that from that point on you’ll be thrown into the same encounter several times over but in different areas. It may come across as laziness on the part of Software Creations for not designing more enemies to fight, however they’re simply staging the brawls exactly as they come up in the story, so if anything they’re being as authentic as possible to what they’re adapting.
A complaint logged against the “Maximum Carnage” story is the over abundance of cameos and similarly to how Software used the repetitive enemy encounters to their advantage, they do so with this aspect of the story as well. Throughout the game both Spider-Man and Venom can collect consumable tokens that can allow them to summon a support hero for a brief “cameo” attack. The point at which you can get new characters also depends on when they show up in the story, so for example you will not be able to summon Firestar until they enter into the plot, nor Venom or Spider-Man until they reach the point in which they get the sonic cannon from the Baxter Building. The only point of contention is with the character Dagger, who dies early in the game and comic, but is available to summon as late as the third to last level.
Even to this date, “Maximum Carnage” stands as one of the very few comic book games that take more from the source material other than characters. Sure, at its core it’s little more than your standard beat-em-up fare, albeit a solid and quite fun one, but for 1994 it showed that comic book games could do more with story. It also stood as one of the high points for LJN/Acclaim who up to that point had turned most gamers away from any title featuring a super hero. It’s surprising to me given how well “Maximum Carnage” integrated a comic story into a video game that few developers have tried it since.