Superman may hold the Guinness Book of World Records for longest running video game protagonist, but I would wager that Spider-Man could hold a record for protagonist that has starred in a video game across the most platforms. From the Atari 2600 to Sega’s 32X, the NES to the a Japan only Super Famicom title, Nokia’s N-Gage to the PlayStation 4, it’s probably easier to list the devices that Spider-Man doesn’t have a game on (Tiger’s Game.Com and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy are the only ones that come to mind off the top of my head). As long and diverse as Spider-Man’s career in video games has been, there’s only been just over a handful of games, not counting the multiple SKU’s of movie titles like Spider-Man 2, that have received sequels and only two, Spider-Man 3 on the Game Boy and the movie tie-in Spider-Man 3 that have been part of a trilogy. Of that small number of sequels, none to this day have ever managed to deliver something as new and revolutionary as Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2, released in 2004 for the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox original. To understand the importance of Spider-Man 2 and why it carries the distinction of best Spider-Man sequel, it’s important to examine all the Spider-Man sequels that have both come before and after it.
The first instance of a Spider-Man sequel wouldn’t be on a dedicated home console, but rather Nintendo’s first handheld, the Game Boy, and it would start a trend of follow-ups that carry the same publisher but receive a change in development duties. 1990’s The Amazing Spider-Man developed by Rare, yes that Rare, published by LJN for the original Game Boy would get two sequels that have unclear titles: Part’s two and three on their packaging are titled Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider-Slayers, yet are often credited as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 3: Invasion of the Spider-Slayers. Regardless of the title, both games are considered sequels to Rare’s first game that was released in 1990, but they don’t feel like sequels at all.
The Amazing Spider-Man on the Game Boy was a simple, six-stage side-scrolling action game where you started at one part of the stage, moved to the other and fought a member of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery at the conclusion. There were levels where you were travelling on a subway, had to crawl up walls or swing across rooftops, but each stage more or less followed the same basic formula. Spider-Man 2 and 3, developed by Bits Studios and also published by LJN, were far more open games where you would have to explore levels to search for items like a cure to turn Curt Connors back into the Lizard and also allowed for more creative use of Spider-Man’s move set like having to drag Hobgoblin to the ground after attaching a web-line to his glider and just simply being able to climb walls; In Rare’s The Amazing Spider-Man, you could only wall-crawl doing two sections in stages two and five.
Despite the Game Boy sequels being perhaps more ambitious in their design, ambitious doesn’t always equate to a better game. Turn on Spider-Man 2 without an instruction manual or an online guide for example and you’ll more than likely have no idea what your objective is or where you need to go to. I may have a slight bias because The Amazing Spider-Man was the fifth Game Boy game I ever owned (Tetris, Balloon Kid, Super Mario Land, F-1 Race if you were wondering) and also the first ever comic book game I owned, but I feel that if someone picked it up now, they would an easier time figuring out what they needed to do. Mechanically speaking, the two Game Boy sequels also have the same controls as Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six where jump and attack are reversed from what they traditionally are which always takes some getting used to and never even truly feels right when you do.
One of the most beloved Spider-Man games was released in 1994 in Spider-Man/Venom: Maximum Carnage, or simply Maximum Carnage. Perhaps best known for its rocking Green Jelly soundtrack, Maximum Carnage was one of the few Acclaim/LJN licensed games that was not only enjoyable to play, but very respectful to the source material. It was little more than a beat-em-up of which there were plenty of in both the original IP and super hero variety in the 90’s, but it was also a beat-em-up where you could do everything that both Spider-Man and Venom could do: Web-swing, wall-crawl, and use your webbing in creative ways to fight enemies like pulling them towards you and snaring them to stun them. Above all else, what made Maximum Carnage so great was how it adapted the source material. Cut-scenes took the form of panels taken from the bloated comic book series and bosses as well as super hero support characters showed up, with the exception of Dagger who dies early but shows up late in the game, when they did in the story. About the only thing missing from Maximum Carnage was the ability to play with a friend, which is something that was added in its sequel, Venom/Spider-Man: Separation Anxiety, a follow-up that’s one of the rare cases where a developer continued in the series, in this case Software Creations.
In a few ways, Separation Anxiety is a better game than Maximum Carnage. The obvious way of course is that you can play cooperatively with a friend with one player being Spider-Man and the other being Venom, and secondly it has much better characters models that animate really well. In particular the way that both Spider-Man and Venom swing, crawl and transition from to standing to a fall after taking damage simply looks way better than what’s present in Maximum Carnage. Everything else though is just pales in comparison to Maximum Carnage, starting with the source material. Separation Anxiety is loosely based off of a mini-series called Venom: Lethal Protector, which doesn’t have nearly enough to mine for a video game than Maximum Carnage. Venom’s symbiote spawn are nowhere near as interesting as Shriek, Doppelganger and the rest of Carnage’s crew, and the support heroes, this time made up of the likes of Ghost Rider, Hawkeye and Daredevil among others are characters that have nothing to do with the Lethal Protector mini-series and have no context in the game.
Context is an important word because it’s maybe why Separation Anxiety lacks the charm of its predecessor. Events in Maximum Carnage flowed as they did in the comic series, while things in Separation Anxiety sort of just, happen. One moment you’re in New York City and then two levels later you’re in a forest with the only connecting tissue being a black screen with whichever character you picked in the background and a block of text explaining why you are where you are. Compare that to Maximum Carnage where early on Spider-Man is knocked off a rooftop by Shriek and then in the next stage you start lying on the ground with your health the exact same as the stage before where normally it would be topped off. The Green Jelly soundtrack is also sorely missed in Separation Anxiety, and when a remixed version shows up within the game in a few levels, it’s a painful reminder of just how generic the rest of the game’s music is.
2001 would be an important year for Spider-Man video game sequels in that it’s the only year where there’s not only been two unique sequels, but two unique ones at that. First up was the Game Boy Color exclusive Spider-Man 2: The Sinister Six followed by the PSOne exclusive Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro. Both are considered sequels to their respective games that were released in 2000, but of the two, it’s only Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro that has any connective tissue with its predecessor with the opening of the game starting off with a “Previously On…” video. Of the two, it’s surprisingly the Game Boy Color game that’s actually better than its first outing. Spider-Man (2000) on the Game Boy Color was a non-linear 2-D action side-scroller that can be described as what Bits tried to do in their Game Boy games, only if it was done right. You’re thrown into an open area you can explore, but it’s much easier to locate your objectives and find out where you need to go. It’s not perfect though, as it’s still easy to get lost and even easier to die as Spider-Man (2000) is a very tough game. The Sinister Six went to a more traditional level-by-level route, a reverse of the previous Game Boy Spider-Man series, and is a much more enjoyable game. There’s still some exploration you can do within levels, but it also provides direction. While The Sinister Six is a better game than Spider-Man (2000), it’s little more than a refinement of the title that came before it.
Both the PlayStation and Game Boy Color Spider-Man sequels fall into the same publisher/different developer category. Vicarious Visions handled development duties on the first Game Boy Color Spider-Man game while sequel responsibilities went to Torus Games. A reason for this is maybe because Vicarious Visions crafted Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, taking over from Neversoft who developed Spider-Man (2000) on the PlayStation. Enter Electro in many ways is similar to Separation Anxiety in that in many respects, it does thing better that Neversoft’s game. For one, Spider-Man character model has the trademark webbing that the first title wouldn’t get until ports to other machines and certain levels allow you to travel from the tops of buildings to the streets whereas in Spider-Man (2000), you could never see the street below you. There’s also more interesting set pieces like having to stop a runaway plane or catching up to a train while Sandman tries to stop you.
Because of how quickly it was turned around, Enter Electro came out not but a year after Neversoft’s Spider-Man, it feels like more of an expansion and less like a sequel; This is very evident when you play the two games back-to-back. Control wise Spider-Man feels more or less the same across the two games, and the biggest complaint with Neversoft’s game, the camera controls or lack there of, still weren’t been addressed and wouldn’t be in a Spider-Man game until the first movie title. Enter Electro very much had that B-team feeling about it, which was reflected in its cast of villains. It did have classics bad guys like the title character, Electro, Sandman and the Lizard, but they didn’t carry the same weight or importance as characters like Venom, Carnage and of course, Doctor Octopus. Overall Enter Electro is a less polished game as well, and can be quite frustrating when played on anything above the easy difficulty.
Spider-Man 2 the film is near universally praised as both the best Spider-Man film to date (though Homecoming may challenge that title) and an example of how to do a sequel right. This is a statement that’s also true for many of the video game, at least for consoles, of the same name. Whereas previously released Spider-Man video game sequels were worse, about the same, or a little bit better than their originals, Spider-Man 2 was felt immediately better than the game that Treyarch made to release alongside the first movie. Gone were the level-to-level structure of past Spider-Man games, instead replaced with an open-world recreation of New York City that players could explore at their leisure. Not only could players explore to their heart’s content, but they could do as they envisioned Spider-Man did in decades of comics, cartoons, and now movies
No longer was it sufficient to just pull a trigger or hit a button to start web-swinging, the player had to be mindful of their surroundings and make sure that there was a building or structure in which to anchor their web-line to. It felt for the lack of a better term “realistic”, and with some practise, it was natural to get the rhythm of when to boost on your swing arch, when to set another line and how to get the proper height. Spider-Man 2 is not a perfect game as it has some not so great combat, repetitive side-missions and indoor stages that are nowhere near as enjoyable as freely swinging around New York City. It’s somewhat easy to overlook these faults when nearly every other Spider-Man game released since 2004, even Treyarch’s own Spider-Man 3 and the superior Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, have done little to evolve the idea of how Spider-man should play and feel in a game.
Spider-Man would continue to star in video games on a continuous basis after the release of Spider-Man 2, but none really felt as important. 2005’s Ultimate Spider-Man is arguably better than Spider-Man 2, but outside of being able to play as Venom and a new art direction, it feels very similar to the game released before it. Spider-Man 3 on both the same system as Spider-Man 2 and its at the time next generation counterpart on the PS3 and Xbox 360 were not as well-regarded as chapter two despite being on more powerful hardware as they too felt like the same game warmed over, and not warmed over well at that. Between Spider-Man 2 and 3 there was an unremarkable pseudo-sequel exclusive to Ultimate Spider-Man on handheld titled Spider-Man: Battle for New York that had different versions on both the Game Boy Advance and DS, however both were a poor man’s version of Ultimate Spider-Man. The most exciting chapter in Spider-Man video game legacy since two would happen in the form of 2010’s Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, a game that returned the character to the linear, pre-Spider-Man 2 days and featured Spider-Man working together across multiple universes to stop Mysterio from destroying all reality. It would be the first Spider-Man game in years to get a major sequel, but like how Shattered Dimensions felt like a return to an older era of Spider-Man video games, so too did its sequel.
Released in 2011, Spider-Man: Edge of Time is a game that can be easily compared to Separation Anxiety as well as Enter Electro in that it’s an attempt to recapture the success of a previous hit without the time to really polish things. Shattered Dimensions featured four playable Spider-Man, each existing in their own universe that brought a lot of environmental variety. Edge of Time only featured two Spider-Man: The “regular”, or “616” one we know as well as Spider-Man 2099 and took place more or less within the same, bland environment with the only visual distinction being that it took place in two eras. There’s a lot to like about Edge of Time, mainly the story and voice acting with Josh Keaton and Christopher Daniel Barnes playing off each other superbly, but it’s nowhere near as good as its progenitor.
Both Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions as well as Edge of Time were developed by Beenox who would be responsible for the next two, and final Spider-Man console games to date, once again based off of movies. The Amazing Spider-Man released in 2012 and based off Sony’s first attempt to reboot the Spider-Man film series was Beenox’s first attempt at an open-world game after making two linear titles which was received positively but still was criticized for not feeling as good as Spider-Man 2. Much like 2002’s Spider-Man, anchoring your web-line to buildings wasn’t something you needed to concern yourself with, instead you just pulled a trigger and went about your business. This criticism was taking to heart with Beenox’s last Spider-Man game, and final sequel to date, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Neither the film nor game were received well, and despite returning to a “realistic” web-swinging model like Spider-Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stifled player enjoyment by the addition of a morality system. If you wanted to just swing around and put off doing anything in Spider-Man 2, you could, but in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, failure to keep a perpetually depleting morality meter high by doing side-quests made obstacles show up to impede your web-slinging as well as enemies that would chase you until you were deemed “heroic” again.
Spider-Man 2’s importance to Spider-Man’s video game legacy is not only because of how it was the premiere open-world title that implemented comic book accurate web-swinging, but also because it was the first sequel starting the character that was worthy of its second chapter status. Unlike the sequels that came before it, it truly offered players something original and didn’t try to merely recapture anything that came before it. This is something that both original Spider-Man games, and those worthy enough to get sequels, have even failed to do in over a decade. There won’t be another Spider-Man console game until 2018 when Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac releases and only time will tell when, or if, it will get a sequel. For now, and the forseeable future it seems, Spider-Man 2 will be the sequel to top.