The DNA of... Marvel Spider-Man
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Welcome, true believers! The latest Marvel Spider-Man game is currently going down very well with critics. But while they see a great game worthy of high review scores, we at Antstream Arcade can't help but spot the retro gaming influences hidden beneath its surface.
Before we take a deep dive into the classics that influenced today's Spider-Man, let's get this out the way. There have been a lot of Spider-Man video games in the past. Back in 1982, the very first game to feature Spidey focused on using webs to climb tower blocks and defeating criminals. All sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?
However, what their similarities really demonstrate is that we've all long known what a Spider-Man video game should be. There just needed to be 36 years of other game releases in between to help developers understand how to realise that vision of the ideal Spider-Man game.
So let's break the new Spider-Man down by its constituent parts, and see which titles from the past might have inspired those that designed the game we see before us today.
In a world where so many open-world action games adopt the same form, there's one gameplay element that marks Spider-Man out as distinct. We're talking, of course, about the web slinging and swinging. But our friendly neighbourhood Spidey isn't the first character to soar through a game on the end of a line.
In 1982's Pitfall its star Harry leaped over obstacles swinging from vines, doing much to found what a scrolling platformer should be in the process. The same year, Taito's less impressive Jungle Hunt also saw its lead traverse the screen on swinging ropes. Originally they were vines, but Tarzan-related copyright concerns inspired Taito to keep things distinct from the original king of the jungle. Which is why they also dropped the game's first name, Jungle King. Of course, we can all agree that swinging through the jungle on vines and doing so on ropes are two very different activities, right? Right?
By 1987 Capcom's Bionic Commando came to arcades, presenting a platformer where the player could not jump. Instead, the titular bionic arm of the protagonist was used to swing across openings, scale heights and traverse gaps. Importantly, the commando's arm piece could also be used for picking up power-ups, establishing that a length of rope – or bionic tubing –could be used to do more than just swing. That's definitely something Spider-Man has elaborated on.
But the undisputed king of the swingers was 2004’s Spider-Man 2. Loosely based on the film sequel, this was the first game to truly get the web slinging right, with webs that clearly attached to buildings, rather than just being shot into a skybox. For the first time, you got the sense of inertia and speed as you swung through New York, and practiced swingers could make the traversal look and feel – well, super.
There have been a lot of games based on Marvel comics' characters and worlds. By our count, at least 150 different titles have been released, not including ports. Over 30 of them have been based solely on Peter Parker's double life, with four alone carrying the simple 'Spider-Man' title.
At the top of the pile are the brilliant Marvel Vs Cacpom arcade fighting games, which see the comics cast tackle characters from titles like Street Fighter and Mega Man. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes and Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds proved that staying faithful to the lore established by the comics could make Marvel heroes utterly convincing video game characters.
Other stand out Marvel games include the excellent six player X-Men arcade game from Konami, which re-skinned their popular Turtles brawler to great effect, and the brilliant Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which was one of the first games to let you bounce around a city causing mayhem – once you’d unlocked all the upgrades. They might not be widely celebrated, but they moved the comics/games crossover concept forward a great deal.
And let's agree to forget 1986's terrible Howard the Duck game, which proved not all Marvel characters take to pixilated adventures.
On paper Peter Parker's alter ego is the official protagonist of the new Spider-Man game. But it is the New York city setting that is the real star. And it turns out Insomniac isn't the first developer to see the potential of the Big Apple as a place to let game play blossom. Most famously, back in 1997 New York - albeit rebranded as Liberty City – served as the setting for the very first Grand Theft Auto. And from that 2D homage to New York the GTA phenomenon was born, inspiring myriad open-world games. Indeed, it's fair to say that Spider-Man shares a lot more of GTA's DNA than simply the setting.
Not that GTA can claim to be the first to encourage players to blaze a trail through New York. In 1984 Atari 8-bit game N.Y.C. The Big Apple saw you play a tourist exploring New York, beset by misadventure as they tried their best to take in the sights. This New York certainly wasn't a true open-world, but the game did encourage you to visit different parts of the city, outwitting danger and moving between separate areas that offered distinct challenges.
Offering game play a little closer to that seen in today's Spider-Man is Final Fight, released to arcade cabinets in 1989. Set in New York, Capcom's creation – originally intended to be a Street Fighter sequel – saw players moving through the city, brawling with crowds of thugs. Which gives us an idea for this article's next section…
While Final Fight's New York setting is mirrored in Spider-Man's 2018 outing, it is the specific type of brawling game play that most directly links the two games. On release Final Fight offered something quite different from the more conventional one-on-one sparring seen in many arcade fighting games at that time. Instead, it explored the dynamic of scrapping with a crowd, making the player strategise and prioritise as enemies moved in on all sides. That lead to what was at the time considered remarkably flowing, dynamic brawling game play – something absolutely defining of the new Spider-Man.
The same DNA thread that can be followed from Spider-Man to Final Fight actually continues back a good few more years. In 1984 it was Irem's Kung-Fu Master that established conventions for the side-scrolling brawler, marking it as a possible origin point for this gaming form. And you can't mention Final Fight without giving a hat tip to Double Dragon and Streets of Rage; that latter of which was also set in a homage to the Big Apple.
Look forward a few years, while it's clear that Japanese titles like Devil May Cry, and Bayonetta had a huge influence on modern brawlers, it was really Batman: Arkham Asylum that nailed the modern approach – fast light attacks on Square, heavy attacks on Triangle, and killer combos accessed by combining the two buttons. This heavily stripped-down, context sensitive fighting system has been adapted by almost every open world brawler since, and it’s no surprise to see it adapted here too – albeit held together with lashings of sticky web fluid.
Here at Antstream Arcade our DNA features look at how games from the past have influenced the big titles of today. But the relationship shared between comics and games is a two-way street. So we thought we turn things on their head and consider how comics generally have influenced video games as a whole.
The fact is comics have been around a lot longer than games. You can reasonably trace their origins hundreds of years back, if not thousands. But the comics we're considering here really started in the 1930s – the decade that gave us DC Comics and Superman. Spidey himself didn't actually arrive until 1962, when some early video games like Tennis for Two were already being made on mainframe computers.
But regardless of the timing of Spider-Man's first appearance, video games owe a great deal to comics. Could any one imagine Metal Gear's rogues' gallery of peculiar villains without superhero comics developing such a range of eccentric criminal masterminds? Would player-characters in Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider and many more be safely jumping and falling quite so far without comics teaching us how to suspend disbelief? Does the arcade shooter end-of-level boss convention take its lead from comic books' many melees with vastly powerful rivals? Are Mario's blue and red dungarees inspired by Spider-Mans outfit?
OK, we were pushing it with that last one. But the point stands; video games tropes like heroes, villains, saving the world and overcoming casts of colourful bad guys were clearly inspired by comic books and Marvel Spider-Man is a great template for how comics can and will inspire each other for decades to come. Excelsior!