With the new Spider-Man game just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to trace the evolution of Spider-Man games over the years. To keep this more Sony focused, I’m going to start with the original PlayStation game and work up from there since after that one pretty much every major web-slinger release has made it to a Sony system. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get into it!
Spider-Man has swung with the PlayStation brand for almost 20 years now. And it all started back in 2000 with the release of the web slinger’s self-titled PSX game. While not the first Spider-Man game by a long shot, a PlayStation was the first console I ever owned so it was my first time seeing Spidey in video game form. And it was a big deal to me. I remember buying the game and being SO excited to play it. I had a vision in my head of swinging around and fighting bad guys. Every kid I knew wanted to be Spider-Man and this felt like I would finally get the chance to dawn the mask.
The opening thirty minutes was like crack to me. So many characters and villains (Doctor Octopus, Venom, Carnage) fill out the opening minutes of the game. Heck, the game is even narrated by Stan Lee. Granted, at the time, I had no idea about that and just thought, “Wow, what a cheerful old guy.” Despite my ignorance, his voice became a steady companion through all the levels.
As my first experience with a Spider-Man game, it hit a lot of the right notes. You could climb on things, you could swing, there were lots of bad guys to beat up, and the story was fun and entertaining. Those were my expectations and they were all hit. The last boss battle even exceeded my vision, as the developers created a new villain, Monster Ock, a combination of Doctor Octopus and Carnage. I thought that was so cool as a kid, and the final fight, a chase sequence through creepy hallways, gave me some trouble but made it all the more satisfying to come out on top.
That game was followed up by Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro. And while it was pretty good, it was more of the same but not nearly as impactful. The boss fights, the highlight of the original, were sometimes frustrating. And the enemies were not anywhere near as interesting, most of the baddies you fought were human thugs and robots. It wasn’t as well received critically and did not sell as well, forcing Activision to scrap the third game in favor of a movie tie-in. Thank God for that.
If Enter Electro can be considered as a blunder, Spider-Man: The Movie on PS2 righted the ship. It was another level based beat em up like the PSX games, but the combat was expanded and it just had a better overall vision than Enter Electro. Largely helped by being based on the first Spider-Man movie. Green Goblin is a fantastic villain and he was fun to fight in game form. There was even an unlockable where you could play through a separate campaign as the Goblin himself!
But there were problems, such as a short length (it could be completed in just three hours), bad voice acting (from Toby Maguire no less), and web swinging was still just swinging from webs that attached to the sky, not buildings. That last one was especially frustrating, made even worse by the fact that you still could not touch the ground. If you got too close you would fall to your death and the level would reset. Things felt restricted. But critically and commercially it was considered a success and paved the way for the next big shakeup in Spider-Man games.
Spider-Man 2. Despite continuing the trend of unoriginal names (that the series has never been able to shake), this was when Spider-Man reached a potential previously unseen. And arguably never matched again. It had the combat, it had the crazy villains. And then they added something that would change the series forever: an open world city. For the first time, the dream of being Spider-Man was fully realized. You could go where ever you wanted, climb buildings, walk on the street without fear of game overs, and stop all sorts of crime. And one more amazing thing: your webs no longer stuck to the sky.
In Spider-Man 2, finally, the webs attached to buildings. Not only that, they reacted realistically. You had to aim a little bit and gain momentum or you wouldn’t go very far. And if there wasn’t anything around to latch onto, you wouldn’t go anywhere at all. That was a game-changing system. Swinging was a little bit of a challenge, a task to master. The more you did it the better you got until you were swinging as fast and fluid as Spider-Man himself. In terms of being realistic and making you feel like you were actually web swinging, this was and still is the best it has ever been.
After this, things escalated. Spider-Man games were a constant on store shelves. The formula put forward in Spider-Man 2 was repeated, a lot, over various games, each with varying degrees of success. Ultimate Spider-Man was my favorite of the bunch. It added a cel-shaded look, was based on the excellent Ultimate comics, and a playable Venom. Web of Shadows also was good, having a lot of great bosses but just falling flat on the execution and the inclusion of a choice system that was even worse than the inFamous games. In between, there were not so great ones (Spider-Man 3), mobile games, and a straightforward beat em up (Friend or Foe).
After so many attempts at the same formula and unsuccessful ones at other gameplay styles, the next big shift happened. Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time, two story focused games without the open world web swinging. They might not have had the open world, but in terms of story and fan service, they were like nothing we had seen before. Both games combined different Spider-Man universes together, having them interact, fully voiced by a wide range of actors that have all voiced Spidey in the past. The gameplay was full of combat and stealth, the story being the center of the two games. And they were fantastic. But I couldn’t help but feel like, what if they took that story and fan service focus and added back in the open world and web swinging. Surely, the game that could top Spider-Man 2 was just around the corner?
Wrong. They went back to movie-based games, throwing the story focus and everything else great right out the window. The first Amazing Spider-Man game was alright, nothing stellar, it just went right back to the open world game with very little in the way of improvements. However, if you played the Vita version, that was good enough, to see a Spider-Man game on a portable be pretty close to the home console version was a neat thing. Amazing Spider-Man 2 has really no redeeming qualities, while not offensively bad it was bad enough that it has been four years since that game. Four years, that is unheard of for the series, there used to be a new one right around every corner.
And that brings us to now. Where we are just weeks away from Insomniac and Sony’s Spider-Man. It’s been a four-year gap since the last one and I feel like, with that amount of time, Insomniac’s talent, and the long history of success and failures to learn from, I really think that they can make the best Spider-Man game we’ve ever seen. Now, it won’t be as groundbreaking as the first 3D one, nor as mind-blowing as the first open world game. But of everything shown so far, I think it will combine the importance of fan service, bosses, and story coupled with the gameplay we have come to expect just brought to a whole new level.
Only a few more weeks to go until we find out for sure and get to see the next step in the evolution of Spider-Man. The wait is excruciating.