Embracing the overpowered: When Spidey first came to Playstation

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By Neil Merrett

Spider-Man, released on Playstation in 2000, published by Neversoft

Spider-Man, released 18 years ago on the first Playstation, understood a key concept of the superhero genre that an endless number of games before it – and many that came after – failed to grasp.

The game understood that Spidey, Superman and many of their crusading peers are grossly overpowered characters.

From a narrative perspective, this is hugely important to their appeal.  They are characters with powers way beyond those of the common man, choosing to right wrongs and overcome insurmountable odds.

Yet for a game developer, superheroes create something of a quandry. Being overpowered in a videogame tends to undermine the challenge facing a player, and largely the point of the game itself.

Too often Supes and Spider-Man were grounded, figuratively, if not literally.  Their  powers were often underplayed or removed in a game so that the foes faced in any given level were enough of a challenge without being easily swatted away.

This was hardly assuming great power and its related responsibilities.

The technical limitations that had previously consigned most games to 2D scrolling platformers or beat em ups, resulted in titles that had a rather limited scope in how characters like Spidey and Superman could be recreated in a digital format. You could swing for from the top of a screen, for example, and punch thugs, but this was hardly capturing the essence of a character renowned for swinging freely across a fictional Manhattan skyline.

Games just couldn’t really do superpowers, so superman was consigned to being susceptible to crow bar swinging thugs and having limited flight, because trying to create a nigh invulnerable alien was a bit of a game breaker, even in titles that sought to explore the character’s mortality.

Yet the 32-bit era of games that started in the mid 90s, which was all but dominated by Sony’s first game console, allowed developers to build actual 3D cityscapes and structures, albeit fairly simple and sparsely populated ones.

Suddenly there was an extra dimension to convey superheroics, allowing a player to revel in being legitimately faster, stronger and pretty much indestructible to bank robbers and common street gangs.

An early mission in Spider-Man for instance, has the hero sneaking around a bank to rescue hostages without detection, while webbing up robbers that offer barely any physical challenge to the webslinger in a straight fight or when he is clinging to a ceiling out of their line of site.

Over the course of the level, which plays out as a brisk, yet satisfying stealthy adventure, the player gets to almost toy and trick banks robbers, while also having to use their smarts to disarm a gigantic bomb in one cleverly realised puzzle.

Later levels move away from the hijinx of a bank raid.  Challenges included evading authorities, battling symbiotes while ensuring innocents are spared from drowning, as well as racing monstrous supervillains across the skyline of a fairly limited New York city.  Technical limitations required the lower levels of New York to be hidden below a mysterious and sinister cloud, supported by part of the game’s larger plot.  This limited the amount of programming and hardware requirements needed.

While the common street thugs of Spidey’s world are almost literally below him in all senses of the word, a huge roster of supervillains provide the player with much tougher and largely varied confrontations.  These battles put the player once again down the super strength pecking order, often requiring spider-man to employ strategy rather than brute force to win.

The additional scope offered by a third dimension and a clear understanding of the comic book source material arguably was one of the first times that a player could be both overpowered and challenged at the same time.

This was revolutionary for superhero games. Over the intervening decade as hardware specifications improved with both a second and third iteration of the Playstation, Spider-Man games were able to support more fleshed out and explorable versions of Manhattan.  This time, you could dive off the Empire State Building and battle in the streets below as bystanders looked on.

2004’s Spider-Man 2, a tie-in of the film of the same name, allowed the webslinger to fully realise the thrill of leaping and swinging between the Big Apple’s most famous landmarks in order to perform a number of superhero missions in between battling Doctor Octopus and other rogues.

By the release of the Amazing Spider-Man 2 ten years later, another film tie-in, New York looked even better, with many more special missions and citizens to protect and the central appeal of scaling, swinging past and launching over buildings still in place.  You cold also just chill on top of a train.

By this point, there was arguably a sense that Spider-Man games had not really evolved for ten years.  Meanwhile, games based on other superheroes, notably Batman, were being praised for innovative world building that brought together the different aspects of the title character as a detective, ninja and martial artist.

2014’s Spider-Man game had also embellished Spidey’ abilities, which could be further customised and levelled up throughout the game, to a point where he could flail and catapult between buildings and trains with barely nothing more than a touch of a button.

Developers were once again tampering with the difficult mechanics of balancing extremely powerful characters in a way that can allow the player to feel fully in control and able to influence their superheroics, while also being challenged. Many of the game’s innovations, while looking cool, arguably removed that important risk and reward of doing some death defying slow motion stunts across a teeming urban jungle.

Later this year, Spider-Man is returning exclusively to the Playstation once more in a much-hyped new game that has been produced by Sony.  It once again offers an interactive digital New York to navigate, explore and ideally save.

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The city looks beautiful as the light gleams off windows and steel rooftops and the main character can literally throw himself into crimes both small and large in scale.

Part of the appeal this time, according to the developers anyway, is in making use of Spidey’s civilian identity of Peter Parker, as well as assuming the role of his long-term love interest Mary Jane Watson as she makes her way in investigative journalism.

If games are now much more capable of creating a sense of being a massively powerful super being bringing street thugs to justice, perhaps Spider-Man’s next digital evolution is to capture his very human duality and flaws.

It is uncertain how successfully the game can convey the human frailties of Peter Parker and his friends, alongside getting right the mechanics of web shooters when playing as his costumed alter ego.

The early appeal of Spider-Man’s comics were the relatability of a common person struggling to balance their everyday, often mundane problems with world-ending peril.  Stories that touched on the nature of sacrifice and doing what is right – especially when inconvenient or seemingly impossible.

Eventually, movies and cartoons about Spider-Man also understood that it was these human foibles of the character that people adored over his powers.

Perhaps it is now the time for a Spidey game to do the same.

 

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