Decades ago, when Bill Clinton was still the boss-man and nobody knew what a pumpkin-spiced mochaccino was, the world was scattered with video rental stores. Chunky cassettes, creaky floors, bags of pre-popped popcorn; families made pilgrimages to these hallowed spaces every Friday night. Off to one side, humble at first but soon growing in size and variety until it earned a section of its own, was the video-game shelf. It was here that I found those titles that I loved but never owned, those games that I’d spend the entire weekend blitzing through before that heartbreaking goodbye on Sunday night. Spider-Man (Neversoft, 2000) for the PlayStation was one of those games - full of web-shooting, baddie-punching, and wise-cracking fun. It was glorious.
Or, at least, that's how I remembered it. When I return to the game 17 years later, I realize that I’ve been seeing it through a haze of nostalgia. The product carried a lot of promise and expectation on release, and I encountered it at an age when I was too young and naive to differentiate good design from bad. For the longest time I remembered it as I had experienced it then - a flawless game that gave me a chance to become the best (objectively, and you can write to me if you disagree) super-hero in existence. I thought that if the game was hard, it was because I was bad at it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see now that the game was hard because several key elements were pretty poorly designed.
The appeal of the Spider-Man franchise, the things that drew me to the game initially, were his relatively unique and easy to understand powers. Flying is common in the superhero genre to the point of being a little boring: it's a power that rarely requires skill, and isn't often given a mechanical explanation. Spider-Man’s web-swinging travel was a really fresh break from this. It required that Spidey was skilled and smart in his use of it, it demanded a high-level of acrobatics, and it invited the audience to think about how it worked mechanically - it wasn’t just an at-will piece of magic. This exploration of its mechanics enabled us to more easily imagine ourselves performing the same tricks. If we had strong ropes and a method of launching them easily, we too could swing around the city like this. His webbing is also incredibly versatile, being used to make nearly anything from weapons and shields, to hammocks, medical splints, and bungee cords. He can use webs to tie up baddies, yank them out of their hiding places, and set up elaborate traps. His powers require creative problem-solving, and this was far more appealing to me than Superman’s insta-toggle laser eyes(™).
These are the things that constitute the promise that a Spider-Man game inherently carries, and unfortunately Spider-Man for the PS1 struggled to deliver on this. The fast-travel web-swinging is a huge part of the game - we’re introduced to it in the very first level, which has us travelling to the bank to stop a heist. Along the way we encounter baddies that we have to beat up. What you’d expect, given the depictions of Spider-Man’s powers in other media, is the ability to swing towards a target, to change direction by shooting out a new web-rope, to climb or descend en-route, and the ability to attack mid-swing. You’d combine these mechanics to initiate combat in whatever way you saw fit: coming in hard and fast, coming in higher or lower than your target to avoid detection, or swinging past them, firing off streams of webbing at the enemy while moving to flank. What we have instead is an oversimplified, hands-off system where the player presses the web-swing button, the game picks a point on the nearest vertical surface in front of the player, and Spidey swings in a straight line towards it. While it’s possible to jump mid-air and re-aim the web-swing on the horizontal plane, it’s a stiff, clunky way of moving. We get none of the swooping, agile movement that we expected, nor the dynamic ranged combat moments that would arise from a more elegant system.
Spidey’s ground movement, enemy targeting, and camera system come together to make a pretty clunky combat experience, too, especially when it comes to melee. The camera is the main culprit here, being painfully slow to align itself with Spidey’s orientation. We often end up fighting enemies we can’t see, resulting in frantic button-mashing as we wait for the camera to catch up.
Perhaps to make up for this, the game gives us some great systems for navigating interior spaces quickly. When Spidey is crawling around upside-down players can look down through the ceiling, getting a great bird’s-eye view of the environment. There’s also a neat zip-line ability, where Spidey fires out a web at whatever surface is directly above his head and yanks himself towards it, enabling players to move from ceiling to floor or wall to wall in an instant. Despite these great systems, their practical use is marred by the dodgy camera. Several times I've tried to launch a sneak-attack on an enemy, dropping down directly behind them with an element of surprise, then found myself facing the wrong way and unable to see anything other than a blank wall. By the time I turned Spidey around and waited for the camera to catch up, the enemy had spotted me and opened fire. Where I expected to feel like a slick, stealthy assassin, I ended up feeling like an amateur burglar.
One aspect of the game that does live up to its potential - once we tame that difficult camera - is in the dynamic use of Spidey’s webs in combat. The many opportunities that these webs offer are explored in a decent amount of depth, and players are encouraged to play offensively and defensively, lethally and non-lethally. There are basic ranged attacks, like covering bad guys in web or throwing solid balls of webbing at them. Then there are the more inventive ones. Spidey can build a dome of protective webbing around himself, or create spiked web gloves that increase melee damage for a short time. He can even yank enemies towards him or sideways, throwing them into environmental hazards or off rooftops. All of these web-based abilities are activated using the D-Pad and the triangle button instead of a more typical inventory or slot-based (and HUD-driven) system. This allows players to make combat decisions quickly, bringing back some of the fluidity that is lost to the less-polished mechanics.
Spider-Man wasn’t an awful game. It gave us an opportunity to explore the Spidey's abilities in a 3D world for the first time. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge it too harshly today; in the year 2000 3D gaming was still in its infancy, and we still had a fair way to go in figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Camera issues and clunky mechanics aside, Spider-Man is still a neat experience, worth checking out if you need a dose of nostalgia... feel like witnessing some truly terrifying character designs.