Vintage Spider-Man Games: Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin

1993 may be the most important year in my life to date.  On March 13th, I got my very first video game system, the Sega Genesis, creating a love of the medium that only grows stronger as time passes.  Later that year, during the summer, I came across a rack of comic books at a campground newspaper store in Virginia and plunked down some borrowed cash to buy a copy of X-Men Adventures #6, forever setting me down the path of comic book fandom.  Not long after, I procured a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #383, forging a lifelong bond with the webslinger that continues to this day.

Those two hobbies – video games and comic books – would collide before the end of the year when we rented the game Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin from a local video store.  Little did I know that a modest two dollar investment would give me the privilege to play what was and remains the greatest Spider-Man game ever created.

Developed by Technopop and published by Sega – making this a game that appeared exclusively on Sega consoles – Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin was released in 1990 on the Sega Master System before being ported to the Sega Genesis and Sega Game Gear in 1991 and the Sega CD in 1993.  The Sega Genesis version of the game is the most popular one, and that’s the one that this article will cover.  Oddly enough, the game’s box and the end label of the cartridge refer to the game simply as Spider-Man, but as always, the “official” title is what appeared on the game’s title screen.

One related oddity worth mentioning is that Marvel’s publishing deal with Sega for this game led to a strange Spider-Man guest appearance in, of all games, The Revenge of Shinobi.  You see, the Shinobi games have always been chock full of cultural references, but The Revenge of Shinobi went way, way too far with it.  That Sega-published game, released at the end of 1989, originally featured completely unauthorized appearances by Godzilla, the Terminator, Rambo, Batman, and of course Spider-Man.  When several of the companies behind these characters caught wind of it – primarily Toho, the studio that makes the Godzilla films – Sega was forced to change the characters to avoid copyright infringement.  Godzilla became a skeletal monster, and Batman became an inhuman bat creature.  However, since Sega had a deal in place with Marvel for the use of Spider-Man, they altered Spidey’s sprite to make him look MORE like Spider-Man and added a copyright credit at the start of the game.  The unauthorized Spider-Man appearance became a licensed one!  Crazy, right?  You can check out the original appearances of Spider-Man and Batman in this YouTube video (Brad should love the title, by the way!):

Anyway, back to Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin …  I often make the claim that this is not only the greatest Spider-Man game ever made, but also the greatest superhero game in existence.  This is a bold claim, and frankly I am ill-prepared to argue the latter statement in an article of this scope.  However, I am more than ready to argue the former!

What makes this game the greatest Spider-Man outing in video game history is its authenticity to the character.  Virtually every detail of this game is a pitch-perfect extension of the comic book lore.  It begins with the game’s manual, which features a four-page introductory comic book written by Steve Englehart and inked by the legendary John Romita (the identity of the penciler has been lost to time, apparently).  Thanks to the efforts of Enigma_2099 and Styleshift, you guys can enjoy the comic as it appeared in the manual:

Cool, huh?

The game itself continues the immersion, creating a Spider-Man adventure that could have been lifted straight out of the comics.  Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, claims in a television broadcast that Spider-Man has planted a bomb somewhere in New York City that will explode in twenty-four hours.  Suddenly, Spider-Man is embroiled in a race to find the bomb and the five keys required to disarm it, each of which has been entrusted to a supervillain to guard.  From there, the game becomes a race against the clock to beat the bad guys, collect the keys, find the bomb, and save the city!  Along the way, there are twists and turns, face-offs, and drama galore.

Most of the gameplay mechanics flow naturally from the pages of the comics.  For starters, Spider-Man has use of all of his powers.  He can climb on walls, swing from webs, and is even warned by his spider-sense when powerful enemies approach.  The game also gives a nice variety of combat options for a title dating back to 1991.  Spider-Man can punch and kick, but he can also fire web balls at enemies and build a web-shield that both protects him and serves as a solid offensive weapon.  However, his supply of webbing is limited, and this gives birth to what is my favorite mechanic of the game – just like in the comics, Spidey needs to sell photographs to The Daily Bugle in order to pay for his webs.

At the start of each level, Spider-Man has three “shots” in his camera to take photographs, and it’s up to the player how to use them to their fullest potential.  Virtually every person, animal, robot, and supervillain can be photographed, but it’s up to J. Jonah Jameson which photos have the most value.  Getting a picture of a mutant in the sewer might be worth twenty bucks, but getting a photo of the Lizard will net you a lot more cash.  One hilarious little Easter egg is that Jameson will actually pay you fifty dollars for a photograph of HIMSELF.

After the level is complete, Jonah will compensate you for your hard work.  That money goes straight into replenishing your supply of webs, with the leftover cash saved for the next cycle.  This mechanic forces you to pick your spots, because if the villain gets too far away, you could be left with a worthless stock photo.  Despite the fact that there are web power-ups in the game, you will run out of webbing quickly unless you take some good photos along the way.  (Interestingly enough, this is the only Spider-Man game to ever incorporate this mechanic.  Spider-Man 2 nearly got there with its photography side missions, and Spider-Man 3 gave us the ability to freely take photos, but both games were hurt by their ties to the films, since that Spider-Man has unlimited organic webbing and thus no need to pay for materials to synthesize his own.)

Another mechanic that has origins in the comics is how health is managed.  You see, since Spider-Man is in a race against the clock, he goes from one place to another as quickly as possible.  Your health does not regenerate between levels, and losing all of your health in a level leads to Spidey being tossed in jail temporarily, which amounts to about two “hours” of the twenty-four-“hour” game clock.  Like webbing, there are health power-ups within the levels, but the best way to replenish your health is to retreat back to the apartment Peter shares with Mary Jane.  However, there is a steep cost – not only do you have to restart the level, but the clock moves at an accelerated pace (since Peter needs to ret for a while to get back to full health).  You’re free to leave any time, so it can become a balancing act between maximizing Spider-Man’s health and minimizing the runoff of the clock.

The game also features short dialogue scenes between the Spider-Man and the vanquished villains.  Like everything else in this game, they’re very authentic.  Spidey loves bad puns, and the villains show such utter contempt for the webslinger that I can’t help but laugh every time.  These small cutscenes also help bridge from one level to another, keeping the strong narrative going.  It doesn’t hurt that they look pretty good for 16-bit graphics, too.

Speaking of graphics, they are also impressive for the time and still hold up today.  The game takes Spider-Man across the city, from the depths of the sewers to the rooftops of Midtown, giving each level a unique look and style of its own.  Spider-Man himself looks about as good as technologically possible in 1991 – though his costume lacks the web design and spider chest emblem, the colors are great and he animates well.  The shading of his figure even gives him some good musculature.  The music is damn good, too.  Each level has its own musical arrangement (except for the intro level, which shares its theme with the city level).  Each song is catchy and appropriate to the setting.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the trappings of the game, but trust me when I say that the gameplay very much lives up to these elements.  For starters, many of Spider-Man’s best foes are here, from Doctor Octopus to Electro to the Hobgoblin.  (Remember, this is early 1991 – as far as continuity goes, Norman was dead and Harry was temporarily retired from Goblin-ing, so Roddy was the top Goblin in town.)  Each villain has taken up residence in an appropriate setting, and some of them have even surrounded themselves with suitable henchmen.  Doctor Octopus has ordinary goons patrolling his warehouse, while Electro has filled the power plant with spark creatures and electrical hazards galore.  Venom even appears to stalk you across multiple areas.

The gameplay is a mix of action and platforming.  Some levels, like the warehouse, are a maze of platforms and corridors that have to be navigated before you can get to the boss.  Others, like Central Park, are flat zones that simply have to be traversed laterally to get to the boss, focusing more on evading waves of enemies.  The sewer level even makes it necessary to do some webslinging to reach the Lizard’s lair without falling into the alligator-infested waters below.  The controls are great and allow Spidey to do a lot of things considering that the game only uses the standard 3-button Genesis controller.

While the game is fun, I can safely say that it is also pretty tough.  This is one of those games that provides a fair challenge built around the tactics and placement of the enemies rather than cheap tricks and unfair limitations (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge … I’ll get you next time).  The most difficult level before the final showdown has to be the power plant.  As a kid, that level would eat me alive and spit my balls out.  I had a hell of a time with it even in my playthrough for this review!  There are swarms of flying spark creatures, goons with guns, lightning raining down from the sky … and all of that before you get to Electro, who is the hardest boss in the game not named the Kingpin.

All of the challenge is worthwhile because of the greatness of the last act of the game.  Like a classic comic book story, this game builds up to a dramatic climax.  It begins after you collect the last key.  Kingpin sends Venom to kidnap Mary Jane and bring her to the Kingpin’s underground base (believing, like many, that Peter and Spider-Man are friends).  Kingpin broadcasts this to Spider-Man on the frequency of his spider-tracers, brazenly revealing the location of his base and daring Spidey to attack.  Of course, this just pisses Spider-Man off, and after cluing in the police, he heads into the base.

The base itself is a cavalcade of punishment.  There are armed guards, sentry turrets, and robots patrolling the place.  If you manage to get past that, the next section of the base has a maze of vents leading to the room with the bomb.  Of course, that room happens to be guarded by four of the six supervillains Spider-Man defeated to get the keys required to disarm the bomb in the first place.

To disarm the bomb, Spidey has to match the color of the bomb’s glowing dome to the color of the keys.  The dome flashes one color at a time, so Spidey has to use the correct key and then wait for the dome to reset for the next key in the sequence.  Meanwhile, the supervillains are trying their hardest to separate Spidey from the bomb, and the opportunities to actually attempt to disarm the bomb are brief.  To top it all off, using the incorrect key automatically causes the bomb to explode.  DAYUM.

If you manage to disarm the bomb correctly, the entrance to the final confrontation with the Kingpin opens.  And boy, is he an unholy terror.  The Kingpin struts around like a pimp and whales on Spidey with his fists, each punch sending the wall-crawler flying across the room.  Only attacks landing in an indescribably small region around Fisk’s head will cause damage to the Kingpin of Crime, which makes fighting him a very tough task.  Meanwhile, Mary Jane is being lowered into a fiery soup of death right next to the combatants, creating a severe time constraint for Spidey to work under.  This is drama!

This level was the bane of my existence as a kid.  Not only is Kingpin is a tough muffler-fudger, but Mary Jane is lowered into the vat of death so quickly that all of my childhood playthroughs ended with Mary Jane being killed.  ALL OF THEM.  You only get one chance, too: if Mary Jane dies, you lose the game.  Beating this game became an obsession.  It was like Rocky fighting Apollo Creed, except that I wasn’t satisfied just going the distance.  I wanted to win, goddammit!

And win I did.  Eventually, as a teenager, I managed to beat that fat bastard’s skull in and save Mary Jane.  The sweet ending music came on, Kingpin got hauled away by the cops (where the hell were those guys when I needed backup?), and Peter embraced his wife.  The picture says it all:

My recent playthrough was no different.  Kingpin kicked my ass so hard that I would have been propelled into outer space if my bedroom didn’t have a ceiling.  I wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I kept playing and playing until I beat him.  And when I did … there was enough raw, joyous energy to power my entire apartment.  For a week.

That’s how much this game means to me, even after all these years.  No matter what Spider-Man game I play, it always pales in comparison to my ongoing, years-long war with the Kingpin.  My mind associates Spider-Man so strongly to this game that I still hear the music to the first level whenever I see the words “Spider-Man” in print.  Popping the cartridge into my Genesis is like transporting back in time to my own golden age – I can become a kid again!  I can laugh and smile playing a game that has no right to be this fun and engaging nearly 20 years after it was first published.

If that’s not a testament to the greatness of Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, I don’t know what is.