Spider-Man for the SNES is a bad game. But it's also one that I have a lot of nostalgia for, and more importantly it's one of the first games that got me thinking about game design.
Spider-Man for the SNES is a bad game. But it’s also one that I have a lot of nostalgia for, and more importantly it’s one of the first games that got me thinking about game design. Mostly because the design here is so amateurish, obvious, and bizarre in turn. Right off the bat this is not a simple game: every button is used and many have different effects depending on the context of when you press it. Also, the game is clunky as hell; stiff, awkward and unclear. Additionally, it’s really bad at conveying information to the player. Bad conveyance is usually what will get a player stuck in this game, a fact exacerbated by the weird contextual nature of so much of it.
The first weird element of the game that you encounter is the rear plane. In certain areas of the game you need to jump into the background. The first area of the game locks your progress until you’ve done this at least once. Frustratingly, not every entrance to the background works the same way. Some can be simply jumped in straight up, but more often you need to jump in at an angle, in a way that carries you past the entrance. It’s hard to describe and even once you learn this, it still takes practice to be able to consistently pull it off. Generally I find rocking the controller a bit results in success. Getting out of the background sometimes works the same way, where you can just jump into the main plane of the game. Other times you need to hold down and press jump to jump down. You will also need to figure that out to get out of the first area. Once you’ve proven to the game that you can at least get into the background on accident, so that you are, at bare minimum, aware of this mechanic. Don’t worry, it will show up again many times to drive you nuts anyway.
After killing the hidden enemy you can now kick open the grate locking your progress, because that’s how grates work. It you have figured out that jumping near a wall (not all walls, only certified climbable walls) and pressing the run button will allow you to wall-climb, then you can find the first secret: The one power up in the game, the Spider-Armor. The Spider-Armor absorbs a bunch of damage and eliminates Spider-Man’s hit animation, which by the way doesn’t come with invincibility frames, and is something hat you can get trapped in, so that’s the bigger deal honestly.
After you defeat one more enemy you encounter another element of the game that you can miss, but is obviously intentionally being shown off, Spider-Sense. Spider-Man’s eyes will start blinking red when he’s near something that will hurt you but isn’t immediately apparent to be dangerous. This applies to both the character mode and the Spidey icon in the corner. To let you know about this mechanic you first encounter it near a vat of liquid that has a skull and says dangerous on it. If you fall in and are wearing the armor, you can quickly jump out. If not you will get trapped in Spidey’s damage animation until you die. Luckily when you die you respawn right there as long as you still have extra lives. If you have to use a continue you restart the stage you’re on, and it you’re out of continues it’s game over and back to start.
Another problem you might notice around now is that Spider-Man is too far to the right when he’s running. The camera does not give you enough room to see what’s coming. It’s one of the most frustrating things for new players. You will take damage from enemies you didn’t see coming. Even when you know what’s coming it can still be a problem because of the stiff controls. The important thing is that we’re finally getting to the heart of the matter: this game is an asshole. I mean, I have a lot of nostalgia for it, I played it a lot as a kid and me and my friends figured out all this shit by brute force; I kinda love this game.
But fuck this game.
Not because it’s bad, plenty of games are bad, but this game is a bully. So let’s look at the first time time the game tries to teach you that it’s an asshole. So this is kind of the first time the game allows you to explore without forcing you. You could just keep moving forward, or you could go down the nice inviting hallway, going the wrong direction…
But it’s a trap. There is no reward. Sure that’s a health pickup at the end of it, but if you need that pickup you’re probably going to die before getting it. This hallway teaches the player that exploring is going to be punished and the reward is probably not going to be worth it. Although that’s not always true, it generally holds. It is here that you’re also introduced to one of the game’s elements that will make you want to snap your controller in half: falling down into a previous part of the level. This game will repeatedly allow you to lose progress without killing you, reveling in wasting your time. But we won’t get a real taste of that until level 2. Through the next part of the level there are death pits with chomping teeth, because just having pits in the floor wouldn’t have been obvious enough. This is where they decided to make something more obvious, open holes in the ground were too subtle. Whoever made that decision either gave up or was murdered and eaten during development, because so much of this game is not nearly obvious enough. Later in the level you encounter one of these same pits, except the teeth here aren’t moving. This is an entrance to the secret stage: Everybody’s favorite place in all video games, The Sewer!
This is actually a decent piece of design, if still odd. It’s kind of surprising how likely it is for a new player to jump down this pit. It’s the same graphic as the death pits you’ve probably already fallen into, and yet because it lacks that intimidating chomp, and its placement in the level (Off to the side a little); it just works.
Having said that, the sewer is a nightmare for new players. This is really the first time the game’s poor conveyance really becomes and issue. A new player had no idea where to go, what he’s doing, or how to get out of here. Everything wants you dead; toxic sludge drips on you, pipes spit poison gas in your face. It’s not just unclear where to go, but also how to get there. This is like sending a baby through an obstacle course before they’ve learned to walk. It’s punishing and unfair to new players, which is kind of weird for a secret bonus stage that exists to give you extra lives and Fantastic Four summons. You can have a treat, but we’re also going to have to break your hand. Once you know where everything is and how to get to it, this area is not that bad. But learning all that is not intuitive at all. Spider-Sense is pretty useful here, letting you know which things to break open for health or extra lives, and which will just blow up in your face. Also worth noting is that your kick is long enough that you can hit the edge pixel of things and if they explode you won’t get hurt. If you know the way out you can just leave at any time, but there is kind of an end goal here.
At the end of the stage to the right is the Lizard and beating him unlocks an elevator in the level to a little treasure trove of goodies. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. The easiest way to hit the Lizard seems to be to kick him while he leaps at you in the air, since he doesn’t like to stand still and will jump quite often. However, doing this will damage you, and because there is no damage animation for Spidey when he’s in the air, it can be easy to miss this fact if you’re not watching your health bar closely. Once you do beat him the game presents you with another beginner’s trap. The Lizard turns back into his human form, Curt Connors, after he’s beaten but if you hit him again after this, he will turn back into the Lizard. This second Lizard form is glowing and cannot be defeated. You have to just run and leave. Also the elevator becomes locked off again when you do this because video games.
Why is this an element of the game? Maybe it’s a moral lesson: Don’t punch helpless one-armed dudes who hang out in sewers. Really it’s just another example of the game taking pleasure in picking on new players. “Oh, you want a little victory tee-bag? Well fuck you!” Also, he might be glowing but there’s no other indication that he’s now unstoppable. You are only going to learn this lesson the hard way.
Even after you do beat him, the game never lets you know that the elevator works now. It’s up to you to realize you should jump into it, after you start working your way back, having defeated a boss but still totally unclear on what to do next and if defeating him did anything at all. That the elevator doesn’t lead to the way out adds even more confusion to the mix. On top of that, half the goodies are behind a secret grate. Above the grate, which is kinda hard to see as it is. Is one of the small pipes that even toxic gas at you. F you stand in front of it and kick it, it will slide into the wall and the grate below you will open. This is the only pipe that have this function in the whole game. This is one of the few secrets in the game that drove me nuts, and I still couldn’t remember after spending time away from it. This give you two more lives and the Human Torch token.
Getting back up involves a specific jump near where you fall down, confusingly not at the left end of the level. On the hardest difficulty there is another area of the sewer, but let’s get back to level one. That’s right, after all that you’re right back where you started. An entrance to the sewer exists in most of the levels in the game, but it’s the same every time. The other entrances will drop you off in different parts of the level though. All that’s left to this first level is the boss, Doctor Otto Gunther Octavius. Entering his room triggers the boss music: “Laughter of Insanity.” The game literally begins to laugh at you as you walk into its trap. This is as big a beginner’s trap as there is in the game, because you cannot hurt Doc Ock. So when you first attack him, unaware of the futility, you will die. “Ah-ha-ha.”
There is no way to see this coming. Why should Doc Ock be un-punchable? He is just a normal dude with crazy metal tentacles. Knowledge of the character only pushed you deeper into the trap. This is horrible. This is amazing. The ludicrousness of this fight is burnt into my memory. Once you know the trick it’s not difficult, but the way the game gleefully holds back the information you need to progress is pretty deceitful. The game stymies you with a puzzle, where the thrust of the puzzle is just realizing that it’s a puzzle. So there is one thing that you can do to Doc Ock, and the idea to try it is something that does come from knowledge of Spider-Man and Doc Ock: “Here’s web in your eyes!”
This will cause him to curl over and his tentacles will flail wildly. Then he will rip the webbing off and begin to move freely again. The real key to defeating Ock, is to run past him, climb up the far wall, swing back to the left and hit the switch you find up there. This is the first switch like this in the game. “Ah-ha-ha.” This will cause the giant sciencey machine in the room to periodically fire out a giant green beam. To hurt the good doctor, you need to web his eyes to get him to stop under the beam. The number of times you have to do this depends on your difficulty level. Also of note, in a game that loves to reuse villains, this is the only time you fight Doc Ock. Yeah, I’m pretty sure you just murdered him. “Ah-ha-ha.”
This game is unfair. It’s clunky and awkward to control. On top of all that, the worst sins this game commits have not yet reared their heads. And yet, I still find it compelling. Obviously part of that is love for Spider-Man, and part of that is nostalgia. But the question I have to ask myself is what brings me back to this game, over even the other LJN published Spider-Man game for the SNES I played as a kid, Maximum Carnage. That game even lets you play as Venom, who I was obsessed with as a kid. More importantly, it’s actually a decent beat-’em-up. But that game never grabbed my imagination in the way this game did.
There’s something tantalizing about the way this game fails to convey information to you. I got a genuine thrill every time I figured out another piece of its bullshit. I refused to let the game win. I wanted victory, I wanted revenge. I didn’t just want to beat this game I wanted to defeat it utterly, to leave it broken, with all its secrets laid bare. I want this game atomized, and since no one else has any interest in doing that, I might as well do it myself. Fuck. I should probably just play Dark Souls.
Thank you for your time. Please leave any questions or comments below.
To be continued…