By freeing developer Insomniac Games to build its own game universe rather than tie it to last year’s “Homecoming” film, Marvel allows the game to tell a coherent, well-paced story about a Spider-Man caught in the middle of a supervillain turf war that’s about as good as most of the movie studio’s output.
‘Spider-Man’ gives us an engaging plot, played out on a digitally rendered island of Manhattan that is populated by equally amazing characters. In the Sam Raimi films and even in “Homecoming,” principle characters like Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson are relegated to the sidelines. Sure, they’re important, but they have no agency outside of how they react to Peter Parker.
But in the game, we have a version of May Parker that goes beyond the “doting mom” archetype. Instead, she’s a tireless social worker with sharp administrative skills upon whom an entire New York borough could rely. The video game’s Mary Jane far outshines the distressed damsel of Kirsten Dunst, opting for investigative journalism over Broadway stardom. And J. Jonah Jameson? He’s been deplatformed from Marvel’s paper of record and achieved his inevitable form as an angry, bloviating podcaster.
As the game progresses, Peter interacts with this familiar cast both with and without his mask, swinging through the skyline to tap into side stories that stretch from Harlem to Battery Park. The world feels immersive and authentic. It feels like the world of Stan Lee’s Spider-Man.
This is all a welcome break from a dubious history that has been littered with failed game titles.
“Iron Man,” the first Marvel Cinematic movie, featured a game released at the same time, one that later won Gamespot’s 2008 Editor’s Choice award for “Worst game everyone played.” The “Thor” title made YouTuber Angry Joe’s “Worst games of 2011” list. It was only the ninth-worst on that ranking because, as Angry Joe says, it was a movie license game, “which we all expect to be bad at this point.”
To put it lightly, video games tied to movie releases have had a clumsy record. An early example: “Back to the Future” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System is infamous for having little to do with the film, tricking thousands of 1980s babies who had no Internet to buy the game just because they loved the movie.
It wasn’t until 2009’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum” that the video game developers had a playbook for creating a critically and commercially successful superhero game. That game was not tied to any of the wildly successful Christopher Nolan films, but they did benefit from the Batman hype those films created. Instead, the game was written by the same writers of the beloved 90s animated series, and the developer had the time to flesh out its own version of Batman. And for once, the player was able to move and fight just like Batman does on the big screen.
But despite all of Marvel’s recent box-office success, there hasn’t been a single Marvel-related game that aspires to make us feel as heroic. Insomniac Games shows us that it only took time, and the right people, with this week’s release of ‘Spider-Man.’
It’s ironic that until Insomniac’s creation today, no other Spidey title could lay claim to being objectively better than the 14-year-old “Spider-Man 2” game that was tied to the film. It laid the template for letting superheroes be a superhero in an open world city. Go where you want. Solve crimes in incidental moments. It was revolutionary stuff, a foundation the later Batman series built upon to great success, and from which this game takes to new heights. It’s particularly noticeable just traveling around the map.
The game simplifies Spidey’s swinging to just a few button presses, and there are light screen prompts to suggest where players should sling their webs. This physics model replicates the sensation Spider-Man probably feels making moment-to-moment decisions swinging from building to building. It also is so engaging, it makes seemingly daunting tasks seem a welcome distraction.
For example, the option for players to collect 55 backpacks littered across New York sounds like a chore. But each backpack tells us a little bit about Peter Parker’s early years as a crime fighter. They tell us that he used these backpacks as home bases, fitting with the DIY quality of Spider-Man as a superhero. He would use these to wash up, keeping around packs of toothpaste and deodorant.
They also show a sentimental side to Peter Parker, that he’s the kind of guy to steal and keep the menu of the Italian restaurant from his first date, or that he would keep the rubber gloves he used to fight Electro (which is actually canon to the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stories). All of these details bring as deeper into Sony Spider-Man’s world.
It’s also tempting to say the combat apes the Batman games. But Spider-Man’s web of influence extends to Batman’s famous “counter” prompts (now copied in countless games), which were basically “Spider-Man 2’s” tingling Spidey sense by another name. In this latest Spider-Man game, it’s now animated with a clarity and energy only seen in the “Homecoming” film.
Video games are allowed the freedom to act more like a TV series, or a comic book, and Insomniac understood this. In short, we’re getting a Spider-Man story more faithful to its roots than any of the previous films, all the while making us perform actions that look as cool as the movie incarnation’s biggest and boldest special effects.
“Spider-Man” points to a sunnier day where polished superhero storytelling via a video game is no longer just an amazing fantasy.