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An Amazing ‘Spider-Man’: The Perfection of Neversoft’s PlayStation Hit

It's the purest, most confident comic game of the last 15 years, from a time when fantasy truly trumped brooding.

by Ed Smith
22 June 2015, 2:48pm

This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here.

When I was ten, I had chickenpox – a real bad case, with spots all over. In the mornings I'd go to the bathroom, open my mouth in front of the mirror, and scrape off the green, infected film that would gather on my tongue. In the afternoons, my mother would bring back games, on one-night loans. 2000 was a slow year, so Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto 2, both from '99 (in Europe), filled up most of my sick days. But there was one new game worth a damn, one launched late that summer which helped distract from itching blisters: Spider-Man.

While the rest of the gaming industry was foundering on the crux of a new hardware generation – and while I was home, soaking in camomile – Neversoft turned out one of the best superhero games ever made. This was before publisher Activision, which Neversoft had signed with in 1998, shifted the Spider-Man license over to Treyarch and started making movie tie-ins. It was before comic books, comic book films and comic book games got brooding and serious – before Kirkman, Nolan and Telltale started marketing children's literature to adults. Given a development team of 23, the PlayStation 1's primitive CPU and the fact this was 2000, long before the template existed for sandbox games, it's no wonder Neversoft's Spider-Man is short and linear. Its contained design is a by-product of time and place, but Spider-Man is the purest, most confident comic game of the last 15 years. It's distilled. It's the experience of being a superhero, rather than a person playing one.

A complete playthrough of 2000's 'Spider-Man'

In terms of structuring, Rocksteady Studio's Arkham games are in the essence of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. You don't play as Batman when he's simply doing Batman stuff, fighting, flying, and so on – you play as him constantly. Just as The Dark Knight movie tries to explore the mindset, the personal life and psychology of Bruce Wayne, the Arkham series gives you a lot of down and reflective time with Batman. In 2011's Arkham City in particular, you roam, you travel, you investigate – you do a lot of things that provide the background to typical comic book moments. You're not just Batman in the sense of the costume, the figure. You're Batman when he's just walking around. You're Batman standing still, or looking at his phone. The scripts for the Arkham games don't lean quite so heavily on psychology and character history as those by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, but their sandbox layout gives you a behind-the-mask look at how Batman does his work. You're not just a cape and a fist, swooping in and saving the day, as if by superhero magic. Like any human being, you have to prepare.

Spider-Man, by contrast, and because of Neversoft's various limitations, drives you from set-piece to set-piece, from one marked superhero moment to the next. In the first level you're rescuing hostages from a bank robbery. In the next, you're battling Scorpion at the Daily Bugle offices, then fleeing from a pursuing police helicopter. It's horses for courses – the Arkham, Infamous and Prototype games are all purposeful sandbox affairs, so you can't expect this beat-to-beat, excitement-on-excitement structure. But what Spider-Man provides is an argument that superhero games are better for being linear. I'm not interested in how Batman gets to be Batman. I don't care, particularly, for a slow or sophisticated build-up to a fight between the army and a guy whose arms transform into swords. I like the mask. I like the figure. It's the magic of being a superhero, in the big, crystalline sense, that I enjoy most. And I think contrived, comic book moments, laced straightforwardly together, like in 2000's Spider-Man, capture that better than today's open-world games and their inherent bagginess.

Not that bagginess is a bad thing. On the contrary, I like Spider-Man because it's from a period in game development before the production line. Today, 200 or 300 people each work on their own specific part of any given AAA game. Neversoft, back in 2000, had just 23 staffers. And although Spider-Man was a big-budget game for the time, released via the world's largest publisher, it feels to me much more a personal endeavour than the superhero games of now. It's like a spirit level. You look at the Spider-Man games that came after it, once Activision had moved the license, and although a couple of them are okay – particularly Spider-Man 2 – they never have the same colour, character or rough kind of vibrancy as Neversoft's original. Same goes for the development team itself. The majority, including lead designer Chad Findley, programmer Dave Cowling and producer Joel Jewett, were recruited post-Spider-Man into production of either the Tony Hawk or Guitar Hero franchises. Eventually, the Neversoft name would be abandoned and the studio's assets merged with Infinity Ward – this small, plucky company of fewer than 30 people would be assimilated into Activision's almighty game factory.

And that's just sad. Excluding any kind of value judgements over what games are "better", those made by tens of people or those made by hundreds, I have a gut personal preference for small development teams. There's something icky about a video game produced inside a mega-studio, something cool and unappealing about entertainment, expression, art – whatever you want to call it – when it emanates from a corporation. Neversoft's Spider-Man isn't urgent, personal, outsider art – it in fact comes from the 2000 equivalent of a gaming industry multinational – but it's a game made by a relative handful of people, and on some instinctual level, that makes it easier to enjoy. Not boring, not portentous, not like now – Spider-Man is an example of a different time for both superheroes and mainstream video games, when fantasy trumped brooding and corporate efficiency hadn't encroached quite so much on studio identity.

@mostsincerelyed

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