Once upon a time, lots of kids read comic books.
I know, that’s hard to believe in these days when the comic book industry still hasn’t really recovered from the crash largely brought about by the excesses of the ‘90s. And kids are more likely to be playing video games on- or offline, than shelling out money for actual comic books. Which is ironic, considering that the non-comic-book-reading man on the street is likely to dismiss comics as “just for kids”, when works such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and Alan Moore’s Watchmen—one of the all-time 100 best novels (written in the English language, from 1923 up to the present) according to Time magazine—prove that comics can be a medium for great literature, rather than a genre.
Whatever the reason—and the average cover price of $2.99 has to be one of them—one of the usual suspects cited is the baggage that many of these iconic superheroes are saddled with. Created decades ago, hundreds if not thousands of comic book characters have spawned convoluted continuities that often confound longtime collectors. So what of the new or long-absent reader?
Well, in 2000, Marvel launched their Ultimate imprint with Brian Michael Bendis penning Ultimate Spider-Man. This retooling wasn’t initiated to retcon Spidey’s then-nearly 40 years of history, but to tell new tales in a clean (RE: continuity-free) universe. Instead of being bitten by an irradiated spider, this teenaged Peter Parker gets bitten by a genetically engineered spider. And he ends up not as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, but as their webmaster. (Holy Irony, Batman! Oops, wrong comic book.)
Fast forward five years, and we now have the first video game based on the Ultimate line. The great thing is that game developer Treyarch went for the authentic comic book look and feel through cel-shading that you have to see to fully appreciate—these are comic book panels come to life. Adding to the authenticity, writer Bendis wrote the script for the game, while the artist of the comic book series, Mark Bagley, provided the pencil designs. Moreover, the plot picks up where Ultimate Spider-Man 38 left off, will continue later on in another USM storyline, and introduced new characters that were inserted into the comic book. This is the kind of spiraling content I love, and it’s been executed much better than previous attempts (I’m looking at you, Enter the Matrix). You don’t have to read the comic book, but you will appreciate the way things have been tied together if you’re a regular reader.
I’m one of those longtime Spidey fans who prefer classic Peter Parker, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying Ultimate Spider-Man‘s reinterpretation of the mythos. And after all, the general public knows Spider-Man from the blockbuster movies, and would tell you that Peter has always loved Mary Jane Watson, scratching their heads when you start talking about the ill-fated Gwen Stacy. Moreover, Spider-Man is the most successful comic-book-to-video-game franchise, so, with the colorful / cartoony style, this is also most likely the first time many kids will encounter him. And maybe they’ll give the comic book a try if they enjoy the USM game.
And yup, you have a lot of reasons to like Ultimate Spider-Man. I have to admit that at first, I was pining for the old look and controls of the earlier Spider-Man: The Movie and Spider-Man 2 games. But it’s hard to complain too much when you’re immersed in a colorful comic book world. The voice acting is top-notch (having been chosen by the writer himself), and to be honest it’s just as enjoyable watching the cut scenes, particularly the banter between Peter and Mary. (I have to remember that she’s called Mary in Ultimate Spider-Man rather than her full name of Mary Jane, or MJ. Face it, tiger, you’re getting old!) Heck, I even enjoyed seeing Ultimate Wolverine, though I’m not a fan of the old canucklehead in any of his incarnations.
Logan is used as a segue-slash-tutor as the player switches from controlling the slim and nimble Spider-Man to the hulking and, well, less nimble Venom. In this game you don’t just get to be the hero, but also everybody’s (except me—I’ve never liked him) people-snacking villain, Venom. It’s interesting to approach the game as both Spidey and Venom, as you alternate with each character in the story mode adventure. Spidey of course relies on his trademark speed and webbing, while Venom is more of the brute force guy. And, of course, as Spider-Man you play the altruistic hero. Venom, however, is no hero and actually needs to replenish his energy by consuming random people.
The combat system here takes some time to get used to, but it’s faithful to the spirit of the comic book in that it encourages you to fight the way Spidey would. We might have gotten used to kicking and punching our way through the previous games, but in real (comic-book) life Spidey relies on his spider-sense to warn him of danger. Coupled with his incredible speed and web-slinging abilities, Spidey is able dodge most attacks with nary a scratch. Bouncing from one wall to another allows the teenage hero to come at various targets (RE: enemies) from all angles, and this type of play is rewards by the game.
My main complaint about the game is that while the story mode is good, it doesn’t offer the free-roaming world of Spider-Man 2 or the kind of interactive environment in The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.
I know, you can’t expect any character to tear up this city like the Hulk (even when you’re playing Venom), but there’s just not a lot to do in this fictional Manhattan in terms of side missions. And without the sheer joy of being able to interact with almost every object, you can’t really get that ultimate high out of this game. Yeah, I guess I’m acting like the always dissatisfied comic book fan, even when I’m mostly enjoying the ride. At least Peter still makes with the quips, whether in the real Marvel Universe or the Ultimate one, and Bendis has some really witty one-liners in there. So that’s something.
With comic book characters transcending their source material and becoming inspirations for movies, cartoons (for instance, most kids know the Justice League and Teen Titans from TV rather than the comic book), and interactive media such as video games, it would be great to see more examples of spiraling content like Ultimate Spider-Man the video game. As a Peter Parker fan, I’m glad that these characters continue to live on, inspiring great stories and games.