Six Fiends, No Problem
Spider-man: Return of the Sinister Six
Ah, Acclaim and Bits Studio. I want to complain that these two companies somehow drove SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. games into the ground, except the franchise wasn't exactly in great shape leading up to those two companies taking over the development and publishing of Spidey titles. The best so far has been Spider-Man: The Video Game, developed by Sega and published out to arcades, but for home consoles it's been one pretty awful title after another. Hell, Rare, who could generally be relied on to make halfway decent games during the NES era, cranked out The Amazing Spider-Man and that was the very definition of a half-assed "paycheck" game.
Acclaim and Bits took over publishing/development duties from LJN and Rare for the Game Boy The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was kind of interesting in some ways but still not much of an improvement over what Rare had done with the first Game Boy title. And then they took another crack at it for this NES release, Spider-man: Return of the Sinister Six. I'm not sure where these guys are returning from as half of them hadn't been featured in previous games, but still, they're back, and they're here for Spider-man. The rest of us, meanwhile, are barely entertained.
In the game, Doc Oc (called Doctor Octopus here, which, I don't think, is a version of his name that's ever actually used in comics) gathers together the rest of the Sinister Six -- Electro, Sandman, Vulture, Hobgoblin, and Mysterio -- to take on Spider-man. They want him out of their hair so they can do... well, that part isn't actually clear. But it's up to Spider-man to venture out into the various parts of New York city, find the villains, and take them down one by one. Only then is the day saved, making the city safe once more.
Before we get into how dire this game's game play is -- and it is dire, to be sure -- I first want to question the story of the game. Really, the lack there of. The Sinister Six are here just to harass Spider-man, but they don't actually have any kind of plan in place. In previous games we've seen, they were at least doing something. Doc Oc had a bomb or Kingpin was framing Spider-man. Here, the villains are just here to be here. There's no greater plan, no overarching story for them. Just villains being villains, so go fight them.
I get it was the NES era and games didn't have deep plots, so I'm certainly not saying I was expecting Shakespeare here. But I would like a meager, threadbare plot to make it feel like I'm fighting for some reason. The minimal plots of the Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. games -- "Wily is back and he's got some new device so go stop him before he uses it" -- is enough to provide motivation. The fact that this game doesn't even have that bare minimum motivation for the villains speaks to just how slap-dash this whole project was.
Once we actually get into the game, things don't improve. Credit to Bits, their game isn't unplayable. It's not the absolutely mess we've seen from many, many other superhero games so far (and we're not just limited to Spider-man games for our scorn, mind you). Spidey himself is fast and lithe. He can jump high, kick his attacks, climb some walls, swing from webs, and do all the basic things you expect from Spider-man. Not every game gives you all these options, so I feel like the bar is still really low and it's nice to see Spider-man get his proper controls in games.
The issues really start the second you have to deal with enemies, what few of them there are. The game lacks variety, so you'll see similar enemies from the first three stages reused through the rest of the game (i.e., the other three stages), and none of them have real A.I. They stand in place and either punch or shoot or throw, whatever it is that's the one action they've been assigned. Not that it really matters what they do because, for the most part, you can quickly run, jump, and/or swing over them and avoid everything they're doing. Enemies are, for the most part, non-entities in the game.
The bosses also hardly matter. Once you figure them out, they all boil down to "stand in one place and punch." When they take damage they all get A.I. looped and will et stuck in front of you, letting you perform the same attack over and over until they die. Sure, it takes time to learn the bosses, and that involves keeping an eye on them for a bit to see what they do, but even then, defeating them is less challenge than time waste. They aren't hard by any stretch of the imagination.
I think this is probably why Bits limited Spider-man's survivability. He only gets four health bars, one life, and one continue. Fail to complete the game on that limit of health and it's Game Over for the web-head. For kids of a certain age the challenge had to be daunting. But once you figure out the trick for this game -- ignore everything and then cheese the bosses -- that amount of health seems absolutely generous. Silly, even.
But then, that could also be because the game is criminally short. Owing to the fact that the Sinister Six don't actually have a plan here, at all, the game is just six stages. That's one for each villainous member of the team, and then nothing else. No final stage where you fight them all again, or some stage where some grand plan comes together. Just six (at times very short) stages and then the game ends. To call it a lackluster experience undersells it. For the full price of an NES game (which was between $50 and $60 most of the time back then), this game barely meets even a quarter of its expected value.
Look, I want to give Bits the benefit of the doubt here and assume they want to make a good Spider-man and just, for reasons outside their control, can't. They had this, and the Game Boy sequel, and then another Game Boy sequel, that they had to crank out in short order. If we assume Acclaim gave the studio tight turn-around times there might have just been little they could do. Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six isn't the biggest video game mess I've seen. It's almost a playable game, for a certain definition of "playable". It just isn't very good. If this were a small part of a larger whole, like a collection of little Spider-man games it would be a decent diversion. But as the whole of the experience it's not worth the price of admission.