Spider-Man was not a stranger to video games in the 90’s, having at least one video game on every console or handheld available at the time and even teaming up with another Marvel property, the X-Men. It wasn’t until 1994 with the release of Spider-Man/Venom: Maximum Carnage though that a game starring the character was truly great. Like the X-Men arcade game, Maximum Carnage was a beat-em-up like so many other licensed games were at the time, however the genre was perfectly suited to the story that the title was trying to adapt. When people normally think of Maximum Carnage, they don’t think of the comic book, they think of the blood-red cartridge they stuck in either their SNES or Sega Genesis, and that’s because as a massive cross-over event, Maximum Carnage isn’t very good.
While it never made a great comic book story, it didn’t mean that Maximum Carnage couldn’t be salvaged into an excellent beat-em-up. The story’s focus on action, violence, and a rotating cast of guest heroes were perfect fodder to adapt into a genre that above all else is more or less devoid of story and focuses on getting the player to pummel their way to victory. But it’s also not just how well developer Software Creations moulded Maximum Carnage into a video game, but how they used the comic itself to tell its story.
There are lots of comic book games, as there were even back in 1994, however very few have ever directly adapted an existing story into a video game. Ultimate Spider-Man existed to a point within the world of the Ultimate comics universe, and the Arkham games pull references straight out of Batman lore, but none used the medium of comics quite like Maximum Carnage did. Previous comic book games used still against a static screen to tell story, sometimes even doing less than that and delegating the story of a game to the back of the packaging or the manual. Maximum Carnage used cut-scenes that were literal panels ripped straight from the comics, and as someone who didn’t have a regular comic book shop in their town and never saw an issue of the story until after I played the game, I thought it was awesome how the panels transitioned into the story.
Story is one thing though, and I wouldn’t be placing Maximum Carnage into a feature about the best Marvel console game ever if it didn’t stand the test of time as a fun game, which it very much does. Though like a lot of other beat-em-ups, beating down waves of middle-aged men with umbrellas, large guys with slap jacks and teenage girls with razor-sharp hair feels good and the levels are never too long or overstay their welcome. Some are even just small rooms where you have to fight Carnage and his band of hideous teammates, like the six-armed bug-eyed Doppleganger, the decaying Carrion and the grotesque Demogoblin.
Both playable characters, Spider-Man and Venom, also have a great repertoire of moves that make perfect sense for their abilities. Outside of your basic punch attack, you can swing on webs, stick on walls, and use your webs and alien costume in creative ways such as entangling enemies or creating shields when you’re surrounded. Though both characters play fundamentally the same way, each have their own unique feel that makes them fell special. Spider-Man is faster and a little weaker than Venom who feels much more powerful and aggressive, as he should. As the game splits up the two, it also adds replay incentive to go through the game multiple times to see the branching paths, search for hidden bonus rooms, and to get more comfortable with each of the protagonists.
Any article about that makes this game so special couldn’t exclude the memorable soundtrack from Green Jelly. The second you boot up the game you’re met with the “Carnage Rules” song from the band and you know you’re in for a treat. The rock themes help to alleviate the repetition inherent with the genre, and it makes you pumped to jump in and beat up waves and waves of bad guys and super villains. This was something that was sorely missing from the sequel released a year later, Separation Anxiety, and when the themes from Maximum Carnage eventually show up in that game, it makes you miss them all the more. The themes for the super hero summons are also catchy jingles, from the eerie Cloak and Dagger theme, the patriotic Captain America music and the heavy metal Firestar summon music.
One thing that’s sorely missing from Maximum Carnage is the ability to play with a friend, especially given the fact that the game has two playable characters. Even though I always wanted to be able to play this with either my brother or a friend, it never makes sense within the context of the story to have two-players. Spider-Man and Venom are rarely together in the story, as it is in the game, so it would be very weird to have the two together at the beginning, and then have a plot line where Venom finds out about the events happening in New York from San Francisco and travels there to intervene.
There have been much better Spider-Man games released since Maximum Carnage, but even still, it’s still a very fun game to play an early example of how to do a Marvel/Spider-Man game right. The action feels great, the soundtrack rocks, and the story is better suited to this game than the bloated fourteen issue mess that was published in the ongoing Spider-Man books at the time. As the title of the opening song says, “Carnage Rules”.