I can remember what it was like 20 years ago as if it was yesterday. After a week of mild spring weather, I woke up to snowfall which made my heart sink down to my feet. For you see, that day was the day I was to see Spider-Man, and if the road conditions were unfavorable, there was no way my parents were going to let me drive into the city by myself to see it. Luckily, the weather held up just enough for me to be entrusted with the family station wagon, and I was on my way to the 12:30 PM screening with my dearest friend at the time. I know the time because I still have the ticket, snugly tucked away in the GameCube case for the game of the same name.
For my entire life, I was waiting for my favorite superhero, Spider-Man, to get his own live-action feature film, and on May 3rd 2002, it had finally arrived. Even before I had secured my opening day tickets, it was all I could think about for months after the first teaser footage and the subsequent coverage in Wizard magazine began. While my fellow classmates were concerning themselves with graduation, tuxedos, dresses, and dates, my mind was laser focused on taking the ultimate spin. I had a new Spider-Man shirt for every day of the week and one for when the other seven were getting washed, the JJJ figure with desk pounding action, and my second grade Spider-Man costume found itself taken out of storage and hung on my bedroom wall. You might say I was excited.
In a post No Way Home and Into the Spider-Verse world, it’s almost quaint reminiscing about a film with just one Spider-Person in it, but few comic book films, at least personally speaking, have created that feeling of dizzying fever in me in the same way the buildup towards the arrival of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man did. From about the age of 5 I wanted to be Peter Parker, and now, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, he was made real. I don’t think I had ever taken a sip of Dr. Pepper before the year 2002, but a can was shown in Peter’s room, so it became my new favorite soda.
Part of what made the wait easier was replaying Neversoft’s terrific Spider-Man (2000) over and over again. I have a huge space in my heart reserved for many pre-3-D Spidey titles, but Spider-Man was more than just an arcade game or side-scroller with a Spider-Man skin, it made the player truly feel like they could swing on webs and crawl on walls. In the same year that landmark comic book game launched, Sony’s next console, the PlayStation 2 dropped, and its competitors were just a year away. With what could be accomplished on machines like the PlayStation, my mind exploded with the possibilities of what a next-gen Spider-Man game would look like. Little did I know, I wouldn’t have to wait that long to see that materialize.
When it comes to waxing nostalgic about the tie-in games inspired by Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Spider-Man 2 is the title that generally gets brought up. It’s understandable given how that pushed Spider-Man and comic book games forward, but it mustn’t be understated how important 2002’s Spider-Man was to getting there. Though 2001’s Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro kept the franchise going in the interim, it was the next game that was mere months away that everyone wanted to get their hands on because it was that big leap onto new hardware. On top of that, you got to take the movie home and play it whenever you wanted! I didn’t care that it got 6-6.5 scores in EGM, I wasn’t hearing any of it. To me, at that time, Spider-Man (2002) was what next-gen gaming was, and the ideas put forward during its gestation have become the benchmark that all Spider-Man titles video games strive to meet, even today.
That’s exactly why on the 20th anniversary of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, I reached out to members of the development team on its tie-in game to discuss what went into making it. I spoke with Matthew Rhoades, a Game Designer/Writer on 2002’s Spider-Man and its Lead Programmer, Jamie Fristrom, and learned many fascinating things about its creation that I’ve been dying to share for months.
I hope you all enjoy this never before seen look into Spider-Man on the PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox and PC.
COMIC BOOK VIDEO GAMES: When did you come onto the Spider-Man (2002) project? Was it determined that it was going to be a movie tie-in game at that point?
MATTHEW RHOADES: I was hired onto the project in the Spring of 2001. Treyarch had done some initial prototyping, mostly based on the work they had done previously porting Neversoft’s PlayStation Spider-Man game to the Dreamcast. They knew this game was going to be a movie tie-in.
Treyarch had done a lot of ports but not too many original titles at that point and the Creative Director wanted a writer to help adapt the film screenplay. I had a friend at the company who was able to get my resume in front of him and he was a fan of a title called Vagrant Story that I had worked on as an editor.
CBVG: How early in development was it decided that the next Spider-Man title from Activision was to be inspired by the upcoming movie?
JAMIE FRISTOM: IIRC, we knew it was going to be based on the movie before we got started.
CBVG: How much work did you put in before you had access to the film’s script?
RHOADES: I don’t remember exactly how long it was before I got to read the script. Not too long, but it may have been a month or two. I actually started off using the 80-ish page James Cameron film treatment that was floating around on the Internet when I first started. It was pretty interesting to see some of the similarities between that treatment and the screenplay when I finally got to read the first draft they showed us.
CBVG: Spider-Man (2000) was a landmark comic book game, however, its direct sequel, Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, had a much more tepid response. What pressure was the studio under to deliver on the first “next-gen” Spider-Man title?
FRISTROM: More importantly for us, it was right around the time Treyarch was being considered for acquisition by Activision, so it was important to look good , particularly with our tech – I remember meetings with Activision execs where we were selling them on the finer points of our engine, like its scripting language and integration with 3DStudio Max. During development the acquisition went through, and the incentives got personal – if we hit certain sales targets (which we did) and scores on GameRankings (which we didn’t) we’d get substantial bonuses. Happily, they let us have the bonuses even though we didn’t hit the GameRankings target.
CBVG: What were some of the biggest hurdles of incorporating the source material into the game once you had an idea of the structure of the movie?
RHOADES: The script was simultaneously “too much” and “not enough.” Not enough in the sense that we knew we were going to need to add a lot of additional content to have enough for a game, but also too much because many of the set pieces of the film were huge in scope. Expectations for the game were modest. No one knew Spider-Man was going to be huge and the game was modestly budgeted. We were going to get a handful of pre-rendered cinematics handled by Blur, and everything else was going to be in-engine handled by our animators. So doing something like the first appearance of Green Goblin at this huge rock concert was challenging. We wanted to convey the idea, but do it cheaply, but not make it look like we were doing it cheaply. Very tricky.
CBVG: Treyarch’s first outing with Spider-Man was the superbly built port of Neversoft’s game for the Dreamcast. How much technology from that project carried over into the creation of Spider-Man (2002)?
FRISTROM: None – we used Treyarch’s engine rather than Neversoft’s.
CBVG: One of the standout features in all the Spider-Man movie games is the voice of Bruce Campbell as the tutorial narrator. Did you have any input in his lines, or was that all made up on the fly by Bruce?
RHOADES: I wrote the script for the tutorial. We didn’t initially know Bruce was going to do it, so we actually had Tara Strong record it. Then we found out Bruce was willing to do it and I – along with the two producers from Activision – went through the script and Bruce-ified it. Bruce definitely added some ad-libs along the way.
CBVG: As you accrue collectibles, Spider-Man develops quite the arsenal of attacks in this title. Describe the process of developing and implementing Spider-Man’s new combos for this game.
FRISTROM: Boy, I don’t remember. I will say that gameplay programmer Jason Bare was the unsung hero of that game. The animators would make a cool animation and he’d plug it in and balance it and make it flow. If you can get in touch with him he probably has a good story or two.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An attempt was made to reach out to Jason, but sadly I didn’t get a response.
CBVG: Spider-Man is a lot quippier here than his silver screen counterpart, with my favorite example being his first interaction with Shocker. Describe your process for coming up with these lines and what it was like writing for such a jokey character.
RHOADES: Yeah. This is a funny one. I came to the project as a huge fan of the Spider-Man comics. That was really my main angle on the character, so when I read the script, I have to admit I was a little disappointed by how little he talked. I also felt like a more talkative Spider-Man was going to work better within a game, since we were going to be spending so much more time with him versus the film. And from a design standpoint, having a character who can directly give hints to the player via his inner dialogue seemed pretty handy.
CBVG: Select missions in Spider-Man (2002) are built specifically around stealth with a light and dark meter akin to Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell determining how visible you are. What was the inspiration for this mechanic?
FRISTROM: If I remember correctly it was an Activision side producer, Matt Powers, who first suggested moving from “lily pad” to “lily pad” of light. The first game I remember that used the mechanic was Thief: The Dark Project. I always liked the idea of a stealthy Spider-Man; the ceiling crawling stealth sequences in Neversoft’s game were my favorite parts of that one (along with Venom saying funny things.) Stealth is a hard sell, though. A lot of people don’t like that flavor and when you want to make a game with mass appeal it’s like adding cilantro to a recipe – you’re going to alienate some part of your audience.
CBVG: Padding out the villain roster are the likes of Scorpion, Shocker, and Vulture. How did you go about reinterpreting these characters to make them fit in with Raimi’s version of Spider-Man? Did you have a favorite among the newcomers to write for?
RHOADES: My approach to new characters was always to go back to the comic origins of the character. Since this was the first Spidey film, I felt like it should also represent the “early” versions of the various villains. I think my favorite of the “new” villains was Scorpion. I took his comic origin (private investigator hired by J. Jonah Jameson to undergo “a process” that sticks him in a mechanical scorpion suit that it turns out he can’t remove) and just let that scenario play out – what would that do to someone? Why would he become a villain? What if the stress of it revealed some undiagnosed mental health issues?
A lot of the Scorpion story ended up getting cut from the first game because of limited production time, but I got a chance to revisit it in the third game, which, I think, gave that character a little more of an arc than he had in the first.
So many of Spidey’s villains are ultimately tragic characters and I think Spider-Man’s desire to help them – even as he’s webbing them up and they’re trying to kill him – is, I think, one of the most unique and fun elements of his character.
CBVG: Spider-Man (2002) is rich with memorable set-pieces, from dodging Shocker’s blast in a subway tunnel to fighting a mech the size of a warehouse. Do you have any personal favorites? Were there any that you feel didn’t come together like you wanted them to?
FRISTROM: Hah, that giant mech was a nightmare. It was supposed to be much more flexible but our animation system didn’t have the precision to animate such a large thing and have Spidey crawling/walking on it. Shadow of the Colossus got it right, much later.
I actually prototyped Spider-Man 2‘s swinging partway though Spider-Man (2002) and kind of begged management to let us go ahead with it. Wiser heads prevailed–we would have had to redo a ton of level design, etc, for a gameplay mechanic that was at that point super-frustrating–but for me the whole development process was tinged with the idea that the game could be cooler than it was.
CBVG: Xbox owners got exclusive stages in Spider-Man (2002) centered around Kraven the Hunter. How much lead time did you get for this deal, or was this something that came about early in development?
RHOADES: My recollection is that we had a fairly decent lead time. I don’t think we were beyond a graybox version of the level when that call was made. It was early enough that we were definitely able to go a little crazier with geometry and VFX on those levels because we knew we were going to have extra RAM to play with.
CBVG: Spider-Man 2 of course is where Treyarch truly stepped-up virtual web-slinging, but at the time, Spider-Man (2002) was groundbreaking compared to what was possible on the original PlayStation. How many iterations of the mechanic did you work on before you settled on what made it into the final product?
FRISTROM: At the beginning of development I was actually away on my honeymoon for a couple of weeks – when I got back Jason had prototyped the new swinging and most of us really liked it. I was a little less jazzed because I wasn’t sure there was a game there anymore – Neversoft’s game at least had a platformer mechanic going on and I couldn’t see how to build challenges around a system where you’re essentially flying. After that the system got tweaks but I think it stayed pretty close to Jason’s original vision.
CBVG: One of the best Easter Eggs in Spider-Man (2002) is the ability to play as the Green Goblin, voiced by none other than Josh Keaton, complete with his own campaign of sorts. How much additional writing had to be recorded for what amounts as a bonus mode?
RHOADES: This was pretty much the craziest thing that happened during the whole project. One of the gameplay engineers on the project, Jason Bare, was a mad genius and he was constantly tinkering. One day he showed a bunch of us a working prototype of a playable Green Goblin, fully mapped to the controller. Pretty much everyone lost their minds when they saw it. So we showed it to Activision and they were excited about it as well and presented it to Sony and Sam Raimi.
Sam was skeptical. Basically, he didn’t want players controlling a villain. And he felt there had to be a story that justified why you were playing as Green Goblin. Keep in mind, we were VERY close to shipping at this point. So Treyarch’s internal producers came to me and asked, “How can we make this happen?”
Historical note: it had taken quite a while for us to reach agreements with Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe to be in the game. In order to keep the team moving we had done auditions and cast professional actors to be the game versions of Spidey and Goblin. Specifically, we cast Josh Keaton as Spider-Man/Peter Parker and John de Lancie as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. And we had them record the full script. Those actors were actually in the game up until the point that we signed with Tobey and Willem and recorded them.
When Tobey agreed to be Spidey in our game, we obviously didn’t need Josh’s voice for that role, but we had really enjoyed working with him, so we ended up casting him as Harry Osborn. So in this weird twist, we had all Spider-Man’s lines recorded by the actor who ended up being Harry.
I told the producers (a little hesitantly) that I could probably rework the script to do a rough version of the Hobgoblin story from the comics (where a mercenary comes across a stash of Green Goblin’s tech and uses it to become a new Goblin) and we could have Harry use the Goblin tech HE finds to fight the imposter.
I ended up rewriting the entire game script in a weekend and recording pickups with Josh – as well as John de Lancie – the following week and we crammed it all in the game, removing all the pre-rendered cutscenes and most of the in-engine ones and letting the story unfold pretty much entirely through gameplay.
So the answer to your question is “a lot.”
CBVG: All these years later, one of Spider-Man (2002)’s defining traits is the ability to play through the game as the Green Goblin. What were the challenges you faced essentially getting this character with wholly unique mechanics working in the levels the team designed?
FRISTROM: Sam Raimi did not like that mode. He did not like the idea of glorifying playing the bad guy, and asked us to remove it. Negotiations went on above my pay grade and we were allowed to keep it, but he explicitly asked us when we started Spider-Man 2 to make sure the player was not allowed to play Doctor Octopus.
Again, Jason Bare was the guy who made that happen. He prototyped a thing, quite near the end of development, partly for fun, and started floating the idea that we could ship it as a sort of cheat mode. To be honest, it jeopardized the project and people had to work late fixing problems with the corner cases. I don’t remember exactly what the corner cases were, twenty years later, but we didn’t think through all of the interactions of the character with different challenges. (I have no idea what we did for the aforementioned stealth level, for example.) Anyways, a lot of our developers were not happy. If I had it to do over again I would have cancelled the feature, but it does give us a story to tell twenty years later!
CBVG: Both Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe reprised their roles from the movie for this game. Describe the feeling of hearing your work spoken by these iconic actors. Did you ever get to sit in a recording session they were in?
RHOADES: It was great. I directed all the voice actors in the game, which was an amazing experience. Certainly directing Willem and Tobey was a great experience. Tobey was an extremely good sport about reading some of the corny lines I’d written.
CBVG: Having worked on Spider-Man (2002), you got a glimpse into the film’s story before most of the world. Did that alter your enjoyment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man when it finally dropped in May of 2002?
RHOADES: I don’t know that it changed how much I enjoyed the film (I loved it, for the record), but it definitely changed how I watched it. Seeing how they had done a lot of their visualization was really great. How they portrayed Spider-Man swinging was particularly eye-opening. It was a huge influence on how we did Spider-Man 2’s swinging when we went back to tackle that game.
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