With the 1982 release of Spider-Man for the Atari 2600, Marvel has now had a presence in the video game industry for 40 years. From the humble beginnings of the beloved wall-crawler traversing a skyscraper to stop the Green Goblin’s bombs from going off, the heroes and villains spawned from the House of Ideas have touched just about every genre and device – no matter how obscure – imaginable.

Having been featured in over 4 decades of interactive adventures, everyone who can’t get enough of games based on their favorite colorfully costumed crusaders will remember their first Marvel game, and for me, that was The Amazing Spider-Man for the Nintendo Game Boy. Having discovered the character through reruns of the beloved 60s animated series on a local television station, I fell in love with Spider-Man at a very early age. I see kids at the local mall who get to wear their costumes on days other than Halloween with envy as I had to wait until bedtime to suit up in the Spider-Man pajamas my grandparents bought me.

Around that same time, I began a lifelong love affair with video games when the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, entered our house. Like many, I was engrossed by classics like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man 2, but I never turned down an opportunity to rent a game based on a property I loved, whether that was a cartoon like DuckTales or a superhero like Batman. Sadly, Spider-Man wouldn’t get an NES game until Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six in 1992, and that didn’t even show up at our local rental shops to sample.

It didn’t matter though, because during a family vacation, I traded some birthday money for a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man for Game Boy at a Canadian Tire. From the moment I slotted it into my system and turned the power on, I became immediately hooked the second I was greeted with a recreation of the earworm theme song from the cartoon on the title screen. I burned through countless AA batteries mastering its stages, toppling villains like Mysterio, Doc Ock, and Venom all in my quest to save Mary Jane.

Because The Amazing Spider-Man for the Game Boy holds such a special place in my heart, I was beyond excited when I got the chance to speak with Chris Sutherland who helped bring it to life during his tenure at Rare Ltd., a developer who really needs no introduction at this point. Chris has a storied career in the video game industry, having worked on popular franchises like Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, and Banjo-Kazooie. Today he works at Playtonic Games, a studio he helped co-found with other Rare alum, best known for the popular Yooka-Laylee series of platform adventures.

COMIC BOOK VIDEO GAMES: No credits roll when you complete The Amazing Spider-Man or let the attract mode run. How many people in total worked on it? 

CHRIS SUTHERLAND: There were two of us that worked on the gameplay and controls, myself (software engineer) and Trevor Hill (artist), and then David Wise put together the music. Of course, there was input from other experienced Rare developers along the way.

CBVG: How long would you say it took the team to complete The Amazing Spider-Man’s development?

SUTHERLAND: It was surprisingly quick; I recall it being a little over 6 months.

CBVG: With only 2 buttons on the original Game Boy, Spider-Man can attack, jump, web-swing and shoot web-bullets. What difficulties did you face programming all those actions to work as well as they do with such limited inputs?

SUTHERLAND: Yes, it wasn’t straightforward. The game has influences from the arcade game Kung-Fu Master so we knew we wanted to have punching and kicking. And we wanted to ensure we featured Spider-Man’s other abilities too. It does give you some variety of play options for the horizontal sections, i.e. you can try to swing past enemies, shoot them or kick them.

CBVG: At the time this game came to market, there were very few Spider-Man video games and none on a Nintendo platform. How did you approach adapting the character for the Game Boy?

SUTHERLAND: I don’t think we analyzed the other games too much – we were both fans of the comics and so we just made a game that we would want to play!

CBVG: Spider-Man can only crawl on walls in 2 of the game’s 6 stages. Was there ever a time during the design process when this ability could be used throughout the game?

SUTHERLAND: We did want to feature the wall crawling ability, which is why we added the vertical sections, because we could not come up with a way to integrate it into the horizontal stages.

I think we were aware that those vertical sections weren’t as fun as the side scrolling ones which is why we only had two of them! They did act as a nice gameplay diversion though.

CBVG: What went into building stages that took advantage of Spider-Man’s abilities?

SUTHERLAND: You might imagine that we had some fancy editor to allow us to change the positioning of the different platforms and enemies but I think we just typed in a bunch of numbers that represented the layout, reassembled, played, then re-edited the numbers!

It may have been planned out beforehand on paper though.

In fact when I joined Rare the way that all visuals entered in the games was through paper!

Here were the steps:

  • Artist draws character/item on paper.
  • Artist overlays tracing paper and creates 8×8 boxes/sprites that represent the pixels of the character.
  • Artist hands the tracking paper with these boxes to a ‘graphics decoder’.
  • The graphics decoder was a role which involved someone studying the 8×8 pixel boxes, and based on the rules of the system hardware, converting these into hexadecimal numbers.
  • The graphics decoder saved the numbers corresponding to the art to a file, copied that to a floppy disk, walked to the programmer’s desk and handed them the disk.
  • The programmer would copy the files off the disk, then copy/paste the data into the source code, assemble and run.
  • If there was an issue with the visuals it would need to go back to the artist, or sometimes the decoder would make an error.

All in all, quite a lengthy process, amazing we made the games so quickly!

CBVG: What would you consider to be more challenging: programming the regular action stages, or the wall climbing segments?

SUTHERLAND: The vertical stages were a little simpler, in that there wasn’t so much variety in terms of what the player could do. For the horizontal action stages there were a lot of different moves that Spider-Man could do so that meant more potential for issues/bugs, so that definitely took the most time.

CBVG: What went into the selection process for the 6 boss villains that Spider-Man goes up against? Were there any mandates, or did Rare essentially get to pick whoever they wanted?

SUTHERLAND: I think it was up to us for the most part, but if there were recommendations from the publisher, those would have gone through Chris and Tim Stamper so they might make that suggestion to us themselves. Sadly, I can’t recall the details of any such suggestions though!

CBVG: In the game’s manual, there’s what appears to be a fully completed portrait image of Green Goblin for the second stage, but ultimately Hobgoblin made the cut. Was Green Goblin going to be in the game initially?

SUTHERLAND: Hmmm… yes, I don’t remember why that got changed, but it does sound like we were perhaps asked to switch the characters late on (after the manual had been locked down); perhaps this might have been due to the Hobgoblin being more of a topical character at the time of the game’s scheduled release?

CBVG: Once the bosses were narrowed down, how did you go about designing their attack patterns and behaviors? Do you have a personal favorite?

SUTHERLAND: This evolved from a discussion between myself and Trevor. We’d consider the enemies powers and then see how we could work these into a single screen format.

I think my favourite may be Mysterio, but that is probably just because it was so familiar – when I changed something significant in the code I’d play through the first couple of levels to check all was fine!

CBVG:  Personally speaking, and it could be that I’ve played this game more times than I can count, but I always thought that the challenge in The Amazing Spider-Man is fare, especially when compared to other 8-16 outings. What do you say to YouTube videos that complain that the game is too hard?

via Jeremy Parish YouTube

SUTHERLAND: Well this was the first game I created so it was hard to know where the balance was; but we judged it based on feedback from others in the studio and QA.

Also the levels are relatively short, and as with many games of this era, in order to make them last the difficulty was generally higher than people are used to these days.

CBVG: This might be something that’s lost to time, but during the opening vignette with Mysterio, Spider-Man answers his radio “Hello…Parker residence?” but Mysterio knows that he’s talking to Spider-Man. My head canon was that Venom passed his identity down the line, but is there a more official reason as to why he knows his secret identity?

SUTHERLAND: (I had to rewatch this on YouTube to check!) The dialogue sequences needed to be fast so there was little time to add in any story details. I think it just sounded dramatic to start with his identity being known (we needed some quick way to explain why Mary Jane had been captured!)


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