The Atari 2600 had a lot to offer those of us who entered the home-video game market in its humble beginnings. A lot dreams were made and lived out in the humble 4k that every Atari VCS game brought to the table, be they saving earth from Space Invaders, winning races in the Pole Position or tiptoeing for treasure through a Haunted House.
But for me, one of the bigger thrills was being able to turn into a superhero. That the hero was so blocky you could barely make out the hairline, much less the facial features, was irrelevant.
My Atari let me capture Lex Luthor after a kiss from Lois Lane as Superman, or climb the walls of a building and defeat the Green Goblin as Spiderman, if I had enough world and time.
Whereas many licensed games for the Atari ended up falling flatter than the copies of ET that were ground into the infamous New Mexico landfill, Atari’s Superman and Parker Brothers’ Spiderman were successes both critically and commercially. This was all the more surprising considering they were very different kinds of games, though the underlying themes were the same.
Superman’s gameplay was unusual for its day in that its avatar could not be ‘killed.’ The traditional ‘three lives’ given in most video game settings didn’t apply to Atari’s Big Blue Boy Scout. Though through the dreaded kryptonite satellites, being hit meant a de-powering loss of flying ability and heat-vison blasters, rather than a pixelated death scene. Superman, now “Clark-ified,” could regain his abilities by colliding with a sprite designed to look like Lois Lane, i.e. “A kiss from Lois Lane” as detailed in the instruction manual regained the player his powers. The invigorated Superman could then be about his superheroing business again, much to the happiness and satisfaction of the player controlling him!
Superman had many pieces working in its favor that were innovative for its time. A playfield that could be traversed but was mapped out more like a cube than a flat scrolling landscape had not been seen in mainstream, 4k gaming before this. It also paid direct respect to elements of the Superman lore that were true and dear to the fans of the character, from known adversaries and allies like Luthor and Lois to the surprisingly quiet and nonchalant way one finished the game as…Clark Kent, leaving the phone booth and entering the Daily Planet to file the story.
Having an actual endpoint to the game was another unusual move for the day. Most games designed to continue sending waves of enemies at the player until the three lives were lost, or the player quit out of boredom or a need to get to school on time. Instead, the player had a set number of goals and an unlimited amount of time to complete them. Superman was unique in that once the player recognized the pattern to success, the goal became to finish the finding of the three pieces of a destroyed bridge and deliver Lex Luthor to prison with a shorter time, each time. The player was thus actually competing against himself rather than the animated characters onscreen, another innovation that hadn’t been seen before.
Spiderman had many similarities to the more mainstream idea of a video game. The player had the traditional three lives, and no endpoint to the game. But it still had many things which sold it to fans of the character and videogames alike. Taking a cue from a popular arcade game at the time, Crazy Climber, Spiderman’s players found themselves having to scale their red-and-blue hero to the top of a building, avoiding the Green Goblin while dodging and capturing criminals out of the building’s windows on the way.
But even though it had fewer gaming innovations than did Superman, Spiderman had points in its favor that made it a winner with the critics and gamers alike.
Like Superman, it respected its source material in a way that marketed games not always did.
As in the comic books, Parker Brothers’ Spiderman often spent time swinging on buildings, and the villain was Spiderman’s iconic arch-enemy, the Green Goblin. Spiderman used his classic webshooters to climb the building, and if he made the mistake of trying to attach his web to an open window or bad guy, he’d fall and have to shoot a web to a building wall to keep from losing one of those three lives.
Of course, there were some inconsistencies. While having a limited about of ‘webbing’ was one of the many conflicts Peter Parker had to endure in his day-to-day crimefighting activities, the game mechanic of getting more webbing by nabbing criminals from the windows was never given a satisfactory and lore-consistent connection. Nor was having the Green Goblin be reduced to an adversary who moved back-and-forth across the screen, to be avoided or snuck past rather than actually defeated. Nor was there an actual reason given for Spiderman to get to the top of the building and disarm the bombs there, ie. save Mary Jane or some other Damsel-in-Distress.
But despite these lore-based inconsistencies, fans still loved the game and gave it at least three stars when asked to rate it. The reason for this was its actual challenge. Whereas Superman asked you to beat your personal best timer, Spiderman asked you to beat the machine, a feat not as easy as it sounded. The old adage of easy to learn/difficult to master fit this game well, and players were willing to avoid asking how Spidey turned criminals into webbing if they were able to get the satisfaction of nabbing three criminals on one web-swing, and still slip past Greenie-Gobby in the process.
Both Spiderman and Superman for the Atari managed to achieve truly difficult goals for their specific era in the history of videogaming. Both were licensed properties that had a fan base that ranged from mildly persnickety at best to obsessive at worst. Yet both games managed to please fans, players and critics alike through the practices of respecting the elements of the IP that were important to the fans, and creating games that were challenging enough to the players to merit replaying but not so difficult they were discouraging. Most important, the game designers were good enough at their jobs that they delivered a product which gave players the ability, even if only for a few minutes, to beat bad guys, save the innocent, get a kiss from your true love and save the day.
In other words, they helped us be superheroes.