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Batman vs Spider-Man through gaming generations – Who is the ultimate super-hero?

by Ron Duwell | June 20, 2015June 20, 2015 10:00 am PDT

DC has Batman, and Marvel has Spider-Man. You can debate for years which is the more popular of the two, or you can even debate if they are the most popular heroes from their respective publishers.

Trust me, people have. It’s an age old argument that won’t be settled in our lifetimes, and in fact, it’s even spreading into other mediums like a virus, finding a comfortable home in the geek realm of video games. Batman video games. Spider-Man video games. Which hero reigns supreme?

We’ve seen these two appear in countless iterations of console and handheld games over the years, so looking at an overall body of work is a little too much to take in at all at once. As gamers do, we will be breaking this up into generations.

After six major console changes, where do we stand?

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The 3rd Console Generation — Winner: Batman

There really is no competition when it came to the NES. Batman’s games were left in the capable hands of Japanese development team Sunsoft, the company behind fabulous cult-classics like Blaster Master and Journey to Silius. Keeping their knack for excellent 8-bit platformers with jaw-dropping chiptunes, the company turned out two masterpiece Batman titles for Nintendo’s console.

Batman: The Video Game is a licensed product derived from the 1989 film, although you wouldn’t believe it if you played it. The Dark Knight battles through waves of indescribable enemies, even killing some in a grand explosion with this Bat Gun. To separate this from the other action games of its day, Sunsoft worked out an excellent wall jump mechanic, making this a far more technical platformer than you might expect.

Boss battles include a handful of minor villains from the comic’s canon, none of which are goons he fights in the film by the way. These scrubs lead to a final climactic confrontation with the Joker, who is armed with his comically large pistol from the movie. However, his preference of weapon leans more toward his secret attack of summoning lightning bolts from the sky.

Batman: Return of the Joker also takes plenty of liberties with the series’ canon, not to mention it’s a downright unforgiving game. The opening stage alone looks more like it was originally intended to be Sunsoft’s answer to Castlevania, but the company found it more profitable to get Warner Bros. backing again and slap Batman on the cover.

These two games aren’t well regarded for “capturing the spirit” of Batman. They are well remembered for just being fun action games with impressive graphics and music. You could replace the Batman sprites with any generic video game character, and they would still be enjoyable to this day.

Is that a plus or minus on the Batman front?

Sunsoft also competently handled the Game Boy games, and even Konami chimed in to develop a decent if not boring beat ‘em up game based on Batman Returns. It’s a better game than any of the dozen or so Batman Returns iterations you’ll find in the 4th generation.

As for Spider-Man on the NES, all you have to do is look at distributor LJN on the box and you’ll have a decent grasp at how horrible Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six is. This abomination of game design features combat moves which only work at random and stiff jumps which really don’t make you feel like you are controlling the graceful Spider-Man.

He can’t even swing! Or maybe he can, and I just never got it to work.

Its level design makes no sense with countless dead ends to lose your way in, and some bosses also have the ability to fly beyond the borders of the screen, granting them immunity from Spider-Man’s punches, webs, and awkward jump kicks. Our hero not being able to attack in the air doesn’t help either.

Ugh, you call that music? Someone call those Sunsoft guys. I hear they know what they’re doing.

For as horrible of a game it is though, at least developer B.I.T.S. was able to make it look like a real Spider Man game. I mean, the villains are all major players, and they even resemble their original comic inceptions. That’s something Sunsoft’s Batman games never did, but you know? The trade-off was worth it.

Don’t be fooled. Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six is a mid-tier game in LJN’s legendarily bad line-up of garbage NES titles. It doesn’t even come remotely close to the quality of what Sunsoft achieved.

LJN also published a Game Boy game of horrible reputation as well, but surprisingly, Rare is credited with development. It must have been before it found its stride on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64.

The 4th Console Generation — Winner: Batman

The fourth generation of consoles is when we really start to see the number of licensed games take off. It might seem absurd today with everything across the board being the same, but the Super Nintendo, SEGA Genesis, and even other random consoles of the age each had their own version of a properties game.

Capcom’s Aladdin is a perfect example of thing. On the Super Nintendo, you have a fabulous sprite-based platformer, whereas the SEGA Genesis version is a bit more of an action oriented with better high resolution character art. Both come from the same property, both are excellent, both are totally different.

In this regard, it was Batman which took the much more painful hit. Sifting through awful 16-bit Batman games looking for a gem is no easy task. Batman Returns alone inspired no less than nine games from different developers, publishers, and consoles. Acme Interactive’s SEGA Genesis Batman Returns takes the crown as the best of this bunch, more for its impressive graphics and mood than for its so-so gameplay.

A SEGA CD version of the same game also saw a release with awful driving stages which lasted forever. Ugh, more is not better kids.

Following Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever also inspired an infamously horrible beat ‘em up for the SNES and SEGA Genesis that used the Mortal Kombat engine. Trust me, you don’t want to bother with this one.

The real tragedy here though is Sunsoft. Once kings of the NES, able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of giants Capcom and Konami, the company never quite came around to the 16-bit consoles. The port of Batman: Return of the Joker sacrifices its amazing 8-bit charms for substandard 16-bit graphic, and the remake of the original Batman: The Video Game strips the excellent platforming sequences for tedious fighting.

Spider-Man escaped the onslaught of licensed games with minimal releases during this time period. He mostly teamed up with other Marvel heroes like in the impossible and dreadful LJN mess Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge and Capcom’s decent Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems on Super Nintendo.

In his own solo outings though, the most popular and successful Spider-Man from this age was Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage, a nice-looking but repetitive beat ‘em up along the lines of SEGA’s Streets of Rage series. As far as the genre goes, it’s mediocre at best, but as far as LJN games go, it’s a Holy Grail of awesome!

In my research looking for a great Spider-Man game to counterbalance the sheer awfulness of Batman’s games from this generation, I only stumbled across The Amazing Spider-Man: Lethal Foes, a game I had never heard of, mostly because it was only ever released in Japan.

I played it for a few minutes and had a bit of fun, meaning that this could be the most competent game between the two heroes of the generation because even a few minutes of fun is better than no fun at all, am I right? So, Spider-Man wins, I guess?

Not quite, we have one game from this rabble which actually could be considered a “really good game.” I know, right? The shock! Turning the attention back to Batman, we have one game inspired not by the films and not by the comics but rather inspired by the one and only Batman: The Animated Series.

And the nerds go wild!

Like all licensed games at the time, the SEGA Genesis and SNES versions were handled by different companies, and when you have a master class act like Konami staring down the likes of some studio called Clockwork Tortoise, it doesn’t take a genius to pick who’s going to come out on top. Believe it or not, it’s not the slaughter you would think though.

Clockwork Tortoise’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin on the Genesis is a neat little action game and one of Batman’s best from this age. It just doesn’t do a whole lot to stop Konami’s Super Nintendo game from becoming the absolute best Batman game of the generation. The Super Nintendo’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin surpasses the rest of our pool of miserable choices as the most enjoyable from the 16-bit days.

The animation accurately recreates each character of the show as you remember them, and the Super Nintendo’s powerful sound chip perfectly captures the shows memorable soundtrack. The challenging platforming can make for some intense moments, and while the combat isn’t particularly deep, it’s enjoyable in its own right. Plus, co-op mode is just sweet.

It’s not a masterpiece like Super Metroid or anything, but what more can you ask for from a licensed game? It’s just really really fun!

So thanks to Konami, Clockwork Tortoise, and Batman: The Animated Series, Batman wins this round.

As for Spider-Man’s animated series’ game, it got a double dose of bad reputation by being published by both LJN and Acclaim. Luckily, it was one of the last games LJN would touch before it burned into a sea of hellish flames in 1995, freeing licensed games to be exploited by EA for many years.

The 5th Console Generation — Winner: Spider-Man

With the horror of 16-bit licensed game era finally settling down, the jump to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 promised bigger and better Batman and Spider-Man games than ever before! Well, the “bigger” part is correct in that regard.

The jump to the PlayStation was not kind to Batman with three gut-wrenchingly awful titles to his name. Batman & Robin, based on the universally loathed movie is by no means “a good game,” but it is at least an interesting one. If looked through the right beer-goggles, one could even point to it as a prototype for the more recent Batman: Arkham games.

Batman & Robin features Batman doing everything he does in his recent revival. He drives around an open-world Gotham City and battles thugs who are running the streets using a timed combo system. He can glide, stealth about, collect hidden “?” riddles, use gadgets, and there is even a detective mode to throw into all the chaos. Sound familiar?

Of course, horrendous graphics and a jumpy camera high on caffeine ruin the overall experience, but it’s very interesting to wonder if Rocksteady borrowed a few pages from this thankfully forgotten game’s idea book.

From there, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is just horrible no matter how you spin it, and it doesn’t have a single interesting redeemable quality to save it. Low polygon counts don’t grant it any style points, and horribly repetitive combat don’t do it any favors in the “fun” department either. Just an awful game.

Batman closed out the PlayStation era with Gotham City Racer, an awful kart racer designed to capitalize on the popularity of Mario Kart 64 about four years too late. Check out the video of this abomination and remember that it was released in the same year as Final Fantasy X. The less said the better.

So, Batman was firing blanks throughout the late 1990s, but at least he was appearing in something resembling games, right? I mean, Spider-Man wasn’t even in a video game for five years with Marvel being threatened with bankruptcy at the time. With that, let’s carry the conversation over into what is easily the champion of the generation, Neversoft’s Spider-Man on the PlayStation.

While possibly a little too stiff and linear by today’s standards, Spider-Man on the PlayStation was a revolutionary look into how 3D graphics could give our heroes the treatment they properly deserved. Plus, the new PlayStation 2 era consoles were already announced when this came out, letting our imaginations run wild if great games like this were only the beginning.

Neversoft’s use of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 engine allowed an incredibly detailed acrobatic action game, far and away more impressive than anything we had seen to date. Spider-Man controlled like water with his easy to pull-off combos, and swinging through the air, something no Spider-Man game had ever done correctly to that point, was as easy as a nice spring breeze.

This was also the game which created the running joke of Spider-Man swinging from thin air since his webs never seem to stick to buildings.

Plus, it was just plain charming. The characters, the narration, the goofy PlayStation era voice acting. Everything about this clever game’s writing perfectly captured the playful nature of the Spider-Man comic.

Spider-Man was a huge leap for superhero games struggling to make the jump into 3D. While it might not be that impressive for the younger gamers of today, it has the nostalgia factor working for it for those who experienced it first hand.

Its sequel Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro is also pretty solid and improved on the formula in a few areas. However, by the time it came out, the PlayStation 2 was hitting its stride at full force with games like Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III. Needless to say, not many people noticed.

The 6th Console Generation — Winner: Spider-Man

The PlayStation and Nintendo 64 laid the groundwork for how to make decent 3D games and it took the power of the 6th console generation to get it to finally get it right. Naturally, this meant good Batman and Spider-Man games finally!

Well, again, not so much. While not nearly as dreadful of a showing as he saw on the PlayStation, Batman didn’t fare much better on the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube either with three “meh” games and one of his absolute worst to date.

Things started out well enough. Batman: Vengeance is about as competent as Batman games could get at the time. Great art direction based on the hit animated show and a healthy helping of gadgets, missions, and fighting moves showed that the development team wasn’t satisfied with just a simple action game. There’s no getting around that this game shows a lot of cracks, but it also showed a lot of promise, like the first Spider-Man game on PlayStation.

The foundation was certainly there to build an impressive series out of with more effort, money, and time.

And that’s exactly what Ubisoft decided not to do. Instead, we got Batman: Rise of the Sin Tzu to follow it up, a horribly watered down overhead beat ’em up, stripped of everything that Batman: Vengeance could have used to build the franchise with. It was exactly the kind of simple action game they hoped to avoid with the previous game.

Batman: Rise of the Sin Tzu isn’t an awful video game, but meh. Who cares? Maybe we just failed to appreciate it because we were still recovering from blow that Batman’s worst game had caused a few months earlier.

Batman: Dark Tomorrow makes Batman: Rise of the Sin Tzu look like a downright masterpiece. While Ubisoft still had control of the animated show’s rights, somehow dreaded Japanese publisher Kemco got a hold of the comic license and put London based developer HotGen in charge of this mess.

What isn’t wrong about this game? Well, Batman’s character model was the most detailed to date, even if it was stiffly animated. His cape featured new physics which allowed it to flow freely within the game’s graphic engine, and DC writer Scott Peterson and Final Fantasy writer Kenji Terada found a great story under this train wreck.

Again though, just like on the PlayStation, we see too much ambition getting in the way of limited hardware. Stealth doesn’t work in the open city, combat won’t knock out enemies to save Batman’s hide, blocking is useless, and both the level design and camera angles make absolutely no sense. It’s a slow game with repetitive missions, and not even the excellent atmosphere can grant this horrible game a recommendation.

Far and away, Batman: Dark Tomorrow is the worst of this bunch and maybe all of the Batman games, including those dreadful 16-bit ones. The sad thing was that this game had a lot of hype behind it too. Oh Kemco …

Batman would star in one more game thanks to EA picking up the Batman Begins movie license. Of all the horrible EA licensed games created during this era, this one is actually not that bad. It obviously takes a lot of inspiration from Devil May Cry’s brand of action, and the developers managed to work in stealth and puzzle elements you would expect from a Batman game. So far, so good …

Its biggest problem comes from launching a month or two after Devil May Cry 3 hit Americans in the face with a ton of awesome bricks, making it open season for criticisms and comparisons. Looking back, Batman has a decent character model in this game but the repetitive combat, short length, and uninspired feel of it all hold it back from being anything more than a passable game for nobody except fans.

A planned sequel based on The Dark Knight film was also scrapped. At the time, we were disappointed, but in retrospect, we can appreciate this dodged bullet as its cancellation cleared the way for a much brighter future on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Unlike Batman, which tossed aside any potential hope for salvation by ignoring Batman: Vengeance’s ideas, Spider-Man’s developers at Treyarch horded all the best ideas from the massive success of its PlayStation game, using it as the building blocks to shape every Spider-Man game of this generation.

The only major difference is that this time around, Spider-Man was a hit at the film box office, and you had to play as Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, not comic book Spider-Man. It’s a small price to pay because the first two games did a fabulous job of combining the PlayStation Spider-Man’s wild success with another blooming series, Grand Theft Auto.

Spider-Man: The Movie laid the groundwork for improved graphics and tighter gameplay thanks to the enormous boost of the power found in the modern consoles. It’s a linear game, nearly identical in its design to the PlayStation game, and nothing too special otherwise. Just like the film series though, it was Spider-Man 2: The Game which managed to get it right.

Spider-Man 2: The Game was the first game that made you actually feel like Spider-Man in an open city. Saving people in distress, swinging through buildings, fighting crime, talking trash. Treyarch really nailed what it meant to be “Spider-Man” with this game, which is why I guess Treyarch is a name you still recognize today!

Spider-Man 3: The Game was released during the weird transition phase between console generations, and confusion is ever so obvious as newer and older ideas compete for the spotlight. The game’s “BioWare” morality system centered around using the black Spider-Man suit, as obligated by video game trends and the movie’s plot, and it didn’t work half as well as the developers had hoped. The classic PlayStation Spider-Man combo system also appeared in five games after seven years by this point, and it was it was becoming exponentially dated with each passing game.

This forgettable game was a relic on release and barely worth a mention, making Spider-Man 2: The Game the best representation of “Tobey Maguire Spider-Man” out there and the overall best game from our shallow selection.

Ultimate Spider-Man

Spider-Man also had one other decent release to give him an inch over Batman in Ultimate Spider Man, a game which toyed with both the classic Spider-Man mechanics and open-city approach. The artists gave the graphics a cel-shaded face-lift, seeing as how that was the graphical rage at the time, and it works very well in tandem with the comic’s art.

Overall though, the 6th generation wasn’t the worst of the generations, but it comes off as just uninspired. Batman couldn’t find a formula that could set him apart, and Spider Man leaned too much on other franchise’s ideas and decade old mechanics. Excuses were running thin. Both heroes had issues at this point, and with only one game that barely managed to stand out, something had to give to give to restore faith in the two properties.

The 7th Console Generation — Winner: Batman

And boy, oh boy something did give as we come full circle to Spider-Man once again not standing a chance in the face of an insanely talented developer armed with the Batman license. Much like back on the NES, the Dark Knight didn’t lose himself by being bogged down in expectations of any particular licensed product of the time. With no rush to hit a theater run and no halfhearted Hollywood plot to bog it down, the developers Rocksteady Games started a revolution in the superhero video game world by shattering expectations with two master class titles.

Batman: Arkham Asylum was an eye opener for all those who doubted that Batman could star in a decent video game. After two decades of failure though, you can hardly blame them for not thinking it would work out.

Everything about this game just simply fit, whether it was conforming to Batman’s lore or just every mechanic working perfectly in tandem together. Stealth, combat, exploration, level design, and detective work, each piece fed off the other, and it was simply brilliant. No matter the mechanic, Rocksteady just simply got it right, making it the best Batman game in history and one of the highlights of the last generation.

Kind of like Treyarch with Spider-Man 2: The Game, Rocksteady was confident enough to carry its design theories over into a completely open-world setting in Batman: Arkham City. Improved combat and travel mechanics, better boss battles and side-quests all make this a better game overall.

Maybe it was the impact the first game had, but I’ll always prefer it over this sequel. I’m of the mind that more doesn’t always mean better, and some of the level designs and tight pacing that made Batman: Arkham Asylum so good was lost on the open-city cityscape of Arkham City. Puzzles seem to scatter Arkham Island with no real logic, and setting up traps comes down to luck with the city not really sporting any clever design on its own.

I’ll take a tighter action game over a heavy exploration game any day of the week. This just comes to personal preference though, and there is no getting around that both of these masterpieces have set up Rocksteady as simply the only company who should ever be allowed to work on Batman games ever again.

I think Warner Bros. Interactive proved that much when it developed Batman: Arkham Origins.

And you know, there have been so many bad Spider-Man games to grace the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii, that I really don’t feel like bothering spelling them all out. From Spider-Man: Friend or Foe and Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions to Spider-Man: The Edge of Time and The Amazing Spider-Man movie tie-ins, it’s just all negligible at best and boring at worst.

The problems comes with trying to do too much. Whatever unfortunate company who gets put in charge of the most recent Spider-Man game has to contend with combat mechanics that date back to the PlayStation, the stealth standards of Batman: Arkham, huge open-city design, moral choice, and Marvel’s awful tendencies to tie parallel universes and Elseworlds together. All decent ideas, all too ambitious for one game.

Spider-Man needs a knockout game to put him back in contention, and the only way to do that is either start from scratch, something which simply doesn’t happen anymore in our industry, or aim for the sky and hope for the best, something which happens all too often just to backfire.

No, Spider-Man does not find himself in a good situation right now, and with Batman: Arkham Knight gearing to take charge of the new console generation yet again this coming week on June 23, it could be quite a while before he finds his footing.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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