Greetings, True Believers, and welcome to another article all about the fine art of punching crowds of interchangeable, palette-swapped goons! Yes, it’s time for another side-scrolling beat-em-up here at VGJunk, but this time the heroes aren’t ex-wrestlers turned politicians or ex-cops turned vigilantes, they’re household names in the field of comic book entertainment. Well, one of them is, anyway. I don’t think Venom’s that popular. Anyway, here is it: the SNES version of Software Creation’s 1994 action-is-his-reward-em-up Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage!

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Carnage gets to surf in on his logo, because he’s just the kind of fresh, edgy character the nineties were crying out for. It’s The Sensational Spider-Man Symbiote Super Show! I’m sure you all know who Spider-Man is, but plenty of people wouldn’t recognise the other two. Well, Venom’s the large blue-black chap on the right. He’s bonded with an alien parasite that gives him very Spider-Man-like abilities. He’s also (mostly) evil, and spends a lot of time fighting Spider-Man. The red fellow at the top is Carnage. He’s also bonded with an alien parasite that gives him abilities, although his are less Spider-Man-like and more things like morphing his arms into giant axes. Carnage is very evil. They all fight each other a lot, which is sad because they have so much in common. Comics!

Specifically, Maximum Carnage is based on the 1993 Marvel Comics story arc of the same name. It tells the tale of Carnage’s human host, the wonderfully named Cletus Kasady, breaking out of prison and regaining his Carnage powers. He recruits some other villains into a bizarre “family” of sorts, and Spider-Man and Venom reluctantly team up to take Carnage down. The game’s story follows the comics pretty closely with some minor changes, to the extent that the cutscenes are digitised version of the comic’s panels. It’s an effect that works really well, actually. Putting comic panels in a comic book game seems like a no-brainer, and they’re very well rendered in extremely colourful pixel form.
Here, Carnage offers some sound advice about trust as he breaks out of prison, as well as stealing Arnie’s “you know when I said I’d kill you last?” bit from Commando.  He also declares himself to be “the ultimate insanity,” which is a bit rich when the Marvel universe also includes a villain called Stilt-Man whose power is stilts.

On his way out of prison, Carnage meets the villainess Shriek and a bestial, multi-armed clone of Spider-Man called Doppleganger. Doppelganger is not to be confused with Man-Spider, a bestial, multi-armed mutation of the original Spider-Man. Again, comics! They’re pretty great.

As Spidey swings across the New York skyline, he comes close to having a realisation about his status as an eternal cash-cow for Marvel and now Disney. Spider-Man will never be allowed to rest. He’ll have his powers shuffled around, he’ll join different superhero teams and participate in various universe-altering mega-events, but Spider-Man will almost certainly still be appearing in comics and cartoons and movies long after you and I are dead. You know what? I’m happy with that. I like Spider-Man, and I’m looking forward to playing Maximum Carnage.

As I say, Maximum Carnage is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, and not the first one to star Spider-Man. There’s also his eponymous arcade game by Sega, which is worth checking out. But this is Maximum Carnage, and as he takes on the goons that litter the streets of New York, Spidey’s basic attacks conform to the usual template of the genre. Tapping attack produces a multi-hit combo that knocks down your opponent at the end. You can do a jumping kick, and pressing attack and jump produces a spinning desperation move that costs Spidey a bit of health. You know, the usual. If you’ve played any side-scrolling beat-em-up, you’ll be able to pick up Maximum Carnage’s gameplay immediately.
There’s even an explanation as to why all these people are trying to kill our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man: in the comic, at least, Shriek uses her powers to turn ordinary people into bloodthirsty killers. Maybe that’s why the developers chose to adapt Maximum Carnage rather than another part of the comics, because it gives Spider-Man a large number of generic, unimportant peons to beat up in between fighting super-villains.

Extra, extra! Read all about it! Spider-Man smashes teen’s skull with bundle of newspapers!
There are no weapons, as such – Spidey’s not one for clobbering people with a steel pipe – and you recover lost health via generic heart icons rather than turkeys hidden under bins, but there are some objects you can pick up and throw littering the stages.

After pummelling a few blokes in trenchcoats and kids in unflattering shorts, Spider-Man faces off with the game’s first boss: a pair of agile fitness fanatics called Lizzie and Dana. When I played Maximum Carnage as a kid (and I did, although I never got very far) for some reason I always saw this pair as wearing rollerblades and safety helmets. I don’t know why I saw it that way when it’s clearly not the case. Maybe I just wanted to see Spider-Man fighting enemies with some gimmick to them. There’s nothing heroic about beating up two joggers, even if they are wearing berets and could therefore be mistaken for a dangerous paramilitary exercise group. Oh, and they can attack Spidey by whipping him with their hair. So much for having the proportional strength of a spider. Actually, yeah, what’s going on there? I should be knocking these random citizens out with a single punch. Where are all my spider-powers?!

Oh, there they are. That’s right, you didn’t think this Spider-Man game would be lacking in web-slinging, did you? There are quite a lot of moves to chose from, too. The X button handles web-swinging, which is useful for avoiding enemy attacks and re-positioning Spidey -  a vital skill, because even by the standards of the genre the enemies in Maximum Carnage like to surround you on all sides. The A button is where the more combat-focussed abilities lie. Holding A produces a web shield that can block most attacks, which would be much more useful if it didn’t take a few seconds to appear, seconds in which you’ve almost certainly been whacked by whatever you were trying to avoid. You can also tap the button to fire a web pellet that momentarily traps any enemy it hits, or hold left or right and press A to fire a strand, grab a bad guy and drag them towards you so they can feel the bright red fists of justice. The grab is very handy, and if there’s an enemy on either side out you you’ll even fire two strands and pull your opponents head-first into each other like a spandex-wearing Three Stooges bit.
The web is integrated rather well, all told, and it serves two important functions. One is that it makes you feel like you’re playing as Spider-Man himself and not just some dork in a cheap Halloween costume, and the other is that it adds some variety to the combat. As much as I love beat-em-ups, the usual punch-grab-jumping-kick system can get a little stale, and it’s not surprising that my favourites in the genre, like Night Slashers and Alien vs. Predator, are the ones that add moves to expand on this basic formula. I’m not saying Maximum Carnage is going to be as good as those games, but it’s moving in the right direction.

Once you’ve cleared the first area, the gameplay takes a turn for the insipid as you make Spidey crawl his way up the side of a building while someone pours wet noodles on him from above. It’s not awful, I guess. You have to swing from building to building, and the pleasure of swinging from a thread you find in almost every Spider-Man game is still intact… but the crawling is slow and the projectiles have the annoying habit of knocking you back down a level. I know you have to have some degree of wall-crawling in a Spider-Man game, but this is definitely less interesting and less fun than the fighting.

Once you reach the rooftop, you’re thrown into a fight with Shriek and Doppelganger. I hope you enjoy this fight, because you’re going to be doing it a lot over the course of Maximum Carnage.
They key to victory, appropriately enough for a Spider-Man game, is agility. Shriek can fire large energy projectiles and Doppelganger tends to go for the combat hug if you get too close, so staying on the move and trying to get behind them is the best way to go.

Where was Carnage while all this was happening? Why, he was trying to get J. Jonah Jameson into a romantic mood by posing seductively on his desk. Sorry, did I say “seductively”? I meant “uncomfortably.” It’s a good job the symbiote gives Carnage super-strength, because otherwise it’d be impossible to maintain that “resting on your tiptoes and elbows with your knees behind your ears” pose for more than a few seconds and who knows how long Carnage has been waiting there for Jameson to show up? JJJ’s a busy man, Carnage could have been there for hours.

After that erotically-charged interlude, it’s back to the streets and back to the fighting. "Spider-Man wades through a legion of identikit goons" unsurprisingly makes up the bulk of the gameplay, so it’s a good job that’s it’s definitely an above-average brawler experience. As mentioned, Spidey’s superpowers help him to stand out from the crowd, the controls mostly work well and the emphasis on moving around fits the character. My biggest problem with the gameplay is that the goons take too long to defeat, with health bars that feel like they’re been chipped away at rather than being smashed with Spidey’s super-strength. I know they’re set up this way to provide more challenge and  (presumably) to limit the number of sprites on-screen at any given time, but it has the effect of making Spider-Man feel like a weakling, which is not what you want in your superhero game. He should be able to take out these rank-and-file timewasters with a couple of punches, and the action (and the feeling of being Spider-Man) would be greatly enhanced if there were more enemies with smaller health bars and a wider diversity of attack patterns.

I did figure out Spider-Man’s best move at this point, however. If you pick an enemy up, you can tap A and B to spin them around on your finger like a basketball before chucking them onto the concrete. Is it practical? No, it absolutely is not. It adds little extra damage and gives other enemies a free shot while Spidey’s auditioning for the Harlem Globetrotters. Did I use it a lot? Yes. Well, at the start of the game I did. By the end I was too tired of being bogged down by goons that I stopped using it.

After being rescued from what felt like very mild peril by the superhero duo Cloak and Dagger, Spider-Man finds himself once more doing battle with Shriek and Doppelganger. Most beat-em-ups save this kind of lazy recycling until the latter half of the game, when the palette-swaps and boss rushes come out to play, but Maximum Carnage gets straight to it. I’d understand if this was supposed to be building rivalry, locking you in battle with an inescapable foe who becomes your nemesis, but for that to be the case the fights should change, the stakes raising, instead of being the exact same fight every bloody time.

Venom finds out that Carnage is back, and he’s not pleased about it. Then again, Venom is rarely pleased about anything, unless he’s beating up Spider-Man. It’s a strange dynamic, because from what I remember Carnage is sort of Venom’s son, in that he was formed from an offshoot of Venom’s symbiote. That means it’s time for some parental discipline, and from this point on Maximum Carnage lets you choose between playing as Spider-Man or Venom at certain points. Not only do you get two characters to pick from, but each character has some unique stages.

For instance, if you select Spider-Man you’re placed in a web-swinging chase against the villainous Demogoblin, he of the flapping cape and the fiery hoverboard that is way cooler than Green Goblin’s hoverboard. What is it about Spider-Man and goblins, anyway? He fights the Green Goblin, he fights the Grey Goblin, he fights the Hobgoblin, he fights Demogoblin. Are goblins the natural predators of spiders in the wild or something? Did whatever costumier that supplies all the supervillain in New York accidentally add a digit when ordering goblin costumes? Is it because “goblin” is such a damn fun word to say out loud?

Picking Venom, on the other hand, sees you fighting your way through the streets of San Francisco. As all the action is happening on New York and San Francisco is on the west coast, one must assume that Venom is walking across the entire North American continent, beating up anyone who crosses his path.

In terms of his moveset, Venom is almost identical to Spider-Man. He can web-swing and web-grab and all that, although he uses the symbiote rather than firing webbing. His regular moves look different, but it’s purely a cosmetic change. He’s a little slower and a touch more powerful than Spider-Man, but that’s not why you should play as Venom. No, you should play as Venom because his life-sapping special move is a spinning clothesline, and what could be a more appropriate move for a side-scrolling beat-em-up than that? No word on whether Venom is an ex-pro wrestler, but now that he’s a character in an arcade-style brawler there about a fifty percent chance that yes, he used to be a pro wrestler.

At the end of this stage, Venom was accosted by two balding middle-aged men who tried to kill him by using their umbrellas like fencing swords. I sincerely hope this pair appeared in the original comic, having fallen under Shriek's evil influence. Otherwise, it means that the developers needed a boss for this stage but rather than using one of Spider-Man’s hundreds of foes they went with a deranged bank manager and his almost-identical bank manager friend.

More fighting ensues in a place called The Deep. This threw me off a little, because the only place called The Deep that I’m familiar with is the large aquarium in Hull. It’s not an aquarium, though. I think it’s supposed to be a nightclub. Yes, I wanted to see Venom fight a manta ray too, but we don’t always get what we want.

Now that’s a well-staged screenshot, although it would be better if Doppelganger wasn’t lurking around in the background. It does show that when all the pieces fall into place, Maximum Carnage does a really good job of capturing the look of a comic book. Like, that could be a panel in an issue of Spider-Man, if Doppelganger wasn’t there staring intently at Venom’s leg.
So yeah, I’m fighting Doppelganger again, only this time he’s been joined by Demogoblin. That’s how most of the boss fights in Maximum Carnage work: you’re fighting the same bosses over and over again, with the occasional new villain being added to the mix as you encounter them until you’re punching Doppelganger’s lights in for the umpteenth time only for Demogoblin to jump in as soon as you finish him off, again. It is not a particularly enjoyable set-up. The villains don’t learn new moves or try new techniques as the game progresses, so it’s just boring and repetitive. One proper, more fleshed out fight against each villain would have gone a long way towards making Maximum Carnage a better game.

Having remembered that Carnage’s symbiote is vulnerable to sonic attacks, Spider-Man and Venom realise that getting hold of a sonic gun would probably be a good idea. Their back-up plan is to house Carnage in my back bedroom, because the next-door neighbours have got the builders in and the constant, excruciating squealing of power drills could bring the most powerful villain to their knees, aural weakness or not. Hopefully it won’t come to that, because they know where a sonic gun can be found: in the Baxter Building, home of the Fantastic Four. Sadly the Fantastic Four aren’t home right now, so Spidey and Venom break in.

This activates the Baxter Building’s security system, which is mostly composed of deadly flying Christmas baubles. It’s like a festive version of Phantasm in here! This course of action raises some questions, most pertinently “why didn’t Spider-Man get in touch with the Fantastic Four?” They’re buddies, are you telling me Reed Richards hasn’t invented some kind of communication device that we could have called before resorting to burglary? The other question is “where are the Fantastic Four?” My guess would be that they’re in Hollywood, begging Fox Studios to stop making movies about them.

Venom seems remarkably calm about his mortal nemesis Spider-Man pointing a sonic gun at him, both of them knowing that Venom is just as vulnerable to sonic attack as Carnage is. Maybe they’ve finally managed to establish a little trust. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Another boss fight and another villain enters the fray. This time it’s Carrion, who isn’t a goblin despite looking more like a goblin than all the other Goblin characters. His power is that he can decay organic matter with his touch, which manifests in the game as Carrion flying around, trying to grab your hero’s head like a new-age type who’s just learned about Indian head massage. Carrion can be a real pain in the arse to deal with – not only is he flying, meaning you can’t get him with a proper combo and have to rely on jumping kicks, but he can also teleport out of the way of your attacks.  It’s a combination of abilities that lead to me shouting a hearty “oh good, it’s this prick again,” every time he showed up. The only consistent way I found to damage Carrion is to jump straight up and kick. He’ll teleport away from it, but if you jump straight up and kick immediately afterwards his vanishing act hasn’t had time to recharge or what-have-you and you can land a single blow, scraping a sliver from his health bar. It’s about as exciting as it sounds.

I could stand here ineffectually jump-kicking at Carrion like a chump, but I’ve got a better idea: I’ll call for some help. Most stages have tokens tucked away that you can collect, and when you use a token the superhero they depict appears on screen to help you out. In this case I’ve summoned Firestar, a mutant with the power to control microwave energy but not the power to operate a comb. She torches everything in her path, which is very useful, and most of your other super-friends do a similar thing. There are plenty of them, too, from Black Cat to Morbius the Living Vampire to Captain America himself. They even perform a different attack depending on whether it was Spider-Man or Venom that summoned them, and I appreciate the amount of effort that went into adding them all in. I think my favourite is Iron Fist, because when Spider-Man calls him in he gives you all your health back. Maximum Carnage gets pretty darned tough towards the end, so having what’s essentially a kung-fu medikit on hand is extremely useful.

Speaking of Captain America, he briefly pops into the story in order to save Spider-Man. Okay, not “save.” He pops in to pick Spider-Man out of the dirt after Venom’s given him a kicking, that’s a more accurate description for what’s happening here.

Close inspection of Captain America’s face reveals that he’s one hundred percent done with this symbiote bullshit and he’d rather be absolutely anywhere else.

Where to next? Oh right, Spider-Man goes to a police station and beats up a load of policemen for no real reason that I could see. I’m sure the comics explain why Spidey’s decided to recreate the police station scene from Terminator, but for now I’ll assume that these cops are all under Shriek’s evil influence. Either way, if I was Spider-Man I’d do my best to make sure this little escapade doesn’t become public. He doesn’t want to be giving J. Jonah Jameson any more ammunition, that’s for sure.

After a few more scenes of regulation goon-punching, enlivened only by some of said goons now having access to easily-avoidable firearms, it’s back to the grind of Maximum Carnage’s one never-ending boss fight. The gang's all here now, so you have to fight Shriek and Doppelganger, then Carrion and Demogoblin. Hey, Captain America, get in here and help me!

That’s the combat stance you’re going with, is it, Steve? The Michael Jackson crotch-grab? Well, a hearty chamone to you, my star-spangled friend. You’ve beaten Demogoblin into a coma, and that’s the greatest gift I could ask for. Apart from liberty and freedom, obviously.

Then Carnage shows up to throw his metaphorical oar in. The Ultimate Insanity himself fights like a combination of Dhalsim from Street Fighter and an explosion in a cutlery factory: all extending limbs and fleshy bits that become pointy bits. The best tactic seems to be to stay behind Carnage wherever possible and only attack him when he’s recovering from turning his appendages into fishslices or whatever. In this way, you can gradually chip away at Carnage until he’s defeated and Maximum Carnage is over.

Except it clearly isn’t over. Sure, Spider-Man and Venom stand around having a tête-à-tête about who should have had the honour of sending Carnage to the big insane asylum in the sky, but the ending text read “The End...” and that ellipsis means there’s definitely more to come. I don’t care that the credits have started rolling – and they genuinely do, over this shot of our heroes arguing in a park – that last fight was way too easy.

There we go. Nice attempt at a fake-out – the credits were a good touch – but I saw this one coming. I didn’t predict that Carnage would slowly rise out of the lake in the background, mind you. That was definitely unexpected, and only slightly ridiculous to look at.

At first, the prospect of fighting Carnage again wasn’t a particularly worrying one. I’d already clobbered he a few times by now, so why should this be any different? I’ll simply slap him around a little, drain his health bar and be back to wisecracking and selling pictures of myself to the newspaper in no time. Sadly, this was not to be. Carnage, having realised that he’s now the Final Boss, has considerably stepped up his game and has consequently become a right pain in the ballbag to fight against. For starters, he’s got about five times as much health. That wouldn’t make the fight harder, though, just longer and more tedious. No, the real problem is his new moveset. He attacks faster and harder, and he spends roughly eighty percent of his time doing the move where he turns his arms into giant axes and runs forward windmilling them around. As you can see above, he occupies two-thirds of the goddamn screen when he does this. You’ll take loads of damage if you go near him while he’s spinning his arms, and it seems to last for ages, hitting you even when his animation implies he’s stopped doing it. Patience and well-timed jumping kicks saw me through in the end, though, so now I really have finished Maximum Carnage.

Oh, wait, never mind. We’re still doing this. Are we? Really? All right, fine, we’ve got to be near the end now. The location has changed and Carnage has all his health back, but apart from that it’s the exact same fight, and it’s not any more entertaining on a second playthrough.
The interesting thing about these last two fights is that you can switch between Spider-Man and Venom whenever you want, and they’ve each got their own health bars and supply of lives. They also get a brief moment of invincibility when they’re tagged in, and abusing this invincibility is the only way I managed to beat Carnage for a second time. It was slow, it was boring and it was very much not in the spirit of the superhero comics that spawned it, but it was definitely preferable to being killed over and over again.

As Spider-Man mixes up his famous comic-book villains, yes: Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage really is over, for realsies. It got to be a bit of a slog towards the end, but overall it’s actually rather enjoyable. In patches, anyway. It’s one of those games that’s a bit like looking at any given website’s “Top 100 X Ever” list, where some parts makes sense and others leave you baffled by their inclusion. The core combat is fine. Better than fine, even, with Spider-Man having an expansive array of moves and an appropriately nimble fighting style. It’d be better if it was easier to block, maybe by moving the button to scroll through your superhero helpers from L to Select and thus freeing up L to be a dedicated block button, but apart from that it’s fast-paced and mostly satisfying… but then the boss battles drag everything down by either being the same villains over and over (just as Spider-Man was bemoaning in the intro), or being small groups of uninspiring minions.

Aesthetically it’s a mixed bag, too. The cutscenes’ reworked comic art looks great a lot of the time, and the animations and particularly the playable characters’ sprites are really nice, but then they’re let down by some extremely dull designs on the generic enemies and the odd wonky-looking super-friend, like Captain America adjusting the lil’ Captain while he throws his shield.  The same is true of the audio: most sound effects are fine but a couple seem out-of-place, and the music (composed by self-proclaimed “Worst Band Ever” Green Jelly) is technically not bad, but for some reason I never really took to it. An issue of personal taste, no doubt, and I’m sure there are people out there who really like Maximum Carnage’s soundtrack. It’s a good showcase of the kind of electric guitar sounds the SNES could replicate, that’s for sure. It’s also interesting to see that some famous names from the home computer scene were involved, notably the Pickford brothers and Alien Breed composer Allister Brimble.
Overall, I’m coming down in favour of Maximum Carnage. It’s not perfect, but the good bits are good enough that they outweigh the bad. Am I biased because I like Spider-Man so much? Possibly, but we can all appreciate the pleasure of punching a villain and seeing cartoon onomatopoeia pop out.

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