It seemed like every superhero was getting a beat-em-up game in the 90s; though to be fair, I suppose the genre was a good thematic fit. Acclaim/LJN brought us Spider-Man’s two most prominent brawling entries – Separation Anxiety and Maximum Carnage. I have vague, distant memories of renting one or both of them, and thought I remembered them being well-received at the time. A quick trip to MobyGames (and a replay of my own) show this not to be the case.
Similar to Death and Return of Superman, Maximum Carnage takes a multi-issue story from the comics and brings it to the consoles. Infected by an offspring of the Venom symbote, serial killer Cletus Kasady is Carnage. Any of Venom’s ambiguities regarding right and wrong are thrown right out – Carnage is powerful, completely insane, and a right bastard. Kasady revels in the alien power he’s been given, and after escaping from a mental institution, he forms a team of like-minded super-villains and sets out on a rampage through New York. He’s enough of a threat to get Spider-Man and Venom to team up against him, and playing as both characters is the game’s major hook.
The brawling gameplay is nothing surprising. X attacks, with successive hits chaining combos. B jumps. You can double tap left or right to run in that direction, with a meaty shoulder bash if you connect with an enemy. You can bash X+A together to do an area attack, at the cost of a bit of your life. There are no weapons to pick up, and throwable objects are extremely rare, so your standard attack string will get the most screen time. In all, pretty standard stuff.
Additional moves come from Spidey’s web powers. Tapping the A button shoots out a web bolt that will tie up an enemy for about a second. This can be a magnificent technique to use on bosses, or to help with crowd control in general. Pressing A with a direction held shoots a string of web in that direction. It will capture the first enemy it hits and drag him back to you, ending in a grapple. This makes it useful to grab those enemies hiding just off screen. If two enemies should be on either side of you, pressing A will grab them both and smash them together for an instant double KO.
Spidey’s moves actually are useful, appropriate to the character, and best of all, there’s no artificial limit placed on your web attacks. The final web move is to hold A and create a shield – unfortunately, this one doesn’t help much. It takes too long to form the shield (under a second, but still too long), and bosses can knock it down in one hit. Your web swing (on the Y button) is similarly useless in combat. Jump kicks are far easier to control for attacking, and the distance you can swing is too limited to be a useful way to escape. Plus, you can easily crawl on background walls if you really need to get out of the fight for a moment.
The game also promotes fighting accuracy, which is fairly unheard of for a brawler. Landing every strike you throw counts toward an accuracy percentage, which gives you a point bonus at the end. You also earn a “Power Hit” for every tenth or so clean hit in a row. Your life bar will begin to flash, and your next attack will be a special kick that drops any standard foe in one hit. I found accuracy harder to maintain than you think it would be, but I’m also a notorious button-masher. I do at least like the idea of giving you some reason to fight with skill, and that it’s an enhancement to those who do – not a hindrance to those who don’t.
At various parts in the story, you get the option to continue as Spider-Man or as Venom. Each character’s stages are different, and the cutscenes do reference the outcome of the other character’s activity, so there’s some incentive to go back and play the alternate paths. Actually playing as Venom, however, offers little incentive of its own. Both characters have identical powers, just with symbote art instead of web. Venom grabs foes in the same way, can briefly tie them up with a shot of goo the same way, and can even swing through the air, just like Spidey. His attack animation is different, but functionally the same. Venom is allegedly stronger and slower, but I didn’t feel this effect in practice.
Those are the highlights, but the list of disappointments is just as long. For starters, there are no passwords and only limited continues. A clean run should take no more than an hour or so, but it will require plenty of trial and error to get to that point. The game’s also not as long as you might think, mostly padded out by some brief “story” levels. I like that the actual storytelling isn’t strictly confined to cutscenes, but it leads to levels like a ten-second chase scene where you web-swing past four buildings before hitting the exit. There are boss battles about that long, some that simply exist for you to damage the boss a few times before they “defeat” Spidey and run off. It’s confusing at first, but then just feels cheap as more and more levels are over before they really begin.
Extra lives and continues aren’t earned, and instead must be found within the world. This adds to the difficulty, but also contributes to the game’s heavy reliance on secrets. You will never spot a continue in regular gameplay, and extra lives will be hidden behind objects or just off screen – requiring wall crawling to get there and advanced knowledge to know where to look. Continues are housed in secret rooms, which again, seem impossible to find on your own. These require you to jump “through” a particular window at a particular angle, or to know exactly where to stand and perform a super attack to enter. Their obscurity seems less about rewarding veteran players or explorers, and more about selling strategy guides or hotline calls.
There are also a series of support characters that act as collectable bonus attacks. Cameos include Captain America, Black Cat, Cloak & Dagger, and Firestar, and each will swoop in for a screen-clearing attack when called. However, you have to collect their powerup icons first, and these don’t make appearances until the second half of the game. Each icon grants you two uses of that character, which encourages you to save them for bosses. However, these attacks are geared toward damaging multiple enemies on screen – and so are most effective on the standard-ass thugs you can take care of just fine yourself. I found myself hoarding these assists more often than actually using them.
Finally (and perhaps the most confounding), there’s no two-player mode. Playing as Spider-Man and Venom at the same time seems like an obvious inclusion, but it’s not here. Perhaps this is to allow for the branching storylines dependent on the character you choose, perhaps they thought it wasn’t important, who knows. This gets alleviated in the next game, Separation Anxiety, but that game comes with new problems of its own.
Graphically, it looks pretty great. There’s large characters and good background detail. The comic book panels in the cutscenes look great. Characters have a slightly stylized, low-detail look that I think is meant to resemble comic art. It somewhat works, however, variation is extremely limited – you’re pretty much fighting the same two thugs over and over.
Audio effects aren’t that impressive. Punches literally sound like popcorn popping and web shots sound like a drum fill. Round it out with some generic “ugh!”s and “ahh!”s, and you’ve got pretty much the entirety of the effects track. Music is provided by the band Green Jelly, and sounds actiony enough, but nothing that seems worth advertising. Remember, this is a chiptune approximation of a rock band’s instruments.
It feels easy to find fault with these licensed brawlers, and Maximum Carnage does at least try. I do love how the story is integrated within the levels, and the limited enemy types may be a restriction of limited system memory. I also appreciate their attempts to add some strategy to the simple brawler, and the theory of secret rooms is nice, though the execution a bit cheap. Still, despite how charitable I try to be, playing the game for the long haul just isn’t that much fun. With no options menu of any kind, you’re left to either rely on those secret rooms for powerups, or replay the game over and over until you know it well enough to beat in one sitting. Neither of those options seems very attractive, or worthy of Spidey fans.
Nice graphics with large character sprites. Music by an actual (somewhat recognizable) rock band. Good selection of character cameos. Tells the story well, and integrates it into the levels.
Little difference between Venom and Spidey. No two player mode. Web attacks are nice additions, but brawling is about as generic as it can get. Overly reliant on obscure secret rooms for the powerups needed to get by.