I got a text from Aaron (the Dagger in “Trope and Dagger”) a couple weeks ago. He had just purchased his Genesis doohickey with 80 games preloaded, and had set about acquiring some carts of “classic” games like Taz-Mania. We had been discussing some other games to potentially acquire, and then he sent me this message:
Oh yes. I was fucking ready. I played Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (developed by Software Creations and published by LJN, a subsidiary of Acclaim) to death as a kid, usually with my step-brother, and I had many fond memories of slinging webs at baddies and summoning superhero cohorts to help me put the hurt on Shriek and Doppelganger. The other thing I remembered was how brutally hard the game was, to the point where we never, ever completed it. I couldn’t wait to dive back into it with Aaron, and hopefully not become too irate when Carnage inevitably stole all our continues. Who cares when you’re having fun playing with friends, right? It’s a beat-em-up, and the point is to enjoy yourself, preferably with alcohol.
There’s only one problem: Maximum Carnage doesn’t have co-op. I was shocked. For the amount I played this game with my step-brother as a child, I could have sworn that we played it together, Spidey and Venom, side by side. Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on the NES had co-op. Could Maximum Carnage really not have it?
And the answer is no, it really, really doesn’t. We couldn’t believe it. We reset the game a few times thinking we’d clicked through to fast, and even went online to research it. Slowly it sank in: this game has no co-op. They added it in for the lesser-known sequel, Seperation Anxiety, but that was no help to us. We only had one blood-red cartridge in our hands, and it only allowed for one player at a time. Disappointed, we played Golden Axe III instead, which is pretty awesome in its own right.
I wasn’t done with Maximum Carnage, though, so I got ahold of the SNES version and decided to play it on my own. Now that I’d started thinking about it, I couldn’t rest until I’d re-experience that part of my childhood. The first thing I noticed when I turned it on was the amazing soundtrack by Green Jelly, an American comedy rock band with several members that went on to be part of Tool. I’m not usually into metal or prog rock or what have you, but something about the computerized versions of these songs is just face-meltingly awesome. Seriously, check this out:
There were actually two near-identical versions of this game, one for the Genesis, and one for the SNES. The only differences between them are that the SNES has more buttons, and thus some advanced moves are easier to perform, and the sound chips of the respective consoles. The Genesis is notorious for its weird, tinny sound chip, and Maximum Carnage is no exception. Give it a listen:
Some people actually prefer the Genesis soundtrack and SFX, but I suspect that’s mostly nostalgia talking. In my humble opinion, the SNES version is superior, but go with whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Another really neat thing about this game is the story sequences. This was one of the first comic book tie-ins to be based off of a plot from the actual comics. In some cases the game uses actual panels from the comics to tell the story, and it isn’t afraid to get a little bit risque at times. There isn’t much actual animation, but the use of high-quality comic art is pretty damn effective. There are some constraints due to memory restrictions, though, which result in jarring transitions like Venom going from San Francisco in one stage to Central Park in the next with no explanation. C’est la video games.
So I jumped right in. In stage one, you’re forced to play as Spidey, but later on there are a few points where you get to choose Spider-Man or Venom for the next few stages. Venom is stronger than Spidey but also a bit slower, and they go to different stages on occasion. But seriously, who’s not going to pick Venom if given the chance? He’s a big angry symbiote with a mouth full of sharp teeth and a super long tongue. Sign me up.
I fought my way through the first few waves of thugs, and found myself dying. A lot. I died so much that I had to use a continue on the first stage. The very first level. In the game. Not for the faint of heart, is this one. Fortunately, the game has a surprisingly deep combat system, so the skill threshold is pretty high. A novice will die repeatedly, but an experienced player has super attacks, web swinging, grabs, blocks, and the almighty double-smash attack at their disposal.
The game also features a slew of cameos from a lot of lesser-known Marvel superheroes like Cloak, Dagger, Firestorm, and Morbius. You periodically collect superhero tokens throughout the game which allow you to summon your buddies to help you kick some ass. These come in extremely handy with facing off against bosses like Carnage and his cronies, who often double-team you (again, why no co-op?). The only downside is that these pickups are few and far between, and they’re often hidden in secret rooms that you wouldn’t be able to find without a guide. They all involve standing in a specific location and doing the right sequence of moves, which is sometimes really obscure.
That brings me to the game’s chief flaw, which is the extreme difficulty. This isn’t even a flaw depending on how you look at it, but it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be able to beat this game your first few attempts. Even with skillful play and knowing where the hidden 1-ups and Continues are located, you’re still bound to lose a lot of lives during boss encounters. This game shows no mercy, and that’s honestly part of its charm. Would you expect any less from a game called Maximum Carnage? I can only get a bit over halfway through, which is about the time the game starts throwing repetitive boss gauntlets at you. You’ll be really sick of Doppelganger by the end of the game, trust me.
But despite the ball-breaking difficulty and the lack of co-op, Maximum Carnage is still a damn fun game. It’s a really deep brawler with tons of possibilities, and a wonderful, if repetitive, soundtrack. You probably won’t see the end credits, but that’s not really the point. If you need to kill an hour or two and you enjoy violent comic books with misanthropic anti-heroes, then Maximum Carnage is the game for you. But do your ears a favor: get the SNES version.