How Venom’s Marvel History Can Be Told Through Video Games

The evolution of Venom as a Spider-Man character is remarkably easy to track through his numerous video game appearances.

Photo: Activision, Sony Interactive Entertainment

The existence and success of 2018’s Venom movie is rather fascinating because of how far the movie goes out of its way to keep its distance from Spider-Man. At no point is the wallcrawler brought up and they don’t even hint at the idea of a crossover until the post-credits of the sequel. Elsewhere, Venom is constantly attached to Spider-Man, whether it’s in terms of origin, identity, or simply as a Marvel Comics property. Venom’s main hosts have included a disgraced reporter who hated Spider-Man, a B-list Spider-Man villain with a new coat of paint, and a former school bully who idolized Spider-Man and was unknowingly one of his best friends.

Similarly, Venom has never been able to stand on his own in video games. At most, he gets top billing in a Spider-Man team-up game. Even now, we’re bringing up Venom because he is a major player in Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man 2 game for the PlayStation 5. He’ll always be part of Spider-Man’s corner of Marvel. He’s the Vegeta to his Goku. The Black Adam to his Shazam. The Waluigi to his Luigi. The Elvira to his Dolly Parton. The Terry Crews Old Spice Guy to his Isaiah Mustafa Old Spice Guy.

I have to stop this or my editor will get annoyed and I can’t–The Shadow the Hedgehog to his Sonic the Hedgehog! The Ron Dunn to his Ron Swanson. The Mighty Max to his Polly Pocket. The Meta-Knight to his Kirby. The Right Twix to his Left Twix. (Editor’s Note: *points at watch*)

All right, I’m good.

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As a comic character, Venom’s history has been all over the place and it’s rather interesting to see how this has translated to video games. In the comics, he’s gone from villain to hero to ambiguous figure to hero again. As Venom’s emergence came during the early days of video games, though, tracking Venom’s evolution in those video games doubles as a remarkably great way to track the character’s place in pop culture.

Venom Spider Man Gameboy

The Villain Era

Venom’s first video game appearance was as a final boss in Amazing Spider-Man for the Game Boy in 1990. It’s a subpar Spider-Man adventure with a really goofy narrative built around the meat-and-potatoes concept of fighting a bunch of Spider-Man villains and rescuing Mary Jane. The villains all seem to know that Spider-Man is Peter Parker and take turns calling him up on his bulky 1980s cell phone. This includes Venom, who not only looks strangely gaunt since they reuse the bodies for all the phone conversation cutscenes but somehow also owns a 1980s cell phone despite living in the sewer.

Unfortunately, Venom’s boss fight is a lame and tedious affair that’s followed by the Game Boy sprite of Mary Jane popping in and looking like Angelica Pickles’ Cynthia doll.

Venom would return in Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin in the same year. With a plot centered around Kingpin setting up a timebomb in NYC and framing Spider-Man for it, Venom’s inclusion works fairly well with what he was like at the time. Venom always felt Spider-Man was the villain, so it made sense that he would constantly pop up throughout the game as a secondary threat. Venom shows up almost like Proto Man in Mega Man 3, randomly jumping out of nowhere for a surprise boss battle when you’re fighting the Lizard or running on rooftops.

The Sega CD port had a lot of additions like new levels and bosses. Venom would get his own level, which was based around fighting and evading a constantly-spawning Venom sprite until luring him under church bells. This was followed by a cutscene straight out of a CD-I Zelda game where Venom spoke like Calculon from Futurama.

Then in 1991, came the outrageous Sega arcade game Spider-Man: The Video Game. It was a unique kind of beat ‘em up that occasionally transformed itself into a side-scroller run-and-gun where firing your projectile would lower your health because arcade games can be ridiculously predatory like that. The game had you play as Spider-Man (of course), Black Cat (makes sense), Hawkeye (uh, sure), and Namor (wait, what?). I guess Namor makes a bit more sense when it’s revealed that Dr. Doom is the main villain.

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That game makes prominent, though very bizarre use of Venom as the hot, new Marvel villain of the time. Venom would appear as the first-level boss, then absorb a magical artifact and become a giant for the second boss, only to shrink back down and get a rematch shortly after. After defeating Dr. Doom in the end, the heroes would fight off a series of Venom symbiote clones for the finale.

While the arcade game was Venom’s most memorable appearance during this era, it was also the least accurate. Venom was an x-factor and not the kind of villain who would join a villain faction. Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin did the best job showcasing what kind of threat he was, treating him like a dangerous third party, always lurking in the shadows.

Venom Spider Man 2000 PlayStation

The Antihero Era

As Venom’s whole deal was that he had a rather senseless hatred of Spider-Man built on stubborn misunderstanding, it was only a matter of time before he was able to move past it (at least for a few years). Popular enough to get his own series, Venom eventually spent five years as the Lethal Protector, acting like a murder-loving vigilante with no actual understanding of responsibility.

This pivot was handled really well in video games at the time. Colorful 16-bit beat ‘em ups Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage (1994) and its sequel Venom/Spider-Man: Separation Anxiety (1995) were both based on comic story arcs where the two spider guys teamed up. Though Separation Anxiety was indeed a Venom comic around that time, the plot and bosses from the game were based on Venom: Lethal Protector, thereby technically making it a prequel. Then again, Carnage was in neither story, so his appearance as the final boss in Separation Anxiety just comes off as a desperate use of assets they had lying around.

1995’s Spider-Man, nicknamed Spider-Man: The Animated Series due to its source material, found a perfect way to make Venom the final boss. Prior to the last level, we would see that Spider-Man beat up all the other villains and sent them to the Ravencroft Institute. Venom popped up next to him on a rooftop to tell him, “Good job on apprehending the bad guys. Too bad they’re just going to escape again. Don’t worry, I’m just going to break into Ravencroft and kill them all. Byeee!”

That meant that Spider-Man would have to go through this maximum security supervillain prison in order to punch Venom a bunch and prevent a mass murder. I’m sure some people wanted to turn the game off right there and let Venom do his thing. Then again, there were also probably those who would just turn the game off right there because Spider-Man was simply not a very good game to begin with and it’s a miracle they put up with it long enough to reach that point.

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What was pretty cool was Spider-Man: Lethal Foes (1995): a Super Famicom release by Argent that sadly never left Japan. While hindered by some tedious boss battles and unforgiving time limits, the game was pretty awesome and looked better than any other 16-bit Spider-Man title. While the whole thing centered around Doctor Octopus’ plan to conquer or blow up NYC, Venom pops up at the end to offer a late distraction for Spider-Man.

Spider-Man and Venom cross paths in a park and scrap it out. Even after you win the boss battle, Venom still gets the best of Spider-Man, holding him up by the neck. Carnage happens to jump into the scene and, like a dog seeing a squirrel, Venom forgets what he was doing and lets go of Spider-Man in order to chase Carnage around the city. Later on, after you defeat Doc Ock, Carnage pops in for a random final boss fight, though with Venom fighting on your side. Well, not so much fighting as walking back and forth and occasionally leaping in Carnage’s general direction while doing barely any damage. Don’t ask Venom to help you move your furniture.

Venom would finally make his Capcom fighting game debut with the two-on-two tag game Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes in 1998 with his assets reused two years later in Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes. With an appearance and fighting style looking to be based more specifically on the obscure miniseries Venom: The Mace, the sprite work was pretty damn impressive and worked with how fluid and vicious the symbiote could look in action.

Marvel vs. Capcom was also a very loose adaptation of Marvel’s Onslaught epic, in which Venom and the entirety of Capcom’s roster originally had no part. Upon defeating Onslaught, Venom would talk up their victory with his partner and suggest that they could keep fighting evil together. Then said partner would reel in response to Venom excitedly talking up how they’d be cracking skulls and eating brains.

Oh, and the game also featured a red variant of Venom you could unlock that played slightly differently. It was obviously supposed to be Carnage, but they didn’t call him that for reasons.

Finally, we get the 2000 Spider-Man game for PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast. A classic take on the wallcrawler and his many allies and enemies, Venom nearly stole the show. Fooled by an imposter Spider-Man despite literally bumping into Peter Parker during the incident, Venom kidnapped Mary Jane to goad Spider-Man into a fight in the sewers. Venom also kidnaps Lizard because Venom doesn’t really work as someone with a henchman army, so “takes control of Lizard’s reptilian underlings” is a good way around that.

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After getting some sense beaten into him, Venom then joined Spider-Man as a sidekick with a tendency for getting distracted by Carnage. But hey, props to Venom for suggesting that Galactus and Namor were behind the plot to steal Doctor Octopus’ technology and frame Spider-Man. Really thinking outside the box.

By the time that game came out, Venom had already moved on from the antihero gig in the comics. So began the next era of the character.

Venom Spider Man PS3

The Confused Era

In 1999, Venom’s solo series came to an end and he rubber-banded back to being a monster obsessed with killing Spider-Man. Going back to the original status quo is par for the course in comics, but Venom was in a unique situation. Venom spent just as long as an antihero as he did as an explicit Spider-Man villain. What exactly was Venom’s true self? For the first couple of years of this, Marvel didn’t know what to do with him.

Then Marvel tried to have their cake and eat it too by literally splitting the difference. They would try to make the Venom symbiote more horrifying and sinister while putting it on various hosts other than Eddie Brock. As for Eddie, he was no saint, but he would continue his febrile quest for justice as Anti-Venom and later Toxin.

Venom was so all over the place during the mid-00s that in the fighting game Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects, they never outright say which Venom we’re dealing with. At no point in the game is it stated whether it’s Eddie Brock or Mac Gargan. You just play as him for a couple of levels, then beat him up a few times in the form of one of the ill-remembered Imperfects.

Venom was playable via DLC for 2006’s Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. In this first installment, he was clearly Eddie Brock and, based on his dialogue, was interested in killing bad guys. Only up to a point, mind you, as he did suggest working with Mysterio to kill Spider-Man. The 2009 sequel is an adaptation of the Civil War comic event, so they explicitly used the Mac Gargan incarnation as a boss who you could later recruit to join the team.

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Speaking of comic tie-ins, 2005 gave us Ultimate Spider-Man. Based on the Ultimate Universe, known for giving us Miles Morales and inspiring the MCU version of the Avengers, the game was initially supposed to be a canon follow-up to the Venom storyline from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics. For the uninitiated, Ultimate Venom was not an alien, but a manmade organism meant to cure cancer that went very, very wrong. In the initial comic storyline, Eddie became the creature’s host and was a mindless monster.

In this game follow-up, you can play as both Spider-Man and Venom. Though a rampaging beast throughout the game, Eddie ends up getting full control over it by the end and insists on murdering the game’s true villain Bolivar Trask. The final boss fight is similar to the Animated Series game a decade earlier, where Spider-Man has to stop Venom from killing his enemies for him. Not that it truly matters as Venom sneaks away in defeat and kills Trask later anyway.

The ending is supposed to push Ultimate Venom into the direction of the Lethal Protector persona, but the game was later deemed non-canon when a tweaked version occurred in the comics. There, Venom remained a mindless creature and Eddie was just quietly written out.

I guess I should probably discuss 2007’s adaptation of Spider-Man 3, huh? It was…something. Venom was more of a goofball than in the movie and died via getting impaled, which is not really something that’s going to solve that symbiote problem. In fact, the GBA port even shows the symbiote leaving the body as a spooky cliffhanger.

A quasi-follow-up to the Raimi movies from the same year was Spider-Man: Friend or Foe: a kid-friendly beat ‘em up where Spider-Man gets to team up with a partner. That includes fellow heroes like Iron Fist and Black Cat or various villains freed from mind-control. Those who were in the movies appeared with those designs, meaning an appearance of webbed Venom. Venom’s attacks revolved around him doing sonic roars at people, which was certainly a choice.

Much like the comics started to get more interested in just throwing the symbiote onto whoever, the game developers also started to realize the applications that the gooey creatures came with, as well as the badass designs. And so, Venom got a bit of a spotlight in 2009’s Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. Sort of. The game was about a symbiote invasion based around the writers not fully understanding how Venom works, but shrugging anyway. The real novelty was being able to have Spider-Man incorporate the symbiote as a weaponized costume while seeing rad symbiote versions of various heroes and villains. The game was worth it just for Symbiote Wolverine.

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The final boss was Venom as this freaky Lovecraftian hydra kaiju. Upon being defeated, it led to two possible dark fates for Eddie. Either he was going out a hero and sacrificing himself to save everyone, or Spider-Man was going to sacrifice Eddie against his will because the adventure turned Spider-Man into a dick. Got to love those video game morality systems.

A year later, we got Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions: the prototype for Spider-Verse. While Venom himself was absent, they did make sure to have Ultimate Spider-Man wear a version of the symbiote just to keep his gameplay unique compared to the regular Spider-Man.

The game’s 2011 follow-up, Spider-Man: Edge of Time was unique for making use of Anti-Venom, from a time when Eddie had become one with a disease-curing goo (which unfortunately would cause Spider-Man to lose his powers if they were near each other). Anti-Venom acted as an antagonist in this game, but mainly due to having a chip in his head and being forced to hunt Spider-Man down under the orders of Doc Ock and Alchemax scientist Walker Sloan. Anti-Venom did strike against his captors, but that ended up merging them together into a horrific creature called Atrocity.

Now, of course, Venom has appeared in many other games around this time, but they’re mostly just games based around nearly everyone from Marvel being playable. Stuff like the Lego Marvel series, Disney Infinity, Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth, etc. Even Venom’s DLC appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is kind of ho-hum due to his few quotes and lack of any relation to the story. That game didn’t even have arcade endings. I’m going to ignore a lot of these because it’s not like there’s much to talk about with Marvel Snap, other than how satisfying it is to counter your opponent’s Venom with a lucky Gambit card.

During these years, Venom was literally all over the place and, in a way, it reflected how he was in the comics. Sure, we never got a proper take on Agent Venom outside of the aforementioned “Marvel Encyclopedia” games, but it just goes to show that at the time, nothing was really sticking with Venom as a concept. He was as fluid as his pants and nobody could really agree what he was and who he was under all the black ooze.

Venom Midnight Suns

The Hero Era

After years of experimental ideas like Venom as a ripoff of The Thing, Venom as the government’s official Spider-Man, and Venom as a Space Knight, it was finally time to go back to Eddie Brock as the host for some good old-fashioned vigilante justice. Mike Costa reunited the two parties in 2017, a year before the Tom Hardy Venom movie would arrive. The movie’s success, along with Donny Cates’ memorable comic run that dove deeper into how the symbiotes work as a species, solidified Venom’s role as a hero.

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Hell, they even had a scene of Eddie regretfully explaining to the Avengers that he could never trust himself enough to call himself a good guy because he once thought killing Spider-Man was a heroic gesture. Spider-Man has gone on to accurately and amusingly refer to him as his “problematic frenemy.”

Venom appeared in 2019’s Ultimate Alliance 3 as a boss-turned-playable-hero. Interestingly enough, Spider-Man goes to bat for him after winning the fight and asks the other heroes to give him a chance to help save the world. Venom is taken aback by this gesture but still promises to devour Spider-Man whole after the adventure is over. Spider-Man simply shrugs it off.

2022’s Marvel Midnight Suns, does probably the best job of understanding Venom’s current status quo. Like other heroes and villains, Venom gets possessed by underworld forces, but when exorcised, he joins the fight against evil. Fighting alongside Spider-Man, he comes off as guilt-ridden, not only for the atrocities he committed under Lilith’s control but also for being such a terror to this pure-hearted hero who still looks out for him.

It’s hard to say if Venom’s current comic role will truly have the pull to translate into his existence as a video game character going forward. Comics aren’t exactly setting the world on fire these days on their own, but Venom’s recent big bad Knull, God of Symbiotes, has enough staying power to stand out and give Venom’s current run enough of a footprint. Hell, Knull has a Marvel Snap card! Otherwise, Venom’s current hold on pop culture is based on a popular movie series where he’s an unambiguous good guy (and gay icon?) that has its own cinematic universe that acts as a cousin to the MCU. Then again, it is also home to Morbius, so it only means so much.

Now we’re moving into probably the most popular video game incarnation of Spider-Man with Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 and Venom is one of the biggest selling points. We know for sure that Eddie Brock won’t be the host this time around, though the first game’s cliffhanger pointed the arrow at Harry Osborn being behind the mantle. Considering Harry has also had a history of being Spider-Man’s greatest friend or worst enemy depending on what day of the week it is, who knows what kind of entity Venom will be when the dust settles?

Anyway… The ED-209 to his RoboCop! The Nelson Muntz to his Bart Simpson! The Bass to his Mega Man! The Hector Barbosa to his Jack Sparrow! The Eddie Brock to his Peter Par– wait, that doesn’t work.

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