Spawn Sows a Sense of Doom With its Special Ability System

Spawn, dark anti-hero from Image Comics, has some wild powers. A lot of them, if you followed the comics to any extent. Sounds like a neat recipe for a versatile hellish character, but those abilities come at a price. It’s a numerical price at that. Spawn starts his monstrous life at 9999 Necroplasm, and each time he uses a power, it costs some of that meter. Sounds a whole lot like a video game. That’s probably why it translated fairly well to an SNES beat ‘em up. Something about watching that Necroplasm bar tick down added a real sense of doom to the game.

The beat ‘em up action will seem instantly familiar if you dig this genre. Dudes walk up to you and you punch or kick them. Sometimes those dudes are skeletons and demons that you fight in the fiery pits of hell, though. An array of villains from the comics make appearances throughout the game. Given the focus on hell and the undead, the character will face all manner of beasts from the underworld, too. In doing so, you get to fight some neat monsters and creatures over the course of the game. The horror slant really gives the action a nice personality. Plus, who doesn’t like punching undead in the face?

Like I said above, though, Spawn has all kinds of neat powers. In this game, those abilities take the form of fireballs, healing, flight, and explosions of power. While hitting the four face buttons on the controller will have you leaping and booting people in the chest, you can input special commands to do more powerful strikes. Hopefully you’ve played a few fighting games. The inputs are pretty challenging, so putting in some time with Street Fighter will be a big help. The payoff is pretty big, though. Healing at low health? Screen-clearing blasts? Who wouldn’t want those in a challenging beat ‘em up?

Like I also said above, your powers have a price. Like the comic, you have a Necroplasm meter in the top right of the screen (the game calls them your Life Points, not to be confused with your Health Points). Using your fancy explosive powers or healing capabilities will drain this meter. You start with 9999 points. That feels like a lot for a little while. Healing costs you 328 points. Falling down a pit costs 128. The screen-sized blast costs 192. It doesn’t seem terrible! While many powers are expensive, if you use them sparingly, you should be fine. Right?

Well, losing all your health sees you reviving at a checkpoint for 80 points. So, your in-game lives are tied in to that Life Meter. 80 points is a pittance out of 9999, but what happens if you start using your powers fairly frequently? This meter has to last the entire game, and there are only a few pickups that give you back some Life Points throughout Spawn. So, for the most part, you’ll be living off of those 9999 points for your entire playthrough.

This matters because you have to make a lot of difficult decisions about how to play. If you’re in a rough spot, should you bust out a special punch or fireball to get yourself out of trouble. Would it be better to save the points and just play carefully? If you choose the latter and end up losing a lot of health, should you heal yourself? Would it be better to only spend 80 points on a revive and just try again? If you choose to revive, what do you do when you play just as poorly the next time? When you’re down an extra 80 points you didn’t have to be? You have all of this power, but knowing its limitation makes you afraid to use it.


The interesting part is that you probably won’t start off being nervous about using it. At the beginning of the game, 9999 points feels like a near-infinite amount. You feel fabulously wealthy. Well, wealthy with hellish abilities. And just like me on payday, you’ll want to spend. You’ll freely use abilities in situations you don’t need them in. What’s a fireball here and there when you’re over 9000 Life Points? The high number of points and the (seemingly) reasonable ability costs almost encourage you to try stuff out. Plus, you want to learn how to use these powers effectively for when you need them at the end of the game, right?

Problems arise when you see the meter dwindling near the end of Spawn. If you spent a lot of points at the start of the game, you’ll find yourself hurting for Life Points near the end. I was usually running low even if I played very carefully and avoided special powers at the start. That’s because I would die for foolish reasons because I wasn’t spending points to save my life when I needed to. If I used the powers too much, though, I’d find myself getting terrifyingly close to zero points near the end. Once that Life Meter empties, the game is over. So, it felt like any decision I made was the wrong one.

You grow more stressed as that meter drains. This is largely because you feel more control over how you spend it. In most beat ‘em ups, I know I screwed up if I lose a life. Even so, it doesn’t feel like something I have direct control over. It’s not something I do a cost analysis on before I die. In this game, I can decide to heal myself if I want to. I can use a powerful ability. But I need to analyze what it will cost me and measure that against the amount of Life Points I think I’ll need to complete the game. That constant weighing process adds so much more tension to every fight as I watch those resources dwindle. As I debate whether I should heal while a boss bears down on me.

Spawn uses an element from the comics to add tension to the game. By giving you all of your resources as a single meter, it makes you feel rich at the start of the game. It encourages you to be frivolous. To make your life harder later in the game. And when you reach that endgame, all of a sudden, everything feels like it costs too much. Death feels so much closer, and all because of your own bad decisions or the mistakes you made. It gives you a sense of control over your own fate, and in doing so makes you feel responsible when it all falls apart. Makes you wonder how every little decision will screw you over at the game’s end, and in doing so makes you afraid of every choice you have to make.

It makes every single decision feel wrong. That, in the end, it won’t be an enemy that doomed you. You’ll be the one who ruined it all.