Why Is Making a Good Superman Game So Hard?
When it comes to the wide world of video gaming, I think it’s pretty safe to say that superheroes don’t have the best reputation. Since I was a kid, which was when console gaming first started going into the third dimension (on consoles like the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64), I’ve been dying for new superhero experiences, and at the time I was young it was basically so that I could add to the fun I was having with comics and action figures.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t exactly to be, especially for me and anyone else whose favorite heroes include the Man of Steel. Even though the character innovated the very concept of the superhero, very few game developers have actually managed to capture the qualities of the character that make him so enduring and turn that into a good video game. Maybe you disagree, but I think that I have a pretty good handle on the subject matter for one basic reason.
I’ll give you a hint. When I was 11 years old, it was 1999. I was (and am) a big Superman fan. I had a Nintendo 64.
Get the picture?
See, back then, 3D gaming at home was really new to me. My brother and I had just received our N64 the previous Christmas, and it still fascinated me every day that I could play at home and have an experience that, until just a few years earlier, I could only get in an arcade at the local mall. As a huge superhero fan (some things never change), I was obviously clamoring to have a superheroic experience in a 3D video game. So, when I got wind of Titus Software developing a game based on Superman: The Animated Series, promising to bring one of my favorite fictional characters to life in the form of a 3D gaming experience, I knew what would be on my Christmas list that year.
To my peril, back then my understanding of, and access to the Internet was minimal. I also wasn’t cognizant of reviews that could be found in video game magazines, so when I opened up Superman 64, I was a completely fresh victim that didn’t know what was in store. When I started playing, after seemingly waiting my whole life for this moment, I was really taken with how much I was simply not feeling. I wasn’t really one of those gamer kids that was automatically aware I was playing a bad video game, but I was definitely aware that something was off. After wanting this for so long, I was saddest about the fact that the game aroused nothing out of me. No passion, no thrill, no anything. Before I fully understood just how bad the gameplay mechanics of Superman 64 were, my first impression was just that it was bland.
I eventually discovered a mode where you could just fly around the map of the city of Metropolis, and that is where I spent most of my time playing. I would start the game up and just fly around the city, making up my own scenarios and imagining I was doing things that I wasn’t actually doing in the game. And that’s really how bad the game was: I had to imagine that I was playing a good game. Alas, though, even flying through the air seemed boring.
After this, it would be a whopping four years before I would get to play another 3D Superman game. By this point, I was fifteen years old, completely aware of how bad Superman 64 was, and kind of thought that a good Superman game was out of my reach. Thankfully, Batman had redeemed himself awhile earlier with the awesome Batman Vengeance, but the same year I was fifteen an awful Batman game came out (Dark Tomorrow) that made me pretty pessimistic about superhero games in general. Little did I know, though, that two games based on Krypton’s Last Son would be coming my way, and only one of them would be somewhat disappointing.
I had a Nintendo GameCube at this point, and a game that had originally hit the PS2 with decent reviews was about to be ported to the Cube. Superman: Shadow of Apokolips, also based on The Animated Series, was just released and even though I was cautious, I picked it up. The result was actually, thankfully, really fun! While by this point I’d been spoiled on grander game experiences in other genres, Shadow of Apokolips got the feel of playing as Superman just about right. Flying was a dream, you could easily use powers like X-ray and heat vision, and the game boasted the full voice cast from that animated show I enjoyed so much. Maybe not a great one, but a good Superman game in 3D had finally been made!
That same year, a game for the Xbox called Superman: The Man of Steel was also released. Based on the comics and not on any adaptation, it put forth an original story that was reflective of the current era of the comics, and featured an impressive graphical look for the time in which it was released. I didn’t have an Xbox when the game originally came out, but was disheartened when negative reviews tainted my expectations. A few years later when my brother had an Xbox, I picked it up for relatively cheap and played it, and to my surprise I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The reviews weren’t wrong, control was difficult and the tone sometimes a bit cheesy, but overall I thought it was a solid effort that, so far, has proven to be the best representation of some of Superman’s powers (like X-ray vision) to this day. The story wasn’t bad, either.
After that, Superman was a playable character in the relatively good Justice League Heroes game. The next solo, dedicated Superman game came in 2006 with the game adaptation of Superman Returns, and although it featured an impressively-sized free-roam world of Metropolis, there just wasn’t much to it and it was again, rather bland. The experience of flight was fantastic, but saving people from fire and ice-breathing dragons got boring fast. Since then, Superman’s appeared in good games like Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and the MMO DC Universe Online, but perhaps the best Superman gaming experience ever created came last year in Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes. Playing as Superman was an absolute joy, but the tone and style leaves a lot to be desired for someone like me, who craves the kind of game that does for the Man of Steel what the likes of Arkham City did for the Dark Knight.
One of the true tragedies of my ongoing desire for a great, representative Superman game is that it looks like it may have been at least partially developed. Unfortunately, though, the studio developing it went under before it even had the chance to finish. Factor 5, known to most fans as the creators of the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series on the N64 and GameCube, had hinted for a while by 2008 that they were working on a secret project codenamed “Blue Steel.” It wasn’t until after the studio went defunct that we learned that this was a rather promising-looking Superman gaming experience. When a video leaked online showing some cutscene footage and just the slightest sliver of gameplay, I just got sad. This looked awesome, and this is all the world is likely to see of it.
The next time that we’ll see Superman in a video game is from the makers of Mortal Kombat, in a DC Universe-centric fighting game called Injustice: Gods Among Us. It looks pretty awesome, and you’ll be able to do some intense things with Superman and his abilities, but it will still be far from a definitive gaming experience for the character. Because I’m so famished for a great Superman game, I’ll eat up anything that comes along featuring him. He’s a great character, with a long and rich history. Why is it so hard to make a good Superman game? WHY?!
One theory actually came from Rocksteady Studios, creators of the Batman: Arkham games, during the marketing blitz for Arkham City. A marketing manager for the studio was posed the question of Superman’s gaming difficulties and had this to say: “I think Superman is a very difficult character. He’s an incredible character, but the thing about Batman is that he’s so vulnerable, like physically vulnerable. The fertile territory of games design is being able to provide the player with opportunities for power, but also letting them know that they’ve got something to lose.”
While I can definitely see his point, I cannot allow myself to believe that a good Superman game isn’t possible because of one of his best attributes: his power level. I think efforts like Shadow of Apokolips, The Man of Steel, and parts of Superman Returns showed that people have come close, in part, to making a good game featuring the character. Why can’t a good developer come along and combine the best of what’s worked into something great?
Until the day arrives that a studio like Rocksteady announce that they’re attempting to create the definitive Superman gaming experience, I’ll be left searching and wanting. I’ll probably even be looking up at the sky, daydreaming about the day that I’ll be able to step into the red boots of one of my absolutely favorite characters in fiction.