If there’s one superhero who has yet to be justified in the video game world, it’s Superman. For many years Batman carried the dubious honor, but that’s since been resolved following the release of 2009’s superb “Batman: Arkham Asylum.” (Not to mention the forthcoming “Batman: Arkham City.”) Now that leaves the Man of Steel, an alien who’s been hindered by a series of crappy game releases moreso than any form of Kryptonite. What went wrong for this guy?
To be honest, quite a bit. Over the years, several games based on Superman’s legacy have gotten something wrong, whether it’s a gameplay mechanic or a concept that’s never really gelled with the basics of the Boy Scout. Here we’ll take a look at a handful of games from his past in chronological order and pinpoint where each one crash-landed in a cornfield.
(Atari, Atari 2600, 1978)
This game came out roughly the same time as the original Christopher Reeve film and puts players in control of the hero as he battles Lex Luthor, who’s destroyed a bridge that leads into the city. Superman must fly from place to place, repairing the bridge and capturing Luthor’s goons while occasionally changing back into mild-mannered Clark Kent to avoid detection.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Simply put, multitasking. For a game that was made during the format’s early years, “Superman” was guilty of piling on too much in a game. It’s enough to have us fly back and forth to a bridge to rebuild it while tracking down criminals, but then we also have to duck into safe spots and change to Clark Kent, then back to Superman and on and on. What’s worse, Kryptonite is constantly floating around, and if Superman hits it, he loses all his powers. You can’t regain them instantaneously, either. The only way to retrieve them is to kiss Lois Lane. That would make the point of dressing up as Kent kind of redundant, since she would know who you are. And probably wouldn’t want to kiss you, as Kent is lame.
(Kemco, NES, 1988)
In 1988, Japanese game developer Kemco tried its hand at the Superman legacy, putting you in control of Big Blue and his milksop alter ego as they keep Metropolis safe from criminals. You start out as Kent and have to build up “super power” in order to hit the phone booth and transform into the Man of Steel, racing to help people in need.
WHAT WENT WRONG? First off, the art style is off. Superman was not a munchkin, he was a full-grown man/alien capable of great things. Secondly, having to grind your way through the game as Clark Kent just to gain access to Superman is a load of punishment that most gamers could’ve done without. Finally, the story is just plain weak, consisting of a “fly to people who need help” motif without really much else to go on. And if that’s not enough, the Statue of Liberty talks to you. Because Superman has always had a strong connection with monuments. Him and the Grand Canyon must talk for hours.
(Taito, Arcade, 1988)
Taito had the rights to Superman as well, and they put them to good use with a two-player action-adventure, where the Man of Steel (and his red-suited, identical-twin partner, who’s never truly identified) take on criminals both in the air and on the ground. The game consists of both side-scrolling, beat-’em-up segments and shooting stages, something you didn’t see that often in games during that time.
WHAT WENT WRONG? To be quite honest, not much. The game is actually a lot of fun and maintains the status quo of keeping Superman busy with a lot of action. What bothers us is mysterious Superman Red prototype. Is it Captain Marvel disguised as Superman’s brother? A Cadmus clone? Perhaps Bizarro just tagging along for the ride until he finds the key opportunity to overthrow the Last Son of Krypton? Regardless, it’s an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode waiting to happen.
(Sunsoft, Sega Genesis, 1992)
The Man of Steel made his 16-bit debut in 1992 with a game produced by the same publisher who had struggled with Batman years before. In the game, you’ll control Superman through a side-scrolling adventure, beating up thugs while picking up icons to activate superpowers. The fight ultimately concludes with a showdown with Brainiac, who has a stranglehold on Metropolis.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Sunsoft made a huge mistake when it required players to unlock Superman’s abilities. Giving them everything up front might’ve made the game too easy, but it would’ve been much more true to Supes’ nature, compared to making him run around and take damage from people by running into them. Nope, we’re not kidding. Run into a thug head-on and you’re the one losing energy. What’s worse, the storyline makes no sense as it’s never really explained what Brainiac has in mind. (He’s Brainiac, so it must be insane, right?) By the time you’re through with the mundane first level, you don’t really care anymore.
(Titus, Nintendo 64, 1999)
Here we go. If you want to talk about a game that truly derailed the legacy of the Man of Steel, it has to be this one. In “Superman 64,” Lex Luthor has created a virtual reality-based Metropolis, encasing Lois Lane and other friends inside. Superman must fight his way in and complete Luthor’s many tasks in order to save them.
WHAT WENT WRONG? How much time do you have? First of all, the nature of Luthor’s challenges is ridiculous. You’ll fly through a blocky, glitch-filled city, looking for rings and other random objects over and over. What’s more, the combat is poorly executed. You’ll be lucky to get a flying punch off the right way. The collision detection is god-awful, the controls are unreliable to the point that the game flies the character for you, the difficulty spikes into the stratosphere way too often, and the rewards are very little for completing each task. In short, there’s simply no reason to play. This is one of the worst games ever created. (No wonder Titus went belly-up following its release.)
“Superman: The Man of Steel”
(Infogrames, Xbox, 2002)
Following the release of the somewhat respectable “Superman: Shadow of Apokolips” for PlayStation 2 and GameCube, Infogrames opted to give Xbox owners an exclusive adventure with “Superman: The Man of Steel.” Developed by Circus Freak Studios, the game charges you with the task of helping out citizens throughout the city while fighting bad guys scattered throughout. So, been there, done that.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Where “Shadow of Apokolips” was able to balance a strong control scheme with lively missions, “Man of Steel” screws everything up. Superman’s flying controls are way off the mark. At one point, you’ll be wondering if you can even fly in a straight line for a few seconds. The set-up is that bad. Furthermore, the missions are repetitive, and too often you’re struggling to complete them under the strain of a time limit. At one point, you’re asked to put out eight fires across the city in three minutes. We barely got around to finding five of them by the time the clock had 30 seconds left. The game is simply unfair — and unplayable, to boot.
(Electronic Arts, Xbox 360, 2006)
Based on Bryan Singer’s reboot film, “Superman Returns” has you guiding the Brandon Routh-voiced hero as he tries to save Metropolis from a number of threats, including Lex Luthor and other supervillains, including Metallo and Mr. Mxyzptlk, who didn’t appear in the movie. Packed with 80 miles of virtual terrain, the game was meant to provide players with plenty of room to execute their truth, justice and American way.
WHAT WENT WRONG? As ambitious as EA thought it was being with the development, the fact is “Superman Returns” is simply boring. It takes too long to fly to your objectives, and half the time you’re doing mundane things. At one point, you need to defend the city from incoming meteors. While giving the city a life bar is a nice touch, having to fly around to deflect them gets old fast. What’s more, there aren’t really enough epic encounters to take advantage of Supes’ strengths. Super robots are great, of course, but at one point you end up battling…a tornado? Didn’t these guys see how Superman handled that in “Superman III”? (Granted, that means they needed to have watched “Superman III,” so we’ll overlook that oversight.)
Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that the game’s final showdown isn’t rewarding, and the events never build to culminate in a battle with Lex Luthor, who should’ve been the primary focus to begin with. As a result, your experience with Superman never feels fulfilling, even while slobber-knocking the other supervillains appearing in this game. In short, EA has somehow turned a character that’s supposed to be able to do anything into someone that’s boring to play. Our minds are still boggled over how that could’ve been done.