At the end of this month, the infamous Superman: The New Adventures, more commonly known as “Superman 64,” will be seeing its yearly anniversary. The game will be turning 16 at a particularly fortuitous time, just as Zack Snyder’s Superman v Batman begins to crank up its publicity ray. The only good thing about Superman 64 turning 16, though, is that now it can get a license* and drive its car head-first into a tree.
The game is poison. It’s Kryptonite to common sense and the fundamentals of gaming. And while the news that Superman 64 is terrible is hardly anything new for most of the informed gamers out there, the anniversary of the title in conjunction with Snyder’s film made it seem like an appropriate time to examine the larger issue of why we’ve never been able to make a good Superman game. Why has distilling the Man of Steel down to a video game—not unlike when the remaining Kryptonians were shrunk down to the bottled city of Kandor— eluded us?
Superman has had a long, tumultuous history in video games, but since Superman 64 is the birthday boy and it’d be better to just get it out of the way and never speak of it again, let’s start there. Superman 64 is such an interesting case study because it almost acts as a clear demarcation line between the “old school” classical Superman games, and the “next generation” titles that followed, each of them flawed in their own ways.
To begin with, the Nintendo 64 was a very capable machine, and by 1999 the system had put out some seriously impressive titles. It was more than within the grasp of the N64 to turn out an incredible Superman game, but what came out instead is more of an exercise in mazes and control issues. If you’ve heard of this game, you’ve also likely heard of the dreaded “fly through the rings” segment that starts off the game. Guess what? It doesn’t just start off the game, it’s like 85% of the game. No joke. This honestly feels more like a flight simulator where you’re a young Clark Kent learning how to fly for the first time (which, sidebar, wouldn’t be a terrible idea for a mobile game…). But you’re also being afflicted by Kryptonite the entire time because the controls are so broken and erratic that the Kryptonite excuse would actually make more sense than such a flawed game getting released.
Instead of devoting time to building interesting enemies or even adding bosses, Superman 64 instead has you navigating labyrinths, flying through rings, and arbitrarily using your powers, like ice breathing on bombs and super breathing tornadoes (which—wouldn’t that make them stronger?—I can’t…). Mind you, this is also all taking place in a “Virtual World” for no reason, just so it has even less stakes than it normally would. Bold move, worst video game of all time. Bold move.
After the release of Superman: The New Adventures, there was an understandable amount of heavy reluctance to move forward with any new Superman title, with it feeling like there was now a curse on the property. It wouldn’t be until three years later that the Gamecube and PS2 saw Superman: Shadows of Apokolips. The title was based upon the canon of the Superman: The Animated Series cartoon, which is a solid foundation to pull from. However, perhaps due to Superman 64’s energy hanging over everyone’s heads, the game saw middling reviews and was hardly the comeback the character needed. Later that year, Superman video games would again try and pull from source material to create a hit with the XBox’s Superman: Man of Steel, which was not only heavily based on the comics, but also had DC veteran Scott Peterson as the game’s writer. And yet once again, the title was a flop (although, to be fair, Peterson’s parallel Batman game, Batman: Dark Tomorrow was also a disaster).
What followed were two more failures: a GameBoy Advance game, Superman: Countdown to Apokolips, and a multi-platform release based on Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns. A pure Superman release hasn’t come out since then, nearly ten years ago, with clearly the repetitious failure of these prior titles finally sinking in. But with a new Superman release inevitably dawning on us, it’s now more crucial than ever to figure out what’s wrong with these games.
Looking back on the pre-Superman 64 releases unfortunately doesn’t offer much help in dissecting the matter; with these unsurprisingly being even more simplistic takes on the Man of Steel. From the 1979 release of the Atari 2600’s Superman, where your struggles revolve around fixing a bridge that Lex Luthor has destroyed, to the original GameBoy’s release of Superman in 1997, which sees Luthor arming the Lexoskell-5000 (yeah…) as an alien force, called the Preserver, there have been some interesting takes on Superman games throughout these scatter shot years. To be fair, a few of these earlier titles actually do take some ambitious turns. Superman: The Game from 1985, for instance, allows you to play as Darkseid, however there’s not much of a game to even play through, and Superman: Man of Steel from ’89 has an inventive setup where it depicts 3D flying levels akin to Space Harrier, with 2D side scrolling action taking up the rest of the title.
What the bulk of these titles offer up is the same super powers from Superman being rotated through in each game, with flight, x-ray vision, heat vision, and freeze breath being your usual arsenal, or some variation on that setup. There’s really not much variety to these powers or the gameplay behind them, which poses a considerable problem for these games: What’s the point if your skills are boring?
If there has been any Superman game that’s mostly got it, it’s 1994’s The Death and Return of Superman, which is far from a perfect game but still does a lot of things right. Here, different levels see you playing as different “Supermen” (like Superboy, Cyborg Superman, Man of Steel…) in basically a Streets of Rage game. Death and Return boasts not only a story that respected the comics, but gameplay that did so too, and that’s the real gem here. Why haven’t more Superman titles taken advantage of this, or even tried some joint Superman/Batman game that split up the action?
But it’s not as simple as just sticking to the comics either, because XBox’s Superman: Man of Steel did that to little fanfare. So maybe Superman’s just too simple a character for a video game. I doubt it, because come on, but we’re struggling all the same here. Death and Return is essentially just a beat ’em up, made during the height of beat ’em ups, which is why it works so well. Perhaps then just returning to that formula, in an episodic format reenacting some of Superman’s best stories (a different villain or comic for each episode) to properly build hype for Superman v Batman would be the best route.
While we’re on the topic of Batman, we might as well dig into him, too. Batman arguably has less to him than Superman does, and yet there have been many better-than-average Batman games, so it’s more than just the character itself that’s problematic here. Titles like Infamous, where gamers are given Superman-esque powers, have also sold to great acclaim, so the argument that having “too much power” defeats the fun in these games also isn’t valid. It seems to just be this weird culmination of factors where no one has simply cared enough to make the definitive Superman game. Such a title is hopefully now on the horizon and we’ll be able to change all of this with the character returning to the limelight because of Snyder’s upcoming film, but it’s not as if Superman has ever been unpopular, either. He’s always been in the public consciousness to some degree and is arguably the most famous superhero.
What’s also worth considering is that Superman has been a somewhat obscured superhero through the years in our ability to connect to him. By which I mean, everyone talks about who their favorite Batman is, as we’ve been treated to several different versions that are relevant to the current times. This is not the case with Superman though. We’ve really just gotten one version of him through all of the films; this bland god that has never really changed. It’s why he’s a harder protagonist to get behind. His motivations are less relatable than our point of familiarity to Batman, for instance.
These same reasons may also account for why we’ve struggled to make a “great” Superman film as well. Every Man of Steel movie has faced tremendous production problems, some of which were so debilitating that they couldn’t be recovered from and the pictures died. Even Bryan Singer, who, after his precedent-establishing X-Men films, was given a shot at the franchise, failed to make the orphan alien a success. It’s why Batman and everything else continues to work, but we keep rebooting Superman again and again. There’s contention over what a good Superman film even means, which is a staggering issue that doesn’t seem to be present with other defenders of earth.
Let’s also not forget the rather large point that arguably the best Superman stories are internal and deal with his perception of humanity and where the human race is headed. These are amazing, powerful stories that work great in the form of a comic, but are terrible when translated into an action video game. Superman’s powers are great additions and icing to the cake of his best emotional stories, but they aren’t enough to sustain a story alone, and that’s what’s been forced to happen in every Superman video game.
Though we continue to struggle to define what role Superman should be playing in his own video games, the hero has managed to be successful is in the context of DC’s Injustice: Gods Among Us and the Lego Batman titles, where he is merely a piece of a much bigger super puzzle. But again, confusion! If these distilled doses of the Man of Steel work, why not when they’re extrapolated? It’s as peculiar as Kryptonite’s effect on Kal-El. Regardless though, this context seems to work, and so maybe that’s all we deserve of this “God.” Just like Superman himself wonders if he deserves to be amongst humanity because of how his inevitability to save the population ultimately holds them back, maybe we don’t deserve a full fledged great Superman game. Maybe it would be too tremendous a gift and we’ve been neutered for a reason. Only time will tell, and as we’re surely given more Superman titles, with great power comes great responsibility.
…Yes I know that’s Spider-Man’s thing.
*video games cannot obtain licenses for motor vehicles