State of the Game Address: Superman

My fellow gamers… this is as far as I will take the joke of the title.

Superman has had a bad run of luck in the games industry lately. Really, you could say he’s had a rather bad life. Superman is one of the most iconic comic book characters every, and is in every type of media, including movies, clothing, lunch-boxes, and pajamas with footies on them. But one market he’s never seemed to be able to get a good foothold in is games.

There's no joke for this image, the game just sucks

Ever since his debut title on the Atari 2600, up until the last title he had all to himself – Superman Returns for the PS2 and XBOX consoles – Superman has never really had a good game. In fact, the Big Blue Boyscout probably holds the title for having the “Worst Video Game Ever,” Superman 64.

Now, I’m not saying Superman has never had a decent game. Plenty of his titles have received mixed-to-positive reviews. But that’s just it – they have always been forgettable. Batman (the Emo-Kid of super-dudes), probably has the best video game of his contemporaries to date, the spectacular “Arkham Asylum.” The granddaddy of all superheroes should have something equally as good, right? But why hasn’t he?

There’s a good – or at least easy – explanation for why this has happened. Supes is a big license, and anyone who has seen my videos on The Youtube knows that I HATE LICENSED GAMES. Licensed titles are almost never good, because they are almost always a cash-in on a big name, used simply to gather as much money from a popular character as is possible before people realize the game sucks. In the Console Wars of the early 90’s, licensed titles were usually turned into sub-par platformers, because it was easy and cheap. See: anything with “The Game” attached to the name. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the programmers of those games – normally, the production of a licensed game is rushed out because whoever is in charge up top needs more money for hookers and crack.

There were a few exceptions, but mostly these games floated along the surface of the mossy cesspool that is the “quick cash-in.” Because it was so easy to mass produce these kinds of games, they were rarely completely awful, but rather quickly forgettable. When we bought those games as kids, we usually left a little wiser, never to buy something like that unless we rented it first again. It was the game that floated around in your room, getting played every once in a while simply because it irked you that you never got past the first level because the game was buggy.

Superman followed this pattern for most of his tenure in gaming, but then the n64 ushered in the 3D era of gaming, and things changed forever. Buggy little platformers that could be copy-pasted with new sprites and one or two new features became a mess to develop, and the lack of care that is put into licensed games became ever more apparent. In a world where 3D was just getting it’s foothold in gaming, rushed development times made small problems even worse.

Enter: Superman 64. A game so unfinished, that the standard “Demo” mode of the game shows off how even the developers couldn’t play the game. It pits Superman against Lex Luthor’s computerized world, where he has trapped Superman’s friends. What does Lex have in store for Supes? Could it be giant robots? Kryptonite? Missiles? Richard Pryor? Nah, he’ll just put a bunch of hula hoops in a line and have The Boy in Blue fly through them for 14 levels. Sound fun? Still, the game was a bestseller when it came out. The title’s simplistic and effective cover art convinced me to buy the game once, but at least it was used, and only cost 5.99. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a polished turd.

Superman 64 was the epitome of the cash-in game. It is the king of them. It sits on a little throne made out of the crushed dreams of orphan children and busted Virtual Boys. Before, cash-ins were harmless little things that we looked as a nuisance, but Superman changed the game forever. We became painfully aware that the developers of these games didn’t care about us, or our heroes.

Subsequent Superman games suffered under the specter of Superman 64, even if they were halfway decent games.

Superman's reaction to playing a Superman Game

Superman’s last outing on the Ps2 and Xbox 360 consoles was mediocre at best, having mostly solid controls, but repetitive tasks that made the game seem more like a chore. Ol’ Supes just hasn’t been able to get out from under the shadow of his forebears.

So what can game developers do to make a good Superman game? I could go through all the things that make a good game, sure. One of the biggest things is making the player really feel like Superman. The constant example (because it’s one of the only really good Superhero games) is Arkham Asylum. That game makes the player feel like Batman. From fighting to detective work, everything is near perfect. That’s not at the core of the issue, though.

The idea that gamers can and should be manipulated into buying terrible games by using their favorite characters as a shill needs to be changed. What Superman needs is passionate developers who are given time and money to make a good game. Shortsighted businessmen who don’t see making the game actually good are at the heart of the problem. Superman still hasn’t escaped the stigma of Superman 64 yet, and every game that gets put out under his name will have the same amount of suspicion from gamers until someone does it right.

I have hope that it can be done – I’m a big fan of Supes. I collect the comics, and I love the movies. Heck, I’m wearing a Superman t-shirt as we speak. There are people with passion for the character who will eventually make a good game for him. And then he can punch that smug, self-hating jerk Batman in the face.

Now where did I put my copy of Arkham Asylum…

-Allen

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