Superman Is Gaming Kryptonite

Posted: April 20, 2012 by J. Marcus in Games
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This article was originally featured on and has been republished with permission from the site’s owner.  Please visit Kuma Kreations Entertainment!

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be Superman.  Those of you who are as old as I am can remember the really terrible Superman costumes that you could get for Halloween—the ones with the picture of Superman on the chest.  My parents knew how important the Man of Steel was to me, so they made sure I had a homemade Superman costume that actually fit and looked really cool.  At least I had this little bit to help me pretend that I could be Superman.

From my generation onward, however, we could have a little bit of extra help with our imaginations.  We have video games.  From the days of Atari 2600s all the way through PlayStation 3s and beyond, video games let you live vicariously through all sorts of characters.  You can be Samus Aran fighting Mother Brain… you could be a plumber who’s battling evil lizards… you can even join the military and fight for the good ol’ U.S. of A.  So why can’t you be the greatest superhero of them all?

Frankly, because there isn’t a single video game company who seems to be up for the challenge of making a truly great Superman game!

Let’s go back to the very beginning, shall we?  Back in the late 1970s, Atari released Superman for the Atari 2600.  As with most games of the time, the goal was fairly simple.  A bridge explodes and villains escape from prison!  You have to fix the bridge and capture all the criminals.  The game did the best it could with limited technology to bring the Superman experience to such a limited game platform.  You could fly and you could use your X-Ray vision to see into the next screen to check for danger.  If you got hit with Kryptonite, you would lose your powers until you got a kiss from Lois Lane.  Pretty simple, and probably one of the best Superman games of all time, if you rate it pound for pound.  It’s reasonably true to the source material and makes good use of what limited processing power you had at the time.

In 1988, when I was away at summer camp, I was struck by a revelation, a game that would knock the Atari Superman out of my head.  Taito came out with a Superman arcade game that was absolutely amazing.  The game used 3 sub-levels which would repeat through each full level of the game.  The first sub-level was a side-scroller where you would walk or float down the street fighting very non-canon criminals.  The second sub-level was a vertical scroller where you would float your way up a building, fighting monsters along the way.  The third sub-level was back to the side-scroller, but this time you were flying and using your heat vision to knock out obstacles to make your way to the big boss (think of this as a modified jet fighter level).

But while the gameplay itself was a marked improvement over the Atari version, it was the bells and whistles that really sold this game.  The character himself was decently articulated in the game with a cape that really sold the movement.  In between each level was Superman art that actually came from the comics.  And finally, the master stroke: Taito actually licensed John Williams’ music from the Superman movies and used it in the game.  Each level was accompanied by the Superman theme.  As you completed each level you would be treated to a mini version of “Can You Read My Mind”.  It was amazing and altogether sold the experience like nothing I had ever seen.  And while the very end of the game looked like it was cribbed from another game (and therefore really didn’t make sense), the journey itself was well worth it.

So that same year, when it was announced that a Superman game was going to be released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, my heart jumped!  You mean I could play this at home now and not have to keep plunking down quarters like crazy?

Well, not exactly.  In fact, not even close.  Superman for NES was a disaster of almost Biblical proportions.  Primarily a side-scroller, this version of Superman could almost have been produced by Jon Peters—meaning Superman really didn’t fly.  Flying was a power reserved for when you needed to get across Metropolis, but you were generally a walker-jumper.

But this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what was wrong with this game.  The design was, to be kind, piss-poor.  Superman looked mildly like Jason Alexander in tights.  The game had gangsters with guns who could hurt you.  The game featured three kinds of Kryptonite that you would get from criminals… green and red, which would hurt you, and blue, which would revitalize you.  Get hurt enough and you turned back into Clark Kent, and were unable to use your powers.

You did get a chance to earn and use heat vision and super-breath (both kinds, in fact), but honestly the entire effort was kind of lame.  You could even Super Spin (à la Christopher Reeve in Superman the Movie when he goes to Lex Luthor’s lair), but honestly, why would you bother at this point?

The Superman music which had been used to such great effect in the Taito arcade game was missing here (though rumor has it it was used in the Japanese version).  Basically, coming off the arcade version, I would have been happier playing with paper dolls than this travesty.

In 1994, The Death and Return of Superman was released for the Super Nintendo.  After the debacle that was the NES Superman, I figured this had to be better.  Aside from the fact that the game system also had “Super” in the title (so how could you go wrong?) it had been two years since Super Star Wars had been released for SNES, and it was an eye-opener.  That game (which, again, utilized the John Williams score from Star Wars) had incredible graphics and game play which blew away just about every film-based game to date.

The Death and Return of Superman was a faithful recreation of the the comic book storyline and more-or-less walked you through it.  Of course certain elements were embellished to give you characters to fight, but for the most part, it was all there.  Now, let me say that it’s weird to have a game about The Death of Superman because technically if you get killed in the game, then you should really have accomplished your mission.  Unfortunately you have to get killed at the right place and time.  Seems weird to me.

The game was a side-scroller which was more brawl than using Superman’s iconic powers and it is for this reason that the game doesn’t really stand out as anything more than a palate-cleanser from the abortion that was NES’ Superman.

My next Superman video game experience was in 1999 on the Nintendo 64.  Superman 64, based on Superman: The Animated Series, was mostly a terrible game.  It falls into that narrow corridor of gaming history when video games had to look like advanced origami. Of course, here, even that would have been nice.  The graphics here were craptacular to say the least.  In fact most of the game was craptacular… except for one thing.  The flying dynamics in this game were, for me, the only saving grace here.  It was the first time that a video game tried to accurately capture the experience of flying like Superman (even if it meant you had to fly through rings).

The game’s designers even incorporated proper Superman body language into the character’s flying movements.  When you turned, Superman dropped an arm to bank.  Depending on your speed, Superman might have his arms out front, or out to the sides.  It was almost graceful and balletic for a medium that had, so far, really skirted the issue of Superman’s flying.

Superman: Shadow of Apokolips showed up 3 years later for Playstation 2 and corrected most of the visual problems that plagued Superman 64 and even took the extra step of essentially allowing you to play in a brand new episode of Superman: The Animated Series.  This game also improved the flying dynamics of the character, and with the added graphics boost, created the most realistic-looking portrayal of the character in the medium to date.  Also picking up where Superman 64 left off was the incorporation of more of Superman’s powers.  You could access Super Speed, Heat Vision and Super Breath.  Not bad.  A decent enough game and an early open-world game where you could fly over Metropolis and explore at your leisure.  It probably stands to date as the most accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be Superman inside a video game.

From here it gets a little strange…My next experience with Superman in video games was in Superman Returns for Xbox.  While the graphics had certainly improved over the PS2, the gameplay was your average RPG open-world brawler.  Think Spider-Man for PS2, only you can fly.  The biggest improvements to the Superman experience, again, were all in the flying.  As you flew, you would pick up speed. You could crack the sound barrier which caused the environment to streak a bit around you.  You could also hear the wind whistle around you.  It was my favorite part of the game… which is little wonder because flying is probably my favorite part of being Superman.

The game is also memorable because it seeks to correct the one glaring problem in all Superman games since the Atari version.  Staring with Superman for NES, The Man of Steel could be hurt by just about anything or anyone which, if you know the character at all, doesn’t make any sense.  In Superman Returns, the health bar that you have to watch isn’t yours… it’s Metropolis’.  Therefore, you fail when the city gets damaged too much.  It’s a smart way to get around the idea of “how do you hurt Superman in a video game?”

Because, however, the game is locked into the abortion that was the film Superman Returns, the game suffers from all of the foibles that came from that piece of film dreck.  Poor Brandon Routh is forced to voice his character with a bunch of catch phrases and story exposition that sound like they came from the back packs of the Toy Biz X-Men figures in the 1990s. And your guide in the game is Jor-El, obviously not voiced by Marlon Brando… which makes you wonder… why bother if you know you can’t pull that off?

Finally, last year, Chillingo released a Superman game for the iPhone and related platforms.  The game is good enough for what it is, which is a lower-res action game where you fly around saving Metropolis.  Each level is timed so you do have a score to beat when you go back.  The game play is decent given that you don’t have a full controller to mess around with and is probably the first Superman game since the original Atari version that seems somewhat able to transcend the limitations of its platform.  Unfortunately, after the first few levels you get the feeling that you’ve played all you’re going to play.  The controls are somewhat awkward and it feels like too much to be crammed onto a smartphone game.  Give these guys a serious budget and a platform and they just might have something.

This is the last game that I encountered with Superman in a game of his own.  Of course he cropped up in Justice League Heroes, Mortal Kombat vs DC and now he’s headlining in DC Universe Online.

To date it’s safe to say that almost all Superman video games suck pretty hard.  Honestly though, at this point I have no idea who to blame on this one.  You’re only as good as your subject material and let’s be honest here… we’ve got a big-budget film on the horizon which looks like it has no idea what makes Superman good.  And in the comics (where the character was born), they’ve rebooted him for the umpteenth time.  The versions of Superman that appear in marketing materials aren’t the same ones that appear in the comics, which aren’t the same ones that appear in film (animated or otherwise) which aren’t the same as the guy who appears in DCU Online.  There is no unified Superman right now and it’s this confusion which is going to continue to plague Superman in the video game format.  After all, if they couldn’t get him right when there was a unified Superman, what chance do they have now?

But I digress… What is the best Superman game I’ve ever played?  I’m playing it right now.  DC Universe Online has everything a decent Superman game would need except for one thing… the ability to play Superman!

My character flies… he has heat vision, super breath, he’s fast, he’s strong, and he fights worthy opponents (most of the time… I still don’t understand level 30 street thugs that can hurt my character with a baseball bat… but anyway…).  We have the technology to make a really great Superman game.  The graphics are there.  The game play is there.  DC Entertainment has put all it’s eggs in one basket by consolidating itself into one company with many facets.  So there’s no reason why you can’t have a Superman game chock full of actual Superman villains in a Metropolis that you can fly all over. All the pieces are there.  Someone just needs to put it all together.

Kuma has asked me how I would make the perfect Superman game.  It really only boils down to one thing.  A good Superman game is, essentially, a good Superman simulator.  The absolute joy of the perfect Superman game would be the fact that for as long as you are playing it, you are Superman.  You can use all his powers: soar through the air, juggle cars, laugh as bullets bounce off your chest, speed through Metropolis, and so much more.  Fight the villains that he actually fights.  Actually have his weaknesses.

Some would point out that by not actually depowering Superman for a game, you make it impossible to make the game difficult.  I say you’re lazy.  Superman is more than just a brawler.  Always has been.  Look at the best Superman stories ever told and you’ll see that he’s at least equal parts brawler and thinker.  The possibilities are limited by those who don’t know him best and who never really thought about what it would be like to be the Man of Steel.

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