We’ve never had a truly good Superman game. Let’s face it: Superman is one of the biggest punching bags in gaming. His game record has run from the ’80s to the present, and we’ve yet to see something capture Superman’s sense of powerful scope without succumbing to mass design pitfalls. He’s not just a comic book icon, but an international icon; he’s one of the most recognizable figures in contemporary culture. Yet he hasn’t been in a good game. But is it time? What needs to happen to truly make a good Superman game, one that can shed the skin of its terrible pedigree and transcend license status into something worth playing to more than just the most desperate of fans?
Superman’s legacy in video games has always had its share of mediocrity. The early Atari 2600 games were redundant and confusingly designed, while the NES games suffered from a number of sequences that really didn’t have anything to do with Superman. The problems continued with future games on the Genesis and Super Nintendo, where Superman’s laundry list of superpowers was used in ridiculous (or sometimes extremely limited) ways. Despite having a number of powers, enemies and mythologies, Superman games continued to seem like quick cash-ins instead of respectful tributes to one of the most popular superheroes of all-time.
But as many of us know, Superman’s early years in gaming were not his darkest hour. No, that came during the era of the 64-bit. Widely known as one of the worst video games of all time, Superman on the Nintendo 64 was a trainwreck. Terrible draw distances, frame rate issues all over, clunky and unresponsive controls, glitches everywhere, design choices that prove uninteresting from second one, and objectives that meant absolutely nothing to the player combined to make Superman 64 a huge blemish on superhero games as a whole. Many gamers and comic book fans alike can agree that Superman 64 poisoned the hero’s chance to be a worthwhile icon in gaming. When anyone thinks of Superman games, the first game that usually comes to mind is Superman 64. When that’s the case, your franchise has tanked.
While no game (thankfully) reached the abysmal nature of Superman 64, gaming for The Man of Steel is still a troublesome endeavor. Games like Superman: The Man of Steel for Xbox and the long-delayed Superman Returns were tedious slogs that never seemed to capitalize on the Superman mythology in smart or creative ways. The controls remained frustrating to handle and, in the case of Superman Returns, giving the city of Metropolis a life bar is just a stupid idea (though not as stupid of an idea as the game’s final boss, which is just a tornado).
Many might say that giving Superman a good video game adaptation is a lost cause, but nowadays, that’s a bit more difficult to claim. The reason? Well, think about Superman’s playboy millionaire hero pal Batman. Batman’s history in gaming, overall, rivals Superman’s. Batman games from NES to Super NES to Genesis to Nintendo 64 to Playstation 2 to Gamecube, so many of them were absolute garbage. Batman Vengeance’s terrible controls and design are rivaled only by one of the worst superhero games of all time, Batman: Dark Tomorrow. Batman was destined to be another slave to license placement, where game designers simply use the mythology as a crutch instead of taking advantage of the great things it can do.
But then came Rocksteady Studios, a company that simply blew the doors off everyone’s expectations. Though it wasn’t their first game, Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of their earliest projects and you couldn’t ask for a steeper challenge. Handing off one of the biggest licenses in comic book history off to an up-and-coming development house is a match made in creative suicide. No one expected Arkham Asylum to be any better than Dark Tomorrow. But then it was released and everyone ate their words. Arkham Asylum was the most emotional and poetic love letter to Batman fans you can find. Its narrative brought in a ton of iconic Batman allies and villains, each with pitch-perfect voice acting performances, and created a dark and dreary atmosphere, one perfect for hiding in the shadows. Even better was how Rocksteady designed the game. Using Metroidvania elements, earning new gadgets and unlocking new paths was invigorating, constantly giving you incentive to revisit areas. The replay value from the huge number of Riddler trophies was staggering. The combat merging accessible simplicity with expansive combo techniques and skills, while the stealth abilities in Predator sections capitalized on Batman’s prowess in being a silent assailant. It was one of the most unexpected successes in gaming and earned a number of awards at the end of 2009.
The sequel Arkham City and the WB Montreal-developed Arkham Origins continued Rocksteady’s lead, and while Origins could’ve been better, it’s easy to see how far Batman games have come since the NES. A hero that no one thought would ever be able to appear in a truly great superhero game, Batman was no longer looked down on in the gaming world. Ten years ago, people cringed at hearing about a new Batman game. Now, they instantly get excited.
Now the question remains: can Batman’s rise from the ashes apply to Superman as well? Will we ever have a Superman game on the level of Batman’s Arkham series? Well, it’s definitely possible, but a number of factors will determine it. Superman’s superpower skillset is massive (almost too massive, but whatever), so there are a ton of options to implement into combat. Flight in particular has been an obstacle worth noting as well; compared to Batman’s grapple-and-glide moves, Superman moves with the speed of “a flying bullet” so the world would need to be very large and encompassing to provide for that (Superman Returns didn’t, hence the constant crashing into skyscrapers).
And that’s a really big issue with Superman himself: he needs room to breathe. Batman has no real superpowers, so the environments designed around him don’t need to compensate for acts of superhuman dexterity or motion. He can run and jump like a normal human, because he is a real human. Superman’s identity thrives on doing things bigger and better than any human being, so he needs a world that can provide for that. Otherwise, it feels too small, condensed and claustrophobic. The steady progression of console and PC tech could eventually reach a point where a world can be big and providing enough to give Superman a fair chance at a good game.
Any kind of game designer who’s up for creating a proper Superman game needs to understand the character. None of the other games’ developers understood just how powerful Superman was, hence why he moved so slow in Superman 64 and so erratically in Superman Returns. Like any licensed game, a Superman game needs to be made by companies enthralled and interested in the subject matter. If a developer truly loves the license, they’ll make the game accordingly. They’ll notice those small details that make any superhero who they are. Rocksteady did that with Batman: Arkham Asylum; they clearly did their research and it paid off big time. They condensed the world to compensate for Batman’s skill in close quarters, but expanded it a bit during stealth missions where Batman needed to see everything to plan his attack. Rocksteady’s slimmed down world of Batman is an example of adjusting your game’s design to compensate for the subject material. For Superman, the world needs to be bigger. Superman has also been a guy of incredible power and energy, so a game world needs to allow for his best attributes to be shown without getting in the way. Any game developer can be a dedicated fan, but it takes a new level of dedication to make a game that completely embraces a character or franchise, and above all, provides for the character themselves.
After Batman: Arkham Asylum, I believe that there’s hope for Superman. Batman’s track record in games was consistently abysmal, yet he was able to appear in a series of games that dwarf any of his past endeavors. While Superman’s track record is just as bad (if not worse), the hope comes from game developers who not only have the Superman fandom behind them, but also the skill to fully accommodate the hero’s history and mythology into the design. There’s a way to make a Superman game that isn’t a total wreck; it’ll just take some skill and ambition to really make it something special.