'Man of Steel' Countdown: A History of Superman in Video Games, Plus Our Wishlist for the 'Man of Steel' Game

'Man of Steel' Countdown: A History of Superman in Video Games, Plus Our Wishlist for the 'Man of Steel' Game

May 29, 2012

Man of Steel is just over a year away from hitting theaters and audiences are itching for news and anxiously awaiting the teaser trailer in front of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012. But shockingly, there has been no announcements about a video game tie-in. Fans and gamers have been wanting a good Superman game for years now and have mostly been disappointed with the results.

Batman Begins was released with a game for the Playstation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. It was a fun, but highly linear game that would ultimately pale in comparison to the next generation consoles’ Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games, which effectively replaced the need for a game released with the subsequent two films.

Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters came out with the film last year and was less successful than the Batman game. Instead of retelling the story of the film, it continued the plot on planet Oa where the player can be either Hal Jordan or the future villain Sinestro. Your job is to stop an invasion of sentient robots who were once the defenders of the Universe until they rebelled and were replaced by the Green Lantern Corps.

Thor, Captain America and both Iron Man films had video game versions as well. The problem is that the best games can take several years to perfect, and movies don’t offer that kind of time in order to hit the game release at the same time the film hits the theaters, or even DVD and Blu-ray. So they are almost never as good as they could have been with additional development time. They often sell based on their merits as a film tie-in more than being an excellent game by itself.

Superman Returns

Even Superman Returns had a game for Playstation 2 and Xbox 360. It was delayed when the film released, but came out when the DVD hit shelves. It had about as many positive aspects as negative. As Superman, you could fly all over Metropolis, which was huge.  The Xbox 360 version had a lot more detail in the city as well as more missions. For the Playstation 2 version most of the buildings looked the same with just a few exceptions. Flying was fairly easy and fun, although exact maneuvering was often a challenge. The super powers were easy to scroll through; simply pressing a direction on the D-Pad would alternate between heat vision, super breath and freeze breath. Often all three would be needed for a mission such as destroying meteors from slamming into the city.

Instead of a health bar for killing Superman, the city itself would take damage. If it took too much, the mission would fail. It was a neat idea since very little can effectively hurt the Man of Steel, but it was also frustrating when you just can’t find that one bad guy who is causing all the damage. The boss fights were often frustrating as well. Superman would get knocked down a lot and the fighting was repetitive and usually took a lot longer than necessary. Speaking of repetition, there were only a few kinds of challenges with little variation. More actual gameplay shouldn’t have been that hard to add.

Finally, the story itself barely followed the plot of the film, especially in the Playstation 2 version. The villains included Metallo, Bizarro, Mongul and Riot. Then the final boss fight at the end was a giant tornado that Superman had to get inside and alternate between heat vision and breath powers to stop before it destroyed the city. Ouch. Major letdown. I expect more for a game scripted by veteran comic book writer Marv Wolfman. Even worse, Superman never once saves Lois Lane.

Although the controls were easy and flying was fun for about five minutes, the game was less than successful. My local video game store only ordered two copies. One was for me and the other sat on the shelf for a year.


Other games

Superman’s video game history has been mired with bad titles, most notably the Nintendo 64 game in 1999 based on the Bruce Timm animated series. It was so bad that it frequently shows up on internet lists among the worst games ever made. The gameplay was clunky. Superman would fly through openings in clouds of Kryptonite gas that were virtually impossible to distinguish. The time limitations were entirely too challenging such that even without making a single mistake, Superman could still fail and be forced to start over again from the beginning. Even the graphics were so terrible that there was an in-game explanation that Superman was in a virtual reality program so that when the images frequently warped or seemed to disappear and reappear, it could be blamed on the program.

There were plans to port it over to the Playstation in 2000, but they were quickly abandoned after its poor performance on the N64. Then in 2002, Superman: Shadow of Apokolips came out. It was also based in the Animated Universe, but the graphics were a million times better on the Playstation 2 and GameCube consoles. The controls were clunky and counterintuitive and the gameplay itself was a bit slow. Still, it was a massive improvement.

There were Superman games as far back as the Atari system in 1979, a Nintendo game for the original system in 1988, an arcade game and so on. One of my favorites is The Death and Return of Superman for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, which followed the plot of the comic book stories from “The Death of Superman” and “Reign of the Supermen.” This was a side scrolling beat-‘em-up game where the player controls Superman in a fight with Doomsday, then as all four of the pretender Supermen.

Justice League Heroes hit the PS2 and Xbox, as well as portable systems in 2006. Playing as Superman was one of several options, but each character had certain advantages and drawbacks in a given level and as a top-down action game, Superman had little freedom to fly around or get more than a few yards off the ground.

Or there’s the Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe fighting game where Superman could effectively be beaten by any other character, including those without super powers.


What’s Next?

Factor 5 had prepared a new Superman game for release in 2008, but their parent company, Brash Entertainment, went out of business before it could be completed. There’s no telling if it would have been any good, but this video certainly made it look promising.

Superman will appear in Lego Batman 2: DC Superheroes, which will release on all current systems on June 19, 2012. The Lego series of games has proven highly successful in all their markets because the games are fun and as hard or simple as the player wishes to be challenged. It looks like it will be even better than the first one.

Sadly there have been no announcements concerning a game tie-in for Man of Steel. At this point there probably won’t be one. However, Paul Dini has expressed interest. Rocksteady is the company that brought us Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Those games allowed the player to go through the stories of the games, but also provided many additional challenges for further rewards. Much of the game maps let the player roam free between levels with only a few areas off limits until a certain moment in the game or when a specific tool was added to the inventory.


Wish List

A Superman game would be vastly different from the Batman ones and requires a whole new playing engine. Here are some things that fans would like to see:

1. Free Roaming in a HUGE game map.

For a character who can fly at super speed, Metropolis needs to be enormous. The Superman Returns video game managed it, but the city lacked any level of detail, especially in the PS2 version. The hard part is setting the outside boundaries with logical reasons, but if you’re going big, go really big. Let Superman leave the city and go to the outskirts. Perhaps the suburbs. Some continuities place Smallville within driving distance of Metropolis, so that would be a neat addition too. And why not let him fly up into space?

Every part of the map should be available from the beginning of the game, even if some of the areas don’t offer much to do until later. Plus a destructible landscape would be ideal.

2. Easy to control super powers.

If the story takes place early in Superman’s career, it would be possible to upgrade his powers as the story unfolds. However, if it takes place at any other time, his abilities should be more or less set from the beginning. It’s a tough line to draw because in Batman’s case, new tools and martial arts moves can be added as points are earned. For Superman, it’s difficult to give him more power or upgraded abilities because he should begin at a very powerful level. But there can still be other fun unlockable content.

The Superman Returns video game handled his powers well and made it easy to access three of them. It would be nice to have a need for some of his other powers like X-ray vision. Super hearing is obviously how he will know there is trouble during the mission.

When it comes to superspeed, it should be possible to move with precision at slightly slow motion while the rest of the world is virtually frozen. This creates a challenge for the game creators because there shouldn’t be a limit to the use of it, but what if a timed challenge that should need two minutes only gave ten seconds. Moving at super speed would make it challenging, but still possible.

3. A health meter that makes sense.

Superman can most certainly be hurt, or even killed. Giving the city a health meter was a neat idea in theory, but it was more annoying than it was worth in the Superman Returns game. Although he cannot be damaged with guns, high caliber bullets may still be able to slow him down or knock him back. Plus other super powered villains and even high voltage electricity can hurt him. It always depends upon the continuity, the writer and the situation. Normal battle with non-powered humans should not be enough to kill Superman, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be consequences for taking damage. Fighting a powerful super villain should still be cause for concern.

4. A great story with great cut scenes, side missions and add-ons.

Every secondary character and a lot of villains need to be in the game.  For good guys, there should be Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang, The Special Crimes Unit, Cat Grant as a TV news anchor, and of course a little buit of Clark Kent. For baddies, do what the Batman: Arkham games have done. Use lots of them. Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Zod, Metallo, Darkseid, Mongul, Bizarro, Cyborg Superman, Bloodsport, Lobo, Doomsday, Intergang, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Parasite, Titano and more. Even add a new bad guy.

The hard part is in the gameplay, but there must be amazing, action-packed cut scenes like the unreleased Factor 5 video above.

Add-ons are the new thing in video games. For an extra $5, you can appear to be any version of Superman, from the Action Comics #1 look, long-haired, electric blue and red, Kryptonian battle armor, a Smallville costume, one of the movie looks, George Reeves.  The list goes on and on. Playing missions and side-quests should allow the player to unlock new characters like Superboy, Steel and Supergirl.

Just don’t make those missions repetitive.

What Superman video games have you enjoyed most? And what would you like to see in a Man of Steel game?


Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, cohost of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman Podcast Network. You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other week.

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