29 Apr 2021 6:32 PM +00:00

8-Bit Kryptonite: The Challenge of Superman Video Games

Have you ever heard of “the Superman Curse”? It’s a superstition (pun not intended), about how many of those associated with bringing Supes to life on films and TV suffered tragic fates and consequences. George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and more besides. Even Kate Bosworth, who played Lois Lane in Superman Returns, supposedly said the Curse was what ended her marriage with Orlando Bloom.

The idea of the curse is clearly nonsense - Kidder herself rightly scoffed at it - but looking back at the legacy of the Man of Steel, you might find yourself a little less sceptical when it comes to the hero’s history in video games. The very phrase “Superman video game” is almost tainted now, synonymous with low-quality junk and mishandled ideas. Superman 64 is pretty much the benchmark for crappy superhero games, a laughably inept property that turned the hero of Metropolis into a glorified dolphin swimming through hoops, all the while being abused by looping sound effects. The most successful adaptation there’s probably been is the Superman Returns game, and even then it could often feel like a poor man’s copy of Crackdown.

I suspect the industry has learned to fear the character as a result. If you actually go back and look, there hasn’t been a proper game starring the character in years, just usually having him as one of dozens of DC heroes in ensemble games, his powers more gimmicks than integral parts of gameplay. Yes, I enjoy playing Injustice 2, but shuffling back and forth while being slapped around by Captain Cold isn’t exactly the heroic power fantasy I’d hoped for.

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Superman 64 and games like it make "the Superman Curse" feel a little less nonsensical.

So what’s the problem? Your gut instinct likely tells you that it’s not possible to make a challenging Superman game because the character is an unstoppable force and immovable object all rolled into one, but on reflection that’s not entirely true. Yes, he’s got a godly level of power, but frankly, that’s not rare in the DC universe. General Zod, Doomsday, Darkseid, Mongul, Bizarro - these are all villains who could easily match him in strength, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of DC lore here. Being powerful is only a comparative thing.

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Not only that, but Supes’ powers aren’t limitless. His powers are charged by solar energy, but going all-out for too long exhausts him and burns that energy up. Every punch he throws or takes drains him just a little bit more. Even being in direct sunlight can make a difference in how quickly he recov- hey, this is starting to sound like a game mechanic!

This is all kind of unfair though. It’s very easy to just imagine a good game and infinitely more hard to create one that lives up to that image, but I can already think of some games that we could learn from. The Dragonball Xenoverse franchise mixes high-power flight-and-fight combat well enough, while games like Prototype, Saints Row 4 and even Dynasty Warriors show that being stupidly overpowered in comparison to the standard enemies can still make for a satisfying game experience.

But for our purposes, perhaps one of the most useful frames of reference is Undefeated. You probably didn’t hear about it, but it was a free indie game released on Steam just a couple of years ago, in which we play a superhero dressed like Johnny Gat, blasting around a city and solving various crimes and calamities along the way. It’s little more than a proof-of-concept, but it’s still clearly a Superman game. You fly limitlessly, you punch meteors back into space, bullets bounce harmlessly off you and the battles you have with other superhumans create shockwaves that ripple across the sky, like Snyder at his least restrained.

And it’s… interesting. It’s very short, which is fair enough - again, the thing’s free - but it’s fascinating when viewed as an unofficial prototype for a hypothetical Kryptonian simulator because it reveals the obvious challenges involved on a design level. Fast precision flying is difficult to do without something to lock onto, a focal point acting as a fixed point of reference, and even once you have that, you just become a cannonball fired at a target and the whole thing feels far less free than it should. Not to mention that all the environment design might as well just be a flat-screen when all the action is happening some three hundred feet above it.

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Undefeated serves as a useful experiment for the plausibility of a modern Superman game.

And when it comes to the combat, much of the action devolves into either just throwing punches with the left mouse button or using a ranged attack with the right, and the whole thing ends up feeling a little uninvolving because there’s no finesse or strategy to it. But does it have to be this way?

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Maybe the challenge is making all this godly power a little less intuitive, something that has to be tempered with skill. Being physically strong is not the same thing as being a good fighter, and flying doesn’t instantly make you agile. Those are things you learn, and by balancing them out with powerful foes and the sunlight mechanic, maybe there’s a way to ensure that our powers don’t just play the game for us. Look at the PlayStation Spider-Man web-swinging - it’s incredibly fun and makes you feel awesome, but there’s still a knack to it, a skill to be studied, practiced and mastered. Why can’t flying be the same way?

However it’s accomplished, this sort of thing needs to be done soon, because Superman is a truly iconic character when done right and people are forgetting that. A lack of good representation for Clark Kent across the last couple of decades has left the wider public distinctly unimpressed with the last son of Krypton, but there’s always time to turn it around. A sunny, inspiring take on the character, inspired by classics like All-Star Superman, the energy of John Byrne, the spirit of Christopher Reeve and all the other fantastic, uplifting moments from the world’s first superhero, doing for Kal-El what the Arkham games did for Bruce Wayne.

Or we could get yet another evil Superman story and I could feel my soul detach from my body a little more. Your move, DC.