"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
If you're a fan of comics and video games, then I'm sure you've picked up a Superman game at some point in your life. I'm sure you've been disappointed by this game. Why is this?
Superman doesn't have a pedigree like Batman or Spider-man in gaming. Even if you liked one of his games, chances are you didn't love it. Yet, he's the most iconic character in comic book history. When anybody thinks comics, its his face we all remember.
I guess we'll start by breaking down who Superman is.
Look, up in the sky! It's a...wait...what is that? Is that Superman or Spider-Man?
I want you to really quickly picture Superman in your head. If you need to close your eyes to help you then do so. Can you list off his weaknesses?
Super strength, speed, flight, heat vision (when its not Xray vision), cold breath, super hearing and a curl in his hair that won't be ruffled by any amount of wind.
Who are his enemies?
Darkseid, Lex Luthor, Bizarro, Braniac, Zod, Doomsday. You could keep going, but if you had to think beyond that then you're going into serious B-list territory.
You're image of him looked something like this right?
He's never looked this good in a game
He definitely didn't look like this. Ok, maybe that's picking a bit too hard on the Japanese styled Superman. But let's look at your concept of him.
First, look at the weakness list. Compare it to his strengths. Then compare that to your everyday image of Superman.
How strong is he? Can he move the earth with nary a flexed muscle or could he get out punched by a creature like Doomsday? Is he as fast as the Flash, and if so, what's the point of the Flash? Is Kryptonite deadly, or just a mild inconvenience? Well all that depends on your opinion as he's technically both. His power levels have consistently fluctuated since his inception. Comparing 1970s Superman with 1930s Superman is comparing apples to oranges. Heck, Superman couldn't even fly at the onset of his career.
So how do we reconcile this? There are really only two ways. The worst option is to make Superman a character that takes a back seat to the story. Look to almost any Justice League comic to find this as Superman is always the guy who has to fly in from Metropolis whenever things go down, instead of actually sticking around the watchtower. That really won't make a great Superman game however though it would work in any number of Justice League games.
The world is my oyster. Now what do I do with it?
The only real way to get Superman to work would be to self contain Superman into a linear story. Paul Dini had to nerf Superman in the Superman Animated Series and some developer is going to have to figure out his strength before he uses him. You really can't force him into an open world and expect him to be balanced correctly. He isn't Niko Belic from GTA 4 or even Alex Mercer from Prototype. This is a guy who can fly to any point in the map and do whatever he wants. The best feature of these sandbox Superman games is how Superman can screw around with the townspeople. Want to blow a few cars over? Do it. Want to pick up a bus and put it on top of the Daily Planet? Do it. Not really a Superman kinda thing but once you're done with that, I can guarantee that nothing else will really seem all that fun.
Open world style games don't really apply themselves well to Superman. It's not like Spider-man, where you get that active feeling of movement when you're swinging through a city. Flight also isn't really a concept that people can easily understand. I can understand what swinging through a city feels like. I've swung on a rope once or twice in my life. Free movement however just never feels natural.
Let's say however that a talented developer masters the act of flight in an open world. Games like Shadow of the Apokolips have you rescuing random citizens around the city. In one situation, a bus is in danger. Do I pick up the bus and move it to a small swirling dot like the developers wanted, or do I fly them to their location like a boyscout would. I personally would love to fly them to their location, but that swirling dot is telling me I'm wrong. This is just an inherent flaw of designing a mission without a true reason behind it.
The reason why Grand Theft Auto works so well is because the main protagonist can only drive his car around. That's it. I have to drop off the money in that exact spot because otherwise somebody is going to take off with it. Don't make me feel like I'm being directed for no reason. Justify why something goes somewhere. Giving a purpose is the true key to playing as Superman.
Sigh...I actually own this game.
I said all that above, but Superman hasn't really fared well when he's just been kept linear. In fact, he's been in so many genre's that I'm just kinda amazed that somebody didn't even stumble upon a good game. You can see the above fighting game JLA Task Force, but if you want, you can play a Superman Shmup, Maze, Beat-em-up (in both isometric and standard flavors), Platformer, Rail Shooter, Pinball, Puzzle, or boxing game. Ok one of those is made up, though it wouldn't be much of a stretch.
Out of that laundry list of genres, The Death and Return of Superman is probably the least offensive game I know. It adds a bit of story by letting you play with the 4 different "Supermen" of the story, and it isn't a complete failure as a beat-em-up. I just can't recommend it as Capcom and Konami produced games of such higher quality that this is fairly forgettable as a game.
The focus then has to be on crafting a great starting point. Story should be the simplest thing to focus on, but it just seems lost in the process of making a game. Shuffled into an event that happens in between the action. It's a crime really.
Once you've crafted a great story, focus on what it would take to put it into a person's hands. One of the most underrated Spider-man games in history is the Activision Dreamcast/Playstation version. It doesn't have an open world or any great web slinging mechanic. It's just a linear, mission to mission game and it has enough variety and setup to make it incredibly fun. I'm sure somebody can reproduce this set of events with Superman. They've had three decades to see what doesn't work.
New game, same mandatory giant boss battle
Earlier, I had you think of the great villains of Superman. Lex Luthor is generally the default super villain that springs to anyone's mind. Lex Luthor however is merely a man. Not a great way to start a gaming villain list. Braniac and Metallo suffer from gigantism (as seen above) which tends to really destroy the true ideas behind them. Braniac is a super intelligent alien or alien computer depending on how old you truly are. This being a medium built on super intelligent computers, I think something better can be done than what you see above. Metallo is powered by a Kryptonite heart. I think a super duel with Metallo draining Superman as he gets close seems like a fun idea. But he looks cool as a giant robot, so well there you go.
So, that just leaves the rest of the normal sized villains. Darkseid by far is the greatest villain, as he not only has comparable powers to Superman, but he also rules a planet of loyal servants that would willingly sacrifice their lives to destroy Superman. Pretty good start to a story. Of course I'm not sure how you can put in a bus rescue situation with Darkseid and make it seem cool.
Doomsday is pretty one dimensional as a straight brawler, but Bizarro puts a whole different angle on a fight. He's like Dark Link, only he actually has a distinct personality. He would be a great agent of destruction against Superman. I guess all that really leaves is Zod.
Zod is like Luthor only with Superpowers. He's smart, cocky and has all of Superman's powers. Personally, he seems like a great player in the Superman mythos. Though, the problem with all of these is that the 3rd person sandbox environment doesn't work in a fight with them. Who cares how strong Zod is when you can fly away from him. Giant Metallo only works as another slow moving, glowing weak point style character. Luthor can only really organize bad guys. I don't see him leading some epic boss battles.
They are all interesting characters, but they don't seem to evoke anything in a gaming space. At least not when compared to the Joker or Green Goblin. A great game is only as memorable as its experiences, and Superman doesn't yet have a boss fight memorable enough to create one.
These games also hardly touch upon that one glaring omission to the Superman mythos. Clark Kent.
The Clark Kent Conundrum
I made it through this entire post without using Superman's alter ego. Clark Kent is a problem for game designers. He is a stumbling fool. DC gets away with this by attaching any number of motifs on to the persona, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. He is the only piece of humanity that Superman actually has and it has transformed into a really cool idea. Though, that's when you have a concept that isn't tied down to gameplay.
The only true representation he gets outside of the iconic shirt ripping is in his NES and Atari iterations. They aren't good ones either. The Atari version has you walk to a bridge as Clark Kent and discover its destruction. The rest of the game you are Superman. Not much to it. The fact that Lois Lane grants you the power to fly after you've been hit with Kryptonite is actually a nice touch. Speaks on a couple of levels really.
The NES iteration is probably the most interesting game out of this entire franchise. You start off as Clark Kent, talk to the big players at the Daily Planet and as soon as you step outside of the building, you get shot at. Clark then has to run to the nearest phone booth where he turns in to Superman. Now Superman must set out to stop these criminals and the "Zod Gang."
Superman is always tied to Clark Kent. If Superman is weakened enough, he loses his powers and reverts back into his weaker alter ego. Superman can't even ride the subway and has to differ to Clark to ride public transportation. Every time he enters the Daily Planet, he also reverts back into Clark's form. It's an interesting shift in personalities and I'm a little surprised nobody has dissected this game for some existentialist writing.
Superman for the NES stands out because it is an original Superman title. The whole game is more reminiscent of gangster fighting Superman from the 30s and 40s than Superman of the 80s. Even down to worrying about fixing the stock market. In typical Capone style, Clark even gets shot at because he's working on a story about gangsters. Good ideas, though it's a shame the game plays like garbage.
Here is an example of how you can actually utilize Clark Kent. Though, that was the NES era. You can't get away with little quips like Superman not being able to ride the subway today. Really, the only way people seem to properly utilize Clark is in cutscenes, which isn't a very good application of the genre. Though doing a Bruce Banner-esque mission similar to The Hulk Video Game would be painful.
The only way to utilize Clark Kent in my opinion is to do it the All-Star Superman way. Make his actions and appearance have a purpose. This god like figure acts as a simple man because he is constantly afraid of losing that piece of humanity that he has. He greatly goes out of his way to change who he truly is to become a human. There has to be some way to make that come across in a video game. Make an event where Clark Kent has to keep his identity hidden in a crowded area by sneaking around. He still has his powers, he still can do what he wants, he just can't get caught. That's a simple idea, but it can work. Superman is only interesting when challenged, so use Clark Kent to challenge him.
Something tells me the guy with the guns is going to get punched in the face first
After 2006's Superman Returns, there isn't anything on the docket for Superman. DC Universe is coming in 20XX and should be a fun City of Heroes clone. I'm just not impressed by MMOs, and I doubt Superman will be fully fleshed out in the game. Zack Snyder's new Superman will almost assuredly get a new game as the movie should have a lot more action than the polarizing Superman Returns. EA, Activision, Sega or any number of studios will bid for it and then they'll create something that will turn out to be crap. Well at least as far as pedigree has shown us.
Superman is an iconic character. Though, the character is better as a belief than an actual character. He seems better suited as back up to some other less stoic character or team and worked in to their story. It's weird because he's like a god of the DC Universe. He can practically do anything that the imagination can create, but somehow nobody has been able to create anything good out of him for gamers. All it took was one movie to show the world that Superman can fly. All it will take is one game to show us that we can be Superman.
One day somebody will tap this well of brilliance. One day gamers will be proud of the Man of Steel.