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What Would Make a GOOD Superman Game?

Posted on Monday, November 14 @ 06:05:53 Eastern by
Game Revolution owns two strategy guides for Superman 64. We can't decide which one to burn first.

I remember when I foolishly bought Superman 64, brought it home in a flimsy plastic bag from Chinatown, ran upstairs, plopped on the carpet, and popped the cartridge into the Nintendo 64. What happened next has scarred me for life: I had to fly Superman through a series of rings (image below). Ten minutes later, after failing for the umpteenth time due to the godforsaken controls, I vowed never to pick up a Superman game ever again.

But that was more than ten years ago and I am saner now (I think). Rocksteady has shown that superhero games can work extraordinarily well, as Batman: Arkham City deserves a Game of the Year nod, if not win the category outright from this year's jam-packed 'A' titles. So why not The Man of Steel? What would make a good Superman game? Can it be done?

It's not that Superman wasn't given enough chances. From The Death and Return of Superman on SNES, to Superman: Shadow of Apokolips on PS2, to the video game adaptation Superman Returns on current-gen consoles, Superman has never managed to get off the ground. Actually, if you look at the breakdown of scores for Superman titles on GameRankings, The Death and Return of Superman made in 1994 is the highest-rated at an average of 68.50%. Tragic...

Now, it's not difficult to imagine an adequate, 'B'-range Superman title. One can look to Justice League Heroes by Snowblind Studios which is essentially an DC Comics equivalent of Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Or perhaps Warner Bros. can cook up a cute, coin-collecting "Lego Superman".

What's challenging from a game design perspective is transforming Superman into an 'A' title, particularly because Superman is not the easiest universe to translate. Superman himself may be a superhero with incredible strength and speed, laser-beam eyes, and X-ray vision, but he's got a strict code of ethics that make other superheroes nickname him a "big blue boy scout". So while he's capable of causing massive destruction like other video game characters, it's just not in his nature, especially if said destruction is in Metropolis. So picking up a car to kill a hulking giant may make sense in a video game context but not in a Superman context.

Any worthy Superman video game also has to capture the incredible sense of flight. Unfortunately, that means creating a ridiculously large world and, unless you're willing to sacrifice detail, an exorbitant amount of assets that should look great both from afar and up close.

Also, having a hero with such commanding abilities over regular mortals just isn't conducive to stellar game design. Nearly every 'A'-title in video game history has a character that is more or less a human that gains supernatural power over time and is forced to travel on foot most of the time. Superman can just fly anywhere he wants, and unless you put kryptonite in every nook and cranny, it's a breeze for him to defeat regular grunts. And usually, his superhero moments tend to be with him swooping in to save the day and then swooping right out to save the next person.

But let's not get bogged down too much by logistics. This is our imagination, after all. If we can throw unlimited resources at this Superman wonder-project, it should have an open-world like Grand Theft Auto IV (or is it V now?) and he should be able to fly anywhere he wants at a steady pace within that space, including outer space because that's what separates him from most superheroes and it's cool.

As for progression, I imagine a skill tree shaped like his signature 'S' emblem where Superman can take a perk every time he gains a level, from experience earned by completing main missions and side quests. Perks should include the regular gamut of increased health, health regeneration, mana, mana regeneration, perhaps kryptonite resistance, and heightened abilities for X-ray vision, melee abilities, speed, etc. Levelling up should also grant extra costumes and galleries of Superman memorabilia, available to be viewed at the Fortress of Solitude.

The main plot should feature Superman's main villiansBizarro, Brainiac, General Zod, Lex Luthor, and perhaps Darkseid as an ending bossand his love interest Louis Lane who reveals his identity to her over the course of the game. Any of his other numerous nemeses can serve as bosses for side missions, though to add variety, he can also save people from the daily dangers of speeding cars, runaway trains, robbers, hostage situations, falling steel beams, and on a larger scale, earthquakes and mudslides. Many of these tasks should have a challenging time limit and retries if things don't go smoothly, and they should be identified as icons on the city map, much like activities in Saints Row The Third.

Batman: Arkham City showed that a superhero title doesn't need to focus on the hero's true identity, but for a Superman title, I find his "true identity" to be the crux of his character. Is Clark Kent a disguise or is that who he really is? It's this slant on the nature vs. nurture dilemma that haunts him the most, causing him deep loneliness as both a superhero and an alien, and this can only be addressed in the game if the player takes the role of both Clark Kent and Superman (certainly, Superman more often). Besides, keeping up the disguise and transforming into Superman in bathroom stalls and telephone booths is as much a part of Superman as is him defeating giant robots.

And there you have it, what a Superman title should be like. It's about time that a developer like Rocksteady (or one of their calibur) takes a project like this on. Perhaps Superman is doomed from the very beginning, but it's not like Batman games were all that great until Arkam Asylum bataranged our expectations.

What do you think should be in a good Superman title? And will we ever see one in 5 years? 10 years? Ever?

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