When I initially started to think of ideas I could use in my honours project I tried to think of the games I like and the games I would like to see be made. While I came up with several original ideas. There was one thing that I kept coming back to time and time again, Superman. To my knowledge (and many others) there has never been a good Superman game. It is essentially an untapped idea due to its failures in the past. This post details why I am pursuing designing a game based around Superman and gives a few ideas on what I want to do with the franchise.
Superman is an oddity of a character because even though he is arguably the most well known superhero in fiction and pop culture he is one of the most underused and under appreciated (apart from Aquaman!). Superman as a film franchise has floundered since Superman II and Superman Returns failed to ignite a passion for the character in the pop culture zeitgeist again. This might be rectified with the new film set for release in 2013 but that remains to be seen. Smallville while a good adaptation of the origins of the character, stretched things to far and re-wrote to much of the character’s history in an attempt to string out more seasons. At the end of the show there was a gaggle of heroes including Supergirl already operating in the public eye which does not really sit well with the character and many fans of the comics. The result is a mess that only really appeals to fans of the show itself rather than the character of Superman.
The misuse of the franchise is a common element in previous attempts to make a game featuring the Man of Steel. No Superman game has ever been good. It is one of those gaming absolutes like there has not been a good Sonic game in the past ten years. I think the earlier output of Superman games is best explained by James, The Angry Video Game Nerd. While the language it very much NSFW he does help to prove my point. You can see both his videos covering a few of the many Superman games by heading here and here. Superman 64 (which gets almost a whole video to itself) is regarded by many as not just one of the worst superhero games ever made but one of the worst games in existence, sitting proudly alongside ET. While the rest….you get the general idea…they are simply not good. So the idea of designing a good Superman game is part intriguing and part daunting because no one has really got it right in the past. So it is about me as a fan wanting to see a character I love given his due and about challenging myself as a designer to solve a set of problems that has caused many to fail in the past.
Anyway here’s a list of all the major released Superman games that are out there:
Superman (1979, Atari 2600)
Superman: The Game (1985, home computer game)
Superman (1988, NES)
Superman (1988, arcade game)
Superman: The Man of Steel (1989, home computer game)
Superman (1992, Mega Drive/Genesis)
Superman: The Man of Steel (1993, Master System)
The Death and Return of Superman (1994)
Superman (1997, Game Boy)
Superman (1999, N64)
Superman: Shadow of Apokolips (2002)
Superman: The Man of Steel (2002)
Superman: Countdown to Apokolips (2003)
Superman Returns (2006)
Superman in other video games:
Justice League Heroes (2006)
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008)
DC Universe Online (2011)
In my opinion the only games that are any good are the last three. Which are all games that feature the character rather than star and they are also the three most recent games on the list to be released.
Justice League Heroes is an arcade style brawler which sees two players have to work together as various members of the JLA to beat the bad guys and save the day. It is a common style of game for superheroes to be used in. It works and is easy enough for even the youngest of players to get the hang of. Superman takes the heavy lifting duties and flying missions alongside other similarly powered characters like Wonder Woman. In this game Superman is one of a selection of similarly powered heroes and serves a very specific purpose for the levels you can play as him in.
Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe is a very odd beat’em’up that sees the worlds of MK and DC comics collide with very mixed results. In the game, unsurprisingly, Superman is given the role of powerful but slow combatant. Where his moves while powerful take time to pull off and can easily be interrupted. While being bad for a fighting game, the combat never quite works and bloodiness of the Mortal Kombat franchise does not fit well with the world of DC Comic. It oddly pulls off the world of DC Comics fairly well. There is an attention to detail in regards to the world and its characters in the game’s story. The characters act as they should and the DC set levels and stories make sense.
DC Universe Online doesn’t even have Superman as a playable character in its main mode of play. Being an MMO the focus is on the player’s self created hero and Superman is a mentor figure and generally acts as a quest giver and figure head like the race leaders in World of Warcraft. The game’s Legends PVP mode sees Superman as a playable character but his abilities and moves are limited the controls and the systems of the game. Where Superman shines in this game is when a computer controlled version of the character appears in several missions. It is here you see his power and strength as he shrugs off even the most powerful of attacks and tells you what to do to help him. He acts as both leader and show piece for the missions he features in.
The problem with these games is that, like I already said, they all feature Superman rather than star Superman. So a general lack of exposure for the character over the past few years means there is a large S shaped gap waiting to be filled in the gaming world. The idea of a new and original Superman game has started to gain a lot of traction recently because of Rocksteady’s recent success with their Batman games. While doing some preliminary research for this project this image popped up in several places:
A fan made image yes, but it is clear that a number of people want a good Superman game and think that a studio such as Rocksteady could give a good interpretation of the character. While not necessarily the best of ideas (just because one company has adapted one franchise well doesn’t mean they can do another in the same way) it shows that there is a wish for Superman to be done and done well. Also related to this is Paul Dini, a long time Batman comics writer and the story writer for both the Rocksteady Batman games has recently said in interviews that he would love to take a stab at Superman;
“[Superman] is pretty much the number one in the DC pantheon, and I think not enough has been done with him to make him a character,” he said. “He’s got amazing powers, he can fly super fast and everything, but also there’s a level to his character that I don’t think has been explored yet in video games to kind of get underneath who he is and into his heart a little bit.”
The full story can be found, here.
While Dini has some interesting ideas and musing on what he would like to see be done with Superman I don’t think that it would really work in the realm of a game. This is because when it comes down to it Superman, the way the majority of people see him, is just far too powerful to be in a game. You have the disconnect in any game with Superman that he could do this in his sleep. You often get the feeling as the player that you are holding Superman back rather than being Superman. The results are games that often miss the point of the character like Superman 64. Games that focus on one or two of his abilities, such as the earlier games. Or other games that relegate him to a secondary position, like the three recent ones.
There are two main things I would concentrate on in designing a great Superman game: His power levels and his environment. There are two things I can use to show the general idea I have for how my idea for Superman will work. The first is the new Action Comics. The second the Justice League cartoon:
The new Action Comics which is effectively a comic book reboot for the Superman franchise sees a Superman at the start of his career and back to being the first publicly known superhero the world has seen. The most important thing in this reboot is that he has limited but still great power.
This is a Superman that has been dialled back to only being able to jump over tall buildings in a single bound once again rather than having gravity defying flying abilities. He is also as the old saying goes, more powerful than a locomotive,
But we see that he can hurt when put under great stress by equal or stronger forces. He can shrug of bullets but a tank shell will phase him and he can feel the pain of an electric chair,
He also has yet to earn the trust of the public, the police and the world.
He is a bit rough around the edges. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He is very much a character that acts before he thinks. It goes back to the basic idea of the character from the original Action Comics #1. He is a fighter for the people but he is not sure of how to help them. So he is just as likely to fight the mob, corruption and big business as he is invaders from space and the reality warping powers Mr. Mxyzptlk. There is a lot of room to play around with his power levels and what his limitations are.
This version of the character which has been taken down a few pegs fits well with a potential video game idea. He can be powerful but not so powerful that he breaks the “reality” of the game.
Conversely Superman has never been able to let loose in a game or wider media before. In the comics he has seen and done the craziest things. Fought gods and monsters while planets and buildings crumble around him. The early films were limited by budgets and technology with the fighting in Superman II being the closest many have gotten to seeing his full range. Smallville and the Lois and Clark Adventures were TV shows and the limitations of a TV budget made it impossible to really show the raw power of the character.
Outside of comics the only place that has seen Superman really show his stuff is the animated series and the Justice League cartoon. The last ever episode of Justice League Unlimited showed a brief fight between Superman and the god Darkseid you can go here to see it in all its glory!
While the levels of power on display are over the top. (One punch sends Darkseid through SEVEN buildings!) There is one important thing to take note of; the destruction to the environment. Previous Superman games have had to reign back on the destructive capabilities of Superman’s powers due to limitations of technology and just not really taking it into consideration. As have many other superhero games. The only notable exception being The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (trailer can be seen here!) which relishes in the destructive force of The Hulk. This is kind like what I want to see the Superman of my design doing. Effecting the environment with his abilities, cracking pavements, breaking windows, damaging buildings, etc, etc. I also want to see this Superman use his environment as a weapon beyond just picking up and trowing cars at enemies! Things like using a wrecking ball as a melee weapon!
If the Hulk can do it why not Superman?
The basic idea is to show Superman in a familiar but surprising way and more importantly make a good game that happens to feature the Last Son of Krypton. Over the course of the game he will grow in power and have a greater effect on the world as the knowledge and abilities of the player grow alongside him.
So there you have it! That is the basics of the how’s and why’s of the design and what my intentions are.