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A brief history of crappy Superman games

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Batman: Arkham Knight developer Rocksteady has said that this will be the team's last pass at the character, and the studio does no small amount of hinting in Arkham Knight that it would like to tackle Superman next.

The kneejerk reaction from the Internet Council on Superhero and Gaming Affairs is that there's "no way" the character could work as a game due to Kal El's near infinite powers. How do you create a challenge for a demigod? I've been thinking about that question a lot lately, and I have one, likely unfeasible idea that I'd like to share with you. But first, lets see how other developers have handled this core issue and see what we can learn from their missteps and successes.

superman2600

Superman (Developer: Atari, Console: Atari 2600, 1979)

In his first outing, Superman could be hit by multi-colored kryptonite flying across the screen which would cause him to lose his powers. That is, until he found and kissed Lois Lane.

Verdict: This mechanic doesn't make any sense and is kind of gross, when you think about it. Well, at least it's a start, right?

Superman: The Game (First Star Software, Multiple Computers, 1985)

This was a competitive game in which Superman and Darkseid try to save citizens of Metropolis or like, eat them or something in Darkseid's case.

Verdict: Putting Superman in direct competition with an equally matched being is a smart idea, but Supes is also able to lose health if he's hit by Omega beams which may or may not jive with canon, depending on your reference material.

supernes

Superman (Kotobuki Systems, NES, 1988)

The NES adaptation of Superman wasn't shy about favoring mechanics over being true to the character. The player had to collect items to use a certain amount of each of Superman's powers and if he took enough damage, The Last Son of Krypton turns into his Earthing counterpart.

Verdict: This game doesn't just turn its nose up at fidelity to existing Superman, it stuffs it in a rocket and shoots it into space.

Superman (Taito, Arcade, 1988)

In this side-scroller, the question of limiting Superman's power was basically just ignored, as he could be killed by enemies. But considering this is the same game where Kal El shot energy out of his hands, it's not even the weirdest feature.

Verdict: Did I mention this is a game where Superman was inexplicably accompanied by a red-suited, brown-haired SECOND SUPERMAN? Because that pretty much says it all.

superatari

Superman: The Man of Steel (Tynesoft, various PCs, 1989)

Another game where Superman takes damage, only when Superman loses all his health, he doesn't die. The player sees a message that they have failed and it falls to "other heroes to champion Earth this day." Then sad Superman just sort of flies away.

Verdict: I actually kind of like the idea that you have to demoralize Superman into quitting. Like at some point, he's gotta think "I look ridiculous right now. I'm gonna go home, finish Orphan Black and let Booster Gold handle this one.

supergen

Superman (Sunsoft, Genesis, 1992)

By the light of Rao, could we PLEASE start calling these games something else? Anyway, this side-scroller took an NES-like approach, limiting Superman's powers to punching, kicking and flying (more hovering really) until he found a power-up.

Verdict: This, like the NES version, is a pretty thoughtless way of bringing Superman into gaming.

deathreturn

The Death and Return of Superman (Blizzard Entertainment, SNES/Genesis, 1994)

In perhaps the most beloved Blizzard Entertainment property, Superman is recast in a brawler which pits him and a handful of impostors against Doomsday and Pals. Superman has a health bar, and, like Steel, Superboy, et al, is limited to one ancillary power (heat vision, in Kal El's case).

Verdict: Even Blizzard saddled Supes with a health meter, but considering this is a story wherein Superman gets beaten to death, it kind of makes sense?

Superman: The New Adventures (Titus, Nintendo 64, 1999)

Titus did many things wrong with their terrible, terrible game, but you can't accuse them of ignoring the invulnerability issue. Not only was Superman in a "virtual" Metropolis (where Lex Luthor could dictate the rules of how our hero's powers worked) but the city is also filled with "Kryptonite fog" that has weakened Superman.

Verdict: Titus also avoided the question of Superman's powers by having him fly through rings for half the damn game, so let's not pin a medal on their chest or anything, OK?

Superman: Shadow of Apokolips (Infogrames, PS2/GameCube, 2002)

While one of the better Superman games (that's not saying much), Infrogrames wasn't particularly creative in their limiting of Superman's invulnerability (he has a health bar). On the brightside, more of Superman's powers are represented, letting him use heat vision, super breath and more without any goofy tokens.

Verdict: Shadow of Apokolips does a good job of representing more of Superman's powers, it's a bit of a cheat that their use is capped by an "energy bar."

superxbox

Superman: Man of Steel (Circus Freak, Xbox, 2002)

Though not a good game, Man of Steel is actually fairly permissive when it comes to Superman's powers. He has unlimited use of heat vision and super breath and telescopic vision even makes an appearance, pointing Supes towards his objectives.

Verdict: The good news is that there's a lot of powers available to Superman, the bad news is that he never gets much interesting to do with them. Also: health bar.

Superman Returns (EA Tiburon, multiple platforms, 2006)

The house that Madden built came the closest to representing Superman's powers as we've come to understand them in the present age. He has super speed, he can fly, heat vision, super breath, you name it. Also, get this: No health bar. Instead, Metropolis itself has a health meter and carnage caused within the city limits means game over. (If you listen very closely while reading that last sentence aloud, you can hear Zack Snyder throw up.)

Verdict: So here's the thing about Superman Returns, and it's probably not really that surprising if you've been paying attention thus far. Superman Returns presents a reasonable sensation of being Superman (with all the godlike power that implies) but fails in nearly every metric as a game. It has other failings, of course (Metropolis is gigantic but barren, enemies are dull) but the basic problem boils down to the observation that we started the piece with: It's really hard to make a believable challenge. So, how do we fix it?

I've got a harebrained idea that I'll be detailing in part two of this piece tomorrow, but here's a hint:

You turn back the clock.