Recently, when I was making a purchase at a game store, the clerk told me that if I spent $15 more, I’d get a free t-shirt. After a brief search, I brought to her an N64 game that fit the price requirements. She looked at what I had placed on the counter, then back at me with concern in her eyes. “Why?” she asked quietly.
The game I had picked was Superman for the N64, and her reaction was no doubt due to the game’s notoriety. It’s not a rare sight on lists of the very worst games of all time, and it has been thoroughly eviscerated by many sarcastic internet personalities. I was certain that I wasn’t going to play more than a few moments of the forbidden game. In fact, when it asked if I wanted to clear space on my memory card so I could save, I declined, but after I quickly surmounted the first two levels, I realized that completing the game was actually possible. I started over with sufficient save space and prepared for the long haul.
THE LONGEST HAUL
The game’s minimalistic plot involves Superman trying to save his friends from a virtual simulation of Metropolis. The whole “virtual reality” angle is a pretty standard narrative framework that allows you to throw common sense out the window and set up rules and situations that aren’t possible in the real world. While Superman certainly eschew’s logic, the VR framework seems like more of a tacked-on afterthought, since the storyline still somehow manages to make no sense. You’re pitted against mainstays of the animated series: Parasite, Metallo, Darkseid, Lex Luthor, and Mala. The thing is, if this is a virtual world, why is Superman saving people from bombs and tornadoes? Who cares if Lex Luthor is building weapons in a simulation he designed? Why turn Darkseid over to the police when, even in the real world, they’d be poorly equipped to handle an ultra powerful, space tyrant?
Gameplay is split between two distinct varieties: traversal or “ride” missions that have you flying through rings and saving people, and action missions that involve punching and mild, sometimes obtuse, puzzle solving. The modes alternate after every level.
Many gamers who are already familiar with Superman’s reputation are aware of the rings that Superman is forced to fly through during the ride missions, but they aren’t as difficult as commonly reported. To be honest, I found the ride missions to be the simplest part of the game. Sure, the flight controls and, indeed, all the game’s controls in general, belong in the landfill, but I never had any significant difficulty navigating the rings. On the other hand, the ride levels are punctuated with short asides that have you intervening in dangerous situations; saving citizens, defusing bombs, stopping tornadoes. Once you get used to the game’s demands, these situations aren’t too daunting. Typically, fumbling one sets you back to the beginning of the previous set of rings, but after failing 3 times, it just makes you do the task itself over again. That’s nice, I guess.
SUPER SLAP FIGHTING
The action stages are what more closely resemble what you’d expect from a super-hero game, but the combat is so laughably horrid that most of the action is just flying into the lesser enemies and occasionally slapping one when there isn’t enough room to fly. Superman’s punches are just so slow, the hit detection is so inaccurate, and the animation is so awkward that it’s almost better to not even bother. I spent most levels ignoring enemies, flying straight by them in a mad search to find whatever the objective was at that time. It’s thankfully rare that you truly need to fight, such as when bosses show up or the during the game’s excruciatingly slow escort mission.
A lot of Superman’s more offensive problems would be solved if the game would just talk to the player more. You’re often plopped down in a situation, given a vague explanation on your goals, and forced to figure out what to do under a strict time limit. Even when a decent explanation is splashed across the screen, it’s all too easy to accidentally hit a button and skip it before having a chance to read it. On other occasions, you won’t be able to interact with an obvious switch in the environment until you’ve triggered an arbitrary piece of dialogue elsewhere.
Even if everything was clearly explained, the developers still enjoyed hiding things in obscure places. Keycards have a tendency of appearing in areas that have already been searched. Triggers will cause doors to open in dusty corners that are often obscured by the game’s atrocious draw fog. Some keys don’t even notify you that you’ve picked them up or what effect they had, leaving it up to you to scour the environments for whatever changed. Occasionally event triggers are placed way back at the beginning of the level, forcing you to backtrack, sometimes repeatedly. It wasn’t rare for me to find myself flying in circles, trying to figure out where I had to go to proceed.
THEN THERE’S NO TIME TO WASTE
Figuring out the game’s twisted logic is the hard part. The levels get easier after each bit of progress since most enemies can be ignored while you go back through the paces. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s sometimes a requirement to clear out the criminal element in an area, the cast of villains wouldn’t stand much of a chance. The main grunt of Luthor’s army is the shadows; characters in fasionable, slimming black hats and macs. Their main tactic for taking you down is to stand, locked in place, shooting a handful of bullets in your direction before compulsively reloading. They seriously can’t move. They also have a tendency to shoot each other, which I’m not sure was intentional, but it is pretty funny.
Bosses would provide some variation if it wasn’t for the fact that they have the same propensity for slapping that Superman does. Fights with them tend to degenerate into vicious hand waving until one combatant falls based solely on who was favoured by the game’s temperamental hit detection. That is until heat vision comes into play, allowing Superman to stun-lock bosses until they give up and fall over.
Yet it wasn’t the enemies, the sometimes strict time limits, or the game’s obtuse guidance that was most responsible for forcing me to play levels over; it was the game’s poor clipping barriers that frequently allowed me to get sucked into the level geometry. I lost count of how many times it happened, but I can confidently say that there was only a single occasion that I was able to free myself from the abyss, and it was only because I fell into the room below. Occasionally, the game would just give up an crash when faced with the yawning void. Once, I got stuck thigh deep in the bottom floor, which sounds like a minor problem, but I was unable to jump or fly to get free, and believe me, I tried. It would have been almost humourous if it didn’t happen right at the end of the level.
What really aggravated me was that the game forces you to play through on the hardest difficulty if you want to finish it. There’s nothing quite like working your way through a game, only to have the last couple levels and, indeed, the ending itself gated off unless you start all over on a harder difficulty. If “normal” difficulty isn’t the normal difficulty setting, why even call it normal? What’s worse is that the harder difficulty isn’t even much more difficult, it’s just annoying. Enemies have more health, so the shadows take two hits to take down, necessitating more circling around their slow bullets just to slap them again. Slap fights with bosses become even more a matter of luck until you can just stun-lock them into oblivion with heat vision. But flying through rings, the most time consuming portion of the game, is either the exact same or so similar that I didn’t notice the difference. I just didn’t want to play through the game twice, okay!?
Yet I did it anyway, even after it froze on a dialogue prompt right at the end and forced me to start the last level over again. All that for an abrupt and surreal ending
If you’re still thirsty for finely aged garbage water, there’s competitive multi-player, and it’s even more pointless than the main game. There’s a few modes, but they all involve riding around murky, featureless environments in a hover chair. I’m not sure what the purpose of it is, but it’s definitely not worth seeking out.
I suppose the big question is whether or not Superman is as bad as its reputation suggests, and to be honest, there are worse games out there. Heck, there are worse games on the N64. Hell, to be even more specific, there are worse games made by the game’s developer, Titus. Its notoriety has just outgrown it and now it’s forever cemented in the annals as one of the worst game’s ever created.
I’m certainly not trying to imply that the game is actually any good, make no mistake, it’s absolute garbage. It’s buggy, the combat is terrible, the environments are ugly, the whole thing feels unfinished, but at least it’s playable from start to finish, if only barely. There are games out there that can’t even claim that. At times, I even found myself enjoying it a little, but that’s likely due to the sense of danger in playing a game so universally hated. I just have no vitriol for it. If you squint hard, you can sort of make out a vision that the developer had for it, which implies to me that it’s not an entirely soulless product; it’s just the trumpeting call of suck.
This review was conducted using a physical copy for the N64. It was paid for by the reviewer. Portions of this review were first published on mobygames.com by the author.