Retro: Superman 64 Almost Didn’t Suck

The year was 1999. The dreaded “Millennium Bug” was threatening what we laughingly called “computers”, the Euro was taking over a raft of various currencies, Bill Clinton was acquitted of impeachment charges and a company called Titus Software released a game that is fondly remembered as the worst in the history of the universe.

Superman, which is often called Superman 64, was simultaneously a commercial success and a flop, a masterpiece and a distaster, a video game and a major assault on the imagination of thousands of kids all around the world. Critics shredded the game to pieces, and probably rightly so – there was a lot wrong with it.

The Nintendo 64 hardware was an unwieldily beast – those who could tame it crafted masterpieces like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye 007 and F Zero X. Actually the list goes on, but for every fantastic classic, there was one muddy, crummy, slow moving piece of crap that was hardly worth the $60 asking price.

Superman was the posterchild for all these problems. The graphics were laughable, the entire game was covered in this green “fog”, and Superman – the man of Steel – had only a couple of abilities. But Eric Caen, founder of Titus Software, recently said this wasn’t the intended fate of the game;

“The main issue was working with the licensor. They caused us so much trouble. Also our design originally was too ambitious compared to what an N64 was able to deliver…” he confessed in an interview.

Caen went on to say that the licensor, which was Warner Bros. Interactive, prevented the team from developing a game where Superman kicks “real” people – hence the tacked on “virtual world” concept that appears in the game. Warner Bros. actually changed a lot of content in the game, which Caen points out is the reason the game sucked so very much.

Before the game’s release, things were actually looking good for the game. In an early interview with IGN, Caen raved excitedly about the game, going as far as suggesting it would set a precedent for all superhero games. He wasn’t far off, mind you;

“We wanted to create the first “super hero” based videogame where players really behave as a super hero. So of course you control Superman’s movement in full 3D (the camera is following Superman character “ala Tomb Raider”), and jump, fight — but you can also fly very fast, use X-ray vision to see through certain walls, heat vision to burn some objects or enemies, and you can lift big objects (even cars or pickups) and throw these objects at bad guys! The character/objects/background interactions system is so complex that you can throw a car that will collide with another car that will push a third object that will kill an enemy next to it! The game concept is mission based (over 15 different missions), with limited time, where Superman must save somebody before time runs out.”

Car throwing and time limits did make the final cut, but the result was very poorly executed. XRay vision disappeared, and “flying very fast” is hardly how one would describe the character’s movements. Another revolutionary feature of the game that was scrapped to an extent was the large, free-roaming city map.

The developers boasted early on the game will feature a large, one-square mile free-roaming map modeled after Metropolis, complete with buildings, roads and characters. The end result, however, presented a muddy, colourless, flat world that nobody cared about.

Interestingly, one of the better features of the game was dropped; mission objectives at the start of each level. Originally shown in a beta, prototype video, the game featured mission objectives and an outline of what the player is supposed to do in the actual level. The released version of the game, however, popped up a black and white message that looked like teletext subtitles at best.

To be fair, the game’s levels marginally improved once you managed to progress pass the tutorial levels (the first few stages with those stupid ring maze to fly through”. In fact, despite the poor draw distance, the many indoor levels of the game actually looked okay. But the title still suffered from so many glitches it was almost unplayable anyway.

Randomly, Superman would stop moving. He could walk up objects that didn’t make sense. Enemies would just shoot anywhere randomly, you could walk through walls and under floors, and the game couldn’t even keep up with Superman’s abilities. One example is the “reprogamation” ability which turns enemies into friends. The problem is, most areas require you to kill all enemies in a room before you progress – meaning that you would have to go back and ruthlessly kill your new friend, despite them not even wanting to harm you.

Other progression issues plagued the title; if you missed an objective it is still possible to complete a level, but the next level will be locked, and there is no way to go back and complete the missed objective. The bizarre thing is that many of these glitches weren’t present in the early build of the game, which was thankfully archived on RareWare Central.

Another glaring omission from the beta version was multiplayer mode. The game originally supported up to four players who would fly over the skies of Metropolis in spaceships, shooting each other. The mode was promised but again, didn’t make the final cut at all.

Whatever advice Warner Bros. gave to Titus to “improve” the game and “protect” the Superman franchise resulted in the darkest chapter of the whole series. Titus was excited, then, when they got to work on a PlayStation version of the game. They could take advantage of that console’s easier development and crisper graphics.

Unfortunately, halfway through development of the Playstation title, Warner Bros. pulled the plug, and their investment. The developers were unable to redeem themselves and worse still, the money made from the Nintendo 64 version was absorbed into a loss due to the lack of funds paying for the now defunct Playstation version.

Thankfully, Warner Bros. have learned from their mistake all those years ago and have since commissioned some pretty decent titles including Scribblenauts and Batman: Arkham City.

Titus’ fate was not quite so peachy. The company started buying up a bunch of companies and found itself in a mess of financial and legal issues. One of their healthiest investments was Interplay, the developer/publisher best known for Baldur’s Gate, and is one of the few companies linked to Titus that is still alive today.

It’s a shame that politics and publishers got in the way of what was to be a revolutionary superhero game – a practice that is still going on today.

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