The Birth of the Worst Game Ever

Superman: The New Superman Adventures

Here is it, the whole reason I started reviewing old superhero games, starting all the way back with Superman 1979 for the Atari 2600. After writing about the Nintendo 64, I was reminded that, for all the good games the system had, it also had the single worst game (by most people’s metrics) ever created: Superman: The New Superman Adventures (an incredibly redundant title that most people ignore, simply calling the title Superman 64). It is, without a doubt, one of the worst to ever be made, a game so mind-bogglingly bad you have to wonder how something like this ever got out the door. Who thought it was a good idea to make this title?

Superman: The New Superman Adventures

The fact is that no one goes in to make a bad game. Companies have creatives that dream big, that want to make a great title for a great character, but various factors come into play that ruin the development. The game, though, was funded and contractually required, so out come something that ends up being, by most accounts, unplayable. The vagaries of the industry led to a good idea becoming a bad title, and that then leads to the game topping “worst of” lists, sometimes for a year and, in the case of Superman 64, sometimes forever.

The game was developed by Titus, spearheaded by producer (and company co-founder) Eric Caen. He had a vision for an open-world SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. game where the player got to fly around Metropolis, helping people and doing missions in a freeform, flowing narrative. This original idea, which Warner Bros. signed off on initially, had to be scrapped as it pushed the bounds of the Nintendo 64 past what the console could handle. But there was still the idea of using Superman’s powers and abilities to run missions and be the hero Metropolis needed. That idea, though, didn’t last long.

As reported by multiple sources, the team at Warners changed soon after Titus signed the paperwork for the license, and they weren’t too thrilled with the deal struck. So, reportedly, they worked to sabotage the game, making unreasonable demands, compromising the experience. Superman couldn’t have his full complement of powers. Superman couldn’t destroy buildings. Superman couldn’t fight real foes. He had to be put into an in-story Virtual World so that he didn’t attack real characters or commit real violence. Everything Titus made had to be justified with research from the comics to prove, “yes, Superman would actually do this,” and that wasted time that could have been used on development. Warners dragged out the process right up until the delivery deadline, leaving the game a buggy mess that couldn’t easily be fixed.

Of course, the limitations of the N64 didn’t help matters. Due to its limited power and underpowered capabilities, the game required a lot of workarounds to get it running. Sure, Superman can fly, but the draw distance in the game is incredibly short. This is explained as Lex putting a “kryptonite fog” over the virtual world, leaving everything very foggy and hard to see. This is also why Superman can’t use most of his powers in the game, outside of flight and super strength: the “fog” limits his abilities (although it does also mean that less powers had to be programmed as well).

I do feel for Titus, for sure, but they did also release this game in its state. While it probably would have been a massive hit to their bottom line to not release it, or to delay the game further, they put this title out. It had their name on the box and came from their company. At the end of the day, even with Warners fucking with the development, the buck had to stop somewhere and that credit (good and, in this case, bad) has to go to Titus. Fair or not, this was their game and Superman 64 was their awful title.

A big part of the failure was the fact that Titus had huge ambitions for the game that far outstripped what they could do in the limited timeline for development. They scaled their ideas back, taking the open world game and turning it into a mission-based, linear set of scenarios, and that left the structure of the game in a compromised, far more basic state. Instead of starting from a broad goal and scaling back, crunching their idea down into something that could work in some basic form on the N64, the developers should have started, from the ground up, with an idea for the game that would work well on Nintendo’s console. They started from the wrong side of the equation and never could get their feet under themselves.

This results in missions that, frankly, aren’t much fun to plan. Most of your time in Superman 64 will be spent flying around the city. If you play on easy mode, this means flying towards some random place in the city where a large Superman symbol floats in the air. That’s bad enough, as it’s aimless and tedious, but if you play on a harder difficulty then you’re treated to a worse fate: flying through rings. Every time you’re sent someplace in Metropolis (which is between every short action beat mission of the game) you have to fly to it, and that means flying through these rings, over and over, as they become the meat of the Superman 64 experience.

On the one hand, these sections are awful because flying through rings is tedious make-work. Instead of having Superman go where he’s needed via cut-scene, you have to do this tedious task to get him there, and if you miss a ring or fail the task within a given time limit, you have to go back to the beginning of the section and do it again. By some estimates this adds upwards of an hour, or more, to the playthrough, easily doubling the experience with just rings.

But there’s also the in-story idea that Lex Luthor, the dastardly villain who has trapped Superman in a virtual version of Metropolis and can make the hero do anything, has decided, “you know what we should do? Let’s make the Kryptonian fly through rings.” This is his evil plan: boring the superhero to death with pointless excursions through the city, doing this menial task for no reason just because. Lex is evil, sure, but this feels beneath him. “Trap Superman in a world and have him watch his loved ones die over and over again? Naw. Let’s do the thing with rings instead.”

In between bouts of flying through rings, making you feel like you’re playing Titus’s less impressive version of Pilotwings, you then get to battle dinky foes. You can take on mine-dropping drones, or shadowy figures. Why does Lex have drones flying around a fake version of the city attacking fake people? Why are there shadowy figures shooting at fake people? Why should Superman care about any of this at all? Oh, sure, the game justifies it by having Lex kidnap Superman’s friends, tapping them in the world as well. “Do this if you want to see your friends alive again,” but that really doesn’t hold up to any kind of logic or scrutiny. It exists because the city, the enemies, and the zones were made for the open world game and, when it was all scaled back, these were the usable parts that could be repurposed into… something. It doesn’t have to make logical sense, it just had to provide make work for the players.

Hell, that’s even the reason for the rings. They were meant to be used for a flying tutorial and then, because of time crunch, the rings became the main focus of the game.

Now, sure, there is more to do in the game. After a few tedious missions of flying through rings, breaking drones, flying through more rings, beating up shadowy guys, and doing all that again and again, eventually you’ll go into one base stage or another. Here you’ll walk and fly through maze-like levels, breaking objects and punching dudes. There will be some boss fight or another, Brainiac or Parasite and the like, and then you reach the goal and fly off, all so you can go back to the main part of the game: rings.

In concept I like the base missions. In fact, these should have realistically been the meat of the game (except, of course, the developers didn’t have time to build enough of these once the scope of the game changed). They’re a different gameplay experience from the rest of the game, and they almost feel like real gameplay and not just make-work. The only issue is that these sections of buggy as hell. Collision is bad in the game in general, but it’s especially bad in these stages, making it pretty easy to show yourself out a wall, or through a door, and then a section that should have taken you five minutes or do to complete is over in thirty seconds when you pop through a wall, flay out of bounds to the end of the stage, and then fly back in. And you can do this over and over, in just about every base stage. It’s bad.

Really, the controls, responsiveness, and feel of the game is all just off. Playing Superman 64 feels like playing something that’s still in pre-alpha, the build that would become a build that then, after more refinement, would become an actual game. Superman 64 isn’t a real game, it’s a tech demo that would get shown off at game expos to get people hyped for what the final product would be after it had another couple of years of development behind it. This game didn’t get that (and the revised version Titus wanted to make, for the PlayStation, was canceled within inches of completion when the Superman license they purchased expired). So all we’re left with is a buggy, muddled mess that, again, really shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

A Superman game on the Nintendo 64 could have been possible. There were ways to translate the Man of Steel into a 3D game and make him fun to play. But to do that you had to have the right idea from the beginning, especially when you were working on limited hardware like the Nintendo 64. Titus came into Superman: The New Superman Adventures with the wrong idea and they could never recover it into a playable experience. They dreamed big, which is admirable, and then they released one of the worst games ever published, which is not.

But they did also release the Game Boy version of the game which, by all accounts, is actually a playable title. So now we have to go look at that game as well…