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Superman 64 – Nintendo 64

Superman 64 – Nintendo 64

superman64cover    PlatformNintendo 64

DeveloperTitus Software

PublisherTitus Software

Release DateMay 31st, 1999 (NA)

GenreAction/Adventure

Nerd Rating2 out of 10

Reviewed by Nike Halifax

“There’s no time to waste!”

                      —Superman, on his way to save the day You, on your way to the trashcan.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said? What is there to trash that hasn’t been trashed? I don’t know, but here I am, writing about it. Just writing. And talking. Talking to you.

superman64_03

Hey friend, happy to have you here. Misery loves company. Sit down, talk to me. Stay a while. Maybe we can figure out this crazy little thing called “life.”

Bear with me for a second, okay? If you will. I’m going to pitch to you a concept—a game idea. Now, imagine you wake up in a world where there’s nothing else around you–everything’s barren. It’s just a giant city, and it’s the only evidence of human existence. Otherwise, you are completely and utterly alone.The atmosphere is so oppressive, so dense, so literally thick with fog, that you can’t see more than five feet in front of you. And all you do—for the whole game—all you do is wander around and try to find out where you are and what has happened. With me so far?

Please don't leave me here alone.

Please don’t leave me here alone.

Now, let’s say the whole game is filled with this creeping sense of dread—of unexplainable, unmistakable despair. But you keep playing it—despite your fear, your dread, your discomfort; despite the fact that every element of the game’s controls, combat, and atmosphere seems stacked against you, you keep playing, because you want to know, have to know, what went wrong.What do we call this game?

We call it Superman.

We call it Superman.

Ladies, gentlemen, whatever term with which you wish to be identified, welcome to the mildew on the bottom of the barrel. Everything you’ve heard about Superman on the N64 is true, save for the title. This isn’t Superman 64, this is Superman. Just like Sonic ‘06 is just Sonic the Hedgehog, this is just Superman.

 “This is just Superman.”

That describes the title and the actual game, because that’s all there is: No gods, no kings, only (Super)man.

The premise is that Lex Luthor Vandross captured Superman’s friends and trapped them within a virtual Metropolis. It’s up to Superman to save both himself and his loved ones from this Ellison-esque nightmare of technology gone wrong. Hilarity ensues, because the “virtual world” is a cheap justification for the game world to sit on a giant square in the middle of an infinite void. If you try to fly away, Lex will remind you that it’s impossible to escape. Fantastic.

I have no mouth, and I must scream.

I have no mouth, and I must scream.

To make matters worse, Lex has also poisoned this virtual world with a thick “Kryptonite fog.” Clever work-around, Titus, but it’s bullshit. The Kryptonite fog is distance fog. The N64 clearly wasn’t capable of rendering a world this large, even one this dead and lifeless. Even if it could, there’s no way it could render this world without excessive fog—

lolcarina

 

…especially when flying around at high speeds like Superman doe—

 

Oh...

Oh…

Oh. Well. I guess, uh…hm.

Well, Turok had bad draw distance too, but it was still a decent game. Besides, the graphics were good. Maybe that’s what happened with Superman? No, no, but that’s okay.  You can keep dreaming and hoping something good will come of this. We need more people like you in the world.

Titus had a good foundation to work from, visually speaking. The DC animated artstyle is one of the best and most distinctive in animation. Characters are drawn in a simple yet distinctive style. Colors are vibrant and bright. There is a slew of pre-existing assets from which to make game models and environments. Really, the DCAU plays to some of the N64’s biggest strengths.

Titus managed to screw that up. Hell, you’ll notice a lot of the pictures in this review were pulled from Google Images. That’s because I initially wanted to use an emulator for all my screenshots, but noticed the emulator doesn’t do the graphics justice. There’s a sharpness and clarity in the emulator that simply isn’t in the original game. So a lot of what you’re getting is shitty capture shots from the early days of Internet game reviews.

You're welcome.

You’re welcome.

Superman looks awful. His head is deformed, his suit and hair are plastered to his skin, and his face is a jaggy, blurry, indecipherable blob. His fists, even by N64 standards, are clumsy and misshapen. Character design outside of Superman is almost nonexistent, but what’s there looks marginally better, if only in design–they still suffer from the same graphical deformities. It’s very troubling. The fact that everything is so jaggy is even more troubling; this looks more like an early PlayStation title than something released near the end of the N64’s lifespan.

Emulator shot. You can't even see Lex's face on the original hardware.

Emulator shot. You can’t even see Lex’s face on the original hardware.

The distance fog is unjustifiably bad because the city itself is mostly empty space. The ground textures were made with a bird’s-eye-view in mind, as there are little squares and blobs that look like buildings when you fly by. A good idea, but then you land…

And those blocks don’t change.

It reminds me of the play mats with streets and houses drawn on them, except less fun and more expensive. Then there are the actual buildings, the ones that Titus bothered to model and render in 3D. They were probably going for a retro-futuristic look, judging by all the dome-houses and wacky skyscrapers. It’d be a stretch to say the designs had potential (there’s nothing here that really stands out), but they’re still different from your standard city. That just makes it all the more amazing that they run together in one unremarkable blob. What design ideas are there aren’t fleshed out, just repeated over and over. Rather than a vivid city straight out of the comics and cartoons, Metropolis is a homogeneous hell of steel and concrete. The models are unremarkable, and the textures are bland poop-and-pastel colors or pasted-on doors and windows.

Tetris jokes abound, I'm sure.

Tetris jokes abound, I’m sure.

To be fair, none of this really matters. The only way to see any building in great detail is to fly right next to it, otherwise most of it’s shrouded in the deadly Krypton vapors distance fog. Superman is an ugly, ugly game. Amazingly, it plays even worse than it looks.

Before I even touch on the controls, let’s talk about the mechanics themselves. Most of this game has you flying through rings. That’s it. That’s all you do. The time limit to fly through all these rings is limited, and the margin for error is unforgiving. If you run out of time before you reach the end,

LEX WINS.

LEX WINS.

Back to the first ring you go. Same thing if you miss more than a few rings. Get to the end of the rings, you’re given a mission. No pomp or circumstance, you’re just thrown into your objective. Goals are pasted onto the screen (without instruction on how to go about accomplishing them), and you’re given something like ten seconds to read and complete the mission. This design decision alone could fuel a Master’s thesis on bad game mechanics. Half the time you don’t know what you’re doing or, more importantly, how to do it. And if you mess up the mission?

LEX WINS. Also, "Press start to quit."

“Start to quit.”

Back to the rings for you.

Then there are the controls. When in the air, holding B accelerates, R brakes. On the ground, A attacks, C buttons control your powers, I don’t know what the hell R does, and B picks things up (which it also does when in the air). Start does what you expect it to do, the analog stick does what you expect it to do, and the D-pad controls the camera. Admittedly the layout is nothing too unorthodox, but those are just the inputs. How Superman feels is a different story.

On the ground, Superman controls like a tank. He’s not very fast, turning works better if you stop and adjust your direction first, and pushing back on the analog stick will have him walking…backwards…very…slowly. He even looks back over his shoulder like he’s checking his blind spots. Combat is mostly completely terrible and consists of fidgeting and flailing the entire upper-half of your body. “Clunky” doesn’t quite describe it—“broken” is a better word.

"BY ALL THAT IS HOLY"

“BY ALL THAT IS HOLY.”

Flying is worse. It’s difficult to gauge how fast you’re moving because you can’t see anything around you except for the rings. The rings, in theory, should be enough of a guide to help you intuitively judge the degrees, angles, velocities, etc. you need to stay on the path. But then you notice that Superman’s acceleration is erratic.  Once you really get moving, it’s hard to hit the fine line between “too fast” and “just right.” I first thought this was an issue with the control physics themselves, but now I think it’s an issue of frame rate. Even with all the distance fog, the game slows down if you’re in or about to enter an area with a bunch of buildings. The rings usually have you flying wild paths that take you high up in the sky, over the ocean, and through the heart of the city, causing the frame rate to spike up and down.

RESOURCE INTENSIVE.

RESOURCE INTENSIVE.

Meanwhile, Superman soars through the air with the grace and agility of a boulder on the latter half of a parabolic trajectory. I don’t know how to describe what’s wrong with the game’s flight mechanics. The closest video game analog is how the Arwing controls after one of its wings is blown off in Star Fox 64, but worse. And it’s not an intentional design decision. It’s hard to subtly adjust your direction, yet even harder to fly on a straight path. It’s as if you’re being constantly pulled down by a mysterious, unseen force.

Not that one.

Not that one.

Superpowers have a super-meter and suck super-ass in terms of usefulness. Super Speed creates a loud shrieking noise and increases Superman’s speed from an awkward slow jog to a more awkward fast walk. Heat Vision and Ice Breath control like they were being fired from a tank. Sometimes they kill things or solve puzzles or whatever. None of them are very fun.

Really, play mats are more fun.

Really, play mats are more fun.

Have I mentioned everything about this game is bad? From the awkward arm-waving Superman does when he flies through the air, to the terrible sound design that loops repetitive music and weird machine sounds over a cacophony of whooshing air and muffled sound bites, there is nothing to love. The awful collision detection will often glitch you out of the game world, or have cars sink into the ground, or have you maintain your momentum when you crash into a building. You know that age-old question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits an immoveable object? Superman answers that: the force will continue driving into that object until reality gently pushes it onto another flight path.

Or glitches you out of the game entirely.

Or glitches it out of the game entirely.

The best way to play Superman is to turn it off choose the practice mode at the start screen. Practice mode has no time limit, gives you near immediate access to your powers, actually has some enemies to fight, and gives you the freedom to soar through the skies of the virtual world-within-a-virtual world. Without the mandatory rings and time limits, you get all the time you need to realize how empty your life has become as a direct result of playing this game. In Practice mode, you get instant access to all the game has to offer; you don’t have to suffer through the campaign and hold on to the delusion that there’s something here worth playing. There’s nothing redeemable here. It gets a 2 because:

1. You can play it (even though it will probably glitch and crash on you). Some games don’t even let you do that.

2. In some ways, it was ahead of its time. After all, it featured an open world and a navigation system similar to those in games like GTA or Dead Space. Granted, that system is marred by a bunch of rings that you HAVE to go through, but hey, game design is incremental. Perhaps most importantly, Superman showed developers that it was okay to showcase beta versions that were better than the final product more than a decade before Aliens: Colonial Marines did the same thing (go look it up).

3. There’s something wrong with me and I get a sick sort of Zen from flying through the rings.

As a professional (cough) game reviewer, it’s important for me to make note of the little niceties in any product, no matter how awful. But you? You’re not me. Thank god for that–you don’t have any reason to ever pick this up. Ever.

/wins.

/wins.

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon

 
 

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10 Comments

  1. I love this review. I’d like to see some more Nike Halifax reviews!

     
  2. Alec Trevelyan says:

    This game made me become a Batman fan

     
  3. Nike Halifax says:

    I happen to have an answer to that question, Frag 😀
    http://www.protonjon.com/blog/?p=48

    the answer is denial.

     
  4. Frag Winterbrew says:

    A review of Superman 64? That always ends up in deep alcoholism or biting humor, good thing you’re funny eh mate? Really makes you wonder, what the hell the developers were doing at the time and how they live with their sins day in and day out…

     
  5. Any review of Superman 64 turns into a kind of group therapy meeting. You know, for closure.

     
  6. Nike Halifax says:

    I appreciate it, Sarus (is that also a Galaxy Quest reference?)

    Chrono, that picture cuts me deep. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for that.

     
  7. Sarus Vakarian
    Sarus Vakarian says:

    You poor person. You sound like you went through absolute hell. I love your writing style by the way. Your sarcasm is delicious.

     

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