uperman needs little introduction. Released in 1999 by now-defunct Titus Software, the game achieved a legendary badness almost immediately. An IGN reviewer called it a “piece of garbage.” A GameSpot reviewer called it “easily the worst game I’ve ever played.” To this day, Superman remains one of the worst ranked games on sites like MobyGames and GameRankings, and it’s not hard to see why. The game is aggressively unenjoyable. The controls are sluggish and unresponsive. The graphics represent the worst of the Nintendo 64′s blocky characters and flat, grainy textures. The gameplay itself is tedious and your objectives are often mysterious if not totally confusing. The game opens with a challenge that requires the use of your “super breath,” a power Superman doesn’t actually have. (The instructions refer only to “freezing breath.”) In the next level, Superman has to insert a keycard into a large computer console. To achieve this, I had to not only approach the computer desk, but fly into the air and physically move Superman against the computer’s monitor.
As bad as Superman is, though, I have something of a soft spot for it. Superhero games, historically speaking, are terrible, and until the recent releases of games like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction or the much-ballyhooed Batman: Arkham Asylum, superhero games were regarded as little more than mediocre titles cashing in on comic book licenses. Most were awful platformers or simplistic beat-em-ups. Superman in particular, even in the year 2011, hasn’t starred in a single decent game.
Growing up, I still played these games. Some of my earliest gaming memories involve the 1990 PC title The Amazing Spider-Man. I played the awful Justice League Task Force fighting game on my SNES. I rented more than my share of Batman games, despite Arkham Asylum being the first Batman game worth a damn. I’ve put more hours into the X-Men Legends/Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games than is really acceptable for someone who barely enjoys them. For some reason, I played every single tie-in game for the three Spider-Man movies. And in 1999, I rented Superman for my Nintendo 64.
I was about 13 years old at the time and, like anybody who rented a lot of Nintendo 64 games, I wasn’t really surprised that Superman turned out to be awful. The late 90s was the last great stand for games that were not just mediocre, but really, breathtakingly bad. As a boy, I just had to chalk it up to bad luck during that week’s Blockbuster roulette. Keep a stiff upper lip and hope you have better luck next time. Today, it’s almost unthinkable that you could even theoretically pick up an Xbox 360 game that bad at your local Blockbuster. (Slightly more unthinkable than going to Blockbuster at all.) But when you’re 13 years old in 1999, Superman looks like a fine choice. Why wouldn’t it be? Superman is a natural choice for a video game protagonist. He’s super strong, nearly invincible, he flies, he fights bad guys. Superman is the ultimate escapist fantasy for the ultimate escapist medium.
Superman sucks from the moment you click “New Game.” The story, that Superman is trapped in a virtual reality of Lex Luthor’s creation, is introduced with one barely comprehensible piece of dialogue: “You will never find your friends in this virtual world …” Your “friends” aren’t even recognizable on the screen. (I still don’t know who the third person is in the screenshot below.) After this piece of exposition, you are immediately thrust into the game’s opening challenges, which are collectively worse than the few examples I’ve provided. The virtual reality Metropolis of this game doesn’t even begin to resemble any portrayal of the city from the comics. That this game’s story takes place in a virtual reality world to begin with is inexpressibly weird. (And, according to the IGN review, a weak attempt to rationalize the game’s poor graphics.) You’re not even actually Superman – you’re virtually Superman. You are playing a video game as Superman playing a video game.
But you don’t need to select “New Game.” If you scroll down the opening menu, you can instead select “Practice,” which plops you down into, essentially, a sandbox. You can fly freely around virtual Metropolis and get used to the game’s controls. There’s very little to actually do in Practice except fly around, but that’s not the point: it’s the one portion of Superman unburdened by all of the garbage that otherwise defines Superman.
When I rented the game 12 years ago, I spent more time in Practice than any other part of the game. I would fly around the city, swoop down by the ground, buzz past buildings, dive underwater, perch on skyscrapers, and, basically, just be Superman. I didn’t have to worry about playing by this game’s awful, terrible rules. I could ignore the game’s ugly graphics. I could cruise Metropolis and follow my own rules. This is Superman‘s dirty little secret: flying is actually pretty fun, and the controls aren’t half-bad.
Despite being widely considered one of the worst games ever, Superman manages to do one thing right. We like flying in video games. There’s a kind of fundamental pleasure in moving a character freely through three-dimensional space – it’s escapism at its best. Superman is far from the first game to offer such an experience, but it’s the first game to offer such an experience with this character. However flawed and largely unplayable the game is, Practice mode briefly manages to capture the magic of Superman.
Some of my favorite and (dare I say) transcendent video game moments have occurred in superhero games. Often, these games just feel right in a way that other games don’t, or can’t. When I play Spider-Man 2, I have an idea in my head of how it should feel to be Spider-Man, to occupy his body. The game, to its great credit, completely nails the experience of web-slinging through New York. For many years, most superhero games simply couldn’t provide such experiences. It was impossible to faithfully recreate the Hulk’s destructive power on the SNES – or, at least, no one managed to do it. But superhero games, slowly and not always surely, progressed. In 1999, Superman moved them just a little bit further. That I can find that sort of transcendent, escapist moment in even the most notoriously awful game speaks, I think, to the essential appeal of these characters and the natural affinity of superheroes and video games.