Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
The official name of the game was Superman, but everyone called it Superman 64. It was a running joke at the time, because so many Nintendo games from that era ended with that number. That was a product of the Bit Wars, when every console and game developer flaunted how many bits their precious creations had.
“This is the 16-megabit Super Nintendo!” “This is the 32-bit Sega Saturn!” “Behold the 64-bit Nintendo 64!”
And all of this, hilariously, meant nothing at the end of the day. Aside from a vague notion of “better,” none of us knew what the hell “bits” were anyway. And besides, failed systems, like the Atari Jaguar, proved that gameplay, not bits, were what mattered at the end of the day.
Case in point: Superman 64. The graphics were pretty decent by 1998 standards, but none of that mattered; it was a critical bomb, and today, it’s whispered about in the same breath as Shaq Fu for the Super Nintendo and ET: The Extraterrestrial for the Atari 2600. Nintendo Power called Superman 64 the worst game ever released on a Nintendo console. What, exactly, made it so reviled?
The development of Superman 64 started when Eric Caen, the founder and head of Titus Software, saw an opportunity to take an established creative property and develop something special with it.
“I heard from our L.A. office that Warner Bros. was preparing a new animated TV series around Superman, and I contacted WB Licensing in order to obtain video game rights,” Caen said. “They asked me three times if I was sure of what I was doing. No one else was interested enough in Superman to do a video game about him.”
Despite concerns, Caen pushed the negotiations through, and he forged relationships with both Warner Bros. and DC Comics. He supervised the game’s development on three consoles: the Nintendo 64, the Game Boy, and the Sony Playstation. The development for the game lasted about two years, and was carried out by a team of 12-15 people. That included two coders for each version, and six to nine artists. Caen set an objective for his team: one that, in hindsight, might have been a bit too ambitious.
“Only one game at that time was a real time, 3D action/adventure game,” recalls Caen. “That was Tomb Raider, but each scene was confined in a small area. My vision was to develop the first “open world 3D real time” game. It would stretch the Nintendo 64 to its limits, feature Superman’s ability to fly and fight, and include his every superpower.”
So far, so good. But then, as is true with most games that fail this spectacularly, things went terribly wrong.
FIGHTING EVIL (AND LICENSORS)
“The Warner licensing team was let go only a few days after our deal was inked,” Caen said. “The next people in charge hated us the first minute they saw us and our project. They believed a major company such as EA Games would pay more and create a better product.”
“In every way, they tried to stop its development,” he continued. “First, they asked us to change it from an action game to a Sim City-like game, where Superman would be like the mayor of Metropolis. That was honestly pathetic.”
And once Caen and his team dismissed that idea, the harassment and micromanagement only got worse. Communication was difficult, and everything was slowed to a deliberate snail’s pace. Warner Bros. and DC questioned Titus’s creative direction every step of the way.
“It took us months to get every single character approved,” Caen said. “I think they were trying to stall us, and we have heard recently that WB even planned to a pay a huge litigation settlement, because they forced us to kill the [PlayStation] version. But, we never ended up suing them.”
“They argued against any decision we made in the game, under the pretext that ‘Superman would never do that,’” Caen explained. “We had to prove Superman could go underwater, because they had doubts it would be acceptable in terms of ‘legacy.’ We had tons of documentation, and had to go through it in order to tell them something like, ‘In the October 1957 comic book on Page XX, you can see Superman was ‘flying’ underwater.’”
“We also developed the 3D world to have significant destructible portions such as doors, walls, and floors [which could tear away when struck],” he continued. “But DC was totally against that, arguing that Superman could not ‘act as a bad person.’”
Perhaps this explains why Superman spends entire levels flying through rings—not beating up bad guys, not battling super villains, not doing any of the cool things that Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, ought to be doing in a Superman game. Instead, he’s wandering through an empty, indestructible model of Metropolis. And he’s flying through energy rings, as a goal unto itself. Caen has stated that the rings were always meant to be in the game, but not to this repetitive extent.
The controls to fly through these rings were awkward and counterintuitive. One would assume Superman would be able self-correct himself—slow down around hairpin turns, and not overcompensate for his own momentum, for the same reason that Mario does not go skidding into a wall when he stops running, or crash into the ceiling when he jumps. Flying is Superman’s natural ability—not something he has to learn.
But instead, handling Superman is sort of like handling a broken down Jetsons car with horrible steering. You have to negotiate turns; if you’re flying in a straight line, you’re subject to inertia, and should ‘ease up off the gas’ and ‘hit the brakes’ to prevent yourself from careening into the ether. And thus, one of the most appealing things about Superman—his ability to fly—is rendered into a tedious task. And the same goes for his other powers; you have to collect them in order to use them, and that doesn’t occur until later in the game. Imagine if you were playing an X-Men game where you had to collect Wolverine’s claws and Storm’s lightning in order to use them.
On top of this, the game was buggy in every area. It was easy for Superman to get stuck on a building, and in later levels, he could go through a wall or even get stuck in the floor. Boss fights were little more than button mashing affairs where you wailed away with awkward punches, often hitting nothing but thin air. Caen attributes these numerous glitches to a limited development cycle, made worse by the demands of the licensors.
“We lost too much time answering Warner Brothers and DC’s concerns and weird ideas,” he said. “With more time to focus on the game’s development and its playability, instead of the surrounding circus, we could have improved the controls and the collisions, and have made a better game at the end.”
HINDSIGHT IS HEAT VISION
A game that simulates a superhero ought to make you feel like a superhero. And in Superman 64’s case, you should have felt all-powerful. The things that made him famous—his super-strength, his flight, his heat vision, his ice breath—should have been mighty weapons that you wielded with ease. In a good game, the enemies would have been challenging. But in Superman 64, the controls themselves were the challenge, and therein lies the problem.
Ironically, the licensors who gave Caen and his team a difficult two years were pleased in the end, owing to the high sales, despite the critical reaction.
“Sales were large, so we didn’t lose money on Nintendo 64 or Game Boy,” Caen said. “But Warner Bros. and Sony blocked the PSX version, and that was a heartbreaker. It was 90% completed and we had a half million units in back order.”
“The fact that the game didn’t please critics is a possible outcome to any development or production,” Caen said. “Personally I found the game okay—not as bad as critics said. But to look at it now? It’s ridiculous to compare it to every great game that has benefitted from the technological progress since 1998.”
If Caen sounds a bit defensive, it’s probably because he is, and it’s hard to blame him for that. It’s a sad truth that we don’t choose how we are remembered by history. Caen had a long, storied career beyond this one, notorious game. He founded a game development company in 1985 with his brother, and it lasted for 20 years—a lifetime in the fickle world of programming and development. And he was involved in many critically acclaimed, beloved games that people have fond memories of: Automobili Lamborghini, Prehistorik Man, Roadsters, and Lotus Challenge, Just to name a few.
Today, Caen no longer works in gaming. He’s been with the McDonald’s corporation for the past four years, and he is in charge of all their Worldwide IT Digital projects. And in hindsight, he doesn’t disown the game that caused him so much aggravation 17 years ago.
“I coded, designed, or produced over 100 games in my life,” said Caen. “So Superman 64 is one of the 100. That being said, it is in my Top 10 in term of sales, and it’s probably also the one that people still talk about,” he wryly noted, “almost 20 years later.”
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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