The Story Behind Superman 64
Just how did it go so wrong?
Since it's launch nearly 20 years ago in the early Summer of 99, Superman: The New Superman Adventures (or Superman 64 as it is commonly known) has been widely regarded as one of the worst games ever made. It's been ridiculed and mocked by just about every game journalist and YouTube game commentator in history, and is a constant reminder of a game that held so much promise, but went horribly wrong in the execution.
But what most people forget is that when the game came out, it was highly anticipated. The game had been in development for about 2 years before it was released, and every Preview article that magazines wrote about the game were extremely positive and hopeful. So, that brings about the obvious question - Just what happened? Superman 64 started out as a game that would seemingly be a dream come true for every fan of the Man of Steel, but the end result disappointed everyone. And yet, despite the massive backlash the game received almost from the moment it hit store shelves, it was still financially successful, and was even a top seller the month it was released.
Today, I'm going to look at the story behind the game, and just how this ambitious project that seemed like it could not go wrong eventually went wrong in just about every way imaginable.
Even back in 99, video games about Superman were nothing new. Dating back to 1978 for the Atari, various developers had tried to successfully adapt his adventures to the interactive world of gaming. However, given his wide range of powers and near invincible nature, the character was often hard to adapt. In my opinion, the closest any company came to succeeding was Sunsoft's 1992 effort for the Sega Genesis, which while not a perfect game, does have an amazing and underrated soundtrack that ranks right up there with Sonic the Hedgehog and the Streets of Rage series as some of the best music to appear on the 16-Bit console. Seriously, check out the game and its music on YouTube sometime.
Back in 1997, Eric Caen wanted to change all that. He was the co-founder of a small French gaming publisher called Titus, who had had some small success doing developing work for big companies like Sega, and bringing over some Japanese imports. Caen became interested in tackling the Superman license when he heard that Warner Bros. was planning a new animated TV series created by the same critically acclaimed team that had done Batman: The Animated Series back in 1992. The license was easy enough to acquire, due to the fact that there was not much interest in Superman at the time. And so, he set about working on three different games based on the cartoon. The first released was a title for the Game Boy Color in 1997. It did not get a lot of attention, nor is it remembered much today. That's because everyone's attention was set on the big console games based on the cartoon that were set to be released for both the Nintendo 64 and the Sony Playstation.
Eric Caen, the co-founder of Titus, and the mind behind Superman 64.
Caen's vision for the console games was a large, open world adventure that would allow Superman to go or fly anywhere, and perform a large variety of missions that would involve more than just fighting enemies. It would also employ all of his powers, and use them in unique ways in order to solve puzzles, and interact with the environment of Metropolis. The people at Warner Bros. who were in charge of holding the license loved Caen's ideas, and agreed to cooperate in order to create what would probably be the most ambitious superhero game ever at that time. However, what started out as a beautiful working relationship between Titus and Warner Bros./D.C. Comics would quickly turn sour.
According to Caen in a 2015 interview, shortly after a licensing agreement was made, the people at Warner Bros. who were in charge of the license left the company, and were replaced by completely different people who did not like Caen, or his vision for a Superman game. They also did not like the fact that a tiny company like Titus had been entrusted with Superman, and felt that a much bigger company like Electronic Arts would be better suited to the task. The new people at Warner Bros. who Caen was working with made sure that the development was as difficult as possible for him. They questioned nearly every decision he made regarding the game, and seemed intent on creating delays. Even getting the rights to use certain characters from the Superman Universe and the cartoon took much longer than expected, delaying the process significantly.
Yep, looks like Superman doesn't fight or hurt people in the comics to me...
The license holders even took issue with the very idea of the game itself, of having Superman interacting with an environment that could be destroyed by the hero's powers. They also did not want Superman to fight or hurt real people, despite the fact that he frequently did in the comics and the cartoon series. In fact, the people at Warner's wanted the game to be one where Superman would protect Metropolis, but not have to fight anyone. It would almost be a Sim City-like game, where Superman would have to protect the city from disaster and harm.
To get around this, and to make something that remotely resembled his vision, Caen needed to rework the story behind his game. He came up with the convoluted plot of Lex Luthor kidnapping Superman's friends, and hiding them in a Virtual Reality version of Metropolis, for reasons that are not really explained well in the game itself. (The original game did come with a comic book, which I assume explained the story better, but I have not read this.) With it being a Virtual Metropolis, nothing that Superman would fight or damage would be real, and therefore, he would not actually be hurting anyone. Apparently, this was enough to appease the rights holders, who gave the game the go-ahead.
Unfortunately, this whole process of appeasing Warner Bros. ate up a lot of time, which was supposed to be spent on development. The massive open-world environments that were originally envisioned were reduced to tiny areas that gave Superman limited movement, and where he could not even fly through. In order to compensate for this, the infamous levels where Superman would fly through rings in order to reach his destination were emphasized instead. Still, even this backfired, as the control on Superman was poor, making him about as agile and mobile as a garbage truck with wings. According to Caen, the rings were always supposed to be a part of the game, but not to the repetitive extent that they were in the final version.
The rushed nature of the programming time turned what should have been a Triple-A title into one that was doomed from the start. The game was littered with bugs and issues, as well as graphics that did not live up to what the designers were hoping. Due to the constant outside interference, and the changes that had to be constantly made, the game missed its original 1998 launch. Despite the delays and the behind the scenes mess, the game still was able to be previewed at E3 1998, where it actually garnered positive buzz from the game journalists who got to try it. The game still seemed to hold a lot of promise, and magazines got fans of the Man of Steel pumped that something big was on the way.
A lot of this had to do with the fact that Caen feverishly hyped the game to anyone who would listen. He hid the game's troubled development, and instead talked up features that were going to be included in the game, but never did in the final version. Of course, even as he was making these promises, he knew that things were not going smoothly behind the scenes. While many people believe that the meddling of Warner Bros. led to a lot of the game's troubles, there are just as many who view Caen as being to blame for not being honest with the press. He knew how troubled the game was, and yet, he still was hyping the game to the gills, making grand promises that he probably knew his team was never going to be able to deliver on. Even during the months leading up to its 1999 launch, he was still acting like it was going to be the best game to ever feature the iconic superhero. And while I understand he couldn't just flat out insult the game he was working on, he had to have known that he was promising things that just were not going to happen.
Regardless, as soon as the game was released, word quickly spread that the long-awaited Superman for the Nintendo 64 was a major turkey. When the magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewed it, one of the critics actually scored it a 0.5 out of 10, which was the lowest score they could possibly hand out. In his review, the guy even states that the only reason why he didn't give it a flat out zero is because it deserves half a point for booting up properly when you turn it on. The critics were nearly unanimous, with the game earning some of the most scathing reviews of that generation of gaming. However, oddly enough, the game did much better than expected, selling a total of 500,000 copies. It remains to be seen how many people bought the game out of curiosity due to the reviews, and how many genuinely wanted to buy the game. Whatever the case, the game got a lot of attention, and has achieved a certain kind of status. Unlike most "bad" games, Superman 64 has endured, and is still remembered to this day.
So, I mentioned earlier that Titus had a Superman game in development for the Playstation as well at the time. Indeed they did, and it was being worked on by a small developer called Blue Sky Software, who was famous for doing some work for Sega on the Genesis back in the day. The game was about 90% complete, and a lot of stores were taking reservations for it. However, at that late point in the game's production, Titus' contract for the Superman rights expired, and they were unable to release the game. For a long time, information on the game was scarce, as only the box art (which was the same as the 64 version) had officially been released. But last year, a prototype was released, and there are videos on line where you can see people playing it, and get an idea of what this game would have been like. Would it have fared better than the 64 version with critics and fans? Hard to tell, as the version that's out there is unfinished.
In the end, the story of Superman 64 is a tragic one. The ambitious dreams of the developer failed to materialize because of the interference of the studio that held the rights to the character. However, at the same time, Titus must share some of the blame for hyping features that they knew were non-existent leading up to its launch. It's sadly something that happens all too often in the gaming industry, both in the past and the present. Developers create lofty goals, and even when they know that things are not working, they push the game out and hype it to the skies, hoping that consumers will pay up before they realize that the game is a dud.
It's a fiendish plot right out of a comic book, and sadly, one that's not going to go away anytime soon in the entertainment industry. All we can do is learn from mistakes, don't always believe the hype, and hope that the next game featuring our favorite superhero will be better. Fortunately, other comic book characters like Spider-Man or Batman have genuinely been treated rather well. But Superman continues to remain somewhat of an enigma to the gaming world on how to get perfectly right.
Until next time, my fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.