Posted on May 6, 2017
Superman 64: A Cultural Artifact
For my final assignment in this project, I’ve decided to take on a game from the 90s that I’m sure anyone who saw this project expected me to look at eventually. Superman 64 is notorious for being considered the worst N64 game ever made. Developed and published by Titus Interactive, this game was released on May 29, 1999. It has been absolutely decimated by critics time and time again and I, like so many others, have my own opinions on this game after playing it. They just might not be what people want to hear.
My verdict? This game really isn’t that bad.
That’s not to say this is a good game. Far from it. This thing is bad. Like, it’s really, really bad. And I’ll get to why that is later but for now, just know that I don’t think it’s irredeemable.
The entire plot of this game is that Lex Luthor has kidnapped a number of Superman’s friends and trapped them in a virtual world. It’s up to Superman to infiltrate this digital world and rescue his friends before Lex does something to them? I suppose? It’s really not very clear on that but it’s not really important. Playing through the game, it’s really easy to forget that there’s a plot at all. Most of the time you’re just kind of doing chores.
Gameplay is split between two different sections. In what I’m calling the “Chore” section, Superman runs around doing various tasks while a clock ticks down. I call these tasks chores because I have absolutely no idea how they relate to the plot of the game. In the first level alone the player is tasked with flying through rings, throwing some cars, flying through rings, flying a car to safety, flying through rings, freezing some tornados, and also flying through rings. There isn’t much mention of Lex Luthor and the only indication that this might be related to your friend’s situation is that Superman is there. The whole ordeal is fairly tedious and doesn’t result in a very rewarding feeling.
Having said this, I want to take a moment to respond to one of the largest criticisms this game has. Namely, that the
ring sections are too numerous and too difficult. To this, I say that y’all don’t know how to play this game because I had no trouble with the rings whatsoever. There are way too many rings to fly through, mind you. Like, there is an absurd number of rings to fly through and I can’t imagine how they could be important to rescuing people. If Superman has a quota of rings he has to fly through before helping anyone in need then it’s no wonder Metropolis is always in such a state of chaos. It’s not that hard to actually fly through the rings once you understand how they work though. A common criticism of these sections is that Superman controls badly, taking wide turns and going way too fast to accommodate some of the sharp turns the game expects you to make. These people, I think, have been playing the game without knowing how to control Superman. See, both of these are valid criticisms but what steps can be taken to counter them? Every game has mechanics that work against you in some way and a player has to be able to adapt. In this case, I find that tapping the B button to continue flying at a steady speed rather than constantly accelerating to the maximum is much easier to control. Then, as far as moving Superman goes, you have to look at him as a car rather than a person. He’s got a lot of power to that flight and as a result you have to make small corrections when you get out of line. The N64 controller admittedly isn’t great for making such subtle motions but once you get the hang of it, the ring sections do become much more manageable.
Or, for people who like quick solutions, you can just set the game to easy mode in the options menu to completely remove the rings. I’ve been hearing about this game for years and I had no idea you could just turn off the rings. It’s arguable that having to remove content from the game to make it playable is ridiculous but I’ll get to that very soon.
The other main section this game has to offer is the more ground-heavy plot sections. Here, you’re encouraged to land Superman and run around fighting enemies and finding clues to rescue people. It’s also here where I had to give
up on actually trying to play Superman 64 by myself. While Superman’s flight controls are fairly fluid once you adjust to the learning curve, getting around on the ground is constantly jittery and annoying. He controls more like a tank here and having to reposition yourself over and over in order to land a hit on a bad guy is grating. Whereas the rings from earlier have a very forgiving hit box, the enemies require you to be standing right on top of them in order to do damage. However, their ranged bullets stop you for a moment as you try to move forward and there is no moment of invulnerability. This means that enemies can repeatedly fire at you, keeping you from getting close. Also, the bullets hurt you which means Titus has no idea what a Superman is.
Given that I could no longer progress in this game, I turned to online playthroughs to see what the rest of this game had to offer. It was at this point where I discovered the absolute best thing about Superman 64. When performing speedruns, most players use glitches in order to skip through entire plot-based sections. I watched with awe as one runner walked directly into a locked door in order to clip through to the other side and complete the stage in less than a minute. Clipping through walls to find areas where Titus’ design team clearly never intended for players to go is such a common strategy when playing this game that it got me thinking. In his book “Half-Real,” Jesper Juul claims that video games are a combination of rules and fiction. If that is the case, then does it matter who makes up the rules?
Obviously, Titus had some ideas in mind for how they wanted this game to play out. They included levels that were designed in specific ways in order to indicate to a player where they are meant to go and what they are meant to do. However, Superman 64 is actually so broken that players reject these indications and instead create their own rules, thus reshaping the entire experience of the game. As an English major, I often remind myself that authorial intent is inherently worthless in most works of fiction but here authorial intent is not only worthless, it’s actively worked against. It breaks down the barrier between designer and player, in a sense. By creating strategies that use the game’s flaws against itself, players are acknowledging a designer’s presence in the code of the game and deciding that they, as player, know best instead. It’s a fascinating process and, even more than that, it’s a fun process.
By making a broken mess of a game, Titus removed a lot of the potential fun. Games are often fun because they give you constraints and goals to achieve and being able to work within the system set before you in a successful way can be a rewarding experience if done correctly. If the system is broken, then it’s much harder to achieve success due to having unclear rules. However, by imposing your own sense of order on this digital world you can realign the game’s goals and make the game in your own image. Thus, a game initially about Lex Luthor kidnapping Superman’s friends instead becomes about the player in the physical world attempting to reach the game’s end through whatever means possible. And that’s fun stuff.
Bearing this in mind, I dove back into Superman 64 one last time to try to find my own way of having fun with it and discovered that the practice mode is actually really great. As discussed before, I find the flying controls to be pretty nice and enjoyed flying through rings all the time. Practice mode is basically just a big open space of a city where you can fly around to your heart’s content, learning how to play the game and acclimating to things. When you don’t give yourself a goal though and you just allow yourself to glide around Metropolis (or, at least what you can see of it. The draw distance is terrible!) it’s possible to have a really nice, calming time. It reminds me of games like Minecraft where you are given a specific goal but you can ignore it if you like to just have a good long walk. It’s soothing and mind-numbing in the best way.
So, like I said before. Superman 64 isn’t a great game in the formal sense. It’s something akin to shattered glass sculpture that you can kind of tell the shape of. All the parts are there and you can see where it was supposed to be something in particular but really it can’t be called a “game” anymore with all the mess. Still though, when you put it into the right light, some really cool colors can still shine right on through.