Monday, September 19, 2011

N64 Month: Superman

NB: The entry I had originally planned to post next, a review of Fighter's Destiny, I accidentally deleted.  It will thus have to be re-done later, likely after the conclusion of N64 Month.  Having said that, I suppose now would be a good time to bring up a surprise I was planning for you anyway.  Allow me to present to you, my fellow readers...

  • Publisher: Titus
  • Developer: Titus
  • Release: 29 May 1999
  • Genre: Action
  • Players: 1-2
  • Save: Controller Pak/1 page
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$5-10)
Yes, that's right: I'm going to review Superman for Nintendo 64, frequently cited as one of the worst, if not the worst, video games of all time.  What could the game have possibly done to warrant such widespread disapproval?  It's a long list, trust me, but when I was a kid renting this when it came out, I couldn't pick out a fraction of the problems I'm about to list at the end of this review.  In fact, I remember kinda liking it.  And I don't feel guilty about beating this horse again, since not even the Angry Video Game Nerd got past the first level in his review.  So how much of my memories is true and how much has been distorted by time, maturity, and antidepressants?

I'm sure you need no introduction to Superman, comic books' Man of Steel (and not in that phoney-baloney Josef Stalin kind of way) and defender of the city Metropolis.  He's got almost every superpower one could wish for without thinking too hard on the subject: flying, super strength, super speed, x-ray vision, you get the idea.  And, as you may also know, his only weakness is radiation from the mineral kryptonite.  Between the many different comic series, TV shows, and movies, the Superman franchise has gone through many iterations.  The universe presented in this game was based off of Superman: The Animated Series, the hit show which ran on TV prior to the game's release in 1999.  Apparently, villain Lex Luthor has trapped Superman and some of his friends in a virtual re-creation of Metropolis.  What could possibly go wrong?

If you don't of this game's most-publicised problem know by now, I'll stop beating around the bush: you have to fly through rings.  You have to fly through more rings than the Sonic equivalent of New Super Mario Bros. 2.  These rings are to Superman as falling into pits is to the Atari E.T. game: both unloved gimmicks in famously bad games.  But hear me out so I can explain how this works.  The levels in this game alternate between "Ride" stages, where Superman flies to different points in virtual Metropolis to perform miscellaneous heroic deeds, and action stages taking place within one location.  To get from place to place in the ride stages, you have to fly through a chain of rings.  In order to force you on track, skipping too far ahead means you have to start that particular passage over again.  However, at all times there's a safe zone of three rings ahead of the next one.  Should you miss any rings, you can take the time to go back and pass through the first one, or just go to the next ring in the buffer.  Taken on its own, it is an annoying, time-wasting, and unnecessary mechanic, I will admit.

The rings are easier if you slow down.
But get this: it gets even worse when you consider how bad the controls are.  The sensitivity of the Control Stick and the lazy camera make it hard to turn at high speeds.  And since the frame rate flucuates slightly, if it decides to run at optimal speed when you're about to make a turn, you'll have even less control.  But what most critics don't tell you is that there are a few ways to deal with this problem.  You'll have an easier time flying if you just let go of the accelerator (B) or even brake (R) every once in a while.  That's right: it's like Gran Turismo as a flying man.  What they also don't tell you is that if you switch the difficulty to the Easy setting, the rings are gone completely - you just follow the compass to your next destination.  While this does remove a major annoyance, the lack of challenge could make the game more boring, so pick your poison.  And even worse, unless you select the hard mode, the game ends before the final level!  Way to railroad us into using an unlikeable mechanic!  Colour me offended.

With all the attention gamers have given to the ride stages, they seem to forget there's more to the game than that.  Action stages occur after each ride stage, and have Superman do his thing within a certain location: a dam, a warehouse, the Lexcorp office building, etc.  Although the enemies are primarily just Black Shadows and drone bots, along the way you'll encounter villains from the comic/show, so if names like Mara, Brainiac, and of course Lex Luthor sound familiar, more power to ya.  In these levels, you have to complete a sequence of objectives , and you get to use a bunch of Superman's other powers to complete some of these goals.  Apart from your standard flight and strength, abilities like Heat Vision, Ice Breath, Super Speed, and the surprisingly useless "Reprogrammation" (The manual didn't even translate that name from French!) or mind-control are meter-limited and recharged by collecting tokens.  Keeping the source material in mind, you may cry foul at these limitations, but I'll personally accept that as a challenge, not that you use these powers much anyway.

Unfortunately, the objectives are so unintuitively placed that you'll be backtracking every which way to find them.  The fact that many of these levels are rather large, with many places that stand out, does not help matters, nor do the unspecific descriptions of your objectives. The third stage, the warehouse, is where the game starts to show its true colours. There are doorways placed all around the main room, but they’re blocked by lasers until you find the key or switch that turns one of them off. Like the one at the top of the back wall; since the room’s so dark and foggy, how would you know to look for it up there? And then there’s this: near the end, you rescue Lois Lane and escort her out of the building, when guess what -- she slows down as I have to go ahead and hunt down Black Shadows to protect her! But you can’t go too far or some more Black Shadows will gang up on her from nowhere! So now you have to wait for her to leisurely make her way across the room until she finally reaches the end, when guess what -- now she picks up the pace. Seriously? Were you pranking on me, Lois? Were you yanking my chain?  (But then again, it was awfully nice of Lex Luthor to not let Superman use the elevator until he read the note telling how to turn off the kryptonite generator in the next room.)  Having weighed both the ride and action stages on their own merits, I can't necessarily way which is worse, so again, pick your poison - or don't pick at all.
The objectives are unintuitive to find.
After having come back to this game after all these years, I can say without fear of contradicting myself that it is bad. In fact, it’s so bad that a port for the PlayStation was planned, only to get cancelled once the scathing reviews rolled in!  I know that feel. Whether or not this would’ve presented a chance to right some of its wrongs we’ll never know, but the fact remains that in the version we're stuck with, the character models are goofy-looking and poorly-animated, vision-limiting fog is prevalent everywhere despite the lack of graphical detail, nearly every gameplay mechanic makes little to no sense, the controls provide you with all the grace of a legless mammoth, your mission goals are unclearly described, the physics model is parsecs beyond unpolished, and it’s buggier than a night in Chincoteague. And that plot about Superman being trapped in a virtual world? It must have been a last-minute addition (it was brought on by the licence holders who didn't want any "real" violence), since it never gets resolved!  Even if you beat the game, Superman never gets out of the virtual world to bring the "real" Lex Luthor to justice!  Even if you win, you lose...  Hm, what a fitting metaphor for the game itself.

Having said all that, I still managed to gleam some occasional bouts of playability from this title, so I wouldn't call it a total loss.  After all, I still maintain that I've seen and even played worse games than this.  But if you think you can get as much fun as I did from playing Superman, you'll need much more luck than I.

+ The flying stages are a little bit fun once you get used to them.
- Broken collision detection.
- Unclear objectives.
- Awkward model animation.
- Poorly-optimised graphics (fog despite the lack of graphical detail).

Graphics: 0 capes out of 5
Sound: 2 capes out of 5
Control: 0 capes out of 5
Design: 1 cape out of 5
The Call: 20% (F)

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