When game critics cite the worst game of all time, they’re likely to come up with a range of different candidates. They may say E.T. They might even say Big Rigs Racing. But among them, a more superpowered candidate stands out: Superman 64. Developed by Titus Software and released on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the game was a major best-seller during June of that year. At the time, the game even scored a reputation as the console’s third-best-selling title. But one problem remained – the game was bad. No matter what the sales record says, the game was critically panned across all gaming media. But why was this? Does Superman 64 truly deserve the harsh criticism it continues to receive to this day?
Well, to be put it abruptly, yes. Superman 64 is as bad as they say. The game is filled with bugs, tedious gameplay and poor design choices. It’s a game that was evidently rushed out to meet the deadline. The game’s infamous ‘ring-flying’ stages, where Superman must fly through rings within a specified time limit and reach the goal have received much derision from gamers and critics alike.
There are several reasons for this. One is the multiple glitches and bugs that plague these stages. Superman can easily get caught in the walls, buildings and bridges if you fly too close. Then, there is the game’s poor draw distance. A green fog blocks most of the player’s field of vision, making the act of flying through rings even more tedious than it would be otherwise. That’s not even bringing to attention the game’s abhorrent control scheme, which makes Superman hard to control – clearly, the man isn’t great at turning tight corners. These points all come together and build a frustrating experience, which is further hindered by the stage’s strict rule when it comes to the rings. You can skip a couple of rings, but any more than that will result in the player failing, with Lex Luthor laughing victoriously in the background. It’s a sound that players of the game have come to know and dread since failing is a regular thing in this game.
However, the ‘ring stages’ are just the start of Superman 64’s problems, since the maze segments are considerably worse. Unlike the flying stages, the player will spend the majority of the mazes on foot, completing various objectives. These include defusing time-bombs, protecting Superman’s friends and fighting bosses. But while the variety of mission objectives is well-intentioned, the execution is lousy and poor.
One example is when fighting the game’s ‘bosses’. I use ‘bosses’ in parentheses because they’re not so much bosses as normal enemy mooks who take more hits to put down. They’re programmed in the same way as the game’s “Shadows” (the identikit enemies you fight), staying on the floor punching the player and offering no idiosyncratic movement or attack patterns of their own. To a Superman nerd, this can be particularly jarring, especially when intergalactic supervillains such as Darkseid and Mala are fighting like ragdolls as opposed to the superpowered beings they are in the animated series. The worst thing about fighting these enemies is that it’s impossible to dodge their attacks due to the awkward nature of the fighting system. The only physical attack in Superman’s arsenal is his awkward punching. Therefore, fighting bosses is more about withstanding their attacks long enough for you to kill them.
Then there are the damned glitches. Superman 64, like many games of its generation, is fond of the escort mission trope but, unlike many of those other games, doesn’t do it very well. One section has Superman rescuing Lois Lane and escorting her towards a certain goal. This means defending her from all manner of enemies that suddenly pop up from nowhere. The problem is that enemies that the player will have already defeated in previous rooms on their way to rescuing Lois will respawn out of nowhere and with no explanation, forcing them to go ahead and wipe them out before they wipe the sassy young journalist out. Unfortunately, leaving Lois for a short amount of time means that shadows will automatically respawn near her position and start attacking her!
And yes, if Superman doesn’t return in that given amount of time, it’s game over. The problem with this is that it provides an example of fake difficulty. The time you have to return to Lois isn’t nearly enough to contend with all the newly respawned enemies from the previous rooms – not helped by the poor controls. This means having to return to the room to save her from the shadows then going back to the other room to deal with a few more respawned enemies before flying back to Lois to deal with a few more magically-appearing ‘Shadows’. Rinse and repeat.
Alas, there are some good reasons as to how the game became the poor product it was. The developers, Titus, were given strict guidelines from Warner Bros., who insisted that Superman could never harm real human beings and placed limits on the superhero’s powers. This is what would inspire the ‘virtual world’ setting of the game. It was delayed for six months due to a lengthy approval process and, ultimately, according to the game’s head honcho, Eric Caen, the game’s design was too ambitious for the N64 software. Yet, despite the game’s critical panning, it became the best-selling release of June 1999 and the third best-selling game so far in the console’s history at that point in time. That’s how things work, of course.
One thing is for sure, though. Superman 64 will forever remain one of the worst video games of all time in many gamers’ minds. In an internet generation where we regularly worship or denounce video games on a daily basis, it’s unlikely to be forgotten as such. The game continues to be the butt of every gaming nerd’s joke and is a good advertisement on how not to make a game. That’s not going to change anytime soon.