How To Make a Good Superman Game
Zack Snyder’s new Superman film, currently in pre-production, officially has its Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman. With Henry Cavill donning the cape, tights and S-shield, the film is one step closer to being released into theaters and the cynical, judgmental eye of the nerd population (including me, proclaimed Superman fan boy). Of course, when a major studio like Warner Bros releases a big budget film based on such a classic franchise as the big blue boyscout, a few things are inevitable. There will be Halloween costumes, 40 trailers, toys that less resemble the actors than they do a pile of mashed potatoes with a spit curl, and a video game tie-in. Does it have to be terrible? Not at all.
While the majority of movie-based games are absolutely terrible, at least nowadays (remember when Capcom made Disney games?), a few of them stand out as bright, shining examples of decent games standing in a sea of CGI talking animals from Dreamworks. But for every Spider-Man 2 there are two hundred Avatar: the Games. Some superhero games have avoided this by taking advantage of the cross promotion of releasing a just before or after a film’s release. Batman Arkham Asylum had nothing to do with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but both series have absolutely fed off of each other for publicity. I guarantee when you’re sitting in the theater waiting for The Dark Knight Rises to start, there will be a commercial for an Arkham Asylum game, as well as on the TDKR DVD. This leads me to step one in making a decent Superman game:
Don’t base it on a movie
You can have Henry Cavill voice Supes and even feature some scenes from the film, but there’s no reason to slavishly follow the movie’s plot. There’s even a happy medium between basing the game on the film and being completely separate, just look at the aforementioned Spider-Man 2. It followed the films plot, but that had almost nothing to do with the actual meat of the game. Sure, Doc Ock showed up, but so did Mysterio, the Rhino, Black Cat and Shocker. The developers felt no need to stay in canon with the film series, because there isn’t any. No one who watches Spider-Man 2 in 15 years will think, “Oh I better play the games too to get the whole story.” Just have fun with it. Hell the best part of the game was the web-slinging, which is completely unrelated to the plot whatsoever. This brings me to my next point.
Sit back for a second, close your eyes and hum the Superman theme. Duhhhh duh duh duh duhhhhhh, daaaaa daaaaaa DAAAAAAHHHH. What does that make you think of? Now Google image search “Superman.” What is he doing in 90% of those pictures? There’s a reason the tagline for the 1978 film was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Flying is THE most iconic thing about Superman, more than the cape, the S, the song and kryptonite. Much like swinging in Spider-Man 2, flying should be a HUGE part of a Superman game. Think the boat from Wind Waker, but he can move up and down. Superman Returns for PS3 and 360 was on the right track. I never played the full retail version of the game, but the demo allowed you to fly around a huge open Metropolis.
This also means Superman pretty much needs to be an open world-type game. These have been getting a bit stale lately, and are in danger of oversaturation. But, I know how to make it work.
Metropolis, Superman’s health meter and powers
The biggest concern when making a game based on the last son of Krypton is the treatment of his powers. Superman is one of the most powerful beings on the planet, but this doesn’t mean he can’t work as the protagonist of a game. People forget there is no shortage of characters in the DCU who are as strong, if not stronger than Superman. Boss fights can be epic set pieces featuring the most powerful cosmic foes in Superman’s rogues gallery. I want to wrestle with Mongul, blast the Parasite’s face off with heat vision and throw Darkseid into the sun. Outside of boss battles we don’t even need to bother with combat, Superman deals with a myriad of threats to truth, justice and the American way. A meteor shower rains down above the city and only Supes can stop it. On your way there, maybe a cat is stuck in a tree and you can help it down. No problem is too small for Superman.
The usual attempt to adapt Superman’s powers is to give him the Metroid treatment and strip him of all abilities, forcing you to unlock them throughout the game. I’d like to see our hero at full power to begin with, but the real challenge is using your powers correctly. During the first season of Smallville, Clark would develop a new ability every week and it was his responsibility not to kill people with them. With great power comes, y’know, having to think about your actions. If you’re just chasing a bank robber, freezing him with your breath might dock you a few points. Feel free to melt Lex Luthor’s legs off, though.
Metropolis can be the real health bar. Keep crime down and make sure the buildings don’t fall over. And don’t forget, Superman doesn’t just protect the city. He protects everyone. We can break the confines of the tri-county area and travel to Spain to smack Brainiac in the face or Tokyo to stop a tornado. Super speed and telescoping hearing are good for that. So we have boss battles, super heroics and travel, but even the Man of Tomorrow needs some downtime.
I mentioned what a big Superman nerd I was, right? As if this article wasn’t enough to tell you.
A while back I wrote a short essay about the identities of Clark Kent. The old joke is, “How do a pair of glasses fool everyone in Metropolis?” They don’t, at least not on their own.
No one suspects Superman and Clark Kent to be one in the same because it’s ridiculous. How could the dumpy klutz from Kansas be the Man of Steel? When in the “Daily Planet” Kent persona, Clark slouches, raises his voice an octave, wears glasses, changes his hair, and wears clothes that are two sizes too big for him. To everyone else Kent looks like an out of shape oaf who happens to be a great writer. No one would think twice that he might be Superman. The real mystery is how he bagged a sweet dame like Lois Lane. Watch Christopher Reeves seamlessly move between the two personas in the Superman films and Brandon Routh emulates it in Superman Returns really well.
Even a super genius like Lex Luthor couldn’t believe it. He was once brought a file containing incontrovertible proof that Clark Kent was indeed Superman. One look at it and Lex just tossed it in the trash. Why would someone with the powers of a god ever portray himself as a common man? It really is a silly notion.
So how do we incorporate Clark Kent into the Superman game? Do not take the Hulk route of cramming in unintuitive stealth sections that just slow down the game. Let me just BE Clark Kent. I want to tool around the Daily Planet offices, flirt with Lois, and jump into phone booths. Maybe Steve Lombard has a sneaking suspicion and I can hit the A button to spill coffee on myself and fall out of my chair. Then a news report comes on about parademons swarming the downtown area. Better hop down the elevator shaft and change into my super-PJs. This looks like a job for Superman.
Man, I just got myself all excited for a game that will never happen. This is all just one geek’s pipe dream for a game based on his favorite hero. There are other ways to do it too, maybe a developer could take some inspiration from the golden/silver age of comics for some good ol’ Superdickery. Take control of Superman as he tortures Jimmy Olsen just for the hell of it, slaps a jap, or builds a machine that turns Lois Lane into a black chick. Aw crap, now I’m more excited for an even LESS likely game!