This post was written for the release of Spider-Man on Playstation 4. This is the first time I write about video games for this site (or any site really). Seeing people on social media getting excited for a superhero video game reminded me of a tale from my youth, when I got really excited for a superhero game. Only, things turned out horribly for me.
Let me take you back in time to the distant past of 1999. 10 year old Philippe went to the video store on a rainy day during the summer vacation and rented Superman 64, unsuspecting of the torment that would follow him to this day. I took the game home and loaded up the cartridge in the console. What followed was an exercise in frustration and poor design. You have a menu, you can pick training or main story, but these things were essentially the same. I selected the main story, and without ANY tutorial, or anything explaining you the control, you’re propelled into a poorly rendered 3d Metropolis and are told you have 90 seconds to fly through all the rings.
It was the most frustrating thing ever, the controls were impossible to learn, let alone control. There was a page in the pause menu telling you how to control Superman in flight. It even told you how to use your super power, heat vision, super breath, though you couldn’t use it until much later in the game. It was complex and outright broken. Superman would turn mid-flight, but it was so difficult to achieve, it was painful You only had one speed to fly and maneuvering was extremely hard, so if you missed a ring, you were screwed.
If you don’t go through all the rings before the time runs out, it’s game over. So I tried and tried and tried for hours to get it just right. There were a lot of rings to go through. I finally managed to complete it after, I think three of four hours of doing just that and I thought: “Well now the fun begins”. Only, it wasn’t. Once you have finished that part, then you have to complete the second objective of that same mission, which was “Rescue pedestrians” and you only had 6 seconds to figure out what was going on, where to go and what to do. I’ll remember the anger I felt when I finally finished the damned ring part with just a few seconds to spare, only to be thrown into a second mission with only 6 seconds to achieve it. It was like the game physically yelled Go to Hell directly at me. You fail the mission, then it’s game over and you have to start at the beginning. That’s right, you have to go through the rings again.
A couple hours later, I managed to do the rings section and rescue the pedestrians, which consisted of flying up to it, picking it up and throwing it away, it’s all you have to do, but you have to do it in 6 seconds. I ended throwing the car out of my hands and onto a second pedestrian it exploded as it touched the floor, a dreaded Game Over message coming on screen. Again, hours later, when I finally did the rings section and rescued the car, I moved on to the next level which was….more rings…. One of the worst weekend of my childhood.
It’s interesting to see the legacy this game has had. Often lauded as one of the worst game of all-time, Superman 64 is notorious for its difficult controls, the sub-par graphics and the lacking gameplay and story. The flying mechanics were unresponsive and frustrating. All of these were burned into my memory. It was one of my first video game disappointment I can remember and it spite of it, I still like this game, especially as a social game. Superman 64 scratch that “so bad it’s good” vibe. It’s like watching The Room or Troll II with friends, especially if they don’t know what they’re in for. I felt the same way recently when I played Octodad with some coworkers, the game asks you to do something easy, but gives you absolutely terrible controls to achieve it.
Now what I don’t often see is that the 2003 Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis video game might be even worse than Superman 64. Bizarre choices made Aquaman a weird hybrid of open-world exploration and street fighter style fights. I remember when I bought Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis for $1.99 at EBgames in Ottawa and how struck I was with how similar it was to Superman 64. The big difference was that you could actually fly properly (or swim I guess), but the world was empty, the fights grinds the game to a complete halt as you fight each underlings one by one in a long drawn-out battle. I guess superhero video games came a long way since. The Arkham games have been fun, the Lego Marvel & DC too, same with that new Spider-Man game, Infamous and Prototype were fun too. But for every gem, there’s a slew of absolutely atrocious super hero video games. Whether it’s Superman 64, Watchmen: The End is Nigh, Catwoman, Iron Man 2 or Silver Surfer. Super hero fans were not treated well for decades.
What about you, have you been burned by bad superhero video games in the past?
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.