A decent Superman video game?

manofsteelI frequently have random thoughts.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a big fan of comic books. I grew up on them. I still read them. The desire to write my favorite comic books is what led to me becoming a writer.

I also grew up on video games and I still play them as well, but I’d be described as a casual gamer at best. I go through gaming spurts and mostly, I’m just out to kill a few hours, so I tend to go for games that more serious gamers might label as unchallenging. The few times I’ve set foot onto Xbox Live or the PSN, my ass has been quickly and embarrassingly handed to me. But, I persevere and play games on lower difficulty settings in my free time and I enjoy them.

Now, being a comic book fan, I keep an eye out for games based on my favorite characters. I’ve enjoyed a good many of them. I know you’ll hear among a lot of gaming circles that there are very few games based on licensed properties that are good. But I’ll be damned if I still didn’t get quite a bit of enjoyment out of them.

Of course there are exceptions. Capcom’s Marvel fighting games, like X-Men: Children of the AtomX-Men vs. Street Fighter, and the very popular Marvel vs. Capcom series are a lot of fun, but that’s because Capcom basically took their Street Fighter series and replaced their characters with Marvel’s. And Spider-Man on PlayStation was very groundbreaking, because it went a long way in taking what made Spider-Man unique and incorporated that into the game. Then, as everyone is well aware, Arkham Asylum completely broke the mold. For the first time, people had a video game where they could really feel what it was like to be Batman. From using fear and stealth to intimidate your enemies to solving puzzles and just flat-out beating the crap out of criminals, Rocksteady hardly missed a step. There was no way it could be any better, and then Rocksteady topped themselves with Arkham City and gave you the ability to literally glide across Gotham and jump from rooftop to rooftop.

Whenever I play the Arkham games (and these days, it’s almost always Arkham City), I inevitably start thinking about the potential for other superheroes. Apparently, the game adaptation for The Amazing Spider-Man went halfway between being a groundbreaking Spider-Man game and just being a clone of Arkham City. I’m just going on reviews here, which have convinced me to not pay the (at the time of this writing) $49.99 price-tag the PSN is charging for it. But there aren’t many superhero games that really emulate what’s unique about these different characters. What about an Iron Man game where you can upgrade your armor in different ways for different purposes? Stealth armor at the expense of firepower or vice versa for different experiences in gaming.

And this made me remember a Superman game that had some good ideas, but ultimately didn’t quite mesh together—Superman Returns. Loosely based on the movie, when I read about this game, it sounded like something that was really clever. For the first time ever, Superman was literally invulnerable in this game. No matter how hard an opponent hit you, you could not die. So how to make it challenging? Well, you have to be careful how you defeat a foe, because the city of Metropolis has a health bar and the more damage you cause, the more the health bar depletes, so you have to try to be careful with how you take on opponents. But as clever as this is, in the end it’s basically a clever way of convincing you that you’re invulnerable when you’re really not. Because when the city’s health bar depletes, that’s basically like what happens when a character’s health bar depletes.

It is a start, though. The important thing is to look at what Superman can do. You know how in the Arkham games, Batman has his Detective Mode that shows him where all the enemies are? Superman has that as well–it’s called x-ray vision. He’s also got microscopic vision, which can be very effective to detect things other people might mist. And super-hearing. These are powers that are often overlooked, especially in games, but can actually be really useful. Superman’s got a strict ethical code, so although he can just put his fist through Lex Luthor’s head, that’s not an option for him, because he sticks to his code. So instead of fighting Lex Luthor in a suit of armor, what if you have to try and collect evidence to prove that Luthor is involved in a crime? That’d be an interesting alternative and a cool side-quest thing to run alongside fighting enemies. Don’t forget that Clark Kent is an investigative reporter and he’s also got resources with the Daily Planet, so those are things that could be incorporated in a game so it doesn’t just turn into a smash-it-up.

That’s not to say that a Superman game shouldn’t have stages where Superman can bash the hell out of things, but it’s important to find a way to utilize all of Superman’s abilities. Speed, flight, strength, x-ray vision, microscopic vision, heat vision, super-breath, freeze-breath, invulnerability, these are all powers that can be utilized in a clever fashion. Have you seen the recent animated film, Superman vs. The Elite? That’s based on a story titled “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” that first appeared in Action Comics #775, written by Joe Kelly. It’s one of my favorite Superman stories, and it contrasts in a wonderful way the difference between Superman’s method of doing things and the methods of more ruthless, grittier superheroes like The Authority.  But one of the clever things that happens is Superman defeats Manchester Black, a man with incredibly powerful telekinetic abilities, not by pummeling him. But rather, he uses his x-ray vision to locate the part of Black’s brain that grants him psychic abilities and then uses his heat vision to harmlessly lobotomize that part of the brain. Black is rendered powerless without ever feeling a thing and without Superman having to throw a punch.

Now that’s a clever use of power, and it’s an example that I hope the makers of the next Superman game will look to. I don’t know if there will be a game based on the upcoming Man of Steel film, but if there is, I hope the designers will pay attention to the things that make Superman Superman and try to give us something that’s unique to Superman. Because no one needs to see another game where Superman just flies around and punches bad guys with some other random powers sprinkled throughout.

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