Superman

Superman - N64 (1999)


Cover

For those around during the N64 era, Superman 64‘s critical reception was phenomenally bad, and since release it’s come to be known as one of the all-time worst games ever released, due to poor and unresponsive tank controls, shocking bad visuals, atrocious and illogical game design, and a thoroughly stupid story involving virtual reality. In fairness, this reputation as “the worst game” isn’t entirely warranted – as pointed out by N64 Magazine there were a few equally if not worse N64 games, including CarmageddonMortal Kombat Mythologies and Aero Gauge. Still, Superman 64 has become the poster child for N64 kusoge.

Prolific Longplay video maker Proton Jon actually interviewed one of the Titus guys behind the game, Frenchman and Titus co-founder Eric Caen. (As the source has disappeared, we’ve mirrored the interview below.) The entire interview is a fascinating breakdown of self-delusion on the part of Caen, and also the problems which license holders cause when you work with their material. As Caen explains: “The main issue was working with the licensor. They caused us so much trouble – they refused to let Superman kick ‘real’ people. They generated the final quality of the product!”

When asked what he thought of the game’s reputation Caen replied: “Superman is a cult character. I don’t think it is easy to deliver even a portion of players?expectations, and we were probably too ambitious and a bit presumptuous at that time… but its terrible reputation is exaggerated mainly because Superman is an icon!” Now, even accepting the problems caused by the licensor, DC Comics, at some point you have to draw a line and acknowledge the simple fact that Caen’s team clearly had no idea what they were doing. Irrespective of any political meddling from above.

Superman moves like a drunk tank, despite direct analogue joystick control having already been present in earlier games like Mario 64. The fly and landing buttons only seem to work intermittently, and when Superman does land, it’s not always on the land but quite often a non-existent piece of “ground” in the sky. Melee combat is slow, awkward and imprecise, leading to much flailing of limbs. The cityscape consists of a few tall buildings and walkways, with entirely flat textures below for buildings – the kind of flat terrain you’d expect in a Mode 7 SNES title. Not to mention the chronic fogging which makes flying an exercise in pure frustration. Outdoor missions are timed, and while you might be able to hear your enemy target, you’ll seldom see them, leading to game over. Mission objectives, given the virtual reality setting, are suitably surreal: grab a police car and fly it down the road!

And of course there are the infamous rings in the outdoor levels, which have become symbolic of the entire Superman 64 experience. Caen defended this point, claiming: “Rings are only in the tutorial levels.” Except they’re quite clearly not. The rings appear in every outdoor level, which precede every indoor level. The game is quite literally, in the most literal sense of the term, fifty percent rings. Half of all the levels. Which raises the question: is Caen implying that there’s a tutorial level directly preceding the final level?

The indoor missions are worse than the ring missions, which at least played like a crude Pilotwings 64 rip-off. The environments are all cramped, made worse by sloppy collision detection and the tank controls. The objectives are also obscenely stupid. One involves a Rubik’s Cube style word puzzle, which is never properly explained. You need to press switches which change the letters while a timer counts down. Upon failing the game asks: “Can’t you spell Lex Luthor?” Well no, not when there’s no logical pattern to things. 

As if this beleaguered experience wasn’t bad enough, the ultimate insult is that to access the final level you need to play through on the hardest difficulty setting, otherwise it sends you back to the title screen. Afterwards you are rewarded with a rubbish 10 second ending. Still, despite its awfulness, you the public bought it in droves, as Caen explains: “The N64 game sold very well and was profitable for us!” Shame on everyone who gave this man money.

Perhaps the absolute best worst thing about Superman 64 though, is that the unreleased beta, which contained material removed at DC Comics’ insistence and somehow found its way into the hands of a collector, is considerably better than the final game which was released.

Interview:

Archived from: http://www.protonjon.com/blog/?p=48

An Interview With Eric Caen

Eric Caen is an interesting person. At 44 years old, he’s worked on over 100 different games, and co-founded his first company, Titus Interactive at the age of 19 with his brother. Currently, Eric is the President of Interplay, heading up projects such as Interplay Discovery, which allows for game developers looking for publishers the chance to get their games released to the public.

In the credits of Superman 64, Eric is listed as the Producer, which means he was heavily involved in the development of the game. Eric was kind enough to perform an interview over email with me and answer a number of questions about Titus, Interplay, and Superman 64.

Jon: Before we get started, how about telling the people reading this a little bit about yourself?

Eric: Hi, I am Eric Caen, 44 years old, and have been creating games since 1980. I founded what became Titus Interactive in 1985 (I was 19), and have worked on over 100 games in 30 years.

 

Jon: What was the first game you ever worked on?

Eric: Octopus (the game & watch from Nintendo) that I converted for Commodore 3032 (before Vic20 & C64), but the first you may know is Crazy Cars on Amiga, or Blues Brothers on NES…

 

Jon: What game(s) are you currently playing?

Eric: Only the ones I am producing, and of course the ones that are proposed to Interplay by developers across the world. Except that, the most two recent games I played are Mario Wii, and Angry Birds iPad.

 

Jon: Out of all the games you’ve worked on, which one was your favourite?

Eric: One isn’t enough…
Prehistorik Man SNES (then GBA and this year on DSiWare)
Automobili Lamborghini N64
Top Gun Combat Zones PS2
More recently: Legendary Wars : T-Rex Rumble DSiWare (coming on iPad in 2011)

 

Jon: You have worked alongside your brother in various companies for over 25 years. Has working so closely with a family member ever caused any problems or have things always gone smoothly?

Eric: It is a lot smoother than with anyone else. We trust and we respect each other’s judgment. Also we are not in the same fields of expertise (me creating games, him selling games)

 

Jon: How come there’s not much information online about the history of Titus?

Eric: I don’t know. Maybe because most of Titus’ success existed before the public internet era?

 

Jon: Close to the turn of the millennium, Titus picked up a number of studios such as Blue Sky, Interplay and Virgin Interactive Entertainment. Do you feel that Titus expanded too quickly or was the value of these acquisitions worth the risk of over-expanding?

Eric: Maybe, but it is very hard to exist in this industry as a mid-size company. Either you become global, and your portfolio generates recurrent revenue or you are stuck being a very small developer struggling to survive. I think the acquisition of Digital Integration and then the license of Top Gun made a lot of sense, and Top Gun Combat Zones was a very good game. The investment in Interplay and in Virgin Interactive were also clever, but maybe we went too fast, without enough senior management to help us.

 

Jon: Over the years, you’ve worked on and produced a number of different games based on licenses such as the Blues Brothers, Xena, Hercules, Superman and Robocop. Why did you choose these licenses or did the holders of the rights to them come to you first?

Eric: For all the licenses you are naming, it was our move to go and get them. Also, Lamborghini, Quest for Camelot, Kasparov, Top Gun… We always tried to stay away from the licenses that would disappear too fast. We were looking for cults… Blues Brothers was the first license we worked on, and we did it many years after the movie.

 

Jon: Do you feel that working on a licensed property restricts your team’s creativity in any way?

Eric: Sometimes yes, but sometimes it is the opposite because the challenge generates good adrenaline.

 

Jon: Superman 64 was the first 3D action/adventure game that Titus worked on, as your prior 3D releases were racing and chess games. Do you feel that this hindered development?

Eric: The main issue was working with the licensor. They caused us so much trouble. Also our design originally was too ambitious compared to what an N64 was able to deliver…

 

Jon: In previous interviews about Superman, it was mentioned that you would be able to free-roam through Metropolis, but in the final game ring mazes were implemented which restricted the player’s ability to explore the (for that time, very impressive) square mile of Metropolis. Why is that?

Eric: Rings are only in the “tutorial” levels.

 

Jon: Where did the idea of Superman going into a virtual world to save his friends come from?

Eric: Political reasons, as the licensor refused to let Superman kick “real” people…

 

Jon: Why was the decision made to limit the use of Superman’s powers in the game when that is one of the primary draws of the character?

Eric: Again, it wasn’t our decision

 

Jon: What took up the most development time?

Eric: Politics!!! Approval process!

 

Jon: Was development restarted at all while working on Superman?

Eric: Not really.

 

Jon: Was the release date a mandated thing, or did the team just want to release the product to the public as soon as possible?

Eric: We missed the original marketing date by 6 months, mostly because we had to do the same things again and again for political reason.

 

Jon: Did DC review the game during each of its production stages, or the finished product before release, or were they only concerned with when it was being released?

Eric: The licensor caused us A LOT of problems… they generated the final quality of the product!

 

Jon: How was the general mood of the development team when the game went gold and when reviews/sales figures started to come in.

Eric: It was a relief to move on to other projects with less political constraints!

 

Jon: Despite the reviews, how did this game sell? Was a profit made off of it?

Eric: The N64 game sold very well and was profitable for us… until we had to kill the PS1 version even though it was 75% developed. Then we lost a lot of money!

 

Jon: Have you personally beaten Superman 64?

Eric: I don’t remember if I completed it, but I played it again & again during the two years of its development.

 

Jon: Did Superman 64 turn out to be near what your team had envisioned at the start, or was the finished product sidetracked by hardware or other limitations?

Eric: Of course not. It is not even 10% of what we intended to do, but the licensor killed us!

 

Jon: What content was cut from the game? If you cut a lot from the game, then what were the big things that you wish you could have kept in the game?

Eric: I am not allowed to detail what we had to remove, but it was a lot.

 

Jon: Is there anything in Superman 64 that you feel was done right, or that you are very proud of?

Eric: I think it was still the first game that tried to display a full city with a way to fly over it, and to land where you want… There are many games I am more proud of, of course!

 

Jon: Are there any secrets still hidden in the game which players have yet to find?

Eric: I don’t know.

 

Jon: Did you consider making games out of any other heroes, like Batman or Spider-Man?

Eric: We tried to get Spiderman rights, but Activision was faster than us.

 

Jon: Do you feel the reputation that Superman 64 has earned is justified or is it overblown?

Eric: Superman is a cult character especially here in the USA. I don’t think it is easy to deliver even a portion of players’ expectations, and we were probably too ambitious and a bit presumptuous at that time… but its terrible reputation is exaggerated mainly because Superman is an icon!

 

Jon: Blue Sky Software was working on a Playstation 1 version of Superman, and apparently it was finished but could not be released due to the license for the character having expired. Do copies of this game still exist and is there any way for people to play this game?

Eric: It wasn’t totally finished, but close. We had about 400,000 units in pre-order in the US itself, and WB killed it! I don’t know if a build still exists.

 

Jon: Was the transition from working at Titus to working at Interplay a smooth one?

Eric: Of course! The main difference is that it is a lot easier and fun to work on your own IP’s than on big licenses.

 

Jon: You recently released Prehistorik Man on DSiware, which was an IP you had in the Titus days. Are you planning on bringing any more IP’s back, such as Crazy Cars?

Eric: Prehistorik 1 is coming to iPhone & iPod Touch pretty soon. We are working on a Crazy Cars project but it is too soon to disclose anything about it, but at Interplay, with our developer partners, we are also preparing a new Stonekeep, a new Clayfighter, a new Descent, a new Battle Chess, a new MDK, and so on…

 

Jon: In a recent interview with Edge Magazine, you stated that Fallout Online will be going into beta in 2012. Will this be a public or private beta or has that been decided yet?

Eric: No comment

 

Jon: Where do you see the future of the gaming industry going?

Eric: Social, Viral, and more physics & fluid animations

 

Jon: What advice would you give to people wanting to get into the game industry?

Eric: Be creative, and submit your project to the Interplay Discovery program… if it’s good, we can help you!

 

Jon: I’d like to thank Eric for taking some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me, and for bringing a couple of aspects of the game’s development to light. Now the question is, if Warner Bros. and DC caused so many problems with the game, where do we go from here?