8 July 2013

Superman 64: Before The Disaster

Here at GameToAid, we have a bit of an obsession with Superman 64, one of the most disappointing games of all time. We played it for the first time in the Worst Marathon Ever, and then once more in The Superhero Marathon. And we're playing it again in the Worst Marathon Ever II, beginning this weekend, because it's just so damn bad.

However, there's actually a lot more to Superman 64 than meets the eye.

You might recall that in The Superhero Marathon, we flew through over 35,000 rings. The funny thing is, the abundance of ring-flying was never meant to be in the game! In fact, the Superman 64 beta was arguably much better than the final version that was released.

Too Good for the 64

Below we can see some very early screenshots of Superman 64. You'll notice that they actually look pretty damn good. None of the fog that plagues the final version is to be seen, and the lighting effects are impressive.

Not surprisingly though, these screenshots are most likely pre-rendered – the 64 wouldn't be able to handle graphics and lighting like this. This is just one indicator that Titus was overly ambitious with what they wanted to do.

Beta or Better?

Let's take a look at what the beta version of Superman 64 was like. Rareware Central were lucky enough to get their hands dirty with it, and posted this video. They say that this was 14-20 months before release.

The first thing you'll notice is the 3D Titus logo that looks like it's having a seizure. Poor thing.

Rather than some crazy "virtual world" plotline, the game begins with a simple mission. The objectives are displayed on-screen: Superman must rescue the ambulance. Once he's done that, you instantly see what your next objective is. That's one handy feature that was never in the final release. And from the very beginning, Superman gets to use his awesome laser vision. Nifty!

Although you can't experience it for yourself, apparently the controls are near-perfect. Rareware Central writes in a YouTube comment:

The controls are pretty much perfect in this version. I don't know if they had some clueless person rewrite the script for the controls or not but they sure changed a lot. If you pay attention to the flying on the first stage then I'm sure you'll notice that Superman reverts once I let go of the moving. Meaning that the moving is not very sensitive.

The second mission is actually one of the last missions in the retail version. Again, the game actually tells you what your objectives are, which makes the confusing level at least bearable.

The next mission looks pretty fun as well, featuring robot rhinos and mid-air combat moves, both of which were omitted in the final version. The one after was also one of the later missions in the original, but the objectives seem to be much more straightforward (to the point where you could actually work it out without a walkthrough.) Those box-carrying physics don't look too sharp, though...

Most importantly of all, there are NO RINGS!

License to Kill

So what happened between this early version and the one that was released? How did things go so horribly wrong?

All is revealed in Proton Jon's interview with Eric Caen, the co-founder of Titus Interactive:

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…

As we saw in the earlier screenshots, it looks like Titus wanted more than they could get from the N64. However, the real disaster struck with what seems like some messed-up politics between Titus and the Superman licensor, Warner Bros. Further questions reveal some interesting details:

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 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 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!

Considering how rushed the final retail version feels, it wouldn't be far-fetched to guess that Warner Bros forced Titus to remake the game a month before release.

Funnily enough, even Eric may never have completed the whole game.

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.

Wasted Money

Despite its flaws, Superman 64 was an immensely profitable game for Titus; it was a top seller in North America in June 1999.

Soon after, Titus decided to have another go and completely remake the game for the PlayStation 1. It seems that Titus learnt from their mistakes and were well on their way to actually creating a really good-looking game. Take a look:

During development, Titus' license with Warner Bros. ran out – and they knew it, but they continued development anyway with hope that the completed game would win Warner Bros. over. Unfortunately, after the disaster on the Nintendo 64, Warner Bros. did not reissue the license. Consequently, the game was never released and all of the time and money spent developing it was wasted.

Sources: Rareware Central, Unseen 64, Proton Jon

The Worst Marathon Ever II begins this weekend. Join us in our struggle through some of the worst games ever created – including Superman 64, of course – and help us raise funds for charity: water! Learn more »