I was one of the unfortunate few who played Superman 64 on the Nintendo 64 way back in the late 1990’s. Put simply it was probably the worst game I have ever played – regularly verging on the “utterly unplayable” level. And to this day it still remains the worst game I have ever played. The theory that popped into my head when EA announced Superman Returns for the DS was that it simply couldn’t be any worse than the Nintendo 64 Superman offering. My theory was indeed correct.
Alas, although it isn’t worse than Superman 64 – this game is only marginally better. You see, the problem with Superman video games is the fact that Superman can’t actually die. Now it would be pointless developing a video game in which you couldn’t really lose, so the developers have incorporated two different elements in order to deal with the difficulty – a time restriction and a health bar for the city that Superman is to protect. Both of these become the Achilles heal of the game.
The main plot of the game is loosely based around the new Superman movie (what, you didn’t know there was one either?) and characters and scenarios from the DC comic books. The story is presented in a sequence of nice cartoon strips and text and while the cartoons taking up the top screen are nicely designed and drawn, there is certainly nothing groundbreaking to the plot and it merely just helps to pass the action along.
The way the game actually plays is similar to a board game. There are a number of blocks representing different areas of Metropolis City and you must use a certain amount of moves to find your way to a spot of the city where there is a challenge. Once you get to a challenge the game flips into a third person action style game. You control Superman with the D-pad and a number of his abilities are mapped to the buttons on the DS. The touch screen controls the camera but everything is really clumsy in terms of the controls. The D-pad feels stiff and gives you only the real option to move in 8 directions. Also in order to change the altitude of Superman you must use the L and R buttons – but remembering which one takes you higher and lower is a challenge in itself.
The challenges are all pretty dire and simple – usually requiring you to fly around a linear map of dull buildings until you find an object to destroy. It’s all fairly simplistic and dull.
Fighting the “bosses” will take you to a Dance Dance Revolution style mode whereby you must press the responding buttons that fall down the screen at the correct time. Doing so will result in the enemy losing health – while missing them will lead to Superman losing health. The annoying design of the buttons on the DS (the placement of A and B, and X and Y being mirrored to that of XBOX controllers) means that playing these games may lead to confusion. You will be pressing X when you should be pressing Y, and vice versa. It’s all very frustrating.
What’s more is that you are only given a certain amount of time to complete the challenge in hand, and therefore this limits the length of the game considerably. There are 25 missions on offer and each only lasts about a minute maximum, leaving you with about 25 minutes or so actual gameplay time. The fact that some of the missions are repeated adds to the length of the gameplay somewhat – but it would have been nice for there to have been a variation of missions as opposed to repeating the same objectives.
The missions vary depending on which enemy of Superman you are fighting against. Littered across the map will be different symbols representing missions related to that particular character. After completing each mission (successfully or unsuccessfully) the city will take damage from the number of missions that you haven’t completed. This gameplay mechanic all seems a bit unfair because you can complete majority of the missions mission but still get game over – simply because it is difficult to reach a certain mission on the map. Couple this with the fact that the game is a nightmare to control and you are leaving yourself open to a very frustrating experience.
Along with the bland environments in the game, you are also able to choose a number of different costumes for Superman, although noticing the difference between some of them will take a little while. Maybe EA fancied incorporating a bit of “Spot The Difference” in one of their games. Some of the costumes are unlockable (although it is unlikely you will play through the game again for the sake of seeing Superman in a different costume). There are also comic book covers unlockable but the lack of zoom and information about the comic book covers leaves this extra as a mere afterthought and not particularly worthwhile.
While Superman 64 still remains the worst game of all time, I think I can pretty much state that Superman Returns on DS is currently one of the worst games on the DS. Probably best forgotten like its movie counterpart.