The recently released Marvel’s Spider-Man gives me fond flashbacks of the classic Spider-Man games and timeless Batman: Arkham games, while also being unique enough to stand on its own. There is something about the action and freedom of (well-made) superhero games that scratches the gamer itch, particularly when they load themselves up with supplementary lore from their respective comic book universes. With the recent leaks and rumors about Batman Arkham developer Rocksteady Studios bringing us a Superman game in the near future, a hardcore gamer and casual comic fan like myself should be ecstatic, but I’m not. Superman is simply not a character that is compatible with video games. And no, this is not just another rant about Superman 64.
What makes a comic book character interesting is not only their capabilities, but their limitations. Watching Spider-Man, Batman, or whoever else flaunt their skills around can eventually grow old, until you experience how they overcome seemingly impossible odds by pushing past their limits. This is only possible if these limits are clearly defined, which is why Batman and Spider-Man have translated so well to gaming. Superman, on the other hand, isn’t restricted by the same limits—or any limits, for that matter.
The first game pillar that comes to mind when anticipating a superhero game is the combat. How will this particular hero fight off the foes looking to stop them? In the case of Batman and Spider-Man, their proficiency in hand-to-hand combat—combined with their collections of clever gadgets—make for combat that gives the feeling of being simultaneously threatened and a total badass. But what is a threat to Superman? Anyone that’s ever heard of him likely knows that answer: Kryptonite. Outside of some supernatural nonsense, Kryptonite is all that really stops Superman, but not in any way that’s epic to watch. It just straight up cripples the guy, which couldn’t feasibly be worked into fast-paced combat in an enjoyable manner.
With Kryptonite out of the way, we have a character whose strength is literally limitless. Don’t believe me? At one point in his comic career, Superman lifts The Spectre, a cosmic being whose body is made up of “eternity.” Even more impressive was when the Man of Steel picked up a book containing infinite pages. Infinite pages equals infinite weight; infinite weight equals infinite strength. This is just his general strength we’re talking about, too. We haven’t even mentioned his heat vision, which can incinerate planets, or his durability, which allows him to fly through suns. Fights that Spider-Man and Batman get into aren’t badass in spite of the threat. They’re badass because of it. Batman can die, Spider-Man can die, but Superman? Dying just really isn’t his thing. Just ask Doomsday.
The next most important element of a superhero action game is its (preferably open) world. We gamers are picky, and we want our open worlds to be impressively expansive, while also being packed enough to keep our attention. Well, Rocksteady better be working overtime to make a game world big enough for a hero that can fly faster than one million times the speed of light. The cities of the most recent Batman and Spider-Man games fit the characters perfectly because their sizes are compatible with the movement capabilities of each hero. Not only can Superman fly endlessly, but his top fight speed is essentially unrecordable, making it so no humanly-developed game world could possibly contain his true potential.
These incompatibilities can only lead to one inevitable conclusion: Rocksteady’s contrived limitation of Superman, a hero with no limits. I stand by my promise that this will not focus too much on, but the compromises that game was forced to make are important to recognize. Part of what made that game so bad was that it didn’t make the player feel like Superman, with the developers concocting some nonsense about Kryptonite fog to shoehorn the hero into the confines of their game.
Sure, Rocksteady could easily make a game where you “play” as Superman, but making you “feel” like Superman—in the way those other games made us feel like their heroes—wouldn’t work within what we know to be Superman. Even if you took the hero in his earlier days, the threats we like to face in our superhero games would still be trivial to a being of his caliber. Superman can run circles around other heroes in comics, but the only thing more crippling to him than Kryptonite might be video games.