Superman 64’s Dreadful Development | The Art of Failure

Superman 64’s Dreadful Development | The Art of Failure

– [JAMES] So, let’s start off this documentary with an anecdote! There’s a close friend of mine who likes to tell a story about how, when he was a little kid, there was only one video game that he ever played that managed to make him feel, well, sad. See, yes, there were a lot of games that made him happy, after all this was the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 era of gaming and he was playing the likes of Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot. But, there was also another game, a game known as Superman: The New Adventures for the Nintendo 64, though, for most, it’s just referred to as Superman 64. When I asked for him to specifically describe how the game made him feel, he responded that it felt incredibly soulless and quite unfinished and that it honestly just made him feel numb inside, which is to say that I think this game was so terrible that it gave my friend depression. But, that’s besides the point, because I feel that no video game is ever made with the intention of being terrible. See, Titus Interactive – the company responsible for developing Superman 64, envisioned something great but that was a vision that they just weren’t able to realize. So today, we’re going over the story of a company with people who sought to do something new and original but just failed to do so. We’re going over the story of a video game that is often regarded as the worst video game ever made. But this story is so much more than that! This is also the tale of when big, new ideas clash with corporate meddling. This is the Art of Failure! (Musical Intro) (Musical Transition) The story of Superman 64 is also the story of Titus Interactive. To truly understand how it turned out, then, we must first go look at Titus’ story up to around 1995 when they would get the license to make Superman video games from Warner Brothers and DC Comics. Titus Interactive was originally founded as Titus France SA in 1985 by 2 brothers: Eric and Hervé Caen. However, their interest in games had begun to grow some years earlier, around 1980, when their father had brought home a Commodore PET 3032 computer, an incredibly basic home computer that was typically found in areas of business and education, not homes. The then-14-year-old Eric Caen became enamoured with the Commodore PET, and after going through and playing the limited number of games available for the platform at the time, he decided to learn how to make games of his own. This was an incredibly common occurence in Europe during the 1980s, with cheap micro computers such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 leading to a generation of bedroom coders. Fast forward a few years to 1985 and the Caen brothers, fresh out of high school and forgoing a university education, decided to go into business together creating and selling games for home computers. According to Eric Caen, it was natural to go into business with his brother, Hervé, especially as his brother was a naturally talented salesman. Early on, Titus would mostly just be responsible for home computer conversions of games from companies such as Activision and Infogrames, but as time went on, Titus began to make and sell their own, original computer games and these would soon make up the bulk of the games that they developed and published. Titles from Titus’ early years would include Crazy Cars, Fir and Forget, Galactic Conqueror, and Titan. Titus and, along with it, the Caen brothers were starting to make a name for themselves in the European game development scene. This culminated in 1990, when they would develop their first licensed titles: computer games based off of the Dick Tracy comics. These would be published by Disney’s computer software division. The success of the Dick Tracy games would lead to those at Titus to pursue the rights to more licensed properites. This would lead to them developing and publishing titles such as The Blues Brothers video game and Lamogrghini: American Challenge. Speaking of the United States, Titus would expand and form an American and Japanese presence during the early 1990s, leading to them publishing games such as ASCII Corporation’s Ardy Lightfoot in North America. Other titles from Titus during this time would include Super Cauldron, Prince of Persia 2 on SNES, and their own rival to Sonic the Hedgehog in the form of Titus the Fox. This would be a game that not only gave Titus an anthropomorphic animal mascot of their own, but was also generally quite well received. Dan Slingsby of CU Amiga magazine would say of the game: [SLINGSBY] Titus the Fox is easily Titus’ best platform game yet! It’s a joy to play and offers more of a challenge than the usual jump and run games thanks to its cunning puzzles, and the sheer number of enemy sprites on the prowl. [JAMES] Of course, though this title would gain an international cult following, many did not realize that it was actually just a rebranded rerelease of a Titus title from 1991 called Moktar, featuring French comedian Lagaf. Still, it was enough of a success to give further credibility to Titus as a company. By 1995, though they weren’t as big as the likes of Electronic Arts or Activision, Titus was doing pretty well for themselves. They were releasing a steady stream of profitable titles, both for home computers and consoles such as the SNES, plus they had an animal mascot of their own, something considered quite important for gaming companies during the 1990s after the success of Sonic the Hedgehog. Perhaps most importantly, though, Eric Caen was about to acquire Titus’ biggest license yet. That year, Titus Interactive’s Los Angeles office got word that Warner Brothers was working on a new Superman animated series, set to air in 1996. Eric Caen saw this as an opportunity to potentially make games based off of the iconic American superhero. Of course, though, with how big Warner Brothers was, many doubted that he would actually be able to secure the license. If there were to be new Superman games, WB would likely go with a larger publisher, such as EA. Even Eric Caen was doubtful that Titus would be able to get the license, but also, as he saw it, the worst that WB could say was no. When Caen approached Warner Brothers, he was met with some skeptical interest from the media giant. According to a later interview with him: [CAEN] They asked me 3 times if I was sure of what I was doing! No one else was interested enough in Superman to do a video game about him! [JAMES] With enough assurance, though, WB did grant Titus the Superman license. With the go-ahead given, they were now able to begin work on Superman games for the original Nintendo Game Boy, Sony PlayStation 1, and, of course, the upcoming Nintendo 64. (Game Boy Transition) This is Superman for the Nintendo Game Boy. Released in 1997, it would be the first of 3 Superman games worked on by Titus, and it actually sold quite well, despite critics absolutely hating it. In a 2014 retrospective for Comic Gamers Assemble, critic Blair Farrell would say of the game: [FARRELL] So what can really be said about Superman on the Game Boy other than that it was an early warning sign of things to come from Titus and the license. The controls are bad, the game is short, and it’s unfairly challenging with no redeemable qualities. I wouldn’t recommend this game even to the hardest of hardcore Superman fans, and I’m related to one. [JAMES] But, was it truly a sign of things to come? Were the later Superman games for the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 truly doomed and was that truly evident from this early point? Well initially, many thought that Superman 64 actually looked very promising. In fact, it looked like it could even potentially pioneer a whole new type of superhero game, one that would fall into the genre of what we’d now call open-world adventure games. Eric Caen would have heavy involvement with all 3 versions of the Superman game worked on by Titus though he did spend the majority of his time with the Nintendo 64 version as that was the version that they placed the most emphasis on. Eric Caen’s original vision for the game would feature a massive recreation of the city of Metropolis in which Superman could not only fight enemies and go after villains such as Lex Luthor, but also interact with the civilians and environments around him. He would be able to fly around the entire city at any time and be able to interact with the world around him by using a variety of super powers, all of which would be available from the start of the game. Of course, there were some potential roadblocks to realizing this vision. First off, the game was being primarily developed for the Nintendo 64, with the PS1 version intended merely as a port that would follow a few months later. Though the Nintendo 64 was a powerful console for the time, many wondered if it was actually powerful enough to support a game of this scope. There was also the potential issue of cartridge space. Though the Nintendo 64 was technically more powerful than the PlayStation 1, the Nintendo 64’s reliance on game cartridges instead of CDs greatly restricted the amount of space that games could take up. This issue affected many other games intended for the system, the most famous of those being Final Fantasy 7. Reportedly, developer Squaresoft decided to shift development exclusively to the PlayStation after realizing that it would take up 13 whole N64 cartridges. The other issue with this Superman game would be the length of development. The Superman animated series would come out in 1996 but, due to the ambitious nature of Superman 64, a release date of sometime in late 1997 was being aimed for. This would require patience and understanding from both DC Comics and Warner Brothers, virtues that did initially seem to be present. During the initial negotiations for the Superman license, Eric Caen had formed a friendly working relationship with the Warner Brothers licensing team. This would cause him and those working with him to feel like they were truly working on something special. But then, unexpectedly, shortly after Titus gained the Superman license, WB did some internal reshuffling. This included firing the team that had worked with Titus up to this point. The next time would not be so amicable. In a 2015 interview with Playboy, Caen would say of them: [CAEN] The next people in charge hated us from the first minute they saw us and our project. They believed that a bigger company such as EA Games would pay more and create a better product. [JAMES] He would go on to say in our own email interview: [CAEN] The game suffered a lot from our supposed poor understanding of Warner Brothers and DC Comics. [JAMES] After presenting their idea involving Superman exploring a large, lifelike Metropolis, Warner Brothers responded by requesting that they change the game to be more of a Sim City-style of game, one in which Superman would take on the role of mayor of Metropolis. Caen and his team were very opposed to this. After much back and forth, WB agreed to let them keep it as an action/adventure title, though the scope would not be nearly as grand as before. It seemed, though, that Titus still had the opportunity to make a truly great title. But, their troubles with WB were actually only just starting. It was already clear that the licensing team at WB didn’t feel confident in Titus’ ability to develop a great game, and they soon began to heavily micromanage the project. The Titus team would often receive feedback on game ideas from WB simply just stating “Superman would never do that!” It soon got to a point where every new feature, super power addition, super villain, and plot thread had to be run through WB for approval before it could appear in the game. If the Warner Brothers team disputed any addition they wanted to make, Caen and his team would have to back it up with specific proof from somewhere in the Superman lore. Most often, this proof would come from the comics. They would then have to show their work to WB by providing specific comic issue numbers, years, and page numbers. This led to Caen often spending hours pouring over comics, researching Superman inside and out. This was time that, he has lamented, could have been spent actually working on the game. According to Caen himself: [CAEN] We had to prove that Superman could break a door with a foot kick, that he could fly underwater, and at the end we almost knew more about the history of Superman then the folks who were at WB to validate our progress! [JAMES] WB continued to take up issues with the game, often over seemingly trivial aspects. For example, despite Superman, in both the cartoon and comics, beating up criminals in a world very similar to our own, WB had issues with Titus creating a world in which Superman could beat up seemingly “real people”. Thus, as a workaround, the final plot of Superman 64 ended up involving Lex Luthor creating a virtual world in which Metropolis citizens, such as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, were trapped inside. This both allowed Titus to get around the “real people” issue while also giving WB an excuse to make them lock which powers Superman could use behind power-ups. WB would apparently force a few other changes. Superman 64, upon release, would gain infamy for its strict early stages in which Superman had to fly through rings. These rings were originally intended to be nothing more than simple tutorials, designed to teach players how to control Superman in the air. But, this changed as development went on. Stages were also shortened over time, with the biggest change to them coming with the removal of most destructible stage portions, as WB didn’t want a game in which Superman could, and I quote, “act as a bad person”. The Titus team would continue to make changes to try to appease Warner Brothers but this process would mean a continued lack of time to spend on areas of the game such as optimization and bug testing. Another infamous aspect of the final release would be its small draw distance, with many parts of the levels appearing to be covered in fog until approached by the player. In game, this would be passed off as merely being part of Lex Luthor’s simulation, while in reality it would be a side-effect of the game being poorly optimized to run on the Nintendo 64. Superman 64 was going through a bit of development hell. For a good while, those at Titus wondered if it would ever get released… but then, seemingly miraculously, in 1997 a demo version of Superman 64 was completed and greenlit by WB. It would be shown off at the E3 expo in Los Angeles that year along with the Game Boy game, which had been developed on the side. Superman 64 appeared somewhat rough but the overall reception from those who played the demo at E3 was positive! Many people were very excited to play the final version and, as word began to spread, preorders began to come in, especially after a special edition comic book was announced to come with preordered copies of the game. According to Joseph Szadkowski in the August 1997 issue of Animation World Magazine: [SZADKOWSKY] Players become the Man of Steel in order to stop Lex Luthor from using the LexoSkel 5000 to take over the world. Featuring stunning 3D environments, various fight levels and rescue operations, this is definitely a game to look forward to later this year! [JAMES] There are a few areas of the game’s development where the details are murky. For example, controls are noticeably clunky in the final version, particularly during the flying stages, and it makes me feel like the game must have had development restarted sometime close to release. But, according to Eric Caen, this was not the case. Apparently, development didn’t have to be restarted at any time at all past the early stages. Oddly enough, though the controls are something many people bring up when discussing Superman 64 today, most who played the 1997 E3 demo seemed to be quite happy with what they experienced. In addition, due to the high amount of bugs spotted in the game, along with their overall process of just dealing with Warner Brothers themselves, Titus had the game delayed. It was first pushed back to 1998 before finally being pushed back again to May of 1999. By 1999, the end of Titus’ license with Warner Brothers was fast approaching. Though Eric Caen had many worries about the game’s look, overall feel, and just general playability, he also felt that they had to get the game out sometime soon. Besides, by this point, they had already missed the game’s original marketing deadline by nearly 6 months. Despite the issues with development, Caen and those at Titus still tried to hype up the game as best as they could. At some points, though, this “hyping up” perhaps crossed into the realms of hyperbole or even truth-bending, as seen by interviews in which Superman 64’s “complex interactions systems”, in which Superman could apparently set up chain reactions by throwing cars at one another, was discussed at length. Eric Caen knew that Superman 64 was no longer going to be a great game. It was radically different from the game that he had originally envisioned but, he also knew that the game was going to have to be released at some point. It was either now or never, especially with the impending loss of license. So finally, on 31 May 1999, Superman: The New Adventures was released for the Nintendo 64 in North America. A release would also come in Europe the following month. Whether the game would be a success or ruin Titus’ reputation… that was still to be seen. (’90s Musical Transition) [ANNOUNCER] Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen have been kidnapped! Who will save the day? You are Superman! All the powers are yours! There’s flight! There’s heat vision! There’s super speed! There’s super strength! There’s freezing breath! There’s X-Ray vision! (Musical Transition) [JAMES] This was the first commercial for Superman 64. The hype surrounding this game was astounding. People had lined up for preorders, especially after the game was shown off at E3 1997. But, after release in 1999, some began to line up again, this time to return their copies. It’s no secret that Superman 64 was critically panned. According to Matt Casamassina of IGN: [CASAMASSINA] Having grown up with the Man of Steel, Superman for Nintendo 64 is a huge, whopping disappointment for me. In fact, the game is so all-around poorly executed that it’s downright offending to people like myself who have enjoyed the comic books, live action movies, television shows, and more that’ve been based upon the American icon. Not only is this sub-par effort one of the Nintendo 64’s worst games, it serves as even more proof that it takes more than a solid license to make a solid game. [JAMES] With Joe Fielder of Gamespot bluntly stating: [FIELDER] It serves no purpose other than to firmly establish the bottom of the barrel. [JAMES] Despite the poor reception to the N64 verison of Superman, though, those at Titus still had some hope for the PS1 version. Superman for PlayStation 1 was intended as an updated port of the N64 game. However, due to the differences in hardware architecture between the 2 platforms, it was instead built from scratch instead of being a simple port. For this undertaking, Titus outsourced development to Blue Sky Software, a studio that they would actually go on to acquire in 1998. This version of Superman would feature a notably better draw distance, tweaked controls that were compatible with the PS1’s DualShock analog controller, and a CD-quality soundtrack that took advantage of the PS1’s software medium of choice. By mid-1999, preorders were already open for this version of the game with it expected to launch later that year. However, continued delays caused Superman for PS1 to be pushed back until 2000. In that time, Titus’ license agreement with Warner Brothers ran out, putting the game in limbo. Though there had been issues with Titus and Warner Brothers working together, Eric Caen still had some desire to renew the license. Though Superman 64 had been poorly received by critics, the PS1 version was also roughly 90% complete at this point, and he didn’t want Blue Sky’s work to go to waste. Ultimately though, an agreement could not be reached. Soon after, Warner Brothers officially announced that the title was cancelled. Due to being so close to completion, WB expected that Titus would try to sue them. Apparently, they went so far as to even have an out-of-court settlement ready in case Titus decided to pursue this course of action. But the suit never came. Whether it being due to Eric Caen believing that, had it come to market, the PS1 version of Superman would’ve been panned just like the N64 version, or, more likely, whether it be due to Titus facing financial difficulties during this time, I’m unsure. It seemed like Superman 64 was destined to slip into obscurity. But, that would not be the case. Superman 64 would be lauded as one of the most legendarily terrible video games of all time, with its numerous glitches, clunky controls, and overall poor playability making it a common #1 on “Worst Video Games of All Time” lists online even to this day. Most prominently, the game saw a surge in popularity in 2008 when it was covered online by The Angry Video Game Nerd. Many afterwards have claimed it is a “so bad it’s good” type of game, saying it’s the video game equivalent to beloved critically-hated films such as Birdemic or The Room. Surprisingly, the Superman 64 story would not truly come to an end until some years later. Up until a few years ago, very few versions of Superman on PlayStation 1 had been discovered. Some were found in the hands of private collectors while another fell into the possession of the PlayStation Museum. In 2014, forum user RMandel reportedly get a CD copy of the beta. Though he publicly provided some info of the CD’s contents, he refused to release the game publicly or dump the contents of the game disc unless he was given an indeterminate large sum of money. Many on the forum saw this as being rather problematic and stated so to him, frustrating RMandel. In the end, he reportedly smashed the disc, making many believe that it was lost forever. But then, in 2018, a new beta version of the game was discovered, with the news being released publicly by Twitter user @gamerave. It has since been released publicly, now available to anyone who wants to experience the PS1 version of Superman for free.. But, whether it’s truly better than the N64 version, that’s for you to decide. As for Titus Games, Superman 64 seemed to signal their downfall. In 2001, the would acquire developer Interplay Entertainment, only to be swallowed up into Interplay upon filing for bankruptcy in 2005. Though the Caen brothers had created their studio with the intention of becoming the next big game developer, and Superman 64 had begun development with the intention of it being the start of something truly new and great, Titus Games was not meant to last. (Musical Transition) I think few would argue that Superman 64 did not turn out great. However, if Titus Games were able to pursue their original plan without any corporate meddling, would they have actually been able to create something incredible? Or, would they have instead run into constraints caused by the Nintendo 64 hardware? Would Superman 64 still have turned out as it did and gone down in infamy, or would it be regarded as an all-time classic? Well, that’s for you to decide. This is the Art of Failure.

20 thoughts on “Superman 64’s Dreadful Development | The Art of Failure

  1. Fun fact: If you look closely at the intro monologue, you'll notice I glance to the side a couple of times. I guess I was talking fairly loud, and so a small crowd of tourists gathered right in front of where I was recording in the park and starting staring at me. It made me feel very, very uncomfortable.

    With that said, if you'd like to support more documentaries and documentary-style content, definitely consider supporting me on Patreon:

  2. The word part was that the show it was based on, Superman TAS, was very good. Faliure is so massive in the world, and I can see why…

  3. Back in 99 I played this game on my friends N64. After about ten minutes I turned to him and said “This game fucking sucks!”. He looked down all sad and replied “Yeah, I know.”

  4. I found as I was going through the SNES and Genesis libraries in emulation that any time that TITUS fox logo came up, it was undoubtedly going to be a turd of a game. This was true without fail. So it's no surprise that a company that never mastered 2D game design would fail so hard when they made such an ambitious 3D title. I think if they served as publisher and someone more competent developed the game, then possibly it could have been great. But I just don't think they were ever good as an actual game developer. They just seemed to float towards the top of the Amiga swamp somehow, I guess because their games looked decent enough. The gameplay was another story though.

  5. This is what its about! its so easy to bully this game and rip it a new one but to go over how it happened is great. been waiting for this episode.

  6. Some of the most epic flops in history are the result of dreamers and romantics truly trying to make something big and exciting. I have nothing but respect for the Sean Murrays and Peter Molyneuxs of the world even if they tend to speak a bit more than they think. These people believe they can make a change and blow gamers minds. They have all the right ideas, but the know-how, budget, time and technology isn't always there yet. I feel like Superman 64 started as an early example of this exact sort of thing… only with EVEN more corporate meddling.

  7. This was a great watch! Superman 64 is one of those infamous games I've always heard about, but never bothered to look into past the rampant memes. I learned a lot about it from this.

  8. Another excellent Art of Failure video, sir! Just one more example of how corporate meddling in licensed games often ruin what could otherwise have been a fun project.

  9. Great video man. I feel some companies like that today ironically EA and with their treating of BioWare. It’s too bad how that happened to Titus.

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