DC Comics’ expansive roster of superheroes, so resplendent with their muscles, good hair and tights, have been beloved by readers since the company’s inception in the 30s.
Their fortunes in the world of videogames, however, have been rather mixed. As the stupendous looking DC Universe Online launches a legion of heroes and villains into cyberspace, we take a look back at a few of DC’s characters and their starring roles in videogames gone by…
The Caped Crusader has, for some reason, always fared surprisingly well at the hands of game alchemists. Maybe it’s because his status as an ordinary mortal (albeit one with an entire belfry full of psychological hang-ups to contend with) makes him the prime candidate for a videogame – genre staples like power-ups, three lives or a steadily depleting energy level are far easier to apply to the character than to, say, Superman, who should be able to cruise through most game scenarios without harm.
Since the earliest days of the medium, Batman has therefore featured in all manner of corking titles, beginning with John Ritman and Bernie Drummond’s marvellous 8-bit isometric adventure Batman in 1986. The Dark Knight looked rather paunchy and odd (like a Japanese Super Deformed caricature of himself), but the game itself was an 80s classic, requiring the player to collect the pieces of Batman’s knackered Bat hovercraft (or Batvercraft, or something) and rescue Robin from the clutches of the Joker.
Batman: The Caped Crusader, which followed two years later, was even better. Taking the form of a sides-scrolling action adventure, the player fought against the Penguin and the Joker, solving fiendish puzzles along the way. For the time, the graphics were stupendous, with a big, imposing Batman sprite trudging around the play area, cape swinging.
The side-scrolling Batman games that tied into the release of Tim Burton’s film were also quite good, albeit in a slightly unimaginative kind of way – the Mega Drive version programmed by Sunsoft was perhaps the pick of the bunch, with fast-paced platforming action and moody 16-bit graphics.
Batman games then went through a rather derivative patch through the 90s to the new millennium, with the character attached to middling, forgettable sidescrollers such as Batman: The Animated Series on the Game Boy and repetitive brawler Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker for the N64, PlayStation and Game Boy Color in 2000.
Most recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum surprised almost everyone by being both thoughtfully put together (as opposed to thrown together during a gin session, as many licensed games appear to be), and an enormous amount of fun – a combination of action adventure and button-mashing brawler that romped home with BAFTA Game Of The Year in 2009.
Batman: The Brave And The Bold, a platformer/brawler released last September, failed to provoke the same rapturous response, but gamers everywhere are awaiting this year’s Arkham Asylum sequel Batman: Arkham City with eager thumbs.
Another superhero, another movie tie-in, this time released to coincide with Halle Berry’s award-winningly awful Warner Bros film from 2004. Essentially Prince Of Persia in a leather bra, Catwoman was the kind of game you’d forgotten almost before you’d turned it off. Visually, it looked the part, but its mixture of tedious combat and platform leaping was alarmingly generic, while the game’s cut-scenes were simply inept.The Flash
One of DC’s longest-serving but less well-known heroes, The Flash has made occasional forays into the world of videogames, starring in the largely forgotten title of the same name on the Sega Master System in 1988, before making an appearance on the Game Boy three years later. They were both fairly generic platform games, but Justice League Heroes: The Flash, a scrolling brawler for the Game Boy Advance, was a good deal better. You could even punch a gorilla in the face.
DC’s Man of Tomorrow has always suffered mixed fortunes in the realm of videogames, despite the fact that he’s been a regular industry fixture for over 30 years. He first appeared in an almost recognisable form on the Atari 2600 in 1978 (complete with a flickering cape depicted by four pink pixels) in a game simply titled Superman. The object was to fly around Metropolis capturing Lex Luthor’s goons before beating a hasty retreat to the offices of the Daily Planet before a timer ran out. The life-threatening effects of Kryptonite could be reversed, oddly enough, by planting a kiss on a blocky Lois Lane.
Superman: The Game arrived on numerous 8-bit systems in 1985, and pitted the Man of Steel against Bronze Age nemesis, Darkseid. Strangely, the bulk of the game involved flying around and collecting diamonds.
In 1988, a Superman game arrived on the NES courtesy of Nipponese developer Kotobuki Systems. Like almost every game for Nintendo’s big beige toaster, it was a side-scrolling platform adventure. It was also absolutely dreadful, though this Japanese-style rendering of the Statue of Liberty is unbearably cute:
Taito’s Superman arcade machine, which appeared in smoke-filled arcades in the same year the hero arrived on the NES, was actually rather good, with colourful, chunky sprites and gameplay that flicked between side-scrolling beat-em-up and free-scrolling blaster. Its creators cheated by giving the hero a depleting life bar, but it was nevertheless an entertaining coin-op, though it failed to create much fuss at the time.
Superman: The Man Of Steel arrived for almost every computer known to man in 1989, and featured some quite pleasant Space Harrier-style pseudo 3D flying levels. Like most games of the late-80s, the rest of the game flicked frantically between styles, presenting the player with sidescrolling brawler levels, and top-down shooting sections.
Some three years later, Sunsoft created a Superman game for the Sega Mega Drive, a platformer alarmingly like the studio’s Batman title released a short while earlier, except with added blue tights. There were also some quite nifty side-scrolling blaster sections like the 1988 arcade game.
Again, Mega Drive Superman’s creators ignored the obvious fact that the hero’s meant to be invincible, and gave him a steadily depleting power bar, along with a super punch that had to be recharged.
Sunsoft, along with Blizzard (who had yet to bring the planet to its knees with World Of Warcraft) created The Death And Return Of Superman for the SNES and Mega Drive, which was basically Final Fight in a red cape. It wasn’t a bad game, but failed to retain many of the powers that make Kal-El such a memorable character – instead, he spent the entire game punching people in the face like a belligerent Friday night lager warrior.
From here, darkness descended on Superman’s videogame adventures. His appearance on the N64 in 1999 was greeted with critical dismay, and still tops “worst game ever” lists over a decade later. The game involved flying through hoops and protecting civilians from Lex Luthor. It looked and played a little like Starwing on the SNES, only far, far worse. It’s one of the few titles where, mid way through playing it, you pause to wonder whether the people who made it were actually insane.
The largely forgettable Superman: Countdown To Apokolips (which I always misread as Countdown To Alcopops – a far more interesting sounding game) followed in 2003, featuring a starry cast of voice actors and some iffy collision detection.
The release of Bryan Singer’s ponderous Superman Returns movie in 2006 hastened the arrival of an equally somnambulant videogame tie-in of the same name. The game started as a tedious flying/floating brawler, continued along the same lines for a few hours, and concluded with the Man of Steel fighting a gust of wind.
DC’s troupe of junior superheroes got its first videogame outing in 2006, in a joypad-battering brawler for the PS2, GameCube and Xbox. It didn’t set the industry on fire critically, but it certainly wasn’t the worst superhero videogame ever released, and its roster of 36 playable characters added to its longevity somewhat.
Alan Moore’s Hugo-winning, fiercely intelligent creation was distilled down into a shadowy brawler to tie in with Zack Snyder’s film adaptation. Watchmen: The End Is Nigh was met with a mixed reception, but its hectic combat provided a few hours’ entertainment before the spectre of tedium descended.
That one of the most famous heroines in comics has never had her own solo videogame is perhaps down to the medium’s largely male dominated audience, though in fairness, that hasn’t prevented developers from making truckloads of cash from games like Tomb Raider or Mirror’s Edge.
Thus far, Wonder Woman has had to make do with guest appearances in Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, Justice League: Injustice For All on the Game Boy Advance, and a walk-on part in Justice League Heroes: The Flash.
Nautical superhero Aquaman has appeared in but one solo videogame, and given the woefully sub-par way he was treated in Battle For Atlantis, it could be some time before he features in another.
Released for the Xbox and GameCube in 2003, Battle For Atlantis was a debacle equalling Superman N64 and E.T. on the Atari 2600 in terms of critical derision. A jarringly basic button-mashing free-floating brawler, the game’s most notable aspect was the fact that Aquaman looked like Van Halen’s David Lee Roth being given the Heimlich manoeuvre (or worse) by the Invisible Man…
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