Superman Returns (2006, NDS/PSP)

Where to begin on Superman Returns? I often say that everything that could go wrong did go wrong here. I won’t make excuses, every single link of this chain screwed up and we could (and did) go blue in the face screaming and pointing fingers. Rather than rehash that, let’s focus on the game. Superman Returns is a movie tie-in game for the Nintendo DS. It was designed and produced in-house, but actually developed externally by a group out of Santa Cruz, CA. In it you play a bunch of minigames to take over the city of Metropolis from bad dudes. Remember how “in” minigames were in 2005-2006? You couldn’t read the back of any box without seeing the word minigame. Sigh. One of the things that really worked well was the design of a multiplayer mode. While our corporate people looked for an external partner, we spent our time on designing a “metagame” for the multiplayer collection. We did this in paper prototype form playing and refining it every day without the benefit of actually having to play the minigames that did not exist yet (either we played one iteration of Mario Party or randomly awarded winners). The game as a board game is very compelling. The problem lies in that the minigames are so dreadful that I don’t think there is an instance of two friends both owning this game and both wanting to play multiplayer. I was responsible for many of the terrible minigames, but one I still think is pretty fun. Phone booths are ringing all over the city and your Superman has to find the one with the bomb attached to it. Every time you answer the phone the bad guy will tell you “Warmer” or “Colder” depending on your proximity to the bomb. The Superman who gets to the phone fastest before the time limit defuses the bomb. While this would just be blind guessing solo, you could also follow opponent’s clues, having to balance getting clues yourself with staking out opponents.

Going through the experience of making Superman Returns was one of the foundational experiences in my career. It taught me everything not to do and taught me how the best designs and intentions mean nothing until you can get a working version and the rubber meets the road.