Friday, July 3, 2020

Friday Night Rentals: Superman 64 and the Nerd of Hope


Hoooboy....where to start with this one?

Everything I can think of to say was likely said already somewhere else, and said in a hilarious way. Likely with lots of swearing too...

What better game to talk about for Independence Day Weekend than Superman 64? After all, Sups fights for truth, justice, and the American way right?....

Or does he fly about in circles all day like a drunk, endlessly attempting to navigate a maddening obstacle course within a minuscule amount of time? 

I think you know the answer.

Was this game a home run? As American as apple pie and baseball itself? Or does Superman 64, for the Nintendo 64 make the Justice League movie look good? (Just kidding, nothing can make that film look good, not even a Snyder Cut.)

Let's talk about the game, but also a little bit about the experience of renting bad games, and the one Nerd to rule them all...

Gameplay, Memories, and The Nerd of Hope:

Based off the popular animated series, The Adventures of Superman, Superman 64 follows our intrepid Kryptonian as he attempts to rescue his friends from a virtual reality world where they are imprisoned by Lex Luthor.  Now, as a fan of the show, I want to say I find the overall plot of the game terrible. If you have ever watched the show, which was phenomenal for the most part, you know that Luthor was usually more cunning and subtle than this contrived plan. Straight up kidnapping people, shoving them in a VR world, AND letting Sups know about it? This was more like something a lower tier villain like Toy Man might have done.

That aside, we all know by now the game had terrible control, an inane plot, and borderline cruel tasks requiring inhuman levels of precision. Getting through the first task--a course of rings that must be completed in under 2 minutes--is daunting to say the least. No punches pulled, no surrender or easy mode. Superman 64 just drops you straight into the mother of all gaming frying pans. To use a familiar meme, it's the Dark Souls of terrible retro games. The idea of completing this in one sitting, is laughable, and yet there are some people out there who can do just that, and do it in record time. If you've never done so before, watch a speed run of this game and you can see just how broken the game is from top to bottom as speed runners take advantage of every broken corner of this game. And there are many, many broken corners.  Yet it squarely falls under the retro game banner at this point in time, whether we like it or not. Feeling the warm fuzzies of nostalgia and member-berries yet?  You should, and let me tell you why.

One of the awesome things about renting games back in the 80s and 90s was as kids we had these collective experiences of picking up something new. Getting a brief, weekend's worth of playing a game almost always left us feeling emotions that were a mixture of excited, intense, and just plain joy at trying something new.  Superman 64 though has the distinction of being a game that everyone agrees was a terrible experience. We rented it back in the day, tried to play it, hated it, and returned it--bitter that our weekend had been wasted on such utter trash.  But I want to make a case that it is one of the best games ever made if for no other reason than it helped introduce me to the works of The Angry Video Game Nerd and to the collective experience of having played a terrible game back in the day. Before I get to that part, let's take a walk down memory lane.

Rental Memories:

Walking into a rental store, you never really knew whether what you were grabbing was a good or bad video game, and more importantly, whether or not you had just wasted a chunk of allowance money or summer job money. Yeah, there were game magazines that reviewed some stuff. But they couldn't cover it all, and it's not like you had a copy of Nintendo Power in your back pocket as you were wondering up and down the aisles, trying to pick something before your parents told you it was time to go. Sometimes, in those frantic moments before your mom or dad said something like, "If you can't decide then we could just leave without getting something," you would just grab the nearest game handy. Never go home without a game.
Sometimes you hit gold with Contra. Yeah, maybe you beat it already, but it was a blast, so why not do it again?  Or, it could go south and you could end up stuck for the whole weekend with a game that was total garbage--And oh wow, does Superman 64 ever fit that bill. Until about a decade ago, I never would have known I wasn't alone in thinking the game was trash. The fact was though, renting that game had actually made me a part of a collective video game experience of gamers across the world.  Not a good one, but an experience never the less.

I hated the game and I really, really, really tried to like it. 

When I was younger, if I couldn't play a game well when I rented it, most times I just chalked it up to me being lousy at that particular game. Blown to bits on the first level of Gradius? Sure. Smacked down by Dhalsim in Street Fighter? Yeah, that happens. Maybe I wasn't figuring out something basic. Maybe I needed to play more and develop the skills to play the game well. Maybe the copy I got was broken somehow. (Note: I've actually thought this was the case for a particular game, but that's a story for another time.) This time though I knew, I just knew that the game was fundamentally bad. In fact, it was so bad it made me wonder if other games from my slightly older systems, like the NES and the Sega, were bad as well, and I was too naive and too young at the time to realize it. I shrugged it off at the time, but the effect of renting such a terrible game stayed with me for a long while afterwards.

Cue James Rolfe AKA the Angry Video Game Nerd, or The Nerd if you prefer...

The Nerd of Hope:

The Angry Video Game Nerd (Web Video) - TV Tropes

I found out about The Nerd in a different way than most, and I want to give you a little backstory on it:

I was going through a pretty rough time in 2010. Previous years had been marked by poor health and a degenerative liver disease known as PSC. Mid-January of that year, I had been diagnosed with early signs of liver cancer and was bumped up pretty high on the transplant list. While getting regular time in front of radiation machine and low-level chemo treatments, I would play video games, read, watch movies; you know, do anything to pass the time and try to not obsess about what was going on. 

Problem was, I was rapidly running out of energy on a daily basis, and although I enjoyed playing games to pass the time, I really just spent most of my time half asleep or in a daze from my illness and treatments. My little sister suggested I try out a website called thatguywiththeglasses, the original home of the Nostalgia Critic, and watch some of the funny videos there to lift my spirits. This lead to me hopping over to Youtube to check out the various movie and game reviews as well. After some hopscotching around what we now think of as "old school" Youtube to see if I could find other funny reviews to lift my spirits, I discovered the Nerd and his review of the now infamous game. What a treasure that channel truly is, and what a blessing it was (and still is) to me.

What unfolded in The Nerd's roughly ten minute thrashing of Superman 64 was a comedy genius game review that still holds up a decade later. Sure he swears like drunken sailor at a bar holding a "Swear Like a Drunken Sailor Night," but in a weird way, that's part of the charm. Not only was he dropping F-bombs, but doing so while pointing out the basics of why Superman 64 was so terrible. It wasn't just that the game was being used as part of a comedy bit, there were legitimate criticisms wrapped up in it as well. From the stupid, endless ring levels, to the bad graphics, to the unending green fog surrounding the first stage--all of these horrible hallmarks of the game provided fodder for The Nerd. Each minute was funnier then the last culminating in a goofy, but fun green-screen tribute to Superman, complete with The Nerd saving the day by hurling his copy of the game into the sun. 

I laughed a lot, probably more than I had in a while, and I binged all his reviews over the next few days, and I've been fan ever since.

It was a great bit of levity that I needed in those dark times, and I want to give a shout out/thanks to James Rolfe for creating AVGN. His videos have always been a great pick me up when times are down, and I've enjoyed nearly every project he's done since. Heck, I'm not really into horror films, but his annual devotion to various horror films in the month of October convinced me to pick up some of the early Hammer horror films, such as the various Dracula movies starring Sir Christopher Lee. But I digress. It goes beyond just enjoying the misadventures of the Angry Video Game Nerd. It was great to know that not only was it okay to say that some of those older games didn't hold up, some of them were downright awful and unplayable. It was great to see him pick apart the game and layout reasons why. Everything he vented about was exactly the way I remember feeling about Superman 64 at the time. It was good to know that there were others out there who not only remembered playing the good games, the easy ones that came to mind like Contra, or Super Mario Bros., or Sonic the Hedgehog.--but also really remembered the bad ones like Total Recall, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde....and even Superman 64. 

Bad Games, Good Memories:
I remember nearly every game I've rented, both the fun ones and the dreadful ones. Sure, grousing about bad video games in this day and age is pretty easy to come by. Why, you could probably step out your front door right now, or visit a gamer forum, and find at least three people who left a harsh opinion *somewhere* online about the latest Playstation, Xbox, or Nintendo game. What's unique about the criticisms and consternation that we had in the past was not only did we not have the ability to access games with a couple of button pushes and a download; but you more keenly felt it when a game was going bad on you. Sure, might have invited friends to hang out if you had a copy of something like Super Punch Out, but if you picked up a bad game, no way you would want others to know about your embarrassing mistake.

We worked hard to get those four or five bucks to get that game rental when our parents went to the video store. It was absolutely crushing as a kid to get home and find out that not only did the LJN movie based game you rented suck, but you had that thing for the whooooooooole weekend, no going back. It was your companion after school that Friday night, the first thing you did after Saturday Morning Cartoons, and for some of us it was the first thing we did after getting home from church on Sundays. You played that game you rented, even if it filled you with deep regret that you didn't just rent Bionic Commando for the 5th time. Yeah, there were times I was mentally kicking myself for having picked up a game I didn't like, that happened. 

Funny thing is, I sometimes laugh at myself now for having passed up renting certain games as a kid, only to have them be some of my favorite games now as an adult. Was Superman 64 a good game to play on a weekend? Not by a long shot. But it was so bad that it has to bring a smile to your face these days just thinking about it. Ask anyone these days what they think of as the worst game ever made and some may knee jerk say  E.T. for Atari. But for those of us who got a chance to rent games, and know about it, Superman 64 has a legacy that will live on.