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Bury the Shovelware: Superman Returns

Kaes Delgrego

Opinion leadership. It's quite a scary concept. When planning the waves of advertisement for a product, marketers will implement what they describe as "opinion leaders": those who are viewed with respect by the potential market and will help persuade "lower-level consumers" to purchase their product. In other words, we're too stupid to know what we want and so they're going to pay someone we think is legitimate to tell us what we like. I wouldn't dare point fingers, but perhaps you've seen this before: a large gaming news source suddenly seems to be hot for a certain upcoming game. (Don't look at us.)

As discomforting as this sounds, it's actually a very common and natural occurrence. Certainly we've all been persuaded by friends, family, and respectable gaming news sources. Additionally, the influence isn't restricted towards the positive. Indeed, in the wake of anti-French sentiments and boycotts following France's denouncement of the Iraq war, French's Mustard (unrelated to the country) felt the need to release a press statement assuring consumers that "the only thing French about French's Mustard is the name." As you can see, unrelated negativity can percolate into that which is only similar in the letters used to identify it.

Superman for the N64 -- commonly referred to as Superman 64 -- is widely regarded as one of the worst games of all-time. So when I discovered Superman Returns for the DS floating around the very bottom of the system's metascores, I was truly puzzled. "Could they really have messed up Superman this bad twice?" Read on to find out.

00:00:20 - I'm given a selection of colors / suits to choose from, including "Apokolips Armor" and "The Superman Monster." That's kind of a neat touch, especially if you're really into Superman.

00:00:59 - Wait, what? I'm guiding Superman's comet across space into the sun ... sure, why not? This part isn't terrible. It's not that great, but it's already proven to be infinitely more robust than Deal or No Deal.

00:01:54 - The cutscene gives the general gist of the film: I'm informed that Superman went back home only to find that his planet was desolate, and so he returned to earth. The presentation is actually not too bad. It's nothing to write home about, but thus far I haven't seen anything quite "shovelware-worthy." This game better get bad real fast or else I'm going to have to rename this column.

00:02:46 - Ohh, okay, here we are. I've entered my first challenge in which I'm attempting to foil Mogul's attempt to wreck havoc on Metropolis. At first, I thought I was just watching a map, but apparently this is the gameplay. It's kind of RTS-lite. It's unique, to be certain.

00:03:56 - Wow ... I just entered a battle with Mogul, and apparently the combat is based around the same rhythmic button-pressing gameplay we've seen before in many different titles. Really, you don't use any controls or maneuvers at all. The user just presses buttons at the right time as they fall into place. It's different, but still not quite deserving of the shovelware title.

00:07:39 - So I complete the first mission. In all honesty ... it's not that terrible. I mean, it's not a game I would purchase or recommend to people, probably not even those who are fans of Superman. Still, it's apparent that some reviewers were a bit jumpy with the negativity. I'll dive deeper and see if there's any terrible flaws.

00:09:15 - Another boss fight, this time with Braniac. I'm a bit more accustomed to the battle scheme, and it's really not all that awful once you get the hang of it. Some parts are pretty tricky, but overall it's a unique way to consider boss battles and to break up the action. The God of War series' use of action broken up by rhythmic button presses works much better, but this isn't the worst gameplay idea I've ever seen.

00:12:32 - A non-boss mission begins in which I'm putting fires out. After extinguishing all but one small fire, the headlines proclaim "FIRE BURNS THROUGH CITY." It's Mrs. O'Leary's cow all over again.

00:13:47 - The next mission is very much like the first; I'm flying to try and save an airplane and dodging debris on the way. Nothing terrible, but nothing exceptionally note-worthy.

00:14:57 - Continuing with a few more missions, objectives and boss battle opportunities are introduced as other tasks are completed. It's similar to the GTA style where there's usually several objectives available to complete, but you must complete several larger ones in order to proceed. Parasite escapes! Oh no!

00:16:48 - I think I've seen enough to make my judgment on this game.

Last year, a study by Stanford University had children taste two samples of the exact same food, the only difference being that the containers for one had the McDonalds logo printed across it. The other sample was left unbranded. As you might have guessed, the children described the McDonalds-branded food as tasting better the majority of the time. What I'm getting at is that familiarity is a very powerful aspect of our perception. If Superman 64 had never existed, would the scores for subsequent Superman games be altered? Will they always bear the culpability of one bad game, in this case a game that was created two generations ago by a completely different developer and publisher? As I've demonstrated, Superman Returns is not a good game. But it's nowhere near the level of heinousness assumed by most critics and subsequently inherited by many gamers/consumers.

We're a very curious species. Like any advanced intelligence, we tend to follow the lead of that which we perceive. We like to know everything, and when we don't, we try to make associations based on past knowledge. This is a highly desirable trait, but one must be sure to avoid crossing the line into prejudice. Otherwise, assumed merits such as fairness, accuracy, and consistency may find themselves becoming negotiable.

In gaming, the term shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit. Bury the Shovelware takes a closer look at these titles, typically those that inhabit the lower end of metascores. It attempts to: 1) find out where and how the developer went wrong 2) identify common traits present in most shovelware 3) measure how long the game can be suffered.

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