Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, debuted in April of 1938, and I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope we all look as good as the Man of Steel when we’re 85 years old.
For over 8 decades now, the world has been enthralled about the tales of the last son of Krypton, Superman, an orphan jettisoned from a dying world but raised as one of us despite being gifted with extraordinary abilities far beyond a normal person. Even though he can fly around the world in mere minutes and bend steel like we fold paper, Superman selflessly uses his powers not just to protect his adopted world, but more importantly set an example of who we should all strive to be.
Superman is easily among DC Comics’ biggest properties and one of the most iconic fictional characters in existence. Lately he has been the subject of many headlines not because of his milestone birthday last month, but because the upcoming film Superman: Legacy from writer/director James Gunn will kickstart a new DC Universe in film, television and video games. Gunn, along with partner Peter Safran, are steering multimedia DC Comics stories in their new roles as co-CEOs of DC Studios who have already announced that Kara Zor-El, AKA Supergirl, will also be joining her cousin in the coming years.
Whether you realized it or not, 2023 marks another improtant anniversary for Superman, the hero with the Guinness World Record for being the longest running video game protagonist. Back in 2003, the GameCube port of Superman: Shadow of Apokolips was released, a title many – this author included – feel is perhaps the greatest Superman console game ever made.
To celebrate this anniversary, I reached out Steve Lycett who had a producer role on both the PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions of Shadow of Apokolips to learn about its development. Steve presently is a Franchise Development Director at Sumo Digital and still works with many of the folks who worked on Shadow of Apokolips. He graciously spoke to me about what went into making the GameCube port, an amazing Easter egg that nearly made it in, and what was planned for future, but sadly unmade, installments.
COMIC BOOK VIDEO GAMES: From someone who sits on the outside of the video game industry, I know that making them is not easy by any stretch of the imagination and sometimes projects don’t turn out the way a studio hopes. So, I must ask, what was the vibe of the team going in having to follow the infamous Superman: The New Superman Adventures for the Nintendo 64? Fear? Excitement?
STEVE LYCETT: You generally start every new project with excitement as at that stage, everything is possible! It’s only once you start to sit down and plan your project out that we must worry about such trivial concerns such as time, scope and budget!
At the beginning we also looked to past Superman games from the Atari 2600 version, the Taito Arcade version, various NES and Megadrive incarnations and of course the infamous N64 version.
What you’re looking to do at that stage is get a feel for what worked previously and what hadn’t. It was clear you must let player inhabit Superman and of course that comes with access to all his signature powers, but you also have to ensure it comes with responsibility.
What makes the character interesting is he is close to invincible, but those around him aren’t and so to really step into his shoes, you need to make sure the player must uphold Superman’s values and protect those around him.
A lot of those former games didn’t really explore that or understand it, so yes, you got the fun of beating up the bad guys, but it was almost a single dimensional view of the character.
We set out to show Superman from various angles and introduce depth to the character, story and gameplay and we tried to respect that throughout development, even when it proved challenging!
Take Livewire, she’s one of the boss characters you fight, but we felt it important that Superman would never physically attack her. So, we ended up with a boss fight without any actual fight! We encourage the player to think and use the environment instead and so it’s designed in such a way that you must think like Superman and not just rely on brute strength. I think you’ll likely understand by this point we’d set off to make the best Superman game we could and explore all facets of his character and that drove us throughout development of the game.
CBVG: Superman: Shadow of Apokolip’s publisher, Atari, had 2 other Superman titles in development apart from this one: the Xbox exclusive Superman: The Man of Steel and a Game Boy Advance title that tied into this one with Countdown to Apokolips. Was your team ever in contact with those making the other games to line up the story or bounce ideas off of?
LYCETT: I believe the various Infogrames Studios pitched ideas for a Superman game. For us we picked the Animated Series as we felt it best supported a videogame. That version of Superman is still powerful, but isn’t invincible or indestructible in a way that the comic or movie versions at that time were.
It also allowed us to lean into elements of the show – and of course that meant it’s incredible cast – and let us pick elements to weave into our narrative. We could effectively build from the Animated Series and fans could see those references, but it was also suitable for a new audience, you might not know the characters, but you could see they have a connection.
The Xbox team based in France opted instead to follow the comic version of the character and as a result went on to do a very different version of the game. For most of development we focused on our individual games, different teams using different engines with different methodologies.
There were various internal studio presentations where we’d catch a glimpse or get to play each other’s versions and I think we had a little bit of friendly rivalry. Occasionally we’d be visited by one of the Infogrames senior staff who I think encouraged that! I know Bruno Bonnell came around once and suggested some ideas we ‘borrow’ from the other team.
Looking back I don’t think we were aware of the Gameboy Advance game, but you can see how they reflected our art style and I suspect re-used some of our assets! With hindsight, that’s quite strange, these days you may get different teams working on a game, but it’d be the same design and aesthetic, you’d just take a platform each. I think around then Infogrames weren’t really sure what to do with us in Sheffield and so we were left to work on our game and do what we felt best.
CBVG: Superman: Shadow of Apokolips does an exceptional job of capturing the tone of the source material. Noticeably missing, however, is the iconic theme song. Was music something that had to be licensed separately, or did you wish to do your own spin on it and merely take inspiration from the show?
LYCETT: We definitely leaned into the Animated series! You can see may returning characters and the original cast doing the voices. It was important to have a strong narrative and we worked closely with Warner Bros to ensure the experience was authentic.
When it came to the music we wanted to have an original soundtrack that could dynamically track what was happening as you played through the game and tie closely to the action. To keep the style consistent we opted to allow the composers full creative freedom which meant we didn’t use the theme from the show, else weaving into and out of that for the needs of narrative might have seemed a jarring change in style.
CBVG: Cel-shading is used brilliantly here to capture the visual style of Superman: The Animated series. How early in the planning stage was it determined that you wanted to go this route? What were the challenges in converting two-dimensional images into 3-D models?
LYCETT: This wasn’t our first cel-shaded game, we’d previously worked on Wacky Races both on Dreamcast and PS2 so by this point we had experience of working in that style. It was another reason for looking to the Animated Series as we felt we could recreate it closely for the story sequences, characters and the environment art.
At times, we got pointed at the Xbox version and told our style was too ‘simple’! But I think actually its helped the game feel more timeless rather than the more CG style of the Xbox game which now looks very much of it’s time.
CBVG: The right analog stick here is used for strafing and controlling Superman’s flight. Describe the process of developing a camera system for a character with Superman’s level of mobility.
LYCETT: It was… tricky.
The main challenge is we wanted the player to have access to wide variety of moves and trying to map that to the controllers but in an intuitive way took a number of attempts!
We knew key to being able to play was going to be able to switch seamlessly between ground movement, hovering and full flight and that we needed to support that for both combat and other gameplay.
At the time our test level was the one used in Flood Damage so we knew we wanted to be able to navigate the environment to save civilians, battle the Interbots and also use objects in the environment in various ways.
Once we got the flight sorted out – which the right analog stick made sense to do – then the rest of the controls started to fall in place. We extensively used context sensitive controls I think at a time that was pretty new, so depending on what was near you, the A button would initiate combat, pick something up, throw something and again that was based on if you were locked on or not.
We had a very flexible character and tried to give the players multiple ways of achieving their goals, even if some players did just use the Heat Blast mostly!
CBVG: I feel that Shadow of Apokolips is at its best when you’re using Superman’s abilities to solve puzzles in the environment. For example, using his x-ray vision to scan boxes for needed parts while avoiding ones with deadly mines. What goes into crafting a fun Superman level? Conversely, what problems arise from designing a game starring a character who is nigh invulnerable?
LYCETT: The games development team were comprised of a bunch of senior engine programmers and part of the ethos was it’d be good to look how the super-powers could be used in various ways.
We had various test beds where you could use heat vision to first set fire to crates, pick them up and place them next to other crates which then caught fire, then blow the fire out with super breath or use ice barrels to do the same. As we went into level design with many of these great toys, we tried to set up situation the player could learn to use them, or stick with more direct combat or any mixture in-between.
As with the Livewire boss example where we encouraged the use of water to short her out – we always looked for ways that the player could take advantage of moving toys around and getting them to interact. You could build or destroy cover, you could use explosive objects to your benefit too. Even enemies could be picked up and used in combat or as shields against other enemy attacks.
That’s common place today, but back then it was something I think we did that was very innovative.
Another reason for using the animated series as a base was that version of Superman isn’t invincible. He needs a space suit for example and many of the antagonists do stand a chance of defeating him in a fight. For us that introduced the concept of thinking when you engaged and when you had to back off. Your health slowly refilled over time, but you did need to pay attention to combat or you could be overwhelmed.
We also did the same with Superman’s powers. You have access to flight unrestricted, but other powers based on their damage consumed energy too and that could be depleted. It forces the player again to think in their feet and use a range of powers, physical combat and smart use of the environment.
Plus yes, we wanted X-Ray vision in there, that allowed us to put in various puzzles and challenges. It needed a gameplay reason, but again that was the fun of looking to use that with the other toys to give the designers options for interesting setups to surprise the player with!
CBVG: Between this game, Hulk in 2003 and Batman: Vengeance, there was a trend of letting players control a superheroes’ civilian identity. At what stage of the design process did you start to think about letting the player portray Clark Kent?
LYCETT: The main reason to do this was to offer some gameplay variety, plus again explore the character from a different angle.
We’d wanted to have at least one level where you played as Clark and originally we also wanted to completely remove the option to use your super powers.
The stealth worked kind of OK, but just avoiding scientists for an entire level soon got boring, so we introduced some puzzles that needed to use some powers in a stealthy way, good chances to use heat vision and x-ray vision, plus use a quick burst of speed to dodge through laser beams.
I think the end result was a nice change of pace, it made sense within the narrative and it helped look at a character in a way I don’t think previous games did, so I’m glad we did it.
CBVG: Superman: Shadow of Apokolips arrived late in 2002 on the PlayStation 2 and then a few months later in early 2003 on the GameCube. Was it always intended to have a staggered release like that instead of coming out multiplatform simultaneously?
LYCETT: At the time it was as we got a bunch of GameCube hardware part the way through the game and so we looked to port the engine over to it. We saw the possibility to push the game a little further in places and due to the later start we could release simultaneously, so we spent a little longer on it and opted to release it later. These days that seems almost crazy, but back then it wasn’t unusual for games to release in a staggered way!
CBVG: Speaking of the GameCube port, it brings several improvements. Among them an adjustable difficulty level, a progressive scan mode, a small area to free roam in, even altered mission objectives to make them clearer in the case of one mission with industrial fans you must interact with. How did this “enhanced” version come to be? Were there any other areas you wished to improve on but couldn’t?
LYCETT: With all games there are changes you’d like to make but run out of time to do. Most of the improvements we’d wanted to do for PS2, but just couldn’t make happen in time for the planned release.
We also took feedback from reviews and players as we were still developing the GameCube version when the PS2 version was released. The changeable difficulty for example came from player feedback, some younger players found the game too hard. Some experienced players found it too easy! So there we added that to give player some choice.
So most were natural improvements as a side effect of feedback.
Others… well let’s just say as we waited for certain elements, we had a bit of free time and so looked at improvements we wanted to do. We always wanted players to have freedom within that opening area and we’d spent a lot of time on the area with the traffic and civilians, so it was nice to let players wander around, switch from Clark to Superman and re-use many of the assets in what was previously just a tutorial.
As we experimented with the GameCube, others came out of testing the power of the hardware or alterations to the renderer. I’m still a fan of the black and white movie treatment, complete with piano soundtrack that we did! Or the hidden pick-ups and the cheat that made them into classic videogame fruit…
We almost had the Atari 2600 version as a playable cheat… Eventually we also had to wrap up the game, if anything I think I’d have liked to add some additional levels, that might have had more value to the player than the various fun cheats we did, but new levels equals more cutscenes, cameras and music, cheats are far quicker and easier!
CBVG: This game concludes with a tease for a sequel. What ideas did you have for a potential follow-up, and was one ever put into any level of production?
LYCETT: Originally, the game was planned to be part of a trilogy. In fact I’ve dug around in the archives and found the story synopsis for part 2! I’m happy to share this so you can see what would have happened next…
I’m still looking for part 3, but I still work with many members of the original team today, whilst Infogrames chose to close Sheffield House in 2002 – from the ashes rose Sumo Digital.
If you look closely at some of our most recent games, say Crackdown 3, you can see direct DNA back to Superman as we learned many lessons from making that game that are still very valid today. I reckon with what we’ve learned now, we’re probably about ready to make a new Superman game, and I reckon it could be the best one yet!
I had the opportunity to look at what would’ve been the follow-up to Shadow of Apokolips – working title Apokolips Now! – and it’s something that I hope players are nostalgic for in an alternate universe. Lex Luthor was set to return alongside Brainaic and, of course, Darkseid. Other villains would’ve included Kalibak – who you tussle with in Countdown to Apokolips – and Steppenwolf of Zack Snyder’s Justice League fame.
The hero roster would’ve also expanded with both Steel and Supergirl fighting alongside the Man of Steel as computer controlled allies. The first chapter was set in and around Metropolis, but Apokolips Now! had Superman travelling to his Fortress of Solitude and Darkseid’s home planet. Metropolis was planned to get an overhaul too, becoming a more lively city with a greater number of citizens in which to interact with.
This was around the time when Grand Theft Auto III‘s almost overnight success spawned imitators and forced comic book heroes like Hulk and Spider-Man into open-worlds also. Like its predecessor, Apokolips Now! was set to be mission based with an equal number of chapters as Shadow of Apokolips and roughly the same playtime. Superman himself was set to be powered up through the use of additional animations and challenges beyond just fighting enemies.
A big thank you goes to Steve for giving up his time to answer my questions, as well as Sumo Digital for giving the blessing for the interview you’ve just read.