I punch through the clouds just in time to see the machines descending on the city. I’ve battled these things before, smashing them to smithereens with my fists, turning them to scrap with heat vision or hurling their bombs back at them; they’ve repeatedly proven to be little obstacle. Predictable to a fault, the machines begin their assault on the metropolis below. I dive down, intercepting their deadly payloads before they can obliterate the people I’ve sworn to protect, pitching them back at these alien aggressors.
Only when I’ve thrown the third device back do I realise it felt different. Heavier. The thought's barely finished when the blast wave hits me. Being a super man, I merely feel the heat. But beneath me the city, the place I call home, burns. I hear every explosion, every agonised wail. All those people who saw me as a symbol of hope are now dying in an inferno I helped create.
This harrowing scenario screams Superman, but it’s from Megaton Rainfall - a game that not only gives you Superman’s powers but has you shouldering the responsibilities of the DC Comics icon. It may be unlicensed but this is the closest any game has come to delivering an authentic Superman experience and, unfettered by the restrictions imposed on official games, it explores the very real possibility of failure.
Megaton Rainfall (available on PS4 and PC) succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to reign in your powers, as other Superman titles typically do. Instead it offers a sense of freedom and power that is unparalleled by any other Superman game. Rather than being restricted to one city, the whole planet is your playground; you can plunge into the ocean, skim the treetops or gaze down on Earth from the edge of the atmosphere. You can even head out into space to set foot on other planets and, while the latter serves little purpose, the ability to go anywhere is worth its weight in Kryptonite.
Since the game lacks invisible walls or other artificial barriers to slam into, you can accelerate to a startling velocity. It instantly recreates those childhood fantasies of being the Man of Steel, those times when a child imagines just how fast Superman can go. That's the whole point, after all: Superman is fundamentally a man with no limits. That's why, while you’re not Superman in name, the parallels are impossible to ignore. You’re an alien being who made Earth his home, you have unlimited power and the ability to fly, and are offered sage advice by an ethereal father-figure. All that's missing is the costume.
What Megaton Rainfall really gets right about Superman is that the strength and power fantasy is only half the story. His capabilities are tempered by the compassion he has for the inhabitants of his adopted planet. The Eisner winning Superman: Peace on Earth, for example, deals not with Superman’s ability to flatten his foes but his desire to aid humanity. Megaton Rainfall doesn't have a Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane to protect, but instead you feel wholly responsible for the world’s inhabitants. Not least because, with an invulnerable character, you’re instead judged by how many fatalities occur under your protection.
To be fair, this isn't the first time a Superman game has tried exactly this kind of 'health bar' - Superman Returns featured a damage-based system, but it was rather abstract and frustrating in execution. Megaton Rainfall on the other hand makes you directly responsible for failure with a simple and distressing mechanic: every alien projectile that slams into a building, every tower block that crumbles under your gaze, everything bad that happens is accompanied by an on-screen fatality count. Not only do you have to listen to the screams of those you failed ringing in your ears (super hearing, right?), you’re also solemnly informed how many people died because you were too slow to react. This little detail forges an almost emotional connection to the game world and its citizenry. Each time the dreaded counter appear you tense up, not because it brings you one step closer to Game Over but because it’s such a stark and inarguable symbol of how you've failed as a protector.
The movie Man of Steel was mocked for the sheer amount of damage that was inflicted during the climatic scene, both by the movie’s villain and by Superman himself. But in Megaton Rainfall, your own attacks can devastate a city block. A UFO jinks just in time to avoid your attack; time seems to slow, and you can only watch in horror as your heat vision cuts a skyscraper in half. This has to be the only Superman game where you come to appreciate the flipside of such awesome powers is the restraint and care required to use them without becoming a butcher. It makes Man of Steel’s mass destruction seem like a pretty credible reality.
I don't think all previous Superman titles are awful. They just all struggle with the problem of Superman himself - how do you make the most powerful being on Earth both fun to play as, and balance that with some sort of challenge? There have been multiple attempts over the years, from Superman on the Atari 2600 through to 2006's Superman Returns, which outside of small mobile titles is the last official Superman game. That released to a mixed reception, and the criticisms of Superman games tend to repeat themselves: Superman Returns had a pretty great flying mechanic, but then forced you to engage in ground battles all the time, while Superman: Man of Steel simply never felt fast enough. Then there's the ludicrous idea that some two-bit robot can down Superman with a laser which... you know, it's just not very Superman.
The most infamous has to be the Nintendo 64's Superman 64, much-maligned for using “Kryptonite Fog” to dampen your abilities. But the bulk of Superman games, with the exception of Superman Returns, have reigned in the hero’s abilities in similar fashion, making him weirdly vulnerable. Part of the Superman’s appeal is his near godlike power, and it's the one thing that the games consistently shy away from.
There’s another issue facing anyone who seeks to create a Superman game, which Megaton Rainfall neatly sidesteps by not being an official title. DC Comics, itself a subsidiary of Warner Bros, has the final word when it comes to any property that uses their leading superhero and hence can step in at any stage of the development cycle. And, as noted in an interview with Superman 64 producer Eric Caen, this presents its own set of problems. Caen explained that, in the case of Superman 64, Superman’s powers were actually reined-in at the request of DC Comics. He went on to state that while their original design was too ambitious, “the main issue was working with the licensor. They caused us so much trouble.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that it’s been 11 years since any publisher has deigned to put out a non-mobile Superman game. The investment required is huge; the design challenge is enormous; the returns are uncertain; the licensor has historically been a nightmare to work with.
Megaton Rainfall doesn't do it all. It doesn't have room to explore Superman’s personal relationships, and the struggle of maintaining his human life as Clark Kent while executing his duties as Earth’s protector. That's not what this game is aiming at, of course, and it may be that such a focus is better dealt with in something like Telltale's Batman games.
Despite the minor imperfections, Megaton Rainfall does an outstanding job of convincing you that you are the man in the cape and red underpants. When you’re flying so high you can see the curvature of the Earth, then soaring down to street level to punch a robot in the face, you don't even think about a licence because you feel every inch the Man of Steel - in a way that none of the official games have never approached. Who cares if you don't have a big 'S' on your chest, when a game can make you feel this super.