As I noted in Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include, I love Superman. I love how boringly predictable he is. I like the concept of an overgrown boy scout with an unshakable moral compass who will always do what’s right. In a world where everything has to be gritty and shades of grey, shouldn’t there be one do-gooder who is so wholesome and true and virtuous that he makes everybody aspire to their better angels? I also refuse to believe that it’s really that hard to make a decent Superman game. The fact that the best game starring the Man of Steel came out ten years before I was born is just sad. It begs the question: what is the second best Superman game? It’s a hard question to answer. I’ve played almost all of them now, including the C64 games now, and most are pretty dang bad. One was so inept that I started laughing to the point of physical pain. It’s an unreleased Superman prototype for the Game Boy Color called Battle for Metropolis. Booted it up, the very first enemy punched me once, and despite the fact that my life bar was half the length of the screen, I died and game overed. From one punch. From a normal enemy.
It broke me. I laughed so hard I thought I would collapse a lung. Then I imagined what the enemy must have been thinking to even try punching SUPERMAN, the one guy you would never try punching, and their reaction that it actually knocked him out cold in one shot, and suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath.
Actually, the second best Superman game is certainly Shadow of Apokolips for the GameCube/PS2, which manages to rise to the level of being average. It’s fine. Not amazing. Not even really that good. It’s okay. We’re now well into the fourth decade of Superman video games and, besides the Injustice games, Superman has never starred in an unambiguously fun video game. How hard can it be? And don’t tell me it’s because Superman is overpowered. Who cares? We’ve all played Grand Theft Auto where we turn on cheats for everything and then go stark raving mad, causing unstructured mayhem and destruction. Do you know why we do that? Because it’s hell of fun to do that type of thing. JUST DO THAT, ONLY WITH SUPERMAN! For God’s sake, just make a sandbox with loose objectives that can tie into a bigger story if that’s what players want. Or let them just go on a Superman-themed rampage if they want to be psychopaths. Grand Theft Auto: Metropolis. That’s what a Superman game should be. It shouldn’t have Superman being punched-out. Superman should be able to flick enemies into the sun, but he’s constantly being beaten down. Take, for example, the 1988 Taito Superman arcade game. It’s the latest arcader I’ve reviewed that never saw re-release again. That’s probably a good thing in this game’s case.
Nobody ever talks about Superman’s coin-op when they bring up how cursed this franchise is when it comes to video games. They talk about Superman 64, with its endless ring trials or unstable 3D environment. Or, perhaps they consider the bottom of the barrel to be the absolutely grotesque Kemco NES game. Yea, those are pretty dang bad. But, the NES or Nintendo 64 adventures of Kal-El can’t hold a candle to Superman: The Video Game (the official title of the coin-op) for sheer mind-numbing boredom. It’s a mindless brawler where you punch waves of bad guys, including ones in pink bunny suits. None of the villains from the franchise show up. An original villain named Emperor Zaas serves as the final boss. It’s one of many signs that everybody who worked on this wanted to be doing anything else. Zaas could have easily been Brainiac, but that would have required picking up a comic book and giving a crap.
There’s five levels that are divided into three phases. In the first, you scroll horizontally, punching and kicking enemies. Neither move has any OOMPH, but the kick is especially pathetic. Superman’s kick should be able to reduce the Moon to baby powder. Here, it feels like he’s trying to shake a strand of toilet paper off his boots. Meanwhile, enemies only have to punch you four times to knock you, Superman, S-shield-up, lights-out. Oh, and when you or the enemies die, they de-rez into wireframes. Yea. The one and only thing the arcade game got right is that you’re not grounded and can fly without any limitations. You’ll want to fly, since when you walk, Superman looks like a Karen heading up the counter to complain that they didn’t get enough crackers with their soup. Also, since the enemies are dressed like super heroes and fly too, it kind of takes the uniqueness out of it. Why do the enemies look this way? It would be like making a Sherlock Holmes video game where all the enemies wear deerstalkers and smoke pipes.
After the horizontal area, you move to a section that scrolls vertically. It’s just more endless punching and kicking, only this time, you’re always flying. It makes you wonder what the point of the first section was, then. It’s like they MEANT for the first part to be grounded, so the flying parts would stand out, but then changed their minds. So weird. The third each stage is strictly flying, and now the kick is replaced with your heat vision. At this point, Superman is functionally a shmup. While you can still punch, why would you want to? The heat vision is faster, more effective, and has range. You have to shoot missiles or structures in your way (apparently Superman isn’t smart enough to fly around them) until you reach a boss. The bosses are generic shmup type spacecraft, and holy smokes, do they ever suck. They take FOREVER to fight, soaking up damage like there’s no tomorrow. Now, mind you, I changed the settings to “easy” and even then, they had attack patterns that made me question if it’s even possible to avoid taking damage. You have unlimited continues, but remember, each one would have cost $0.25 back in 1988. Easily half the playtime of Superman: The Video Game is spent letting the bosses suck up your damage and re-upping quarters to continue.
Besides being able to charge-up your punch for a projectile, you don’t really get any help. There’s one power-up, and all it does is instantly charge up the punch. A charge you lose if you take damage anyway. Superman 1988, released just as the comics were being reinvented in the Post Crisis era, feels like a product that has no love for the source material. Say what you will about Superman 64 or Kemco’s Superman, but damnit, at least they had ambition! A fondness for the source material. This is just a lazy, thoughtless, cynical quarter sucker. I’m guessing nobody talks about the Superman coin-op because nobody spent more than $0.25 on it. It doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s a dull game. It never came home, so it never lingered around long enough to leave an impression. Had that not been the case, I actually think this, and not Superman 64, would be remembered as the worst Superman game.
It’s truly stupefying how boring Superman: The Video Game is. Maybe the worst overall arcade game I’ve reviewed so far, because it just offers no stimuli at all. I’ve played a lot of licensed games where I get the feeling the designers didn’t want the assignment, but this stands head and shoulders above others. There’s something really irritating about how generic it is. I want to ask the people who worked on this “why did you even get the license if THIS is what you came up with?” It’s not like Superman was scorching hot at the time. They were two years removed from John Byrne’s reboot of the comics and sales had plateaued. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had just bombed so badly that it helped bring down Cannon Films in the process, and the Ruby-Spears Superman cartoon series only lasted thirteen episodes. In that sense, maybe this is the best Superman game you could expect in 1988: spinning its wheels, unsure what to do with the Man of Steel, and ultimately phoning it in. A fascinating microcosm of the state of Superman at the time? Sure, as long you don’t actually play it.
Superman is not Chick-Approved
Superman was developed by Taito
The viral marketing for a good Superman game should feature Bizarro joyfully playing all the old Superman games and approving them enthusiastically. “Bizzaro no understand why humans hate NES Superman! Bizzaro like super cute graphics!”