Title: Superman: The Arcade Game
Release Date: 1988
In 1988 Taito released what is considered the first proper Superman game……well, one that did it Justice, anyway. (See what I did there?) Previously, three games had been released for the Atari, the C64 and sister platforms, and the Nintendo NES. None of these game really offered anything spectacular (perhaps with the exception of the C64 version, and amounted to stumpy platformers with a Superman skin…..until this came along.
Graphically the game is pretty cool on a 16 Bit-level. The Superman sprite looks great with heroic stances and poses aplenty. A good array of baddie sprites are present, although based on the same model, and there are some nice death animations that add some pepper to proceedings. The backgrounds are competent and the scrolling is smooth all wrapped up with a good splattering of recognisable colour, although the backgrounds on the high speed flight sections could have used some parallax scrolling layers for added effect. The animation varies from good to so-so, with Superman having a tremendously funny ‘tough guy’ swagger but it’s by no means bad.
Despite taking its cue from the comic book adventures of the character, rather than the Chris Reeve cinematic versions, the game also features a glorious 16-bit rendition of the iconic John Williams score, adding significantly to the atmosphere and overall enjoyment of the game, as those instantly recognisable melodies bleep out while you trash the bad guys.
Gameplay is basic but fun, and broken down into what is essentially two sections; a plain ‘scroll and punch’ section, followed by a vertical or horizontal flight section. The beat ’em up sections are more or less the same as games like ‘Vigilante’, but with a few bonus ways of playing. The flight sections take on rather a snazzy shoot ’em up style much like the ‘Thunder Force’ games with some cool end of level bosses. It’s rinse and repeat until the five levels are done, but what makes the game is that you have access to all of Superman’s powers from the off. Walking along the street punching baddies is fine but when you tug the joystick up and go into glorious flight, even in the beat ’em up parts, it really is quite exhilarating if a little limited. Heat vision is available, too, as well as super strength, so you can vary your attacks by zapping your foe, or perhaps lob a grimy trash can at them while smashing through a few walls too. All good clean fun!
An unfortunate downside to the game is that in order to create a challenge for the player, the Man of Steel’s powers have been GREATLY reduced, to the point where he can be taken out with a few punches from a robotic foe. Hardly a fitting demise for the man who once blew out a star, but that is the nature of the character in video game form. In film, being near physically invincible is fine (no matter what the critics say), as Superman’s real challenges come not from the physical tasks he faces, but his emotional vulnerability. He’s just as fragile as the rest of us, but has the added weight of having to take care that he doesn’t lose his shit one day and kill Lois with a Kryptonian drunk text or destroy half the planet with a heat fart. You don’t need massive physical challenges with those more interesting obstacles for the character to overcome, but in game form that’s really what you are limited to, unless one day someone comes up with an immersive Superman simulator that let’s the player tackle his emotional state as well as flying around rescuing Lois and others, but that’s wishful thinking.
Credit is also due for deciding against using Lex Luthor as a main villain, but points are taken off for passing over the wealth of available and established Superman villains of the comics. Instead we are introduced to a new villain created especially for the game. Emperor Zaas is the main green skinned beastie that Superman has to defeat, who interestingly enough, doesn’t have any super powers of his own. Instead he relies on simple Alien physiology that enhances his strength and stamina, making him hundreds of times stronger than humans and a viable match for Superman. The fact that Supes also relies on his own Alien physiology does give the story some credence, but it would have been nice to see some familiar faces in boss from at the very least.
An interesting and puzzling addition to the game is a simultaneous two player mode, in which player two controls a palette swapped red version of Superman. Fans being fans have had a bit of theoretical fun with this feature and some even claim it is, or at least is a nod to Shazam, as the colour scheme of the suit with the red body and white cape/boots plus the yellow and grey chest shield is an identical colour scheme to that of the Captain. A truly inverted palette swap would have player 2 with a blue cape and boots so all things considered it isn’t a far stretch of the imagination to think that a small Easter egg would be placed within the game for the uber geek enjoyment. Thanks to the wonder of modern emulation and hacking tech, the game has also been discovered to have unused sprites in it’s system for a female second player which perhaps points to the once inclusion of Supergirl or Wonder Woman as a mystery 2UP, which would have made more sense given the canon and universe but perhaps time constraints did not leave much space for coding this new character.
I first played this game in a grubby arcade somewhere on holiday in the late 80’s and being a fan of the big blue boy I lapped it up like a cocaine whore on her first line of the day. Its simple gameplay won’t last long past a few plays as the repetitiveness will get mind-numbing very quickly (perhaps another sign of deadline sacrifices!), but as a representation of Superman in game form it’s pretty damn cool. Although the watered down character won’t be a completely fitting tribute to the scope and universe of the character, the graphical style, rousing bleepy rendition of the John Williams score, and being able to smash the bad guys with Supes powers will at least give a sense of being in that world.
The writer of this piece was: Alan Stares
Alan is a sound engineer, retro gamer, and general all-round geek from Glasgow. You can read more of his thoughts on a range of topics at ‘The Scots Perspective‘ and on retro gaming at ‘The Old Oilhouse‘.