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Superman Video Games Over The Years!
by: Dr. Boogie

As you all know, the new "Superman Returns" movie was recently released, and with it, you can expect to be buried beneath an avalanche of new Superman crap. Hats, T-shirts, action figures, costumes, and a myriad other products, licensed and unlicensed alike, are already on the market. If it's large enough to accommodate Superman's trademark "S" shield, you can bet your last ounce of kryptonite that someone is trying to make a buck off of it. That said, it should come as no surprise that on the heels of this remake comes a multi-platform release of "Superman Returns" videogames. For the uninitiated, games based off of movies tend to be hit-or-miss; you could wind up with a great game based off of a crummy movie, like Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, or you could wind up with just the opposite, in the case of the infamous ET: The Extraterrestrial game and the far less well-known Waiting for Guffman game. Superman, however, is no stranger to the realm of electronic entertainment. No, he is all too familiar with how hard it can be to make an entertaining game that centers on a hero who is nigh-indestructible. With that in mind, save yourself the trouble of searching online for Superman's video game legacy and take a gander at this brief list of some of the ubermenche's past efforts:

Superman, as modern art.
Superman (Atari 2600)

Atari played host to one of the earliest Superman games. At least I think it's a game. When you start it up, a vaguely humanoid configuration of colored blocks enters what looks like a phone booth, and then transforms into another blocky man with a hat. And then there's a bunch of noise, and you get the impression that stuff is happening, but you can't really tell what, and you certainly can't do anything about it. On one screen, it kind of looks like a bridge has collapsed, and in another, there's a character that I think is supposed to be a lady in distress. Maybe. Perhaps I somehow managed to use his x-ray vision, and then got stuck in that mode. I'm willing to give Superman a mulligan for this one.

DC is most proud of this game.
Superman (NES)

Superman hasn't been in the best of games, but one of his earliest ventures into the field of video gamery was just plain bizarre. Case in point: 1988's Superman for the NES. You wouldn't suspect that anything was amiss from the title screen, although the limited graphics capacity cost the Man of Steel his tone and definition. Then, moments later...

Base #2:  Planet Houston.

You witness a short, stocky version of Superman being briefed by a noseless version of the Statue of Liberty (or rather, the "Statue of Freedom") about the threat posed by the insidious General Zod. Something like that is bound to leave Superman fans ill at ease, despite the Statue reassuring Superman, "I'll be watching you." Rightly so, as it turns out all the characters have been transformed into midgets. Dwarf-ization aside, the Man of Steel is severely hampered in the game. The average Superman game renders the hero vulnerable to bullets, fists, and all the other things that normally wouldn't even phase him, but this game took that a step further by giving him a number of severely limited powers, including two different kinds of "Super Breath." I couldn't find a use for either type of breath, but then again, it took me a while just to figure out how to effectively use the "Super Flight." If you do use up all of a given power, you can always try to get more by beating power-ups out of the local thugs, including a three-pack of hot dogs that, depending on the color, can help or hinder our hero. Indeed, you'll be hard-pressed to make sense of anything in this game. Really, it's best if you don't ask questions, just as Clark Kent's in-game colleagues don't question his 40ft vertical leap.

Cutting edge graphics!
Superman: The Man of Steel (Commodore 64)

The next Superman game took things in a different direction. "A not-half-his-original-size" direction. This time around, the Man of Steel faces off with a number of his popular nemeses, including Darkseid, the evil alien tyrant with the bullet-shaped head. Rather than being a somewhat open-ended side-scroller like the NES game, the C64 Superman features a series of minigames. In one, you'll shoot at incoming para-demons (monsters sent via portal by Darkseid) with heat vision in an Afterburner-type scenario; in another, you'll blast asteroids to bits before they can destroy a satellite, like in Asteroids "(kinda); and in yet another, you'll guide the Man of Steel through a gauntlet of robots and automatic turrets, just like in... well, not at all like Gauntlet, but if it were, I can assure you that Superman would never shoot the food. Anyway, it was kind of a good time, and the graphics were far better than in Superman's NES incarnation. In terms of how true it stayed to the actual character, all of Superman's powers (flight, x-ray vision, super strength, etc) are yours to command, albeit they drew from an energy bar that gradually refilled over time. Also, he's just as indestructible in the game as he is in the comics, and running headlong into meteors and dangerous robots just knocks him for a loop momentarily. As such, most of the challenges involve completing an objective within a given time limit. They even managed to work in a decent, although somewhat grainy, version of the Superman theme. Not bad for an old 16-bit computer.

The title kinda ruins the ending.
The Death and Return of Superman (Genesis, SNES)

A few years back, the Superman storyline took on an interesting arc, in which Superman died. I suppose my saying that was superfluous, given the title of this game, but say it I did. Anyway, Superman's usual routine of being shot at, and then having empty guns chucked at him, is interrupted by the arrival of an unfriendly visitor from another world: Doomsday. The Justice League can't stop him (not even Aquaman), and so it comes down to Superman to save the day. He does, but not without taking one too many blows from Doomsday's craggy fists. And so, with Superman out of the picture, four Superman wannabes show up, and then all manner of stuff goes down that I can't remember because it's been years since I read the comics. I think LA was destroyed for some reason, but I can't remember how or why. Regardless, the game itself was kind of fun. Kind of. For all his strength, Superman and the Supermen still had some trouble overcoming common street thugs armed with chainsaws and Molotov cocktails. Plus, it seemed kind of anticlimactic to me that the monstrous bad guy who was finally able to kill Superman could be done in by standing slightly above or below him and punching like crazy. In short, not awful, but not great either.

Have you ever used the word "indicia"?
Superman (Arcade)

They used to have this game at an old Roller rink in town. I remembered it as being kind of fun, though not so fun that I would want to learn how to skate and thus have an excuse to hang out in that place. Imagine my surprise when I returned to the game some eight years or so later and found it to be... peculiar. I'm not sure of the actual plot of the game. All you get in terms of story is a single picture of an alien with a green head holding the earth in his hand and sneering at the camera. My guess is alien invasion, because the bulk of the enemies are flying costumed humanoids that try to punch and kick you into submission. It seems pretty straightforward in the beginning, but gradually, you start to notice a few incongruous elements here and there. Most notably, there are two Supermen. Behold...

Nice suit, who's your tailor?

The second player controls a Superman with a red and grey outfit, and has all the powers of the original Superman. Speaking of powers, the Supermen, in addition to having super strength, flight, and heat vision, also have the ability to conjure up a glowing yellow sphere and hurl said sphere at their enemies with explosive results. Nifty, yes, but doesn't Superman have enough powers as it is? Even more peculiar is that whenever an enemy or a Superman is killed, they transform into a holographic body outline and fade from sight. Observe:

It's like Tron, only I'm watching it!

Perhaps the Japanese developers felt that Superman's powers made him too unrealistic, and so he had to be merely a figment of some computer simulation. Furthermore, the game presented the Man of Steel with a number of costumed aliens and cyborgs, but at times, these villains seemed downright silly:

What's with the "W" on the bear's chest?

Finally, the different stages are set in different well-known American cities, such as San Diego and Las Vegas. At one point, you even travel to Washington DC, but the thing is, although I don't live in the area, I'm fairly certain that Mount Rushmore isn't located in that general area, although the game developers would beg to differ.

Superman vs. The Poncho Sniper!
Superman (Gameboy)

The less said about the Superman game for the world's most popular handheld gaming system, the better. It was based off the contemporary Superman cartoon, and that's about the closest thing to a compliment as this game is going to receive. The bulk of the gameplay centers on the toughest superhero in town scouring the landscape for keys. Keys! As if it weren't ridiculous enough for the Man of Steel to be rummaging around Metropolis for keys when Superman routinely makes his own entrance by smashing through walls and ceilings alike, it turns out that there is no door at the end of the stage. I guess Superman just likes to collect old skeleton keys in his free time. Anyway, Superman can fly unhindered in this game, but that's about it. His punches are somewhat ineffective, as his arms have the reach of a Tyrannosaurus'. On the downside, he doesn't have heat vision, or freezing breath, but he does have the ability to jerk forward suddenly and slam into his enemies, oddly enough only harming himself. He doesn't exactly look the part either, as the graphics are atrocious. Then again, so is the music and sound effects. In short, this game is one steaming pile of brown kryptonite.

Rated "E" for "excrement."
Superman 64 (Nintendo 64)

Doubtless some of you are way ahead of me when I bring up this "gem" from the days of 64-bit gaming. For the rest, it may be somewhat insufficient to say that Superman 64 was a bad game. Just imagine the most visually displeasing game that you've ever played, combine it with horrendous controls and a third-person camera with a mind of its own, and slap the Superman license on it, and you've got Superman 64. Though it is now relegated to the shelves of second-hand game stores around the country, its infamy will always remain in the hearts of fans of Superman and fans of video games as well. Lest we forget...

A misspelled word right in the title?
Superman: Shadow of Apokolips (PS2, Gamecube)

The latest game in the Superman franchise. Like Superman 64, the game is in the third-person perspective and is based off the late 90s Superman cartoon, but the similarities end there. All of Superman's powers are intact (except for his ability to travel backward through time by flying around the world backward), and draw off of an energy bar. In that way, it's like the Commodore 64 game, except with an extra, third dimension. In the game, Superman squares off with a few of the recurring villains, including evil kryptonite-powered cyborg, Metallo, and his army of "Interbots." Indeed, exercising the Man of Steel's many powers on wave after wave of deadly robots is fun, but it does get a little old after a while, thanks in part to there being very little variation in the Interbots. Still, it's a significant improvement over the previous Superman offerings. Now, all that remains to be seen is how it stacks up to the Superman Returns game...

So what makes a good Superman game? To begin with, it isn't necessary to make Superman totally invulnerable, but for the love of god, don't make him so vulnerable that he can be killed by accidentally bumping into a mugger on the street. It's also important to get his powers down right. Heat vision and flight are Superman staples, as is super strength. To that end, it shouldn't take a volley of five or more punches to subdue some yahoo in an undershirt. While you're at it, get some decent music for the game. I mean, the guy has his own orchestra theme. The least you can do is shell out a few extra bucks for a soundtrack that fans will remember (remember fondly, that is). Finally, and this is the most important step of all, make sure that the play has some idea of whats going on, and what it is that they should be doing, and no, "be Superman" is not an acceptable answer.

Without all that, all you'll wind up with is a Super flop, and people will call you a super ninny. That said, Id like to close with one last bit of nostalgia, in the form of the three bad guys from Superman II - Ursa, Non, and our dearest friend General Zod, as depicted in the NES version of Superman:

There are so many things wrong with this picture. I believe Zod used his eye-lasers to kill the artist.

Questions or Comments about this piece?
email Dr. Boogie

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