Games of Steel: Superman’s 38 Year Videogame History

Move aside Mario and Sod off Sonic, because the world’s longest-running superhero is also the world’s longest-running video game character.

No kidding!

Guinness World Records recently granted the honorary to the Man of Steel following an astonishing 38 year history in video games spanning from the Atari 2600s modest Superman to this year’s Injustice 2.

There have been some missteps along the way (what can I say about 1999’s Superman 64 that hasn’t been said by everyone on the internet) but there have also been some real gems amidst the Kryptonite.

So, come fly with me through a few of Big Blue’s gaming highlights. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to limit my choices to games that feature Superman as the sole or principal protagonist.

Superman (1978)- Atari 2600

It’s easy to deride the game’s rudimentary visuals and gameplay by contemporary standards but the 1978 Superman game was undeniably ambitious in its working with the technical limitations of the hardware to create a Superman experience that felt true to the character.

The developers rightly eschewed combat and instead made time the game’s chief antagonist. The player must rebuild a destroyed bridge, drop Lex Luthor and his cronies into jail and change back into Clark Kent at the Daily Planet in time to make deadline.

Sounds like a cakewalk (and to be fair, it was) but a spanner was thrown in the work in the form of free-floating lumps of Kryptonite which would render our hero unable to fly. Fortunately a kiss from Lois Lane would always be enough to get you flying again.

Sure, it’s not the best looking game (even by Atari 2600 standards) and the noise of Superman’s flight sounded like the world was coming to an end, but the game remains an ambitious and authentic depiction of the Man of Steel.

Superman: The Man of Steel (1988)- Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Atari-ST

Once again, this is a hugely ambitious attempt to allow the player to experience what it’s like to be Superman… That’s somewhat hampered by the technical restraints of the host hardware.

I first played this on the Commodore 64 and while a great game, it was rendered virtually unplayable by cripplingly long multi-loading between levels.

Nonetheless, the game smartly alternates between Space Harrier-esque flight sequences with side-scrolling platform action to try and capture Big Blue’s range of powers.

The game got some flack (particularly in its 8-bit incarnations) but its attempts to bring an ambitious array of superpowers as well as the charming MIDI rendering of John Williams’ iconic theme as well as the comic strip story sequences make it a worthy entry into the canon.

Note for the Under 30s- You see, kids, in those days games came on cassette tapes, you remember those don’t you?  You don’t? Oh.  Well  you had to wait for your computer to load the game.  You know that little spinning wheel you get sometimes?  Well, imagine that with music and if you were lucky, a blocky digitised picture, for about 10 minutes.  We didn’t even get pissed off or anything.

The Death and Return of Superman (1994)- Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive (Genesis).

It was the mid-’90s and anyone who was anyone had a side-scrolling beat ’em up. Batman and Spider-Man had some particularly memorable ones, and like Spidey’s Maximum Carnage (1994) and Separation Anxiety (1995), this was a video game adaptation of a celebrated comic book story.

Side-scrolling beat ’em ups are like pizzas. When they’re good, they’re very very good and when they’re bad they’re still pretty good.

This entry may not be spectacular but it’s a solid brawler with an interesting twist. As well as playing as the familiar Superman, right up until the fateful boss battle with Doomsday, the player also gets to control the 4 post-death Supermen.

Cyborg Superman, Steel, Superboy and The Eradicator are all playable with subtly different powers and attacks.

While it remains very much of its time, it remains a fun and functional action game to this very day.

Superman: Shadow of Apokolips (2002)- Playstation 2, X Box, Gamecube

Yeah, ok I’ve mentioned this one before but its so good I’ve mentioned it twice because, ion balance, it’s still probably the best Superman video game.
Using cell shading to replicate the show’s aesthetic and borrowing the voice talents of the principal cast, it’s a game I still revisit every now and then when I need a Non-Arkham based superhero game fix.

All of Superman’s powers are at your disposal and they’re utilised in intelligent ways that move the story and the gameplay forward. Heat vision would be used liberally, super breath could be used to send enemies flying, X Ray vision and super hearing could help locate hidden hostages and what’s more fun than being able to stride nonchalantly into a hale of bullets?

The mechanics of the game didn’t always allow for the fluidity that would be necessary for a great Superman game but generally the game is about as authentic a Superman experience as any we’ve seen to date.

Superman Returns (2006)- Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS

While (like the film on which it’s based) the end result was a decidedly mixed bag, this had all the right ingredients to make a truly great Superman game but was mired by a difficult and rushed production.

The first in our chronology to be released in HD, the most satisfying moments came from soaring around the beautifully rendered city of Metropolis. In fact, everything pertaining to flight in the game is absolutely spot-on.

Another element that the game gets absolutely right is the notion of giving the city of Metropolis a health bar rather than its protector. Damage from enemy attacks and natural disasters drains the city’s health bar and putting out fires, rescuing citizens and defeating enemies will cause the bar to replenish. While enemies can’t do Superman himself any permanent damage, they can incapacitate him enough to prevent that damage being done to his fair city.

It’s when the element of combat is introduced that things really start to fall apart . Those accustomed to the accessible and fluid combat in the Arkham games would be mildly nauseated by the fudgy and inconsistent controls and while there are some great powers in your arsenal, they’re incredibly difficult to use in a way that makes you feel as cool as Supes.

Throw in a nonsensical plot, repetitive missions and a bizarre mini-game involving the rescue of hundreds of lost cats and you have a whole heap of wasted potential. Even the return of most of the film’s cast couldn’t save this one.

 EDITORIAL NOTE: Chris Clow at the Comics on Consoles podcast has done a fantastic episode on the production of this game. Check it out here.

Superman (2011)- iOS

I’d like to round off with this hugely enjoyable little iOS based game that’s arguably the most critically well received Superman game of all time.

A fun and casual affair with simple but well rendered visuals and some cool comic book style story panels there’s a little of the best of each of the previous games in here.

As in Superman Returns  Metropolis has a health bar and its up to you as Superman to use your powers to prevent harm from befalling your beloved city, and the comic book panels are a much more polished version of what we saw in the C64 game.

Unlike its predecessors, however, the game handles remarkably well with simple to use yet hard to master controls.

While the missions can be a bit repetitive it’s fairly easy to explain away given the casual nature of the game.

So there you have it , fandom feeders, a fly-by visit through Superman’s greatest video game hits over nearly four decades.

It’s fair to say that the definitive Superman game has yet to be made but if rumours are to be believed, there is still… Hope!

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