The Battle Against Darkseid Begins
Superman: The Game
We've already seen one attempt at bringing SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. to video game consoles. 1979's Superman was an attempt, to be sure, and a noble one, but it was hobbled by it's home console, the Atari 2600, and the struggles to get that console to do anything with "depth". After that, though, there was a long gap before another company would come out and try to bring the Man of Steel to home consoles in any form. That attempt, in 1985, came from developer First Star Software and was released on many of the second-run consoles and gaming computers of the era (the Commodore 64, the Atari 8-bit family, the Spectrum ZX, among others). And it, too, isn't that great, but in different ways from the previous attempt.
What makes for a good Superman game? Ideally you should get a sense of what it's like to be the hero, to feel his power, his ability to take on any threat without even breaking a sweat. And, in the process, you should get a sense of his goodness, of his dedication to justice. Say what you will about the Atari 2600 game, but you definitely felt like you were playing as Superman in that effort. The 1985 Superman: The Game, on the other hand, barely feels like a Superman title at all. There's barely a sense that you are really playing as Superman, with none of the weighty power you'd expect. There are moments where the game almost hits it for a few seconds, but those moments are fleeting. In the end what you're left with is a random collection of mini-games wrapped up in a Superman veneer, and that just isn't fun at all.
Ostensibly Superman: The Game is a battle between the Man of Steel and his greatest foe, Darkseid. These two titans of power are set on a singular goal: save or destroy Metropolis. Superman is, of course, on the saving side, while Darkseid wants nothing more than power and can achieve his goals by blowing up the city. The two supers start on the streets of Metropolis, with citizens running around. The goal is to either collect all the humans (for Superman, saving them, while Darkseid sends them to his secret lair), collect the diamonds hat appear on the ground, and maybe knock out the other player with laser eyes. Whoever wins will then determine the next phase of the battle, whether on the streets again or down in Darkseid's underground lair, where the fight will rage on further.
In between these sections the game also introduced mini action challenges. These range from a flight down through the tunnels under Metropolis, battling a drone, to flying through a tunnel, avoiding laser drones, to flying around a explosive drone, blowing back its blasts until it blows up. Oh, and there's a sequence where superman has to fly under a helicopter while it drops bombs on the city, bouncing them back up. None of these are all that thrilling, really, but they do break up the pace of the game. And then the process repeats, from saving citizens while fighting your foe to action sequence and back, over and over, until the player gets bored.
On the one hand I understand what the programmer, Fernando Herrera, was going for with his interpretation of the Man of Steel. Considering the hardware he was working with, and all the consoles it was ported to, a deep and varied adventure starring Superman would have been hard to program. Considering his powers -- invincibility, heat vision, ability to fly -- putting all of those (and more) into a single game mode would have been hard. Instead, he broken the game up into littler chunks to emphasize certain capabilities of the Man of Steel and give players more to do. It makes sense, even if the end result isn't the most thrilling.
Where things fall apart is that no one section of the experience is truly compelling on its own, and none of it builds to a satisfying whole. The opening stage, with Superman and Darkseid on the streets, is just confusingly bad. The citizens will randomly wander, but can be grabbed and moved by Supes and Darkseid. There are also reflective walls that redirect the citizens, and the laser beams of the combatants. And there are diamond to collect. Doing any of these things can notch a win for either combatant, but the what and why for is missing. What the hell does collecting diamonds have to do with either foe's plans? Why are there reflective walls set up all over Metropolis? How does any of this affect the next stage of play for the game? It feels like a random collection of ideas mashed together, which is unfortunate since it's also the main meet of the game (whether on the streets or underground, you'll see these basic mechanics a lot).
Breaking up the main stages with mini-games of combat sort of makes sense, but these needed to be more varied and interesting. Many of these are simple, one-command events: block bombs, shoot bombs, avoid lasers. One, the flight down through a tunnel under the city, at least requires you to both pay attention to your position in the hall while shooting lasers at a dodging droid. It's not deep at all, and frankly feels like an Atari 2600 game, but it at least has more that it expect from you than much of the rest of the game.
The struggle I have with all of these events is that (aside from the one tunnel sequence) it all feels weightless. You move around, occasionally fire at things, but there's no sense that what you're doing has an real consequence. You try to save citizens, but they just appear on the next set of streets again. You take out drones in one of the mini-stages, but they're back again the next time it comes up. The game is repetitive and tedious because it does the same things again and again without any real sense of progression to the title.
A large part of that is because the game just goes on and on without end. You'll play the same three street layouts, the same three underground layouts, and the four or so mini-games over and over, long past the point where they have any real creativity to them. Each lasts maybe a minute, at max, and you can easily play this game endlessly for hours at a time... not that you'd want to. In that context, nothing has meaning or consequence. It's a never ending game simulator, and not in a good way.
As much as I derided Ocean's Batman '86 and Batman: The Caped Crusader, those games had clear goals, clear consequences, clear endings. Superman: The Game just goes on until the very act of playing it has lost all meaning. It starts from a terrible position (bad mini-games) and then makes it worse by never letting you escape (unless you turn the game off). It's just bad.
I do respect the idea behind Superman: The Game -- hell, it lets you play as Darkseid, which is interesting... not that the experience is all that different from Superman -- but the final execution is lacking. Thankfully much like with BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen., further games were on the horizon that would at least correct some of the issues from these early attempts at a Superman experience.