Reign of the Supermans
The Death and Return of Superman (1994 Video Game)
There was a time where seeing the name "Blizzard" on a game could fill a game with a sense of wonder and anticipation. With hits like Diablo and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, along with early titles like The Lost Vikings and Rock 'n Roll Racing (from their time as Silicon and Synapse), you thought you knew what to expect from Blizzard... but occasionally they could fail you.
I'm not talking about recent releases, like Overwatch II and Diablo IV (although those are worth discussing at some point). No, every once in a while Blizzard could let through a game of questionable quality, one that didn't seem to align with their "it's done when it's done" ethos. One such game was The Death and Return of Superman, a superhero beat-em-up game based on the comic book storyline started in 1992. At first glance the game seems to have Blizzard's requisite level of polish. And yet, once you being playing it there's a sense that Big B wasn't really committed to it. That it was created not for artistic reasons but simple to get paid. A paycheck game, through and through.
The game sort of follows the beats of the whole "Death and Return" arc ("The Death of Superman" and then "Reign of the Supermen", although with the focus on 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., "Funeral for a Friend" is skipped). Superman shows up to defend a power planet from some mutant monsters, then has to fly off to confront a new, massive villain that has shown up: Doomsday. Superman has to battle through the streets of Metropolis to get to Doomsday and then defeat the massive beast (who, we're told, has already taken out the Justice LeagueThe premiere team at DC Comics, their version of the Avengers (which actually came before the Avengers and, really, has existed in some fomr since the early 1940s), the Justice League is the team-up to end all team-ups, featuring some of the most popular, and longest running, characters in all of comics history (and also Booster Gold).). Of course, in taking down the creature, Superman is himself defeated, giving his life to save the world.
In the wake of his death four new Supermen show up: the Cyborg Superman, half robot and half Kryptonian; the Eradicator, who looks like Superman but acts... different; Superboy, a younger version of the hero; and the Man of Steel, a man suited up in armor giving him the powers of the late Kryptonian. Between these four maybe the world can be safe... if only one of them didn't have their own insane agenda that could imperil not just Metropolis but every human world wide. Can these Supermen save the day, or do they need help from a surprising source?
Let's be clear, the promise of being able to play as five different superheroes in a single game does seem heady. The first problem the game has, and this becomes apparently fairly quickly once the characters start swapping around, is that none of these guys really play any different from one another. They are all, in essence, Superman, so whether you're playing as Cyborg or Superboy or the original recipe, you have the same basic moves and attacks. It's all very homogeneous and samey without much creativity.
This extends to the levels, too. The Death and Return of Superman is a beat-em-up side-scroller and it stick very tightly to that expected formula. You'll move forward a screen, a wave of enemies will come out, and then you have to defeat them all before you can move on. That's every screen, every stage, and all through the game, with only a few minor exceptions, for the full hour-plus of game play. It gets pretty tedious by the second stage. It's down right tiresome by stage nine of this title.
This is a problem many basic belt scrolling brawlers have: how do you create interesting a creative stages when your primary mode of operation is beating thugs up? The best title in the genre find ways to add in creative moment, interesting stage design or little things you have to do in the midst to change up the game play. The Death and Return of Superman does none of that. It just presents flat stages that you move through, walking and floating (because this is Superman, after all), over and over and over again. It's so boring.
It doesn't help that the game reuses a lot of the same enemies and even stages to fluff out its zones. Superman goes through Metropolis early on and then Eradicator does later, and Superboy even later, each time the heroes fighting the same thugs on the same streets simply to add in padding. The game really only has four zones that it repeats a few different times, and then it loops again. More variety in the stages might not have bade up for the boring level design but it at least would have given us something new to look at for a few brief moments.
And then, when it comes to the bosses in the game, they're a joke. They basically just generic thugs with a different name, and they act the same. None of the enemies really have any kind of A.I., they just walk around and use their one attack. The game makes itself challenging by putting a lot of them on screen (fair or not), but the bosses are presented solo, so they have the same dumb A.I. but you can focus all your attention on them. The bosses, from Doomsday on down, are staggeringly easy to beat. Which, when we're talking about some of the most iconic villains in DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. history, is tragic.
There are a couple of bright spots in the game, though, that I do feel need to be pointed out. For starers, the presentation is handsome. This is a game with big, detailed sprites that do look like they walked off the pages of a 1990s comic book. They have the right look, the right feel, such that you can tell someone at Blizzard went through all the comics at the time to pull art and create sprites to match. The attention to detail here is solid, and warmly appreciated.
And while most of the game is boring beat-em-up action, there are a few very short sections of shooting to change the game play. Your hero will fly forth, blasting energy from their fist (which, not a Superman power, but okay), taking down drones and, in one memorable scene, a missile. And a late stage combines the beat-em-up action with a maze like room of traps. More of these kinds of diversion could have helped to perk up the game, especially if they were implemented with creativity and gusto.
I think somewhere in all of this could have been a good game. A game where Superman and some members of the Justice League had to fight their way through the farms outside the city, and then into Metropolis itself to take on Doomsday, adapting just "The Death of Superman" could have been good. Four different heroes with different powers and skills taking on thugs and lesser bad guys until they got to the big show for a proper, epic fight? Sign me up for that game. This is not that game. This is anything but epic. It's tragic. It's boring. It's sad.
Blizzard, clearly, didn't always crank out winners. You just had to wish that this title, with Superman on the cover and Blizzard in the credits, could have been more than a way for the company to make payroll. Clearly it was not.