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Retro Game Review - Superman (NES)

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

There are certain facts in life: death, taxes, a collectible drought lasting a few months followed by an unending, expensive onslaught of must-have toy after must-have toy…and that any Superman video game (thus far) will range from meh to suck. Many like to point back to the very first Superman game ever released, back on the Atari 2600 released in 1978. But come on…that’s really not fair. That’s like saying “Maaaan 2-year-old baby, you suck because you can’t do a quadruple backflip!” [That might be funnier if you read it in Mitch Hedberg’s voice…or it just might not be funny. You know…whatever – Ed.] Next up is the 1985 Commodore 64 game…and I really don’t have any experience with that so I can’t really speak to that. Instead, we skip ahead to 1988…Superman’s 50th birthday. For the occasion the Man of Steel was gifted with two video games: an arcade game by Taito and an NES game by Kemco. And they couldn’t have possibly been more different.

Let’s start with the arcade game…since I’m not reviewing it here. Taito’s game was a mix of styles with most levels consisting of horizontal beat-‘em-up featuring punch (with charged punch ranged attack), kick and flight, a vertical beat-‘em-up with the same attacks and a horizontal ‘shooter’ with punch, charged punch and heat vision. The background music for most levels consisted mostly of John Williams’ Main Theme and a surprisingly effective threatening-sounding interpretation of Can You Read My Mind. It gets a little repetitive, sure, but on the plus side, you can see it fully embraces the film series that had been popular for much of the 80s (though at this point in time that popularity was winding down after the bomb that was Superman IV) and, as a little bonus, if you had a friend playing as Player 2, he was a red Superman…which could’ve been a nod to the ‘Superman Red/Superman Blue’ Silver Age story or the first video game appearance of Captain Marvel/Shazam.

The NES game, however, chose to pretty much ignore said film series. Well, almost. Non, Zod, Ursa, and Lex Luthor all appear as bosses in this game, but the visual style of the game is a mix between the Japanese SD (Super-Deformed) style of little bodies with HUUUUGE heads and, strangely enough, the 50s TV show, the Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. While I’ve already mentioned some of the bosses, the run of the mill baddies, A.K.A cannon fodder, consist of suit-and-fedora-wearing mobsters, zombies that look like moving trees, ghosts straight from Pac-Man, fire monsters, Indians with mohawks, balding fat guys and…I can’t believe I have to write this…shirtless fat guys wearing cat masks and cat tails.

I’ll repeat that.

Shirtless fat guys wearing cat masks and cat tails.

Oh, and did I mention Lex Luthor has horns?

All right, I’ve covered that the visual style leaves much to be desired, what else do we have here? Well, Superman himself jumps high enough to live up to that whole ‘able to leap tall buildings in a single bound’ thing. The problem is…so do all the aforementioned cannon fodder, thus making our protagonist a little less super. There’s also the primary attack, which is said to be a punch…but I dunno. It looks more like Superman shrugs his shoulders and then something 4 or 5 pixel widths in front of him gets hit. Maybe he’s punching the empty air so hard that the shockwave does all the work for him? Then there’s the subway. I’ll get to that in a bit. The missions of the game are also…well…I mean, do we REALLY need Superman to figure out why stocks are falling? And by ‘stocks’, hell, I’m still not sure if the game means something akin to the Dow Jones or livestock. But, in order, they are: defeat the Zod ‘gang’ (which is really just defeat Ursa), then the stock market thing (which the Dragon gang is behind), then ghosts, then Lex Luthor…and then you actually beat the Zod ‘gang’ (this time taking on Non, Ursa and Zod)…reading that…yeah, these people had no idea what they were doing, did they?

The game tries to capture both the scope of Superman’s powers and the sprawling surroundings of Metropolis with varying degrees of success and failure. To the game’s credit, it does cover a fair amount of Superman’s powers, each with bars so that you have to use his powers wisely (and if your life bar should fall below a certain level, you change back into Clark Kent). Compounding these limited powers is the fact that enemies are pretty stingy with the power-ups. Also, the game tries to be set up like adventure games of the time, most notably Metroid, where you have to traverse the entire map many times in order to complete the game. These two ‘features’ combine into a perfect shitstorm known as…the subway. You see, with the limited super-powers (and that’s fine, all things considered, because and unlimited Superman could make for a boring game…wait a sec, turns out a limited one makes for a boring game too…but I’m getting ahead of myself), well, that means flight is limited. But in order to get to some locations, flight is seemingly needed. To offset this, the developers included the subway, which Jimmy gives Clark at the beginning of the second mission/level/whatever. So, if you are either low on flight or simply want to save power, Superman can take the subway.

I can’t make this shit up.

Superman can take the subway.

In 76 years of comics, has Superman EVER taken the subway? Yeah, I know he’s been powerless for some storylines and sure, my knowledge doesn’t span every single Superman story…but seriously??? And yet, maybe it’s good for this ‘feature’ to exist. You see, other games have this map crisscrossing and yet remain exciting. This game, however, it almost singlehandedly drains your will to live…and nothing points this out like watching your little SD Superman standing in a subway car, seemingly surrounded by NORMAL SIZED people.

Sigh. So this is where you point. Whenever someone asks where did the Superman video game curse start, you point to the NES game. While the game does try to make use of as much of Superman’s powers as possible and provide an adventure game in the mode of the times, it was shoddy execution and a seemingly complete disconnect from where the character was at that time in his history…the 1980’s, not the 1950’s…that got Superman off to a bad start. And he’s never really recovered from it.

As a post-script, I thought I’d include a little tale that gives a peek at what could’ve been. Speculation has it that at the end of NES’s life-cycle, Sunsoft, makers of the well-received Batman NES game, were working on a Superman game. For whatever reason, the game was changed at the last minute to Sunman…and then from there, well, Sunman faded into obscurity, as the game was never released. Could Sunsoft’s effort broken the Super-funk that Kemco’s game created? We can only wonder

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