Look, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Well, no, it's got four limbs and it's wearing a cape. I don't know what kind of weird-ass planes you've been flying in, but this is clearly DC Comics hero Superman, the most famous comic book hero of them all unless Batman has overtaken him by now. Let's just say both Batman and Superman are about as famous as it's possible for a fictional character to be, shall we? Even my grandmother would recognise Superman and Batman, and there's no greater evidence of their fame than that. Anyway, Superman. Here he is, appearing in Taito's 1989 Man-of-Steel-em-up, erm, Superman!
I think it's fair to say that Superman was not well served by retro games, starring in (amongst others) a couple of average home computer games, a tedious NES adventure, some lacklustre 16-bit punchathons and Superman 64, a game widely reviled as one of the worst of all time. Hopefully this arcade iteration will be better, and double-hopefully it'll be a decent game in its own right because I've never really been a fan of Superman himself. Even for a comic book superhero, young VGJunk felt Superman's invincible nature and concentrated goodness was a bit too much, so being able to play as Superman isn't much of a draw for me, I'll be honest.
Here is the villain of the piece. Don't worry, this isn't to scale. Even Superman would struggle against something big enough to fit the Earth into the palm of his hand, although I'm sure he'd find a way to deal with the villain eventually because, hey, he's Superman. As for the villain's motivations, backstory or name, your guess is as good at mine. "World conquest" seems a good bet for the former, and as for his name I'm going to call him The Underbite. Fun trivia fact: this artwork is traced from the infamous 1978 Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic. I think it's the alien leader Rat'Lar. I'm going to stick with calling him The Underbite, he doesn't look like he should have the name of a rattlesnake-themed bad guy from an eighties kid's cartoon.
The game begins, as you would expect, with Clark Kent stripping off his suit to reveal the Superman beneath. I'm very happy that I managed to capture the moment halfway through this process that shows Superman wearing comfortable slacks. For some reason - possibly an undiagnosed brain tumour - this image is deeply amusing to me. He's business on the bottom and party on the top! I wish you could play the whole game looking like this. Sadly you cannot, and Superman will soon tear off his trouser like a male stripper. He's even wearing incredibly tight short-shorts under there.
Time for action - side-scrolling beat-em-up action, to be precise, as Superman makes his way across the city while doing battle with the legion of ne'er-do-wells that crowd the streets. These ones remind me of Astro Guy from King of the Monsters, and they can fly. Superman can also fly, and it's as simple as moving the joystick upwards. There's no jumping in this one - you can fly freely around the screen - and that frees up a button for an extra attack, which is why Superman can both punch and kick. I don't think there's much difference in power between the two attacks, but the kick hits much lower than the punch so it has it's uses, uses such as flying just above the enemies so you can boot them right in the teeth. Not very heroic, but quite effective. You can also hold the punch button down for a couple of seconds to charge up a fireball-projectile-thing, a powerful attack that is hampered somewhat by Superman not being able to move while he's getting it ready.
"I AM THE BEST ARTIST" screams the background, a powerful statement on the egotism of those who create public artwork that is rendered somewhat less powerful by being a mosaic that isn't quite finished - the right-hand side is just a blank grey wall that this so-called "best artist" couldn't be bothered to fill in. Maybe's it's actually a reflection on a generation that demands instant gratification, or maybe it's an attempt at self-motivation from the game's background artist. If you keep repeating it to yourself, maybe you'll start to believe it, mysterious Taito employee.
Ha ha, "WALK," it says. Nice try, pedestrian crossing, but I'm Superman. Walking is too, well, pedestrian for me. It's not often you get to fly around freely in a beat-em-up, so I'm going to make the most of it. It's a strange kind of flight, though: there's no momentum, so it feels more like you're doing it Snowman-style and walking in the air, and because all the sprites (Superman included) are so big it's not much use as an evasive manoeuvre. The fact that almost every enemy can also fly makes it feel a little less special, too, but I suppose it's better than the alternative. Sure, a game where Superman flies just above his enemies and kicks them all in the head - The Man of Steel Toecaps, if you like - sounds like fun, but it's going to get dull rather quickly.
A big green friend appears and grabs Superman, shaking him around like a baby with a rattle. Hey, I didn't say he was Superman's friend. He was probably friends with all the generic grunts that Superman has spent the stage punching out of existence, which would explain why he's so angry with Krypton's Last Son. This is a mini-boss of sorts, although there's very little to say about the fight. The monster doesn't have much in the way of tactics, he just wants to get close to Superman and hurt him, so the best way to deal with him is using hit-and-run tactics. Hit-and-hover, anyway. Don't get too greedy and try to land multiple blows - yes, somehow this monster can withstand multiple punches from Superman - just deal damage when you can and then retreat to a safe distance.
The next scene features more scrolling beat-em-up action, but now Superman is scrolling upwards. Mike Haggar may be the greatest pugilist to ever pound punks, but even he couldn't fly. "Flying" might be a strong word for this section, mind you, because Superman doesn't really feel like he's flying. It's all a bit too slow, a bit too precise. It's a very basic representation of Superman beating aliens up while they're all flying around, with basic movement and very basic brawler mechanics. There are no combos here, just single-hit attacks and your charged fist-shot. Some enemies take one punch to defeat, others take more, and that's really all there is to it. If it wasn't for all the flying required, we could have let Aquaman handle this one.
Another miniboss now, as a muscular if rocky-looking orange man in underpants - we're barely into the game and already there have been more underpants than all the world's disappointing Christmas presents combined - takes on Superman. Sadly it's not The Thing, and Superman: The Arcade Game is not the place for such inter-company crossover. Speaking of the Fantastic Four, this boss has the Human Torch's ability to set himself on fire. I mean, everyone has the ability to set themselves on fire, I guess, but this guy doesn't roll around on the floor screaming in agony when he does so. It must be special magic fire, because it hurts Superman, and here we run up against a big problem with all videogames in which you play as a ridiculously powerful, nigh-omnipotent man-god. In fact, I've referred to it as The Superman Problem before - how do you explain why the punches and flames of his enemies cause Superman harm? Shouldn't he be throwing them into the sun one-by-one? They don't appear to have blocked out the sunlight that fuels Superman's powers, nor are they whacking him with kryptonite-laced baseball bats, so why? Well, I think Superman's death animation can shed some light on this. When he dies - and he will, because the enemies in this game are relentless - Superman's body is covered in green lines that absolutely scream "eighties cyberpunk whoa-I'm being-digitised computer simulation" before he fades away. You can see it in the screenshot above, and thus to counteract The Superman Problem I'm going to say that this game is taking place in a virtual world where Superman's powers have been reduced, and the real Superman is sitting in a chair somewhere covered in electrodes. It explains why there are no civilians around to gawp at the proceedings, why Superman didn't call the Justice League for some help and why Superman can be beaten to death by a flying squadron of luchadors.
Now this is flying! Arms outstretched, laser beams blasting from his eyeballs, Superman has become the side-scrolling shooter it was always destined to be. Normally I'd complain about the sudden appearance of shoot-em-up stage in a brawler like this, but it's Superman. I was expecting it, and it's not bad. It is, you may be surprised to learn, very basic, with obstacles to either shoot or avoid as you move freely around the screen. I generally went with shooting, because if the game is kind enough to let me shoot lasers out of my eyes it would be rude to turn the opportunity down. I've often wondered just how Superman's super-vision works. How does he make it happen? Does he just have to squint hard enough and then bam, face-lasers? I hope not, one moment he's peering at the numbers on the upcoming bus to see if it's the one he needs to catch to downtown Metropolis and the next he has the blood of dozens of innocents on his hand. Eyes, rather. I suppose if your character is going to fire energy beams from their body they have to come out of the eyes, really. Maybe the fingers, but anywhere else on the body and it'll just look daft. No-one's going to take you seriously if your navel is home to your deadliest weapon.
This game has more jumped-up and ineffective bosses than a management training seminar, and here's the latest. You comfy in there pal, reclining in your astro-lounger with not a care in the world? Good for you, but your green orb will not protect you from Superman's heat vision. The smaller orbs that surround your oversized bauble will, though, and so the fight is about threading your lasers between them to hit the main body of the... spaceship? Let's go with spaceship. Or just hold down the "look at things, but powerfully" button and dodge the boss' projectile, enough lasers will eventually sneak through to defeat him.
I know Superman's hair is generally black with blue highlights, but this has gone way past that. His hair is just blue now. Superman is turning into an anime. Maybe he'll end up fighting Goku after all.
Oh look, it's some kind of bat-man. Superman is taking a close interest in the bat-man's boots, disappointed and perhaps surprised that he's not the only person out there wearing bright red underpants and boots in public.
Bat-man not doing it for you? Then how about a spider-man, who is a lot more spider than man. He spins a web of any size, capturing Kryptonians just like flies, which makes you wonder just what the hell his webbing is made out of if it's strong enough to restrain Superman, and just how painful such a tough substance would be to excrete from your body. Imagine, if you're so inclined, how it would feel to piss out several feet of steel cable. Poor old spider-man.
An Academy Award is imbued with a grotesque mockery of life and attacks our hero! The Oscar doesn't have anything personal against Superman himself, he's just filled with rage to have been awarded to Cher and he has to take it out on someone. The boss' gimmick is that he can teleport around the screen, which is fine by me - when he's popping back into existence, there's a graphical effect that shows you where he's going to appear so Superman can just wait there and punch him before moving away.
The next area is another hovering section - not a flying section, but one of the beat-em-up sections where you're always floating - that takes place in a grey and dismal sewer that's strangely out of keeping with the rest of the game's vibrant and colourful look. The level is filled with the same enemies you've punched before, until you reach the mini-boss. I wasn't expecting the villains of this Superman game to feature such a heavy animal theme, but here I am, locked in mortal combat with an elephant-man. Not the Elephant Man, unless I have been grossly misinformed about the life of Joseph Merrick. Mind you, Superman and Joseph Merrick beating seven bells out of each other does sound like something Alan Moore would write. It should not be a shock to you that yes, there is a DC character called Elephant Man (this boss isn't him, though) and yes, Superman has fought a regular elephant in the past. At this point I think Superman has punched everything that can possibly be punched. Like, you'd think Superman would never strike an orphan, but he's definitely punched Batman before.
Back to the flying, and Superman is beset by rocks. Deadly, crushing rocks? No, I don't get it either. You're Superman, for pity's sake! Just fly through the rocks! Oh, right, the computer simulation thing. Hmm. I'm still not buying it - if this is a computer simulation, I'm not sure what it's supposed to be testing. I can't imagine an evil overlord saying "Congratulation, son of Jor-El! You have bested some of my most powerful minions, but let's see how you fare against a small landslide, muahaha!"
The boss is the Big Core from Gradius. Well, if you're going to rip off a side-scrolling shooter it may as well be Gradius, huh? Also, it's nice to see that the aliens have mastered the technology required to make lasers fat and slow. Those laser cannons have a filter on the end that runs the projectiles through an all-you-can-eat laser buffet, do they?
Viva Las Vegas, with your neon flashing and your one-armed bandits crashing, where paradise costs a mere $4.39 and the streets are strangely deserted. Everyone's in the casinos, I guess.
So, we've reach Round 3, and a pattern has emerged in the gameplay - a beat-em-up section, then a floating beat-em-up section, then a flying section, each with a boss at the end. Which of these is the most enjoyable? Probably the regular beat-em-up sections. The flying sections are basic enough to become deeply dull after the first couple, and while there's very little difference between the two types of beat-em-up section, the kind with the solid floors just about wins out because you can use Superman's super-strength to pick up wooden crates and oil drums and bash enemies with them. In a noble, heroic way, of course.
Here's a large fellow made of rocks. Superman's about to punch him in the stones, as it were. Very unsporting. This isn't the boss, by the way. The boss is this area is the green monster-man from the first stage, except he's blue now. I think you'll agree that this pulverising pile of pebbles is much more interesting. I like his gloves, he looks like he's about to do the washing up. Also, if your feet are made of rocks I think you can get away with not wearing shoes. Especially those shoes. Please take those shoes off, and then burn them.
Under the baleful gaze of COSINO, Clown Overlord of Las Vegas, Superman faces off against a robot. The robot's greatest power? A huge amount of identical forearms that it can fire as homing projectiles. Really slow homing projectiles, and even though Superman is most definitely not faster than a speeding bullet in this game he can still dodge them with ease by flying in a circle. One of Superman's lesser-known powers is an immunity to dizziness.
Sticking with spaceships that are invulnerable to damage apart from one small opening right in the bloody middle of the cockpit, are you? It's your cosmo-funeral, buddy. This one has jaws around the cockpit, jaws that open and close to give regular access to your one vulnerability. Why would you build your spaceship like that? Were you planning to nibble Superman to death?
Round four takes place in Washington DC, and Superman has picked up the President's car - I assume it's the President's car, it's parked right outside the White House - and intends to use it as a bludgeoning tool of justice, smashing the alien menace one six-figure sports car at a time. Sorry, that should read "just one sports car" because you only get to pick up one car in the whole game. How disappointing. If there's one thing that sets Superman apart from most other big-name DC heroes it's his ability to pick up a car one-handed and throw it at monsters, and I feel Taito really ought to have made that more of a focus for this game. Set a stage in a car-park, that'd keep me happy.
My disappointment was short-lived, because a few screens later I saw a sight to cheer my heart: Superman and a bad guy coming together in a tender, intimate embrace, a romance that spans the gulf of the universe. Lois Lane won't be pleased, but I'm sure she'll understand once Superman explains he only let this alien get its leg over in an attempt to foster intergalactic harmony.
And then Superman gets battered by a pair of muscle-bound freaks who thought "you know who would be a good role model for my life as a merciless soldier in a vast space-faring army bent on conquest? Winnie the Pooh." That's what the W on their chests stands for, and if they've managed to transform the docile, slothful Winnie the Pooh into something that can go toe-to-toe with Superman I can only pray I never come up against their version of Tigger.
I have to dodge missiles and there's a meteor show happening right over Superman's head? What are the odds, eh? Thanks, Superman, next time please don't prepare for your adventure by sitting under a ladder in the Fortress of Solitude, chucking black cats at a pile of fragile mirrors.
The aliens did not heed my advice to remove the glaring flaw in their spaceships. Instead, they compensated by giving their new spaceship the ability to constantly spew an almost unavoidable barrage of laser bullets. Fair play to them, it is a good strategy. Not even Superman is faster than a laser bullet. Only the Painkiller holds that honour.
The fifth and final round sees Superman heading to the alien spaceship, and in a dramatic reversal this round starts with a flying section! I'm reeling from this unexpected twist, which is going to be my excuse for how this boss managed to kill me so many times. Honestly, by this point my interest levels were flagging. Superman is a short game, but the action is still recycled often enough that it it wears out its welcome before the end. If there was another stage it'd be getting into "interminable slog" territory - such are the fine margins in arcade game engagement metrics - but as it is it's not too grating.
Inside the ship, Superman is attacked by bunny girls. There are worse ways to go, I suppose. The bunny girls offer definitive proof that either this army allows each soldier to chose their own uniform, or Hugh Hefner is the High Commander.
We've had bat-men and spider-men, so how about a cat-woman? Why not three of them? Sure, let's go crazy. It's a wild and wacky zero-G cat-woman fiesta! After losing way too many lives to the previous spaceship bosses, these three were a nice change of pace, having channel the natural laziness of the cat into their fighting style. Thankfully they don't have nine lives, that'd be twenty-seven lives between them and Superman doesn't have time for that.
As well as ninjas that grab Superman and electrify themselves - ah, the enticing aroma of melting spandex - this final floating area is home to these blue-helmeted rogues. When I first saw them I immediately thought "they look like Boba Fett," but they don't, do they? Maybe from the waist down, but that's it as far as the resemblance goes. Their heads look more like Zaku II's from Gundam than anything. I must just have been so desperate to see Boba Fett that I'm catching glimpses of him where none exists. I can't wait to see my doctor about this. Maybe he'll prescribe me some Star Wars expanded universe novels, that'll cure me of my desire to see Boba Fett.
What's green, comes from outer space and can fuck Superman up? Okay, yes, kryptonite, but I meant the boss. It's The Underbite himself, I guess? The game is not generous with the story details here, you've got to piece it together yourself from the fragments available. Unfortunately there are only enough fragments to assemble "SUPERMAN PUNCH BAD ALIEN," which is what I'm going to to. Try to do, anyway, because just getting near the boss is a real task. He's much more competent than you'd expect for someone riding a flying zimmer frame. He can wipe your health bar out in two hits, and that's only if you manage to get past his two beefy bodyguards. You can defeat the bodyguards first, if you like, but The Underbite will just summon more so you might as well ignore them. There's no safe place on the screen, either, so your two options are to move around constantly and wait for the rare moments when the stars align and you can get a quick hit in, or dump a load of credits into the game. I did the latter, but then I'm bad at videos. Once you do manage to hit The Underbite enough times to make him reconsider both his invasion plans and being alive, Superman is over.
Yes, yes, I get it. Superman, liberty, justice, freedom, etcetera, etcetera. Not sure why he's heading to New York, though, you'd think he'd be all tuckered out and ready for his super-bed back in Metropolis.
Superman is an odd game that somehow manages to feel older and less advanced than it actually is while still being fairly playable... although now I'm reflecting on it I'm finding more and more things to complain about. The flying sections aren't much cop, with all of them being essentially identical, and while the beat-em-up areas aren't unpleasant I never really felt powerful, which is a terrible shame for a game where you're playing as Superman. Your attacks just don't have any weight behind them - especially the kick, which has all the ferocious power of someone gently nudging a frolicking puppy out of the way with their foot. On the plus side, the graphics are wonderful considering it's a game from 1989, with lots of big, bold sprites on screen at once and a cheerfully cheesy rendering of Superman himself. Best of all, the classic John Williams theme from the Superman movies is adapted to form much of the game's soundtrack. Like I said, I've never been a big Superman fan but that music is still more than capable of getting the ol' adrenaline flowing.
In conclusion, then: Superman is a decent if limited rumble that is still much better than most other Superman games, so if you really want a chance to play as the Man of Steel - or if you're looking for costume idea for an animal-themed party and you've got lots of spare spandex - then it's worth checking out.