A rumor resurfaced this week that Rocksteady Studios, the acclaimed developer of the popular Batman: Arkham trilogy, is secretly working on an open-world Superman video game. While Rocksteady has an impressive reputation, the company would be fighting against history, as DC's flagship character has failed to translate the superhero's appeal and, more importantly, sense of fun, to the world of gaming.
Video game adaptations of the Man of Steel have been around for nearly 40 years, with each title seemingly more lackluster than the previous one; an uninspired, made-to-order game at best, a jaw-droppingly awful title at worst. With another attempt to do the Last Son of Krypton justice now a distinct possibility, here's a comprehensive look back at the shaky history of solo Superman video games.
This retrospective doesn't include ensemble titles like Injustice, DC Universe Online, or Justice League Heroes; those aren't true Superman-starring games, although the hero does prominently appear. Nor does this article contain educational video games starring the Man of Steel; those are generally terrible as a rule, even without the presence of DC superheroes.
The first Superman video game debuted in 1979, on the heels of Superman: The Movie. Released on the Atari 2600, the title was both one of the first games to feature a pause option and one of the earliest to have multiple areas in which to play. It's that old that both were considered groundbreaking features. The game has the Man of Steel trying to repair a bridge destroyed by Lex Luthor, capture the criminal, and return to the Daily Planet as Clark Kent in the shortest amount of time to achieve a high score.
As far as Atari 2600 games go, it may lack the replayability of such counterparts as Asteroids or Missile Command, but it certainly holds up in comparison to its peers. More clumsy is the multiplayer mode, which has one player control Superman's lateral movement while the other guides the character's altitude. Innovative for its time, Superman is more a window into the early days of gaming four decades ago than a solid title to be revisited now.
Superman: The Game
Originally developed for the Commodore 64, Superman: The Game would eventually be ported to Atari and other European-exclusive consoles. The 1985 game gave players the option to play as either Superman or Darkseide, with the Man of Steel trying to save the citizens of Metropolis while the ruler of Apokolips attempted to lure them into his underground hideout. The game could either be a single player, as Superman pitted against a computer-controlled Darkseid, or two-player, with each controlling a character.
Superman: The Game is an unusual title, but very much a product of its time, with limited graphics, gameplay modes and competitive nature. Released in the twilight of the Atari era, it's a mixed bag, and felt like a holdover from the early days of home-console gaming, even in 1985. Little more than a novelty now, Superman: The Game comes off as stale and a licensed cash grab.
A loose adaptation of the first two Superman films, 1987's Superman on the Nintendo Entertainment System had the superhero protect Metropolis from Lex Luthor and the escaped Kryptonian criminals Zod, Ursa and Non. In side-scrolling levels, the Man of Steel fought crooks and solved puzzles before a boss fight. The original Japanese version actually featured an 8-bit rendition of John Williams' iconic film score, while North American editions replaced it with stock music from developer Kemco's library because of licensing issues.
While a noticeable technical upgrade from its predecessors on the Atari and Commodore 64, the gameplay is laughably awkward at times, with players requiring enough in their Super Power meter not only to use the hero's abilities but also just to transform from Clark Kent into his high-flying alter ego with the aid of a handy telephone booth. If players endured too much damage on a level, they would automatically revert to Clark.
The 1988 Superman arcade game is criminally overlooked, but it's one of the better adaptations, and quite visually impressive considering it's 30 years old. Featuring the standard side-scrolling combat set to Williams' iconic film score, the game allowed players to control the Man of Steel through five levels as he travels the country to fight the extraterrestrial invader Emperor Zaas. A second player could join in on the action with a red-sprited version whose color scheme was reminiscent of Captain Marvel/Shazam without ever being explicitly identified as such.
The arcade title never received an official home-console release, and thus is generally only available through online emulators of varying quality. The game's only real flaw, aside from its lack of availability, is that it is noticeably brief, even with its five levels divided into sub-sections.
Superman: The Man of Steel (1989)
The last Superman game to be released during the 8-bit era, and for the Commodore 64 and Atari, 1989's Superman: The Man of Steel is divided into eight levels, each featuring a radically different gameplay style. As Superman fights to rescue Lois Lane from the clutches of Lex Luthor and Darkseid, he undergoes 3D-style flying levels similar to Space Harrier, as well as side-scrolling beat-'em-up and shooter levels, and top-down flying levels.
While the variety of gameplay is a nice change of pace, the sharp differences can be jarring; players may sometimes feel they're playing a different game entirely as they progress from level to level with varying degrees of quality of enjoyment and graphics. Another major criticism is the game's loading times; for something so ambitious and system-intensive for 1989, the time to prepare from level to level could become tedious.
A side-scrolling action game similar to 1994's The Incredible Hulk or 1990's The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, 1992's Superman had the DC superhero defend Metropolis from Brainiac, Metallo and Mister Mxyzptlk. First released on the Sega Genesis before receiving European ports on the Sega Master System and Game Gear as Superman: The Man of Steel, the game featured Clark Kent leaping into action at the start of every level before flying into outer space for a final battle against Brainiac.
While the graphics are certainly impressive for their time, and in line with its contemporaries, it also heavily featured the awkward gameplay mechanic of limiting Superman to only one superpower at a time. In order to switch powers, players had to collect a corresponding icon somewhere on the level, making gameplay increasingly tedious.