Today, we fire up the flux capacitor and take the co-op time machine back to 1988. It was the infancy of the co-op brawler, with games like Gauntlet stealing players' quarters by the roll. Into this environment comes a game featuring one of the most iconic characters of all time: Superman. You'd think that a game based on Superman would be great. After all, who among us doesn't wish we had super powers like the Man of Steel? The game isn't quite as indestructible, with all manner of odd decisions. I can't think of a more bizarre way to adapt a character into a video game.
First things first: Superman is a very simplistic brawler. Really, the only innovation here is that levels come in three parts. The first section is standard side scrolling, though Superman can hover in the air if needed. The second stage of each level moves to vertical scrolling, with Superman hovering the whole time. The final part of each level has Superman flying quickly through side scrolling again, in his more traditional style. Apart from the variety of stages, the Superman arcade game is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from games of this time period.
The real strangeness comes in the adaptation of Superman into the game. There are all manner of flat-out strange and quirky design elements. You notice this very quickly: as the game begins, Clark Kent rips off his jacket and shirt, revealing the Superman symbol beneath. It's an iconic moment right? Then, as Superman leaps up, up, and away, his pants just disappear. Even my 9 year old son noticed this. I guess Superman can add "disintegrating pants" to his repertoire of powers.
Let's just for a moment consider what Superman can do. Flight, invulnerability, super strength and speed, heat, x-ray, and telescopic vision, freezing cold breath... the list goes on and on. You would think that any game designer would be giddy at the sheer number of cool abilities Superman has. And yet, they choose to ignore most of them, and Superman is reduced to punching and kicking his way through his foes. As a matter of fact, they even gave him a new power: holding down the punch button charges up a glowing projectile on the Man of Tomorrow's fist, which can then be shot at an enemy. Yup, Superman steals a page from Iron Man's playbook.
It's as if the creators needed a ranged attack, forgot who they were basing the game on, and just made it up. But then, during the flying stages, heat vision mysteriously appears! What in the name of Krypton were they thinking? Wouldn't making two different animations for ranged attacks be more work? What's the rationale, here? I suppose there was none.
Here's another problem: Superman takes a lot of damage in this game. Standard level alien grunts can damage Supes by just punching him in the face. So can medium sized rocks and giant spiderwebs. It's as if he was called the Man of Wet Cardboard. Now, I realize that making him truly invulnerable would throw game balance out the window, but still, something else could have been done. Maybe the enemies could shoot red sun rays, or have Kryptonite gloves, or something. Say what you will about the video game tie-in for the most recent Superman film, but at least they addressed this issue nicely by tying in a life bar to the health of the city. Seeing Superman succumb to a lame wrestling move from some lowlife alien and fade into a Tron-like green wireframe death is a real shot to the gut of any true believer.
Speaking of the aliens: who are they? There is zero explanation or information given as to who these bad guys are. I've read comics for over 30 years, and they don't look a thing like any of Superman's enemies that I know of. What's that all about? Superman has a whole horde of villains that could have been used: Lex Luthor, Metallo, Braniac, Bizarro, Mongul, and more. Instead, we get rejects from a bad 50s sci-fi movie. These guys aren't really a threat to Superman, and neither are the bosses. These battles are so incredibly easy and unimaginative you'll be expecting the real boss to show up anytime. Strangest of all, in the last level, a new alien shows up: a very pink, very female humanoid rabbit wearing blue leg warmers. No, I'm not joking; the alien invaders appear to be led by a clan of 80's Easter Bunny succubi.
There's one more huge problem with the Superman arcade game though. As you are aware, we only talk about co-op games here, which means there is a Player 2 to think of. Admittedly, Superman is the best of the best, and there really aren't many who can keep up with him in a fight. But, there are other characters in the comics who have similar powers who could join Superman without changing the gameplay at all. The most obvious is Captain Marvel, the red-costumed wielder of Shazam's power. From the futuristic Legion of Super Heroes come Mon-El and Ulra Boy, both of whom are in Superman's weight class. In a pinch, Martian Manhunter or Green Lantern could fit the bill.
So who gets the honor? How about none of the above? Taito decided to go with a cheap palette swap character, in a red and gray costume, with brown hair. How lame is that? On the chest of this foul impostor, you can barely make out a symbol of some kind, but it's tough to tell who it's supposed to be. Some argue it's an alternate costume for Captain Marvel, others that it's an alternate version of Superman. I prefer the term that my friends and I gave him when we first played the game years ago: Captain Boring.
That's really the common theme to Superman. The game doesn't capture any of the imagination and creativity of the comic book hero it is based on at all. The game would play the same if they had replaced Superman with any other generic video game hero. If fact, I wonder if perhaps the license for Superman was tacked on late in development. That might explain the vanilla sameness of the action throughout. In the end, I suppose it was good for one thing: spending a few quarters on with a friend to pass the time. In that sense, the Superman video game succeeds as a Co-Op Classic.