Superman’s history in video games is kind of a mess. Almost every time someone tries to make a game based around the Man of Steel, the results never end well.
Granted, he’s not the easiest character to build a game around. Just how do you make a challenging and fun game starring a character that is essentially a walking god and not make it seem weird that peons can hurt him with trash cans or punches unless they’re just like him? Or if they have some reasonable explanation for why they can, such as the Superman formula used by everyone else in Netherrealms’ fighting game, Injustice.
Or if they happen to be interstellar aliens that fly Apache helicopters and hurl rocks from space down to Earth which is kind of what happens in Taito’s 1988 arcade take on DC’s icon, named appropriately enough, Superman.
Taito’s arcade hardware history is a spaghetti tangle of boards. In 1988, arcade devs like Capcom decided to actually standardize their gear to ease up on costs for both themselves and the arcade operators who bought these things by making it as easy as swapping out a cartridge module to change the game in a cabinet.
So for Superman, it ran on what System 16 calls Taito X System hardware which other arcade games, such as Balloon Brothers, had also used. The CPU brains was a 68000 16-bit chip, a Toshiba TMP68000N-8 that ran at a hair raising 8 Mhz. Sound was handled via a Z80 CPU and supplied by industry veteran Yamaha chips.
Superman took place across five levels, each based on a specific theme:
- San Francisco
- Las Vegas
- Washington DC
In this adventure, he’s off to stop Emperor Zaas and his galactic army who want to take over the Earth. They’re not part of the DC universe, either, but they make convenient punching bags for Superman to stomp through.
The stages were divided into three different segments — horizontal, side-scrolling fighting, vertical fighting (Superman would be flying upwards or downwards depending on the stage), and then a horizontal, side-scrolling flight stage where Superman could punch missiles or blast them with heat vision laser beams. The Spaceship stage changed things up, however, going beyond the three segments.
Players can ‘hover’ in the side-scrolling fighting sections or touch down and actually walk on the floor and punch hovering enemies that come to close or kick those the air. Mysterious walls and fences also block his way until Supes punches through them. When it shifts to the vertical section, Supes can punch and kick while in the air as enemies come at him from all sides. Then when it comes to the horizontal flying section, Superman is attacked by flying missiles, asteroids, and faces off against an end boss that’s either a some mutant superbeing or a giant machine.
So yeah, Superman doesn’t have a very interesting moveset. Holding down the punch button also charges up a super blast that’s pretty useful against the mini-bosses at the end of each segment and the main boss at the end of the level. The weird thing is that Supes can’t move while charging it up in the side scrolling fighting or vertical stages — only in the horizontal flying one. His five-block health gauge can take something of a beating from the peons that dare to hit him, but the bosses can rip it down pretty quickly.
The bosses take the form of giant super, mutants, elemental-themed humanoids, or giant flying machines that just stay on one side of the screen and shoot at the player like a giant shmup boss. General enemies are just so much cannon fodder that can be knocked out with one punch, though there are occasional special bad guys like the ones that hang on walls and spit webs to those that can block Superman’s punches to try and keep things interesting. Sometimes blue gems (for health) or yellow gems (for an instant Superman punching blast) are ‘dropped’ by enemies or smashing things like garbage cans.
For the most part, however, with each stage cut down into the same three pieces with little real variety, it’s pretty boring stuff, even with co-op play and a forgiving continue system picking up right where you died while retaining your score. The second player comes in as a Red Superman — how that works in the DC universe, I can’t really say. The bosses aren’t all that interesting, especially the big ones at the end of each level, but the game does have a grand finale.
John Williams’ famous Superman score is emulated in the game and and the graphics aren’t actually too bad. It’s just that the gameplay itself is so bland compared to peers like Final Fight and Double Dragon. A year earlier in 1987, a Superman film had come out and Taito probably wanted to capitalize on that…even though the movie was a total bomb. Quest for Peace would literally kill the film franchise, though Supes would survive on television and cable through a number of smartly written cartoon series and direct-to-video/DVD animated features.
Unfortunately, this was Superman’s first, and so far, only, debut in the arcades. This one didn’t see a re-release in classic compilations from Taito, either, likely because of the licensing issues involved. Taking Superman into beat ’em ups, though, wasn’t a completely bad idea — Blizzard would revisit the concept again in 1994’s The Death and Return of Superman for Sunsoft on the SNES and the Genesis which apparently wasn’t too bad.
But since then, the quest continues for the ‘perfect’ Superman game. When it comes to Batman vs. Superman in this regard, Superman has a lot of catching up to do.