Even heroes have the right to bleed

Action games tend to hinge on the element of risk, the trepidation posed by the possibility of your avatar’s world coming crashing down around his or her ears at any moment. This motivating tension is only feasible if they’re imbued with certain inherent weaknesses that make them vulnerable. Otherwise, you may as well be playing with a trainer enabled, granting you infinite lives and impenetrable armour… and where’s the fun in that?

This is precisely why games involving the ‘Man of Steel’, the most superest of superheroes ever in the history of all time – Superman – are such a difficult proposition for developers.

Batman, Spider-Man and so on are principally human with extraordinary abilities/gadgets at their disposal. Superman is a faster than the speed of light, bulletproof alien. So how in the name of holy Jor-El would his life-force work, and how do you go about constructing a challenging game starring a protagonist with so few limitations? It’s quite the Ed Nygma.

Only one developer attempted it on the Amiga; Tynesoft, licensing the gaming rights from New York-based outfit, First Star Software, who’d already been there, done it and got the t-shirt where the 8-bit systems are concerned.

In 1985 First Star founder, Fernando Herrera, unveiled his vision of ‘Superman: The Game’, an action-adventure title for the Acorn Electron, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Commodore 16, and ZX Spectrum. Clearly no meteor was left unturned!

It’s a single or two-player (human versus human) game starring one of the same antagonists as Tynesoft’s later 1989 release. Which we’ll get to soon enough… I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Also worthy of note, you can optionally choose to play as the bad guy, tasked with terrorising the citizens of Metropolis rather than saving them from the chief villain. While this doesn’t make ‘Superman: The Game’ the first-ever that allowed you to do this, it certainly is one of the earliest contenders for the record.

Curious I put the question to the English Amiga Board to see if they could raise the stakes on 1985. Nosferax came forward with what is probably the most direct analogue; Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600, trouncing Superman by a couple of years. Nevertheless, others wound back the clock a further two years by including games that allow you to command a whole army, or muster an evil party within one of the first RPGs.

Can anyone else improve on 1981?

What was once a novelty is now a gimmicky trope and top ten lists of baddie protagonist games are swamped with nothing but entries dating from ten years into the turn of the millennium. Because that’s when real gaming began. Kids, eh.

Tynesoft’s ‘Superman: Man of Steel’ was also released for all the popular 8-bit platforms of the era, as well as the 16-bit Atari ST, Amiga and DOS systems. Each iteration fundamentally the same design-wise, the cheapo versions were cut short, and yet ironically in some cases actually improve on the controls and difficulty curve that plagues their 16-bit counterparts.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for assuming Superman is a simple Space Harrier clone because the first level technically is. Sadly that’s all most people will experience of the multi-genre medley; it’s a tough, repetitive slog that provides no clues with regards to how you should go about beating the opening volley.

What we do know is that Man of Steel is at least initially a mouse-controlled affair whereby an airborne Supes follows our cross-hair automagically, switching between a variety of special powers to defeat an onslaught of humanoid, alien ‘Para-demons’ hailing from Apokolips. Not apocalypse you understand, that’s a totally different place. On earth I believe we call it the Gaza strip.

Left clicks activate our chosen weapon/ability, while the right button swaps between them. In the first level, we can punch, exhale super breath, and project heat vision beams from our peepers. On later levels it’s also possible to kick and activate our telescopic vision party trick. Not just binoculars without the binoculars.

Each resource is drained on an individual basis, represented by its own energy bar. If one of them becomes fully depleted and you continue to use it, your core strength bar begins to whittle down until you’re denounced as a failure and the game ends. Tiredness kills! Just like on the motorway. Remember kids, a power-nap and a macchiato could save your life!

To work around this inconvenient chink in our lycra armour we must deploy each technique sparingly, allowing them to regenerate when currently not in use. Well, you know how it is; you can run a marathon and be completely frazzled waist-down. Then if Sly Stallone asks you to star in the sequel to, you’re strapping up your chalked hands before the ink on the contract has had chance to dry.

Superman – the ultimate superhero – obviously can’t die as a consequence of a lack of energy, so instead he slinks away to the Fortress of Solitude to recuperate while other, more capable saviours take the reigns. I’d imagine this is an allusion to him retreating to the homeland to seek guidance from his father, Jor-El, whenever he’s at a low ebb and rapidly losing faith in the cause and his own abilities.

Unless I missed a prepubescent prequel in which Superman is just learning the ropes, and has yet to remove the stabilisers from his shiny, new trike? ‘Superboy’ is, in fact, one of Superman’s more obscure canonical deviations, so why not?

Still, it must have been pretty embarrassing for Wonder Woman, Wolverine or whoever to have to be airlifted in at the eleventh hour to dig Super Quiff out of a hole.

Before and after each level the scenario is expounded via a series of strikingly appropriate comic book strips. At first, these are shrouded through a kind of pixelated granulation technique, that metamorphoses into complete clarity cell by cell at the key moments. An effective way to pace the unfolding story without breaking up the cells and spoiling the illusion.

If you’re still not ‘in the picture’ following the CTU style demystification process you’ll be reassured to know that the manual and box sleeve covers the same ground in more depth. Too much really – it provides a level-by-level rundown of where you are, where you need to get to, what you need to achieve when you get there, and what the outcome will be assuming you’re successful.

This might have been suitable for the (already far easier) C64 version where you progress to the next mission regardless of your performance. Persevere for about twenty minutes and you’ll complete the game by default, making it more of a high score challenge affair than an action-adventure test of brains and brawn.

In contrast, the Amiga’s levels must be beaten in order to progress, and because you must do so sequentially, there’s no other way to experience the subsequent chapter.

Well, unless you count the spoilers in the manual and on the back of the box that is. There’s a fair bit of complexity to the plot for a retro action game; one that’s impressively chock-full of terms lifted straight from Superman pulp fiction. Tynesoft working on the narrative in close collaboration with DC Comics would certainly have ensured its accuracy.

Even so, the Superman ‘multiverse’ is so rich with its diverging parallel dimensions, and intertwining serpentine story arcs that any fairy-tale could have been pulled out of the hat and fused with existing lore. If we can believe a flying man in a ballet outfit is capable of reversing the earth’s natural rotation with a few puffs of hot air, nothing is off-limits.

Holding such a prime position on the journalistic grapevine, it’s Clark Kent who first gets wind of the latest disaster jeopardising the future of the planet. Superman hasn’t the foggiest idea what’s going on until bumbling Clark brings him up to speed. Tee – and indeed – hee.

With no supervillain in sight we can only assume that the recent surge in volcanic, seismic and tidal activity is due to an environmental anomaly. One best left for the geophysicists to investigate then. Except we’d all seen the Superman movies by this stage and knew better. No film director was interested in making movies about a mild-mannered journalist who goes to work, earns enough money to pay the bills and occasionally fills in a crossword puzzle cut out of the back of The Daily Planet.

Rather than report the story from the sidelines as grudgingly instructed by Perry White, Clark decides to shape the news himself. Hopefully by saving the whole of humanity donning his signature gaudy red undies on the outside of his pants… again.

That’s actually how Superman has managed to protect his secret identity all this time; draw attention away from the face and no-one notices that the only difference between the introverted, mouse-like Clark and intrepid Superman is a pair of glasses and a confident, benevolent smile.

Superman is no meteorologist so at the behest of Daily Planet editor, Perry White, he’s sequestered to attend an urgent conflab with Professor Corwin at S.T.A.R. Laboratories to establish what can be done to protect the terror-stricken citizens.

On route from Metropolis, spawned from a ‘Boom Tube’ Darkseid’s malevolent Para-demons are commanded to intercept Superman. Armed to the hilt with Concussion Cannons loaded with wavy, screen-engulfing Concussion Clouds, he’ll certainly have his work cut out.

For the uninitiated, S.T.A.R. Laboratories (aka Science and Technology Advanced Research Laboratories) was spearheaded by the U.S. Armed Forces and DARPA for the purpose of reverse engineering Kryptonian technology so as to better understand and exploit its capabilities. Professor Corwin, on the other hand, appears to have been devised solely as a facilitating chaperone within Tynesoft’s game.

Darkseid is a genuine super-reprobate borrowed from the Superman universe, overlord of his own home planet, Apokolips, in fact. Despite being billions of years old he’s counted amongst the ‘New Gods’. Must have been a slow learner!

A ‘Boom Tube’ is a kind of extra-dimensional portal opened between points in space courtesy of a sentient supercomputer with healing powers known as a ‘Mother Box’. They were forged to quickly bridge the navigational divide without the inconvenience of having to make a booking with Easy Jet.

Para-demons too were already a fixture in Superland, operating under the auspices of Darkseid and forming the backbone of the Apokoliptian Military. They’re described as six-foot tall humanoids, albeit with insectoid features. Green armour embellished with yellow trinkets and red-lensed flying goggles is their quintessential clobber.

No doubt they’ll come in handy when they take to the skies as effortlessly as Superman himself, carried aloft on organically fused wings, or hoverbikes. Also in accord with the star of the show, they possess super strength, allowing them to K.O. people, or whisk them off the ground, without breaking into a sweat.

In the Commodore 64 version of the Space Harrier level, you triumph by slaying a predetermined number of Para-demons (or simply by waiting until the timer runs down).

Over on the Amiga and Atari ST, however, it’s anyone’s guess what triggers the congratulations screen leading into mission two. Sometimes the transition appears to occur purely at random. Who knows, maybe this doesn’t just appear to be the case.

Level two turns the game on its head, switching perspectives and even genres; to a side-scrolling beat ’em up. This one takes place onboard ‘The Atlantis’, a yacht on which Lois Lane and Governor Lee are being held hostage by extremist scumbags commonly known as terrorists.

Cape-powered flight is now one of two options; the other being stomping across the deck, chest out, fists primed for action.

To aid the rescue mission you now have the additional gift of the almighty superkick. Clark’s trusty legs must have been resting up at home earlier after overexerting himself in an unspecified, solely leg-oriented form of exercise. Like, erm… armchair exercise biking.

Once at the S.T.A.R. Laboratory the professor informs Superman that his team of boffins have detected suspicious seismic activity in the area. To investigate further they must board the S.T.A.R. space shuttle, travel to their remote satellite and recover the recorded data.

It’s assumed that this phenomena is an early indication of an impending natural disaster… which is technically true given Lex Luthor is human, born in the traditional way without a test tube in sight.

What Corwin needs us for is to escort the spacecraft through an incessant barrage of asteroids and kryptonite, blasting a clearing to allow safe passage. As you might have guessed this level is another shoot ’em up, only this time of the vertically scrolling 2D variety.

Superman possesses all the same powers he had at his disposal in the first challenge, and these should be deployed to deflect both kinds of projectile to prevent them from making contact with the delicate shuttle. Punching is efficacious where the asteroids are concerned, though we’ll want to rely on our remote attacks to ensure we steer clear of kryptonite, obviously Superman’s Achilles’ Heel.

Only the standard green kryptonite – first introduced in a 1943 radio episode – puts in an appearance in the game, and we don’t get the option to block it with lead. The red, gold, blue, white, and black varieties would have to wait until later games gave them their moment in the sun… if they ever did.

Safely reach the satellite, clamber through the airlock and we’re in… to level 4. Sorry to break the sense of immersion. This is another side-scrolling runny-fly-y platforming bash ’em up scenario in which Supes gets to wield the same special powers he did in level 2.

Our aim is to reach the command room via a protracted tunnel bursting with mutant robots dispatched by the computer’s confused defence system. We’re on the same side of course, though as it’s got its wires crossed, the control deck must be taken out of the equation. Liquefying it with our heat vision should do the trick.

Fail and we’ll find ourselves enveloped in a floating bubble generated by one of the errant robots under its jurisdiction and flushed out into space. Where screaming is useless I hear. You know, because of the vacuum.

Now with access to his data, Professor Corwin is able to establish that the ‘disturbance in the force’ is emanating from a distant satellite station. One that’s been broadcasting meddlesome signals through earth’s com-sat receivers for who knows what nefarious purpose.

To quash the disruptive interference he instructs Superman to fly to the ‘Lexcorp Station’ to take it offline. I expect while he’s at it he’ll not miss the opportunity to give baldy a good ticking off into the bargain. If there’s one thing certain to put the kibosh on any reprisals it’s explaining the error of a supervillain’s ways and suggesting some potential avenues for self-improvement. They’re reasonable people deep down.

Darkseid’s mutating mini-robots are our first concern upon leaving the satellite, and you can expect the station itself to be heavily guarded too. By heat-seeking missiles, shell ports and gun turrets to be precise.

To neutralise its defences we must temporarily pierce key areas of the forcefield, creating a fissure just wide enough through which to mount a heat vision attack. Shooty-bangy gizmos out of commission, our telescopic vision (new special power alert!) serves to identify any especially vulnerable areas that can be targeted to bring down the dome shield entirely, allowing us to gain entry.

Finally, with the station lying dormant we head down the corridor towards its core to destroy the geo-disruptor, and collar Lex Luthor. He’ll have to learn to love his new black and white stripey wardrobe and watery porridge if he’s to adapt to a life behind bars.

That’s what we’re lead to believe happens anyhow. I’ve never beaten the game personally, and since no cheats, trainer, or longplay footage of the Amiga version exists, I’ll just have to imagine what follows beyond the end of level two. That, or check out the abridged 8-bit longplays available for the Amstrad, C64 and Spectrum editions.

Without having to wade through the Commodore 64 version’s treacle-treading multiload system, it would be a reasonably competent game, worthy of the esteemed – and much-maligned – license. Its controls are more effective, the difficulty curve is fair and what you have to do to succeed is clear.

Interestingly, speaking initially of the Batman game he was involved in developing, Bill Kunkel goes on to take the polar opposite stance where Superman is concerned…

“My background as a comic book writer helped Subway Software (Arnie Katz, Joyce Worley and me) score the gig. In fact, this was not even Subway Software’s first comic book project. When Arnie, Joyce and I branched out into game design in the mid-80s, we churned out design documents on a monthly basis for a Brit software firm called Tynesoft.

Somehow, Tynesoft acquired the rights to produce a computer game based on Superman (called Superman: Man of Steel and later published in the US by Capstone) and again, given my history, I took the lead in creating the design. And while the C64 version is an unplayable mess, I will tell you that the Atari ST and Amiga versions are among the finest design work Subway Software ever produced.”

Digital Press issue 50 (Jan/Feb 2003)

Our old chum SID facilitates an excellent rendition of John Williams’ original score and the graphical presentation is equally polished given the limitations of the C64. As can be said of the Amiga variant; Superman is unmistakably him, his animation is fluid and convincing, while the vibrant backdrops are befitting of the theme.

Listen to the theme tune via YouTube and you might construe the audio as a bit of a letdown. It’s easily recognisable and shows great promise, yet often veers off-key like a malfunctioning, wonky music box warbling at the wrong tempo. Play the game yourself, however, and you could be pleasantly surprised; it’s not nearly as off-kilter as I first believed.

All being well with your set-up you’ll regret that there’s not nearly enough music in the game to keep you whistling along with the ghosts of 1978’s youth. Between comic strip perambulation, it’s a music-free zone, relying solely on a limited selection of limp sound effects that do nothing to arouse the sense of a tumultuous atmosphere. John Williams set the bar stratospherically high!

On all systems, some of the levels are repeated with only minor adjustments made to account for the nuances of the story. In effect, it’s half a game held up to a mirror to engender the apparition of longevity and variety.

Us lucky Amigans did, however, get to rescue Lois Lane. A challenge I’m sure many of us faced wearing our complimentary t-shirt, sitting beneath our complimentary A2 sized wall poster. A nice touch you might think until you realise that the t-shirt was emblazoned with the Tynesoft logo, nothing at all relating to Superman. I can’t vouch for the poster.

Personally I would have settled for less sluggish controls and more finely tuned hit detection over a couple of freebies. Then the game clearly doesn’t like us; I’m sure it’s in cahoots with Darkseid. It would have been called ‘The Punisher’, only that’s another franchise and he’d get his five minutes of fame the following year, courtesy of The Edge.

Supes is momentarily paralysed whenever hit, leaving us wide open to the next assault… and since they’re relentless, a three ‘try’ game can be over in a flash.

Offering no such antidote, taking evasive action is easier said than done due to Superman’s turgid turning motion, and with no apparent end in sight, it’s tough to maintain a defence for any length of time.

Deflecting enemies to a safe distance with our super breath, then nailing them with heat vision appears to be the most effective tonic… if only Satan’s lackeys would stop sprouting forth from that damn Boom Tube long enough to allow us to appreciate the view.

And it’s a view that deserves to be appreciated. Simulating convincing flight over a pseudo 3D, non-wireframe landscape way back in 1989 shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Neither should the talent of the artist behind the game, Paul Drummond; his cut scene graphics fulfil the commission to a tee. It’s worth ‘dying’ just to see the remarkable scene in which Superman retires to the Fortress of Solitude. It’s no wonder Paul went on to become the lead artist for Adventuresoft’s Simon the Sorcerer project.

If Superman’s invulnerability was an issue for you, it’s one you’d have to address with DC Comics. According to The Games Machine Tynesoft were obliged to work within certain parameters in order to stay true to the franchise, and this incorporated not allowing our hero to perish. ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ wasn’t even on the horizon at this juncture.

Still, game over is game over however you dissect it, and in Man of Steel, it does at least conform to the convention of limiting the player’s ability to sail through a quest with no potential to lose. Which is more than can be said of the C64 interpretation.

One alternative way to tackle this thorny conundrum would have been to make the health of a more vulnerable third party your measure of success. Fail to rescue Lois – for example – before her life-force slips away and you lose. Lois dying would be OK, surely? Actually, scratch that, we’re back to square one.

Vicarious health was later employed as an artificial means of limiting the limitless it should be noted, the citizens of Metropolis as a collective deputising as a surrogate health bar. In EA’s 2006, 3rd person action title based on the Superman Returns movie of the same name, Superman possesses a stamina bar that determines his ability to execute his supersonic flight or invulnerability mode. It’s always his hometown’s well-being that hangs in the balance, so perchance loss of life is permissible as long as it’s anonymous and vague.

Or perhaps all those developers who postulated that you shouldn’t even attempt to adapt Superman for the video game market were right? Vindicated for hiding in the nearest phone box when The Last Son of Krypton swooped into town dangling a cursed contract under their noses.

2 thoughts on “Even heroes have the right to bleed

  • August 16, 2018 at 11:12 am

    How about Death Race from Exidy in 1976? Ok, it’s a cute answer for the first time you play a bad guy..but you are running over humanoid figures in a car! Granted, the side of the cab has zombie like people on it..hey it was the first thing that popped into my head! Great stuff DK!

    • August 17, 2018 at 2:00 am

      LOL. I heard they were all very nice, friendly zombies who wouldn’t harm a fly so I reckon that counts. 😉

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