Time to Fight the Zod Gang
The NES library is littered with terrible licensed games. Although it's hyperbole to say that it had more bad licensed games than actual good titles on the console, at times that does feel accurate. For every Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 there's a Jaws or a Karate Kid or, in this case, a Superman. these are games that inspired hope with kids, expecting an experience like they saw on the Silver Screen, only to actually turn the cartridge on and find the horrible product written on the cart.
In the case of Superman for the Famicom and NES, it's not that developer Kemco didn't try. They certainly had the instinct on how to make an interesting game that balanced Superman's power against the needs to make a playable video game. Big Blue is a hard man to put into a video game because his near-invincibility makes it difficult to balance him against the foes he'll be fighting. A good game tries to find that right balance and make the game compelling to play. A bad game coats Metropolis in kryptonite fog and leaves you to wander aimlessly doing stupid tasks (oh, we'll get to you, Superman 64). Kemco's game is, at least, not completely unplayable, making a passing attempt at balance and mechanics to make you feel like you're playing as SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s.. It's just that the end result leaves a lot to be desired.
In the game you play as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, who has to track down the big stories of the day as a fleet of villains, led by Lex Luthor and the Zod Gang, try to take over the city. You talk to Lois in the Daily Planets (sic) headquarters and then head off to the nearest phone booth to change into Superman and fly off for an adventure. As you mosey about you'll fight goons (who will drop power-ups for your super powers) and explore the city, looking for where the villains are and how to reach them. Once you get to the boss in charge of that mission (there are five in total, with Lex heading up penultimate mission and the Zod himself as the final boss), Superman flies back to the newspaper to snag the headline for that day's edition.
That all sounds pretty basic and, in fact, maybe a bit better of an implementation of who Superman is that what we received in Superman on the Atari 2600. The devil, though, is in the details and, in the case of Kemco's product, its in the execution of Superman that we really see the issues with the game. There are a lot of good ideas at play here but they never really come together in a satisfying whole.
To start, Superman is incredibly weak in this game. You get a limited amount of your super powers (heat vision, two breath attacks, flight, feet drilling, etc.) and you have to kill goons to get those powers back up. But Superman also has to watch his health because if he gets too damaged he reverts to being just Clark Kent who can't access any powers and moves much more slowly. Hell, even just touching enemies will damage Superman (which seems truly silly when you think about it because, what, the enemies are wearing kryptonite body paint?), and many of them will purposefully track you so damage in unavoidable.
Of course, you need your super powers so you have to fight enemies to boost them. This leads to a grind in the game of battling foes to charge your powers, over and over, until you cap them off just in case you need them. Sure, if you know what you're doing then you'll know what powers you should use when, but for the average casual gamer it's likely that they would just fight everything because they wouldn't have a clue what to do or where to go. So the game ends up feeling padded as you fight an endless stream of goons for the power grind.
The second big issue is that, frankly, Metropolis in the game is far too big. It's all presented as a side-scrolling city that interconnects, with some sections that you have to fly to or take the subway to access (and there's nothing more hilarious than the sight of Superman, in full costume, casually riding the subway). Most of the space of Metropolis, though, is just needless padding. You'll walk down endless streets trying to find where you need to go, occasionally entering buildings for a couple of rooms of side-scrolling action, all to get a power-up and exit. Most buildings serve no greater purpose than that, but you have to explore them all just in case there's someone or something important in there. Good luck knowing that ahead of time, though; exploring is the only way to figure it out.
I'm all for big games, mind you, but the largesse has to serve a purpose. Simply dumping a lot of big areas into a game without any real purpose to them doesn't help the game. It only serves to annoy the gamer by forcing them to check everything. When you play a good RPG, there may be a lot of out of the way caves with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, yes, but generally you're rewarded with good gear and a lot of bonuses to make the exploration worth it. While you occasionally find someone lurking in a building with information, or maybe a power-up that increases one of your power bars by a small amount, it hardly feels worth the effort of exploring all of Metropolis to find those bonuses.
Instead of creating the feel of a large city with a lot going on, the scale of Superman create a large, airy space that feels boring to explore. Add to that the grind for powers and you have a game that feels like twenty minutes of game play stretched over a two-hour frame. Of course, that was the NES formula for a lot of companies: make a short game but make it so hard, or so annoying, to play that gamers "got their money's worth" via inflated play time. It sucks.
Thing is that I actually think there's some merit in the way the game is setup. While splitting Superman's powers between different power bars is a little silly (all of his powers come from the Sun, after all, and all use the same energy source in the comics), and having enemies drop those power-ups is just ridiculous in concept, I like how the game makes sure to give you all these powers to play with and use in experimentation. It's not a deep system, but between the open world concept and the variety of powers, the game feels a lot like A Boy and His Blob in execution (which was another flawed game with an interesting concept).
And while I rag on the large, open world of this game that's only because it feels so devoid of life and purpose. Had the developers put more people in, more things to do, more reason to explore, they could have made a more interesting game from the open world concept. Hell, other superhero games to come out much later used the open world design to great effect, letting you feel like you're really a protector of the city. The attempt is here, as well, just not very well done at all.
I didn't even hate the presentation. While the chibi graphics don't feel particularly "Superman" in execution (considering he's a character from comics with a definitive look), you get used to them. And they are cute, in their own way. Serviceable, for sure. And coupled with a decent little soundtrack (using an arrangement of the Superman '78 score in the Famicom version, more generic synth tunes in the NES release), leads to a game that felt pretty interesting to look and listen to on the NES... just so long as you don't actually have to play it.
When I was a child I played Superman on my NES, having rented it from Blockbuster because, hey, it's Superman! I was disappointed in the game then, finding it far too difficult to play at the time. Going back in now the game was easier, but I still didn't enjoy the experience. It tested my patience and made me actively want to turn it off. I can see what Kemco was doing, what they were trying for, it's just that either their programmers couldn't handle it or something was lost in the translation from concept to execution. Whatever the case, this is a game that is much better in theory than fact. If you're looking for a Superman game, even the Atari version feels better than this one. That bad game at least had the decency to be short.