Stop the Alien, Save the World
Nailing the superhero format in video game form can be hard. As we've seen from numerous examples already (Batman: The Caped Crusader, Spider-Man '82, Superman: The Game) it's far too easy for a game company to slap a hero on a title without really taking into account what makes the superhero tick. "Let's give Batman a gun because kids like shooters!" Except, no. Batman doesn't use guns. That's beyond dumb.
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. shouldn't be a hard character to translate to the medium. He's powerful, he has a lot of cool abilities, and he can be written into mysteries (as Clark Kent, reporter) and action games (as Superman). There's a lot to work with and all a game company has to do is find a solid engine and put the character in. Up until now, the game that best found that formula was probably the Atari Superman. It wasn't a good game but it at least mixed the elements of Superman's character -- super strength, flight, and heroic goodness -- together in a way that made it feel like you were playing as Superman. It worked at a very basic level.
The trick with Superman is, of course, that you have to find a threat that feels balanced for his super-powered self. Most things can't touch him. If a bullet from a normal goon damages the Man of Steel it feels like a cheat. To make a good Superman game you either have to sidestep damage entirely (as the Atari Superman did) or you have to present a threat so overpowering that only Superman could handle it... and then just barely. That's what Taito's Superman arcade game does, and it almost works.
Released in 1988, Superman (aka, Superman: The Video Game in some production materials) find the Man of Steel going up against Emperor Zaas, a space alien who has come to Earth to subjugate the world and maybe capture Superman. In essence he's Brainiac except without the game ever calling him Brainiac. Through five stages (four set in cities around the U.S., with a fifth taking place up in space) Superman has to battle the various goons sent by the Emperor, all so he can battle his way to the Emperors space cruiser and fight to take out the evil alien once and for all.
What the Arcade Superman understands is that people expect certain things from the Man of Steel. He should be strong, he should be able to fly, and we should see some of his powers used from time to time. The game frames itself as a beat-em-up, which Superman walking, and flying, around the basic stages, beating up guys from all directions as he progresses towards his goal. He can beat up most enemies with a punch or two, sending them flying off screen in a satisfying way. And because he can fly all around at any time, you get the real feeling of being Supes with minimal effort. It feels right.
On the super-powers front, the game gives our hero two to use. The first is a special sonic punch he gets. If you're thinking, "hey, Superman doesn't have a sonic punch," you'd be right. At least not one that he can charge up and then use to launch a projectile weapon. It is goofy, sure, but it does at least let the game have some balance so that he isn't just running (and flying) around everywhere shooting dudes with his eye beams. He does get to use those laser eyes, mind you, but only in certain parts of the stages when the game transitions to being a on-rails shooter. Superman takes to the skies and starts blasting at rocks and meteors and other objects before dealing with the Emperor in one of his little ships, blasting them apart before moving on the next stage.
In essence, then, the game does give you what you expect from Superman. I appreciate that just enough attention was paid to the heroic efforts of the hero that it doesn't feel like a violation to have him in this game. Yes, he does end up blowing up a lot of dudes (or reducing them to virtual grid, as seems to be the effect when they die). But they're super-powered dudes, maybe even Brainiac. I mean, Emperor drones, so it's not like Superman has become a mass murderer for this game. It's a smart solution to let the hero engage in beat-em-up chaos in a controlled manner.
Where the game falls down is in its difficulty: the game is ridiculously hard. It doesn't seem so in the early game, when Superman is easily able to take out the waves of dudes without trying. In the first stage, if he takes damage it's just a single bar (off the five he gets per life) and most of the enemies aren't powerful enough to even cause him an issue. But as the stages progress, more enemies are pushed on screen and newer, more powerful foes get introduced as well. By the end of the game, you'll feel overwhelmed, forced to pump in quarters just to keep up as life after life is quickly stolen from you.
The shooting sections of the stages are even worse. The screen can get littered with projectiles, especially during the boss fights that mark the end of the each of these sections, but Superman's hit box is huge, consisting of his head and entire abdomen. Bullet hell games usually give you a small hit box, even just the tip of your ship to dodge with but Superman forces you to contend with his entire body while projectiles come at you from everywhere. It's purposefully unfair and not very fun.
The worst, however, is the end boss. He sits in his own boss arena, taking up the right side as his moves up and down on a little floating platform. On his own he's okay to deal with, but he has two huge goons that will spawn in and attack, going after Superman relentlessly. You can kill them, but almost instantly they'll respawn. But if you just go after the boss, they'll attack you instantly and kill you as quick. There really isn't any way to defeat the boss fairly, and the game even seems to have some kind of timer built in where if you simply last long enough, the fight will end on its own, taking you to the end credits.
The whole point of the difficulty being this high, of course, is to get you to pump quarters into the machine. If it were easy you'd be able to one credit it (1CC) and clear the game, and arcades didn't want that. But Taito absolutely took it too far in the other direction, crafting a game that felt completely unfair and unfun. Sure, you can keep pumping quarters in but, at a certain point, it feels like bad money after good. It just isn't worth the financial investment to see the end game.
I liked the idea of the Arcade Superman, and even felt the early stages of the game nailed the feel of the hero. But once you really get into it, the game loses its balance and become a messy slog. At that point it's better to burn off the quarter and move on. Why bother sticking with a game that actively doesn't want you to play it?