Brainiac Comes for Metropolis
As we've noted before, 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. isn't an easy character to translate into video games. You want to feel like you're actually controlling the Man of Steel, but if the game gives you too much power then it wouldn't be hard at all. Superman is essentially an invulnerable character, able to do just about anything with his long list of powers. But if a game fails to give you access to all those powers have you really, then, played a proper Superman game? Arguably not.
In the realm of superhero video games, Sunsoft managed to knock it out of the park with their first published attempt: Batman on the NES. Full disclosure, they failed to do nearly as well by the character on other consoles at the time, and then their follow up title, Batman: Return of the Joker, was flawed on both the NES and Game Boy. Still, they had shown they could handle translating superheros to the video game medium, thus giving gamers some hope that, when presented with the Superman license, they could do the same again.
What's interesting between these two characters, BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. and Superman, is that what works for one hero really wouldn't work for the other. Batman is a street-level hero with gadgets, but no powers, who chooses not to shoot or kill. Superman can fly and has superpowers, and he doesn't have a problem shooting (from his eyes) to take out (robotic) bad guys. A shooting kind of game (like the NES Return of the Joker) actually would work better as a bright and shiny Superman title while Sunsoft's 1992 Superman has elements that seem like they'd be better put in a Batman game.
The basic structure of Superman '92 is that of a beat-em-up platformer. At the start of most stages Superman gets a call to head out into the city to save people -- kids, citizens, Lois Lane, etc. He'll venture out, to the roof tops or deep under ground, and platform his way through stages while punching at enemies. Sometimes he'll have to take flight, zipping up buildings or after trains, shooting with his heat visions at any bots that might come after him. Each stage is then capped with a villain encounter -- the Prankster, Metallo, Mister Mxyzptlk -- all before Superman then has to take flight to space in the last couple of stages to battle against Brainiac, who has been behind all the trouble Superman's been facing this whole time.
On its face it's not so bad, honestly, playing this game. Superman feels appropriately chunky, hitting enemies with power and strength. Minor enemies go down in one to two hits, and only a few sub-bosses and bosses take far more damage than that (and for good reason considering the goes Supes is fighting). As far as basic combat and platforming are concerned, this game really does have the basic feel and control for Superman down... to a point, and, honestly, that point should be obvious...
Superman can't just fly around at will. This is a weird decision to make in a Superman game, but it's the direction Sunsoft went. There are plenty of contained areas where Superman takes flight (on his) so you can shoot through some scroller sections, but Superman is known for being able to take flight at any time. Keeping him bound to the ground for whole stretches feels weird and strange. Not that there isn't an easy fix: give him a limited flight meter that recharges while he's on the ground. It amounts to long jumps, essentially, but it lets the feel of the Man of Steel's flight power come through.
His other powers are similarly limited is weird ways as well. Most of the time Superman only has his punch to use. Yes, it's powerful, and he can use a charged version of it to deal huge damage (and clear some obstructions), but still. Occasionally you have to swap the punch out (via a collectible icon) for a spin maneuver that lets you dig down into the ground, but only at specific locations. And then, whenever you're in the air you get access to the heat vision. And that's not. No cold breath, no x-ray vision, and only limited uses of everything else.
At the time the game was released it was dinged for its limited use of Superman's powers, and I can't say I disagree completely. It would be nice if, instead of having only limited access to his powers, you could hot swap on the fly with the select button and change powers (no need to collect icons for them). Punch and shoot your way through enemies (maybe with the punch being more powerful). Clear obstructions with punching and drilling, but maybe also make it so you can see which way you need to go with the X-ray vision. And, yes, limited jump/flight for more freedom of movement. Those are easy fixes that would make the game feel more, well, like a Superman title.
With that said, it's actually not bad as a superhero action game in general. The fighting is good, but I also really enjoyed the variety and the level design. The first stage across the rooftops is a basic linear scroller, but then it goes vertical for a but of flying and shooting, followed by a boss fight. The next stage is different, shoving Superman into a factory, forcing him to explore and platform and find the right path. This then leads into a train chase and a battle aboard that vehicle. Stages set over the ocean, in space, and on board Brainiac's vessel keep things interesting and ensure the action never feels to static.
The game isn't easy by any stretch, but it does feel fair. There are a lot of enemies and they can deal a fair bit of damage in their swarms, but Superman's i-frames are lengthy, allowing for plenty of recovery time. And none of the enemies really come out of nowhere. There's no cheap placement or bad level design. It's all just keeping aware and taking out enemies when you can. A pretty solid way to set everything up, honestly. Yes, you still will likely die, a lot, but mostly that's your fault than the game cheating.
The presentation is also quite nice in Superman '92. The sprites are nicely detailed without being too large, and the animation is smooth and clean. One detail I really liked was the way Brainiac, in his fortress, would animate when you saw him on little screens as he talks at Superman. It's buttery smooth and also looks really sharp. That's solid design. And the songs, while not anything that would get stuck in your brain, have solid beats to them. Not once will you hear the John Williams "Theme from Superman", which I've heard too much in these games, but the music still feels appropriate to a Superman game.
While maybe this game isn't the best representation of the Man of Steel in a video game, it is fun and charming in its own way. It's a good game that's worth playing... just try not to get too hung up on how well Superman '92 does at actually representing Superman. You might just like it more at that point.
Note: a version of this game was released, in Europe only, in 1993. Titled Superman: The Man of Steel, the game was developed by Graftgold and published by Virgin Interactive. It's a fine, if simplified, version of the Genesis game, but nothing special to track down. If you like it, stick to the Genesis version instead.