What a 1988 Superman NES Game Tells Us About the Man of Steel

Thirty years old this year, the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Superman is one of the weirdest licensed games ever...

There are certain characters and stories that are so ingrained in our popular consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine not knowing anything about them. For much of the planet, the sights and sounds of the Star Wars franchise are immediately recognizable. Just about everyone could look at a silhouette of Batman, say, or Bart Simpson, and tell you who that character is.

Imagine for a second, though, that you’ve just met a visitor from the distant past, or an explorer from another planet. They’ve never heard of Superman; they’ve never read the comics, or seen the movies, or heard John Williams’ triumphant score. They’re blissfully unaware of what Kryptonite is, why a godlike superhero would disguise themselves as a bespectacled journalist, or why they should care about Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane.

Now let’s take the thought experiment on an abrupt left turn. Rather than show our clueless visitor some comics, or the classic movies, or even one of Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel efforts, we’ll subject them to the half-forgotten Superman videogame released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988 – quite possibly one of the weirdest licensed games ever created.

Given that this is their first exposure to the Son of Jor-El, would exactly would they learn? First, here’s a brief introduction.

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A brief introduction

Programmed by a relatively obscure Japanese firm called Kemco, Superman is a free-roaming platformer – it’s what we might now term a Metroidvania, although the quality of its production is so far from Metroid and Castlevania that it might as well be from a different decade entirely. Indeed, it’s remarkable to think, just from playing Superman for a few seconds, that this game actually came out after those classics of the 8-bit era; with its shaky collision detection and counter-intuitive controls, it feels a good deal older.

The object of the game is to take control of Superman (and, initially, his alter-ego Clark Kent) and save Metropolis from a series of villainous threats, ranging from Lex Luthor to General Zod to, bizarrely, a Chinese gang that’s somehow gaming the stock market. To do this, Superman jumps, hops and flies from location to location, punching bad guys, using his super powers and generally saving the day.

For a licensed game, Supermans scale is at least semi-ambitious. Pressing start pulls up a map which shows Metropolis’ various locations, which range from parklands to sewers to the interiors of skyscrapers. Completing the game requires a Metroid-like criss-crossing of these locations, with each boss triggered by fulfilling certain objectives. The execution of almost every element in Superman is, however, slapdash almost to the point of comedy.

Superman SD

On firing up Superman, the most striking thing is its graphic design. Where Taito’s arcade machine released the same year, successfully created a muscular Superman straight out of the comics, the graphics in the Nintendo Entertainment System version look more like something out of Samurai Pizza Cats; it’s an example of what’s known in Japan as Super Deformed, or SD – a visual style marked out by tiny bodies, large heads and expressive, childlike eyes.

It’s quite a cute look, in its own way, but an odd choice for a property about strength, daring and heroism; in the opening scene, Clark Kent stands in the spartan offices of the Daily Planet (or Daily Planets, as the game’s iffy translation calls it), where Jimmy Olsen looks like some kind of long-nosed ghoul and Lois Lane just stands in a corner, staring blankly. Talk to her, and she’ll mutter something about strange things going on in the park. Weirdly, nobody explains why there aren’t any desks, or typewriters, or anything a reporter might need to do their jobs – all you’ll find are a bank of telephones the size of family cars. (Incredibly, the original Japanese version of the game featured an even more kawaii version of Kent and Superman; the American version actually made the character sprites’ heads much smaller, as you can see at the Cutting Room Floor.)

Anyone unfamiliar with Superman would be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of surreal three-panel cartoon strip from a Japanese newspaper rather than a classic American comic book. Incredibly, things only become more strange from here.

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Everyone hates Clark

Leave the newspaper headquarters (frustratingly, using doors involves pressing down on the control pad), and Clark will find himself on Metropolis’ bustling streets. Well, we say bustling: the entire place is teeming with identical hoodlums in blue hats and suits, all itching to shoot Clark on sight. Maybe it’s because of the hideous pea-green suit Clark insists on wearing.

At any rate, Clark has no qualms about using his super powers to save himself in tight situations – pressing jump will send him leaping about 30 feet in the air, which you’d think would have those gangsters scattering in terror. Instead, they just keep shooting at Clark like heavily-armed zombies.

Superman’s not all that super

Fortunately, a handy phone booth stands mere feet away from the Daily Planet’s front door. At least, we eventually figured out that it’s a phone booth: the structure’s about five times Clark’s height, so we thought it was the entrance to a supermarket at first. It was only on pressing down in front of it, and seeing Clark turning into Superman, that we realised what it actually was.

So Clark’s now Superman, and it’s here that you might think that things would improve. As it turns out, Superman isn’t any more handy in a fight than Clark; hoodlums still take about three punches to kill, and Superman’s still painfully vulnerable to their bullets. Although Superman can fly from location to location (more on this later), he can’t actually fly around the screen – he just sort of hops, pretty much the same as Clark. Incredibly, landing on a hoodlum’s head will injure Superman but not the hoodlum, which actually makes the Man of Steel less powerful than a certain Italian plumber.

The Statue of Liberty can talk

Here’s something else your alien visitor will be interested to learn: Superman’s best friend is the Statue of Liberty (or Statue of Freedom, as it’s called here). An opening cut-scene has the famous statue – here depicted with kawaii anime eyes – explaining the plot to Superman, which might just be one of the weirdest openings to any game ever. One of Superman’s secret powers is, it seems, being able to converse with inanimate objects. If only his other powers were as useful…

Superman sometimes rides the subway

Something else we never read about in the comics: Metropolis’ underground system is inaccessible for Superman – at least at first. Attempt to head down into the subway, and a dialogue box will tell you that Clark (or Superman) doesn’t have the requisite pass.

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This raises two questions: first, you’d think Clark would have a pass for the subway by now, given that he works in the city every day; and second, you might also think that Superman would get a free pass, given that he’s fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

During the second mission, Jimmy Olsen finally gives Clark a rail ticket, which unlocks new areas of the game – and a disturbing sequence in which Clark (or Superman) is shown standing in a subway carriage, the only profoundly short person in a car full of normal-sized people. We have to say, this one brief moment raises more disturbing questions than we’ve time to even attempt to answer.

Running away is often the best option

Fiddling with a menu screen will reveal the wealth of powers Superman has available – these range from his super breath to his laser beam eyes. Unfortunately, these powers only appear to work in specific circumstances, so using the super breath on ordinary street gangsters will have no tangible effect. For the most part, then, Superman has to rely on his fists – an attack that works even when an enemy’s standing about three feet away.

Fighting enemies is so risky, though, that it’s often better to avoid confrontation than indulge in it just for fun. Take a look at some speed-runs of Superman on YouTube, and you’ll see players actively avoiding every enemy they can get away with, and will only fight if they need to get hold of a power-up.

If you didn’t know anything about Superman lore, then, you’d probably assume that he’s a squat little guy full of good intentions but completely useless in combat – like Pee Wee Herman in a cape rather than a lonely god who can lift a supertanker. Which leads us to…

Being Superman is temporary

Far from being indestructible, Superman’s prone to attack from even the weakest-looking foes, whether they’re rank-and-file gangsters or weird guys with cat ears. If he takes too many bullets or kicks to the head, Superman will revert back to his Clark Kent form – which means he’ll basically blow his identity to some of the worst scum and villainy in all Metropolis. Take a few more hits, and Clark will simply droop, clutching his chest.

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By this point, we can’t help wondering whether the Last Son of Krypton might have bitten off more than he can chew.

Superman cares deeply about the stock market

Some of the most famous villains in Superman history make appearances in the videogame, though we’d be stunned if you’d recognise any of them on sight. Lex Luthor has horns; Ursa appears to wield a whip; General Zod looks like a garden gnome. Besides these villains, Superman’s given a bewildering assortment of missions, either by his boss at the Daily Planet (here simply billed as “the copy editor”) or by shady-looking characters you’ll find in the sewers.

Our favorite of these missions involves working out why the stock market’s falling; a quick tour through Metropolis’ Chinese quarter later, and you’ll discover that a bunch of bearded gangsters have somehow manipulated it all. The problem’s solved by punching their ring leader until he stops moving.

Metropolis’ civilians are an eccentric bunch

As we’ve already seen, there are far more criminals in Metropolis than law-abiding people, which might explain why Superman destroyed the entire city in Man Of Steel – it was easy to wreck the lot and start again than deal with the crime problem one gangster at a time. Still, the few people who aren’t trying to kill you aren’t much better; like an RPG, you can talk to non-player characters in Superman, though we couldn’t tell you what half of them are on about.

One will simply say, “Got any news?”, as though it’s a journalist’s job to roam the streets and tell people the day’s headlines. Another will say something like, “Ooh, don’t touch me!”, which left us walking away with a shudder. One civilian will thank you for saving him from the Dragon gang, but then follow that up with the following: 

Superman as a whole was clearly translated in a hurry; even in an era when games were less expensively localized than they are today, its rash of spelling mistakes and barely-understandable dialogue was notably lacking in polish. Then again, this is a game whose entire final level involves punching blue blobs, running along a bit, and then punching a few more blue blobs.

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Even the flying sequences, a bit of Superman that you’d think might have a bit of pace and verve about it, is reduced to a simple cut-scene here; you can only use flying to go to specific locations, so if you simply try flying just for the hell of it, you’ll be treated to a scene of Superman flying directly up to the top of a skyscraper and then straight back down again.

Superman isn’t the worst game ever made, and incredibly, it isn’t even the worst Superman game ever, either – that accolade surely goes to Superman 64, a title so shoddy that it still lives in infamy. All the same, its difficult to think of another videogame that misses the point of its own license so profoundly. That the developers had to give Superman some vulnerability is understandable – it wouldn’t be much of a game if he couldn’t be harmed – but it’s startling just how feeble this incarnation of the hero really is.

In fact, a visitor from the past or from outer space might find themselves feeling deeply sorry for the 8-bit Superman. Shot at by an entire city of gangsters, standing nervously on a subway full of giants, Superman is a delicate, lonely figure, like a character in an Alan Bennett play. His colleagues all talk gibberish; people on the street pester him for news. Desperate for friendship, Superman heads down to the shoreline, and in his solitude, looks up at the benign face of a 150 year-old statue. In the depths of his loneliness, he almost thinks he can hear the statue talk: “I’ll watch over you. Now go, Superman!”