Genre: Beat-‘Em-Up Developer: Blizzard Ent. Publisher: Sunsoft Players: 1-2 Released: 1995
There were many reasons to believe the aftermath of killing off its premier character would come back to haunt DC Comics. But before the side effects of The Death of Superman story arc could be gauged, the media frenzy had already set in. Superman died at the hands of a random intergalactic nasty named Doomsday, giving his life to vanquish the threat and save the world. Did it get any bigger – or geekier – than that? For better or worse, it became the comics world’s bread and butter: more and more dead characters rising from their penned graves, comic book companies given new breath, and hordes of casual readers falling prey to publicity stunts. And while it’s arguable whether the event was worth all the hype and if it helped fuel the comic book industry crash of the late ’90s, something was very much set in stone: the license would have to be exploited.
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate license ripe for a company to overcapitalize and presenting such meaningful comic book history in video game format would be no small task. Though it should go without saying that their decision was obvious from the start, Blizzard Entertainment and Sunsoft’s choice of a beat-’em-up was not inherently bad. Now, it’s easy for some to slot the beat-’em-up genre as a long list of plodding nonsense of simplistic gameplay but the genre has its merits – and highlights, too. Besides, the decision made commercial sense – by giving players the chance to play through the more action-packed events of the storyline while staying away from elements which wouldn’t translate well into a gameplay perspective let the team focus on delivering something both die hard and casual fans could enjoy.
As a licensed title, the game had the advantage of not having much in the way of competition. Captain America & the Avengers aside, most brawlers used their own settings and characters instead, trying to remain convincingly fresh amidst spandex-clad heroes; and said heroes often found their way into less-than-stellar platformers. The strength of the license then, resided in offering gamers an ensemble of instantly recognizable characters and place them in a more combative style of play, their *pathos* be damned: controlling Superman and the four usurpers to that title – Superboy, the Cyborg Superman, The Man of Steel and The Last Son of Krypton – during the most controversial of times for the character was the main draw.
Unfortunately, Death and Return doesn’t really do the genre or its characters any justice, leaving us at odds with a disconcerting lack of methodology between the development and the end result. More than polish, more than varied gameplay, the game lacks concept.
So where did it all go wrong?
The problem with many superhero-themed adaptations is that they often fit a character or cast of characters into a certain genre’s play mechanics, rather than mold the gameplay around the character. Because of this it’s not uncommon to watch as characters are taken out of context and left to negotiate the unlikely schisms between their trademark abilities and a game which does not use them – or does so in a superficial manner. Eventually, this is where the game suffers: while the charm of controlling a recognizable cast of characters is definitely there, it is gradually lost in repetitive gameplay that trivializes the characters and rarely lets them stand out.
The unsettling moment where I realized something terrible happened during the game’s development came a few levels into the game when, with no rhyme or reason to it, one of Earth’s greatest heroes fell lifeless to the ground even before I had seen Doomsday. I hunch over the keyboard, unsettled by the grotesque prospect of it. There lay old Red and Blue, motionless and blinking. I thought this to be an incredible feat of power, to stand head to head with Superman and deal such a deathblow. I knew the game centered on Superman’s death but this obviously came a bit too early. My eyes quickly darted across the screen in search of the culprit and to my surprise this shocking turn of events was not the responsibility of a powerful entity, some cosmic super villain like Darkseid or even of the Cyborg traitor.
It was by a faceless, generic, chainsaw-wielding street thug.
Called “ChainSaw…” who was a palette swap of another enemy in the level… level where punks can harm Superman by driving motorcycles against him… Superman, who needs to punch these punks about seven times before they die… punks who will damage Superman as much as falling rocks in other levels.
And there it was, the concept of character another casualty. And this is completely indefensible – Blizzard could promote challenge in many ways without simultaneously removing one of the core ideas behind the character and short changing players. There’s an abundant amount of source material in the John Byrne era that achieves this with amazing simplicity and freshness, for instance, one which any developer interested in making more than a quick ‘n dirty cash-in could use as inspiration. The pointless panoply of dumb faceless grunts, street thugs and bland robots that plague this game only show that Blizzard just didn’t know what to do with the hero other than force it into a boring character that would feel more at home in a beat-’em-up of the late 80’s. But even those willing to get past this glaring omission and give the game a shot will still have to contend with other problems.
Chief among them is the level structure. Levels in Death and Return are less about conscious design and more about an accident of circumstance. Blizzard certainly had plenty of material to draw from but favoured slightly-above-8-bit minimalism lacking in intensity instead. City streets, construction sites, underground complexes and ruined landscapes at least give the enjoyable illusion that they can be exciting given their comic book heritage – yet here, they are so uninspired and washed out, so bereft of environmental interactivity, so agonizingly filled with enemy rehashes as to virtually feel one big, disconnected map. There’s a twinge of variety in the form of side-scrolling shooting levels mixed in with the beat-’em-up phases where one of the Supermen will fly across the screen and shoot enemies. But with the exception of the last of these, they are all shamelessly the exact same – right down to the type of enemy sprites used and their patterns.
The fighting is a no-frills setup: there are standard melee blows, along with grapples and throws,and projectile and special attacks for every character. There are no combos but multiple ways of tossing enemies around is present even if there is no difference between them. Projectile attacks are quite negligible and are barely worth using – things like heat vision or force bolts barely register in enemy life bars and have ridiculous stopping power. The most powerful attack is your run-of-the-mill area-based attack which pretty much defeats everything in sight and can – much like health – be recharged by power-ups strewn across levels. At least the ability to fly is shared between all Supermen, even if rather limited: it’s either mandatory to overcome arbitrary obstacles or restricted to the amount of vertical scrolling allowed in a level. An opportunity to make all the characters distinct enough, even if only through combat moves, is wasted: all Supermen play exactly the same with aesthetics being the only real difference.
Being that the game is a comic book tie-in, there are attempts to convey a story – even if fleeting – through artwork directly lifted from the source material which, while adequate, remains poorly used. Large panels show character portraits or stills when it’s time to give a semblance of story but often to ludicrous results. Why is Superboy pointing to the symbol on his suit with a smug look while warning the heroes a bomb headed towards Metropolis must be stopped? Why does the Cyborg Superman look like he’s getting ready for a boxing match every time he needs to do a typical villain’s exposition? Unsurprisingly, most of it feels like an afterthought and it applies just as well to the game.
While Death and Return clearly tries to win by merits of its license there’s nothing particularly edgy or appealing in its contrived presentation. It could be reasoned that the game is at least average – and average is not necessarily a bad place to be – but it never makes up for it in any other area. The large colourful sprites are let down by embarrassing animations while the music and sound are grating and lacking in “oomph.” The surprising lack of multi-tap support for any kind of co-op or special modes is the final nail in the coffin of longevity. Overall, it never strays from the formula of “go right, punch enemy” nor does it ever challenge the player in any good way. It never surprises the player; it only insults him. An electric trap in the very first level doesn’t even need to be jumped or flown over – you can just walk around it effortlessly. While controlled by the player, the Cyborg Superman can fly or hover above enemies; but when we confront him he will never fly or use any attacks to bring you down – meaning you can stay in the air indefinitely.
And this is not being average – it’s being plain bad.
Maybe diehard fans of the DC Comics powerhouse will find The Death and Return of Superman a fair example of license goodness, even if it cannibalizes the license in the worst way possible. Maybe the more forgiving among us will cite technological limitations as an excuse for the slapdash presentation and clumsy gameplay. But those who are uncolored by the tint of nostalgia will definitely find there’s more to chew on in the Streets of Rage series, the short but sweet Hyperstone Heist or the superlative Comix Zone. Otherwise just stay away from this piece of gaming Kryptonite.
SCORE: 4 out of 10