Before Overwatch, StarCraft, Diablo, and even Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment and Sunsoft released the video game adaptation of DC Comics’ The Death and Return of Superman saga. While the 1994 Super Nintendo game and its 1995 Sega Genesis port are far from the best side-scrolling beat-em ups, they are the most fun I’ve had playing a Superman video game.
Over the past four decades many game developers have attempted to communicate the unearthly power and majesty of Superman in video game form. Superman: The New Adventures AKA Superman 64, 2006’s Superman Returns, and even 1979’s Superman for the Atari 2600 all tried and failed.
Blizzard Entertainment, along with several other side-scrolling Superman game developers of the 16-bit era, didn’t bother trying. The lack of effort to make Superman anything like himself is what makes the results so charming. Step one: pick a game genre that works with pretty much any character you put in it, like the side-scrolling beat-em up. Step two: put Superman in it. Presto, you’ve got a pretty good game.
Does it matter that Superman, a nigh-impervious alien with infinite strength and durability, has a life bar that mohawk-sporting street thugs can somehow chip away? It does not. Is it hilarious when Superman, a being so powerful he can send planets hurtling through space, has to dodge falling rocks? Yes it is.
What makes Blizzard’s Superman beat-em up stand out is the subject matter. The Death and Return of Superman, which is a very spoilery title, re-tells one of the most popular Superman comic book stories ever written. In an epic battle with the equally powerful Doomsday, Superman seemingly dies. In the weeks following the tragic event, four new playable characters rise to take his place.
There is Cyborg Superman: half Superman, half machine. He looks evil. In an odd turn of events, he is evil. Spoilers.
Then there is the Eradicator, AKA Dickhead Superman, with all the power of Superman, plus he’s a dickhead. I can’t play as Eradicator Superman without imagining him talking like the character in the classic Kids in the Hall sketches. In his defence, he does look super-cool when he performs his personal super move.
John Henry is the most down-to-Earth of the new Supermen. He’s just a guy in a metal suit with a hammer. He’s a steel-driving man. Somehow he got his own movie in 1997, starring Shaquille O’Neal. For some reason eye-witnesses who see John Henry, AKA Steel, assume he is a man made of metal, instead of just a guy wearing a thing. DC civillians are kind of dumb.
Finally we have Superboy, a young clone of Superman created by Project Cadmus, DC’s official evil bioengineering organisation. Superboy, alive for only a few weeks yet somehow already sporting an earring, has absolutely no chill. Look at his super move.
Through ten chapters, three starring the original Superman and seven featuring his stand-ins, The Death and Return of Superman tells the story of the death and subsequent rebirth of Superman. Or at least the game’s cutscenes tell that story. The gameplay is standard beat-em up stuff. Punching, kicking, moving towards the front of the screen to lure baddies into your punches while avoiding their attacks. Supermen fight strange creatures, as well as punks with dyed hair and Ace Hardware weapons, plus the odd armoured soldier, while moving left to right. Would any of these obstacles give a real super person pause? Nope. Does it matter? Not really.
Kudos to Blizzard, fresh off its 1994 name change from Silicon & Synapse, for showing such attention to detail in making the game sprites. You can see Superboy’s earring. You can smell Eradicator’s smugness wafting from the screen. The developer even mixed things up with some flying levels, briefly turning the game into a rudimentary side-scrolling shooter.
I won’t spoil the ending of The Death and Return of Superman. It does that on its own. I will say it’s heartwarming to see so many familiar names scroll by as the end credits roll. Hey kids, it’s Blizzard co-founder and former president Michael Morhaime making music for a Super Nintendo comic book game.
In November of 1994, just a few months after the debut of The Death and Return of Superman, Blizzard released Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, beginning the company’s rise from console game creators to PC game masters. Even though the company’s Superman game wasn’t spectacular, I’ve not played a more enjoyable one since.