The Death of Superman was to comics what E.T. was to videogames. The lie of Superman’s death was a publicity stunt that nearly single-handedly destroyed the industry. Sure, in the short-term it was a roaring success – Kal-El’s impending doom made front page news across the globe; people came in droves to line up for a polybagged copy of Superman #75; people who previou$ly had no intere$t in comic$ what$oever, or people who hadn’t picked up a comic book in year$. “I’ll be filthy, stinking rich!” the Western hive-mind exclaimed with dollar-signs in its eyes ($)($).
Thing is, everybody bought it, and DC re-printed it until it stopped selling. The collected graphic novel is arguably the best-selling graphic novel of all time. Imagine everyone’s disgust when they could only sell their unread(!) copy at cost if it was a first printing. By the end of 1993, the overall unit sales of comics plummetted by 80 percent. Ten years earlier, Atari is burying twenty truckloads of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial cartridges in an El Paso landfill.
16 years later, I am playing The Death and Return of Superman: The Videogame. It too is a lie. Superman is not super. Sure, he can fly, and shoot lasers from his eyes, but two-bit thugs can kill him with chainsaws and molotovs. What are they, kryptonite chainsaws? Molotovs lit by the fires of a red sun? Where’s the frost-breath, Supes?
That was my heart-rate the entire time I played this game. The kick at the end was when I stopped playing, and the paramedics came in to revive me. (I’m a method reviewer. It didn’t seem right to critique The Death and Return of Superman without having first experienced my own death and return.) This game had none of the dramatic weight of that event or the original comic book story. I know I already expended two paragraphs on how ill-advised that particular marketing ploy was, but that doesn’t mean the story wasn’t worth reading. It wasn’t well-written by any means, but it held a certain Rocky-like charm: clumsy dialogue, but with a powerful story arc.
This is not the Rocky of Videogames. I scrolled from left to right, punching just to get to the end of the level (then again, maybe it is the Rocky of Videogames). When I reached the end-of-level boss, I thought to myself, finally, a challenge to stir me, Superman, from my catatonic state! But it was not to be. The boss was even easier, because he’s just as dumb as his minion soldiers, except he’s on his own with a longer life bar. Even Doomsday himself fails to be an imposing figure. Come on, this is the bone-crushing entity that killed Superman! At least the test-tube enemies (from the lab at the end of all worlds that populate all side-scrolling beat ’em ups) have the good sense to gang up on you. These punks must be feeling pretty damn lucky. Lucky that Supes’ heat vision is useless; lucky they’re so damn high they can’t feel their ribcages splinter from the very first punch; lucky that somehow this invulnerable being from the planet Krypton has a finite life gauge.
Surely The Man of Tomorrow is more inventive than this. Did someone forget that this is the man who contrives getting trapped in cabinets, stuck in elevator doors, tripping over steps, and missing the train at least three times a week just to avert suspicion that Clark Kent may be Superman? Give the man an industrial drainpipe so he can bend it around his foes; let him use the chainlink fence to form a punk-enclosure; hell, even something obvious like using heat-vision to make them drop their weapons, or freeze-breath to make them slip on the pavement. Truth is, these guys wouldn’t stand a chance – they’d all be tied up, gagged and delivered to the local police station within the hour – but if you want The Man of Steel to go toe-to-toe with mere mortals, then I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to come up with a pseudo-scientific way of making him un-Steel.
I guess what it boils down to is that I cannot imagine John Williams’ stirring Superman Theme accompanying this game, and that’s the biggest condemnation I can possibly give it. Or how about this: the game was released by Blizzard Entertainment. It’s probably the best Superman game ever made, and that’s just damning it with faint praise.
Nobody believes in character deaths anymore; there will always be a resurrection. Don’t resurrect this game, let it stay in its musty tomb. Play Streets of Rage instead if you must. Or read the graphic novel – the industry can take it now.