Before superhero games allowed you to fairly accurately recreate your commute to your old job in NYC, they allowed you to experience a sparknotes version of one of the most controversial comic book stories of all time.
Ya know, the death of a Superman.
Released in 1994 for the Super Nintendo, The Death and Return of Superman is a single player beat em up that recounts the 90’s DC comic of Superman’s infamous battle with Doomsday, his apparent death/resurrection, and how he grew a killer mullet in the process.
It was developed by Blizzard, of Warcraft fame, and was published by Sunsoft, who had previously published several other licensed games involving properties such as Batman, Superman, and The Looney Tunes, among many others. Around a year after it’s release on the SNES, The Death and Return of Superman was also released on the Sega Genesis and was ostensibly the same game, albeit slightly rougher around the edges, with a smaller color palette, and with what looks like a slightly higher resolution.
Now I’ve always been a bit of a Superman fan; I grew up watching Superman: The Animated Series, the revolutionary Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940s, and I’m also a fan of his various live action film and television incarnations, especially 1977’s Richard Donner’s Superman movie and it’s various sequels. He’s probably my favorite DC superhero and Christopher Reeve’s incarnation of the character is the first thing I think of when I think of superheroes.
So you could say that I actually had some pretty high hopes for this one and was pretty excited to get to play it, especially because the only standalone Superman game I’ve properly played before this one is Superman 64.
And while that sounds like a relatively low bar for this game to clear, I’m gonna be honest with you and say that it isn’t because I kinda like Superman 64. Granted, that’s mostly for nostalgia sake and for the kind of reasons why someone might love a movie that’s played on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 though.
But, is The Death and Return of Superman worth playing? Because, at the risk of spoiling my own review, The Death and Return of Superman is a perfectly fine and playable game, but that doesn’t always necessarily lend itself towards being memorable or even worth a cursory glance.
The Death and Return of Superman takes place across 10 levels, which are traversed by one of five playable supermen, mirroring how several heroes appeared after Superman’s death to try and replace him. These characters are Superman, Superboy, a clone of Clark Kent, Cyborg Superman, who claims to be exactly who his name implies he is and unsurprisingly isn’t, The Last Son of Krypton, who’s also known as The Eradicator, and Steel, who’s ostensibly a Superman version of Iron Man.
Each of them play about the same, with there potentially being some differences between them in terms of their speed and damage, but nothing particularly noticeable outside of them having different special attacks, and the fact that Steel has the most range out of all of them due to his hammer. From there, it’s pretty standard, if not fairly simple, beat em up fare, with the occasional schmup-style level getting tossed into the mix to break up the action. It’s par-for-the-course, but feels pretty good in practice, in part due to the fact that, despite being functionally similar, each of the characters have different animations for their various attacks. Basically, you just go from left to right and mow down hordes of enemies that range from robots, to some demon looking guys, other Supermen, Superman 3 style, and gang members. Normal, non-super, gang members. Against freaking Superman.
Some of the levels also feature hazards that you’re supposed to avoid, such as land mines, falling debris, or a wrecking ball. What’s nice about these hazards is that you can actually use them against some of the game’s bosses, which honestly comes in handy due to how simple the combat feels.
Let’s just get something right out of the way, Streets of Rage, this is not. While that series offers tons of fun and unique combos for each of its characters and gives you an incentive to want to play as one character over another, The Death and Return of Superman makes no attempts to diversify its action out of their special attacks and a few different throws each of the different characters have. The most you get out of this game is the ability to fly at will, which makes disposing of some enemies in the later levels a bit easier, however even that mechanic doesn’t really feel fleshed out.
For most of the game though, you’ll be using the same basic punch combo or grabs on enemies. This wouldn’t really be much of a problem though, if the bosses weren’t so unnecessarily difficult. And the worst part here is that their difficulty isn’t really tied to any fair metric of challenge, either, as they usually do little more than stand over you and spam a standard attack. Instead, their difficulty stems from how easy it is to get you stunlocked due to the lack of invincibility frames in the game. Which is kinda weird when you think about it, seeing as one of Superman’s most well known powers is the superhero equivalent to having a ton of invincibility frames. It really isn’t even a problem outside of the boss battles either, as none of the other enemies in the game even begin to act as aggressively towards you as the bosses do.
For most of the boss battles in this game, all you can really do is brace yourself and spam punches or your special attacks and hope you can make contact with your opponent before he can hit you first.
As far as the difficulty level goes though, The Death and Return of Superman is actually a pretty hard game. Enemies are never that much of a challenge to take down, even in packs, but the games levels tend to drag a bit, which can lead to your lives getting whittled down and you getting a game over just before, or during, one of the boss battles.
While this is somewhat to be expected from the genre, it hardly makes for fair or engaging game design, and leads to the game taking a lot longer to beat than it should. I kid you not, I think I could’ve beaten this game in a third of the time it actually took me had the game just been a bit more liberal with the extra lives and had the game been just a bit easier.
Along your journey, you can recover your health and special attacks by collecting different colored Superman crests scattered throughout each of the stages. Superman’s classic red and yellow crest refills your special attacks, while a blue one lets you regain some of your health. You can also get an extra life through the ever-so-well-labelled 1-up pickup, and each of these can be found either in a part of the stage itself, or hidden behind some of the environment that you can throw enemies into.
In fact, by the end of the game, I actually found myself throwing enemies against the wall of every area I could, because of how badly I needed those extra resources. The game’s design feels like a total war of attrition because of how many enemies it likes to throw at you towards the end of it. You’re expected to go through several screens that have multiple waves of enemies to take on with only a few health pickups along the way and, frankly, it’s fairly demoralizing. If it weren’t for the fact that I wanted to review this game, I likely would’ve turned it off because of that reason alone. Like, yeah, Cyborg Superman’s gone berserk and is gonna destroy the- yada yada yada. There’s a literal Brady Bunch intro of other Super-people out there, ask one of them to figure it out. I’m tired of constantly needing to fight this megolomaniac-Terminator-wannabe and I need a vacation from it all. I don’t have anything against hard games or games with long levels, but after a while I just felt like the game wasn’t doing enough to keep me engaged.
I should probably take a step back here and clarify though since it might sound like I didn’t enjoy this game. I actually did, and had a pretty good time playing it; it’s just that I think that there are some issues with the game that prevent me from having as good a time as I could with it otherwise. For example, even though it’s also a convention found in multiple other beat em ups, the inability to sprint here really slows down the action. As opposed to being able to quickly dart from one side of the screen to the other and, you know, feel powerful as you clothesline an enemy or something, we’re instead stuck doing this smug walk that looks like it’s straight out of The Office.
Likewise, while there are also really fun schmup-style levels in the game, I only remember one of them having a boss battle in it, which even then was fairly lackluster. And that’s a shame because these levels are genuinely a lot of fun and do a good job of breaking up the main style of gameplay, so despite the fact that half the boss battles in this game are already with Cyborg Superman, I actually would’ve loved to see a boss battle or level that revolved around chasing and battling with him in the sky.
When it comes to visuals and presentation, The Death and Return of Superman receives relatively solid marks, despite some obvious room for improvement. What’s on display here is all quite well done and clearly represents what it needs to, but also feels a little plain for my liking. The game’s color palette features a number of different shades and tones for detail, as well as some dithering here and there to get even more mileage out of the hardware, but stops short of being what I’d consider to be “vibrant.” While this was probably an artistic decision to bring the game more in line with the colors used in your average Superman comic or to make it look a little more realistic, it doesn’t particularly work for me and comes across as being a little dull. There also isn’t much, if any, use of some of the Super Nintendo’s sprite rotation and scaling effects which feels like a missed opportunity.
However, the in-game sprites and environments are all fairly detailed and are easy to decipher. Each of the Supermen also have well designed sprites and different animations, which helps give them some defining characteristics. It also certainly helps that each of these characters were well designed in their source material to begin with too, as they all unmistakably look somewhat like Superman, but also look like their own characters at the same time. Except for Steel, due to him being a man in a mechanical suit that looks nothing like Superman, and for Cyborg Superman because he’s a straight up imposter.
Anyway, I’m also a fan of the cutscenes in the game that play between each level. While they obviously compress the events of the Death of Superman and the subsequent Reign of the Supermen story arcs from the comics, they do a good job of keeping the player in the loop about what’s happening and are pretty detailed from an art point of view. I can’t give them too much credit though as the character portraits for each of the characters get recycled multiple times, which cheapens their effect a bit. On some level, I think going with in-game cutscenes with text boxes similar to how RPG’s handle things would’ve worked better here, but whatever.
Overall, The Death and Return of Superman’s visuals get the job done. While they don’t do much that I’d consider out and out impressive, the game clearly illustrates its environment and characters and the inclusion of cutscenes between each level is appreciated. I know I said I’d have preferred for the game to be more colorful and stuff, but that’s just honestly just my preference for how I like my depictions of Superman to begin with, so it hardly factors into my thoughts on what’s objectively on display here.
And the same goes for the games music, which is mostly solid if not a little bland. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the music of The Death and Return of Superman by any stretch of the word, it’s just not the best superhero soundtrack on the console. In fact, it actually sounds more like something you’d hear on the Sega Genesis, if I’m being honest. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the specific soundfont and the different tones being used in the game just feels like it fits in better with the Genesis’ typically grungier sound palette.
While the music lacks some of the Superman punchiness that one might expect thanks to the Christopher Reeve movies and some of the other popular media for the character, what’s available here is appropriate for the visuals, gets the job done, and definitely works. It’s not the games fault that it’s adapting a darker story in the Superman saga to begin with and that the bright and triumphant John Williams’ Superman fanfare is so synonymous with the character. Plus what’s available here is good, even if it doesn’t do a particularly great job of conjuring images of the Man of Steel. It just would’ve been cool to hear the characters iconic fanfare, or potentially even cooler to give each of the different Supermen a theme that tried to feel like royalty free knockoffs of the song. That actually would’ve been pretty fun in execution, I think, seeing as each of the Supermen in the game were ostensibly the RC Cola version of Superman to begin with.
So does The Death and Return of Superman hold up? While it might sound like I didn’t like this game and don’t consider it worth anybody’s time, I actually totally recommend it! There may be a number of better 16-bit entries in the genre, but I still think that this is a fun, relatively short, game and honestly holds up as one of the best Superman titles to date. It’s got detailed graphics, a decent soundtrack, and a seemingly endless horde of enemies that are mostly Cyborg Superman for you to take down. And despite the fact that the game has its fair share of things I would’ve preferred were done a bit differently, what’s on display here is all solid and a lot of fun to play through.
Is it the best Superman game I’ve ever played? Probably, but like I said earlier, I have a weird relationship with Superman 64 that I might have to cover in a future video. What I can say though is that this game is absolutely worth a look, even if a loose copy can go for a bit more than I think it’s personally worth. Still, if you’re a Superman fan, you can’t go wrong with picking this one up for your Super Nintendo.