Going back and looking at really old games, sometimes it's amazing to see just what we (as gamers) were willing to put up with. The earliest of video games were grasping to try and give unseen adventures to their audiences, but they were very much limited by the hardware available at the time. Programmers might have wanted to, say, convey the high-flying adventures of SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. or SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. (both of whom received Atarai 2600 games), but there was an obvious struggle to craft something that was playable on early consoles.
Superman on Atari was a game I actually had growing up. I got it from my sisters, who had an Atari 2600 and, I would bet, saw an opportunity to dump this game on me when I was finally old enough to play games. Back that long ago I was a huge Superman fan -- the bold, primary colors, the simple morals, and the fun performances by the likes of George Revees and Christopher Reeves (no relation) made him a hero I wanted to watch. A video game all about Superman was right up my alley. The game, however, was not.
The premise of Superman '79 (a game that came out one year after the Richard Donner Superman) was simple: take Superman and be heroic. As the start you're Clark Kent, mild-manned collection of pixels in a suit. But the second you step one screen over you watch as a bridge gets blown (quite literally) away. To save the day you have to go back over a screen and transform into Superman. Then you need to fly around Metropolis, finding the three pieces of the bridge. Collect them, bring them back to the suddenly open chasm, and assemble them into a bridge. Then you can turn back into Clark and report to your job, ending the game.
While that's the basic idea for the game, in practice Superman '79 is obnoxious to play. To start, you have to find the three pieces of the bridge. While their placement isn't initially random, they will quickly get scattered to the winds if you're not careful. That's because there are two criminals that can really ruin your day -- one in a copter-pack and the other in a helicopter -- and they can grab the bridge pieces, among other things, and move them around the city. If one of your bridge pieces ends up in their hands, who knows where it will end up.
Okay, so obviously what you need to do, then, is take care of the criminals, right? There are five or so in the game, and if you fly into them you can pick them up and carry them back to jail. Easy enough, except flying around Metropolis can be annoying as well. See you can fly not only left and right but also up and down, and if you fly vertically the game will take you over to a cooresponding new area along the linear line of Metropolis. Only annoying thing is this feels like it only works one way; fly down and you'll get warped to a new area, but if you fly up or down from there you aren't transitioned back to where you were before but some other area of the city. If you aren't careful you'll warp yourself away from where you wanted to go and then have to figure out where you are and start the process all over again.
Of course, since this was an early Atari game, it's way too easy to fly off into areas you don't want to go. The top and the bottom of the screen have a zone along them where, if you even get close, you'll get warped around. There are also subway entrances that will act as warps as well, sucking you in if even a tiny part of your pixel gets near their door. Some screens have thin zones on them where you're safe to fly without getting transported -- get too close to the edge of the screen, or any door, and you're back to finding your bearings again.
Worse, you won't always be allowed to fly. As Superman, the only way to carry bridge pieces or criminals is if you have your superpowers. Unfortunately there are random Kryptonite particles that will fly around. Touch one of these (which, again, tends to have a bit of a zone around it where you can be affected) and Superman is suddenly de-powered and unable to do anything. The only way to fix this is to find Lois Lane (who randomly wanders around the game) and get a kiss from her, which (for some reason) removes the effects of Kryptonite. Only problem here is that Lois can be anywhere in the world, and she can get picked up by the flying copters and transported hither and yon. If you're lucky, Lois will be nearby when you get hit by Kryptonite. Sometimes, though, it's taken minutes for me to find her (in a game that you can easily speedrun in five minutes or less if things go right).
And this doesn't even get to the soundscape for the game. When you're walking around, the game makes no noise. Take to the air, though, and you're hit with a constant woom-woom noise as Supes blasts through the air. You can also compound this with the brrrrring noise of a copter when they're on screen, and it's quite te assult on your ears. This is, quite frankly, a game I suggest playing on Mute because actually having to listen to it can be unbearable.
To the game's credit, though, it does look pretty nice for an Atari game. Yes, that is kind of damning the game with faint praise as most Atari games don't have much going for them in the graphics department. Superman here looks pretty nice (even if he is oddly bald and wearing a low-cut suit). Lois, too, looks decent, along with all the criminals. They're blocky and basic, but just detailed enough (by the standards of Atari games) to be recognizable. And the backgrounds are pretty nice. Simple chunks of color that convey the shapes of buildings, but if you can learn the pattern of what colors come in what order you can actually learn nthe layout of Metropolis. Graphically it doesn't hold a candle to anything that would come out even a few short years later, but still, for an Atari game it was decent looking.
And I do have to acknowledge that, as annoying as the game is to play, Superman '79 tried to do something here. If we're being really charitable we can look at this as one of the earliest forms of exploration adventure in graphical form, a kind of proto-proto-proto-Metroidvania, if you will. You have to explore an interconnected world, collecting items to achieve a goal, all while that persistent world continues on even when its elements aren't on screen. For the era it's an impressive feat that speaks to the programmers really wanting this game to be something special. Hell, there isn't even a scoreboard, just a timer, which is a real rarity for games of this time period.
So while I don't think Superman '79 is a great game, it is an interesting technical achievement. It hasn't aged well at all, and feels pretty unplayable at this point... but then, even back in the day it wasn't exactly a treat to get through it. But it did point the way forward for other games to come, a path of exploration and adventure mixed into basic platforming. It does all of this at a very rudimentary level, sure, but the fact that it does it at all is pretty impressive.
Superman '79 isn't fun but it is an interesting curiosity. And, considering how bad most Superman games tend to be, it isn't even the worst game to bear the Man of Steel's likeness, not by a long shot. How sad is that?