I am told by an actual comic book fan that the general rule is DC will do just about anything to make money. When they’re not busy rebooting one (or all) of their major series, they’re thinking up some gimmick to stay relevant – the most notorious of which was 1992’s Death of Superman. The media ran with the story like it was an actual event – apparently killing Superman is one step shy of killing America – and for a time, general interest in comics spiked. The controversy came when DC didn’t follow through. Superman was magically resurrected like nothing happened, and thousands of collectors who thought they were buying a piece of history found their Superman #75 was worth, roughly, the same as a roll of toilet paper.
Blizzard and SunSoft were super-big fans of making money too, so 1994’s Death and Return of Superman ties together the comics’ year-long story thread into a standard arcade-style brawler. In theory, it’s not a bad idea. In the comic storyline, four pseudo-Supermen show up after Supes’ demise, which gives you four (five, counting the original) different takes on the character to play as. There’s also no shortage of story to tell, and plenty of levels to pull together from that story. You don’t really even need to be a Superman fan to follow and understand Doomsday’s assault and the aftermath as presented in the game.
First off – and we have to get it out of the way – Superman is indeed harmed by mundane attacks in this game. He will take damage from molotov and chainsaw-wielding goons (named “Molotov” and “ChainSaw,” respectively), laser blasts, claws, industrial wrecking balls – you get the idea. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but without this concession, there simply would be no game. And would it really even matter if they explained it somehow? An early cutscene of Lex Luthor slipping kryptonite into Superman’s morning coffee, perhaps? If this really bothers you, I’m sure there’s an invincibility cheat that can make the experience more authentic.
As if to counter this, you do have the full and unrestricted ability to fly. Double tapping the jump button will launch any of the five Supermen into the air, where they will stay and float around at your command. There’s no “stamina” bar to limit your time up there, and ground enemies will not be able to hit you. However, this is balanced by its pointlessness – you can’t attack ground enemies from the air either. This makes flight only useful to attack other flying foes, or perhaps to escape and catch a breather if you get surrounded. It also means you’ll have no platform challenges to deal with, since you can simply hover past any gaps or electrical traps in the floor.
Flying also allows for a few scrolling shooter interludes between levels. These are very basic, and consist of only a few enemy types appearing in easy-to-blast patterns. You’re temporarily granted infinite, rapid-fire energy attacks, and there are plenty of health powerups passing by, so these levels aren’t remotely difficult. They are a fun, brief distraction though. The biggest payoff is allowing you (as Superboy) to chase down the missile fired from Engine City and destroy it – a fun and fitting level.
Combat is straightforward, and all of the playable characters control identically. Each has their own unique combo string with multiple taps of the attack button, so there’s some visual variety with each character change. The X button triggers a screen-clearing attack, which pulls from collectable power orbs instead of sacrificing your health. The A button lets you charge up and fire a ranged attack. You’re also able to jump and perform a diving strike, as well as grab and throw nearby enemies. Enemies can also be tossed into the background, damaging it Batman Returns style, which sometimes shakes loose some health and special attack powerups.
Here’s where the flaws start to pile on. The standard attack combo is different for each character, but it’s also all you’ve got. Many beat-em-ups supplement the basic attack with weapons to collect, but you’ll get no such items here. You have no alternate attacks, like button combos for sweeps or 360-degree clears, and no situational attacks, such as grabbing two guys on either side and bashing them together. It really is just that basic combo string, all the time. The special is too limited to use often, and the ranged attack is noticeably crippled by a long charge time and weak damage. It’s more of a brief stun than anything, and only useful for knocking enemies off bikes or other vehicles. I guess they were afraid you’d hang back and spam it if it was too useful.
This underscores the major complaint with Death and Return – a simple lack of variety. There are only about three “groups” of enemies, with two or three types within. The guards during Cyborg Superman’s raid on Cadmus are identical to Mongul’s forces raiding Coastal City. Every gang in the Metropolis street levels is made up of the same two clones of Molotov and ChainSaw. I suppose there were some limitations here based on the source, but that doesn’t explain why there couldn’t have been more enemy types within those gangs or armies, or different art for, you know, the invaders from another world.
There’s also some basic mechanical issues with the “feel” of the combat. For one, you cannot attack multiple enemies in front of you – a brawler staple – so you’ll only damage one guy out of cluster of three, while the two slightly above and below him are free to attack you without retaliation. You also can’t break a combo string quickly or easily, so it’s difficult to stop attacking one guy if you see a ranged blast heading your way. This is all pretty basic brawler stuff, and lacking it makes Death and Return feel sluggish and unpolished.
Graphics look great though, no doubt. Character sprites are large and detailed (you can even spot enemies like the goat man change their expression when grabbed). Animation on each of the Supermen is smooth and distinct, and each has a different fighting “style.” Enemy animation seems a little weaker, possibly because their background/foreground movements are too frequent and random, giving a cardboard cutout appearance. Still, strong, colorful work overall. Backgrounds are equally beautiful and detailed, with plenty of layers (though perhaps too much in the foreground in some levels). Music is unobtrusive, but with only one theme per character, you’re going to be hearing the same background tunes quite often.
There are 10 levels in total and no saves or passwords, so you’ll have to beat this in one sitting. If you’re up for it, it shouldn’t be much of a task. Enemy attacks do a lot of damage to you, but they’re easily avoided as long as you’re not spamming the attack button. Your throws are fairly overpowered and easy to pull off, and every enemy – including bosses – can be walked right up to at a diagonal angle. Flying enemies and their rapid fire lasers are fairly devastating when you’re on the ground, but easy enough to chase down and pummel from the air. A maximum of four enemies on the screen at once also keeps everything quite manageable. There are no difficulty levels though, so replayability is questionable.
Death and Return of Superman isn’t an easy one to call, because it’s not a bad game. In fact, it’s one of the best Superman games yet made. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much – and there’s certainly lots of room for improvement here. It retells and pulls from the Death of Superman series well, but astoundingly repetitive enemies and attacks don’t do Supes justice. Fairly average brawler overall, and games like Batman Returns (SNES) or Maximum Carnage are much better choices if you’re not specifically out to play as The Man of Steel.
Good choice of storyline to use – getting to play as five different versions of Superman is a great draw. Fun, if a little bland. Smashing people into the background never gets old. Infinite flight, while not useful, is appreciated.
Only a handful of reused enemies across the whole game. Some mechanical issues that don’t make you as fluid a fighter as you are in other brawlers. Ranged attack is unnecessarily worthless.
“It takes more than power to be Superman. It takes humanity and compassion.” – Steel