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Superman (Atari VCS, 1979)

Mezrabad

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[b]Superman (Atari VCS, 1979)[/b] :cool:

[i]"He turns all of his injuries into strengths, that which does not kill him makes him stronger, he is superman." -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche[/i]

This isn't really a review, but rather, a highly academic look at the social implications of the Atari VCS game, [i]Superman[/i]. Really, if you haven't played it, you'll be [i]completely[/i] lost and I recommend you go back to your little emulator or your actual console, if you even [i]have[/i] one, and go [s]play[/s]experience this game. What follows, is an [i]extremely[/i] erudite discussion of the material and it presumes some familiarity with the selection on the part of the reader. So, go do your homework!

C'mon, any writing that starts out with a Nietzsche quote has to be as pretentious as hell, doesn't it? :) Okay, let me set a more appropriate tone with a different quote:

[i]"I wish I had a kryptonite cross, because then you could keep both Dracula AND Superman away." - Jack Handy [Deep Thoughts][/i]

That quote doesn't really represent my feelings about the game, but it sets a better tone.

Rather than "review" [i]Superman[/i], I'm going to talk about why it's a special game -- not as special as other games to come, but pretty darn special regardless.

To pre-summarize:

1. It has an identifiable character
2. It has a story
3. Multi-screen world
4. Movie Coincidence

[b]#1 - It's the first home videogame having a protagonist with an identity that existed outside the videogame in which it appears.[/b]

Videogames have been offering people the chance to pretend to be something else for about six years (speaking from 1979). One may play games which allow them to be airplane pilots, sky divers, race car drivers, players of professional sports, spaceship pilots, helicopter rescue pilots, generals, submarine commanders, tank commanders . . . the list goes on and on. Since 1972 we've played dozens of different games that either gave us control of a generic vehicle or object with a specific function (flying, shooting, deflecting) or a generic person in a specific occupation (see previous list).

[i]Superman[/i] was the first time a videogame player could control, and thus, essentially, [i]become[/i] a specific identifiable character. Not just [i]any[/i] character; a [i]superhero[/i]! Not just any superhero; Superman!

We get to fly, have super-strength and use x-ray vision the way Superman would use them and certainly not the way we'd all probably like to use them. Particularly the x-ray vision.

Forget about any complaints one might have about the gameplay, about the flickering graphics or about the slightly confusing city layout. We're talking about the chance to [i]be[/i] Superman in a videogame! The value of this can only be slightly overstated, but not by much.

[b]#2 - It's the first home videogame with a story, simple though it may be. [/b](No, [i]Breakout[/i]'s "story" doesn't count.)

The bridge has been destroyed! Lex Luther and his gang are getting away! I must reassemble the bridge and catch the bad guys! Damn helicopter, stop taking my bridge pieces (*grab*shake-shake-shake-shake-shake*)! Beware the Kryptonite Satellites! Beep-beep-beep-BONG! Crap I've lost my powers! Lois!...Lois?

Drama, comedy [i]and[/i] romance, right there amongst the blocky, blinky sprites.

Seriously, well, no, but let me say that [i]Superman[/i] [u]is[/u] practically [i]literature[/i] compared to any home videogame before it. Truth! Justice! Restoration of superpowers (i.e. "potency") through overtly sexual behavior! The American Way! It's all that and a bag of Pop Rocks.

[b]#3 - First multi-screen virtual world in a home videogame.[/b]

This is the first game where you have to know your way around more than one screen and understand how each screen connects to the others. I tried to draw a map of this world recently but in the middle of doing so I remembered my old adage: [b]"There's USUALLY a bigger geek."[/b]

Indulge me my tangent.

It's important to realize, that somewhere out there in the world there's most likely someone who has already done something similar to what you're thinking of doing and posted it on the introntronet. Now, I'm not saying this happens 100% of the time, but when most of us come up with an idea based on popular culture (i.e. something that millions of others have also seen), the probability is close to 1.000 that someone else has done something similar before we even thought of it, and in some cases they've gone an extra mile or so beyond what we'd have been willing to do.

For example: [i]Chronogaming[/i]. Could I really be the first nutjob to say "hey, I'm going to sit down and play every single home videogame ever released; I'm going to do it in chronological order AND I'm going to write about it in a blog!" ?

Okay, maybe I am. Bad example.

Anyway, as I started to draw my map of the world of [i]Superman[/i], I realized that surely [i]someone[/i] had already done so and had probably done a much better job than I was planning to do. Of course, I was right.

[url="http://www.atariage.com/2600/images/supermap.gif"]Maurice Molyneaux's Supermap of Superman[/url] <--[b]Warning! Spoiler![/b];)

So, as you can see, [i]Superman[/i]'s world is not limited to one screen. This world is a [i]mosaic[/i], if you will, of multiple screens; a dense tapestry of images woven into the cartridge to become a "real" imagined place that we can navigate in our minds! Um, yeah, that sounded really "gay" (to use an expression from the era) but I'm one of those writers that hates to edit because I'd rather spend a lifetime wincing at what I've written.

[b]#4 - First home videogame with an apparent connection to a movie.[/b]

[i]Superman: The Movie[/i] was released on my birthday in 1978 (I turned 11, that day). [i]Superman: The Cartridge[/i] came out some[i]when[/i] in 1979. Was it a licensed tie-in to the movie? Well, not this time. Was it pretty good timing on Atari's part? Yah, you betcha.

Have I left anything out? Probably, but I've blathered on enough. I'm almost done.

[i]Superman[/i] for the Atari VCS is the melding of two popular youth pastimes -- comic books and videogames -- for the first time. More importantly, it represents the germ of the start of storytelling using the home videogame medium.

Was the game fun? Well, this isn't really a review, this is more of a commentary on what [i]Superman[/i] represented as an edifice in the cultural landscape of Videogames ([i]um, yeah[/i]), but I will say that it was fun for [i]me[/i]. I won't do anything so [i]pedestrian[/i] as to actually [i]rate[/i] it. Oh, okay, I've given it a cool smiley. :cool: Happy now?

Personally, I think it's a great game and probably one of my Top 10 favorite Atari VCS games if I were a person to make such a list. I am sad to say that my son didn't really get into it as much as I had hoped he would. However, I was [i]astonished[/i] by how quickly he picked up on the whole world map pattern, the subway system shortcuts and how to effectively use the x-ray vision to avoid Krypton Satellites and to find criminals, the bridge pieces and Lois. Smart boy, mine. :D

I'm not sure what we'll play next. We'll try something a little more mundane, [i]Bowling[/i], perhaps? [color="#FFFFCC"]7752[/color]


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Mmmm... Pop Rocks!

Was SuperMan the first game with a female sprite in it? Or at least the first one where the female sprite was kind of hot?

I mean... a hot reporter. It's a comment made with all due respect to her journalistic abilities, and isn't meant to be salacious.

Although that [i]is[/i] a pretty short skirt, y'know. :)

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Great entry!

Superman is a brilliant game and among my Top-3 VCS games. Sadly, most reviews I've read woefully underrate it.

One other aspect of the game that I think is worth noting is that Superman features a dynamic game world where events continue to occur off-screen. Were there any such games before Superman?

The timer was also an inspired addition. It gives the game nearly infinite replay value.

I also love the little touches in the game, like the cinematic prelude where you witness the bridge blow up as Clark and then you have to run to the phone booth to change into Superman.

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[quote name='Christophero Sly' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 2:44 PM']
One other aspect of the game that I think is worth noting is that Superman features a dynamic game world where events continue to occur off-screen. Were there any such games before Superman?
[/quote]

You're right! I forgot about that.

Hmmm, that actually makes it a little disturbing to me when I find 'ol Lex and Lois hanging out in the Subway together. Just what "exactly" happens while they're off screen?

I like the cinematic touches, too. For some reason, I also like that the you start the game as Superman, witness the trouble as Kent, save the day as Superman, but then have to change back into Kent and go back to work. There's something almost literary there, too, though I'm probably reading too much into it.

[quote name='Nathan Strum' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 2:31 PM']
Was SuperMan the first game with a female sprite in it? Or at least the first one where the female sprite was kind of hot?[/quote]

Hey, you're right, in fact, she sizzles! I mean, she's probably the first overtly female sprite! Though she isn't the first female in home videogames.

[url="http://www.atariage.com/forums/index.php?automodule=blog&req=attach&id=123"]Simon Says . . . click here![/url]
(though if you find the female to be 'hot' you should probably keep it a secret. :) )

[quote name='jboypacman' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 3:45 PM']
You just made me want to go and play Superman on my 2600!
[/quote]

:) Up, up and away! (Well, that's what [i]I[/i] say after the quick change in the phone booth.)

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[quote name='Christophero Sly' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 2:44 PM']Sadly, most reviews I've read woefully underrate it.[/quote]

I think I'd like the game better if there were some clear logic to the arrangement of the screens. For example, the three exits to each subway could all have different colors, while the four subways could share a shape for each exit (e.g. so the right exit of the red subway would go to a red-sky "two billboards" screen, the right exit of the yellow subway would go to a yellow-sky "two billboards" screen, etc. Alternatively (or perhaps in combination with the idea) the map could be constructed on a grid of six to eight colored streets which would wrap at the left and right edges. Thus, a player who learned the sequence of colors (perhaps ROYGBIV) would be able to tell at a glance which street he was on.

Having streets which wrap to themselves at the left and right edges would require having some way for Clark Kent to move north/south, but I don't think it should be a problem to have selected blocks where that's possible.

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[quote name='supercat' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 10:06 PM']
[quote name='Christophero Sly' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 2:44 PM']Sadly, most reviews I've read woefully underrate it.[/quote]

I think I'd like the game better if there were some clear logic to the arrangement of the screens.
[/quote]

I don't disagree, there [i]is[/i] a lack of elegance to the map layout. As it is, the only way one may improve their time in it seems to be to brute force their way through learning the shortest paths.

But hey! Who cares? We get to be Superman! :) (Woooosh!)

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[quote name='supercat' date='Thu Jan 11, 2007 9:06 PM']I think I'd like the game better if there were some clear logic to the arrangement of the screens.[/quote]
I understand what you're saying about the confusing layout of the game world. Likewise, most of the reviews I've read stress this aspect of the game as the primary reason for their negativity. However, I think the non-linearity of the game is one of its greatest strengths. Requiring the player to construct a mental map that accounts for the all the geographic peculiarities of the game makes the game world feel much larger than it would if the player could simply rely on their instinctual sense of 2-d navigation. Remember, it's a timed game and learning to navigate the complex geography of the game with temporal efficiency adds an additional level of depth to the gameplay. If the game world was linear and one could simply rely on an instinctual sense navigation, a significant and challenging element of the gameplay would be completely lost.

One other aspect of the game that I want to mention is that the player actually has two separate tasks in the game:

1. Capture Lex and his gang of hoodlums and place them in jail.
2. Gather and reassemble the three pieces of the bridge.

However, these two tasks actually work at cross purposes to one another because if you spend your time rounding up Lex and his gang, the helicopter has an opportunity to rearrange the location of the bridge pieces. If you concentrate on rebuilding the bridge, Lex and his gang have time to disperse to the far corners of the city. A gameplay element of this type being present in a 4K game from 1979 is nothing short of astonishing.

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[quote name='Christophero Sly' date='Fri Jan 12, 2007 11:09 PM']However, I think the non-linearity of the game is one of its greatest strengths. Requiring the player to construct a mental map that accounts for the all the geographic peculiarities of the game makes the game world feel much larger than it would if the player could simply rely on their instinctual sense of 2-d navigation.[/quote]

I agree that the game probably would be rather dull if it were a 6x6 grid with one subway entrance on the third block of each row and subway exits that always went to the second, forth, and sixth blocks. But my feeling is that the game should have some regularity in how the city graphics relate to either the main map or the subway. I also tend to dislike games where for no logical reason going in one direction and then back leaves you in some other spot. Having irregularities for the phone booth and bridge rooms is probably okay, but I would think that the north/south links from those rooms should then point to each other, though perhaps Joe Dunn was trying to hasten the dispersal of the villains from the bridge room.

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Holy crap! This is the BEST of the BEST Chronogamer articles I have ever read! OMG! OMG! OMG! Thanks you! I love reading pieces that aren't really reviews but a tribute to the writer's favorite things. You gave life to this game that no other review could give no matter how well written. This article does an excellant job of explaining to gamers why we love video games so much.

What made the article, of course, was this line:

" I'm one of those writers that hates to edit because I'd rather spend a lifetime wincing at what I've written."

:)

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I played Superman a couple of months back, and I was very excited. From the screenshots, I immediately knew this represented something remarkable. Some of the things you mentioned were very clear even before playing it: first game with multiple screens and first game with a proper story and role for the player. I was on for an adventure!

But then I played it and all I could think of was how such a missed opportunity this was. Seems like they wanted to do so much with this game (and they did!) that none of the things worked very well independently when compared to other games. The graphics are OK for the most part, but some rooms/sections are very weak and there's all that flickering, the gameplay is good but suffers a lot from the navigation department (as supercat nicely put), and we're back to a game with sound annoying as hell, which is so 1978 now.

I must point out as well what supercat said: it's ultra weird that if you go up on a screen and down on the next, you don't end up where you started. Strike that out, it's not weird. It's bad. I'm flying around and in the confusion sometimes I switch screens and can't get back to where I was. It's so annoying, particularly if I had just spotted a piece of the bridge or a baddie. Drove me insane, really.

But I study videogames and so I value all the things this game accomplished and I respect it for those reasons. I just wish I liked the game more. :-/

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