Superman (Atari VCS, 1979)
"He turns all of his injuries into strengths, that which does not kill him makes him stronger, he is superman." -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
This isn't really a review, but rather, a highly academic look at the social implications of the Atari VCS game, Superman. Really, if you haven't played it, you'll be completely lost and I recommend you go back to your little emulator or your actual console, if you even have one, and go playexperience this game. What follows, is an extremely 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 wish I had a kryptonite cross, because then you could keep both Dracula AND Superman away." - Jack Handy [Deep Thoughts]
That quote doesn't really represent my feelings about the game, but it sets a better tone.
Rather than "review" Superman, 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.
1. It has an identifiable character
2. It has a story
3. Multi-screen world
4. Movie Coincidence
#1 - It's the first home videogame having a protagonist with an identity that existed outside the videogame in which it appears.
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).
Superman was the first time a videogame player could control, and thus, essentially, become a specific identifiable character. Not just any character; a superhero! 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 be Superman in a videogame! The value of this can only be slightly overstated, but not by much.
#2 - It's the first home videogame with a story, simple though it may be. (No, Breakout'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 and romance, right there amongst the blocky, blinky sprites.
Seriously, well, no, but let me say that Superman is practically literature 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.
#3 - First multi-screen virtual world in a home videogame.
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: "There's USUALLY a bigger geek."
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: Chronogaming. 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 Superman, I realized that surely someone had already done so and had probably done a much better job than I was planning to do. Of course, I was right.
Maurice Molyneaux's Supermap of Superman <--Warning! Spoiler!
So, as you can see, Superman's world is not limited to one screen. This world is a mosaic, 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 EDIT 2021: ouch, I swear I'm not a homophobe, we really said that expression a lot back in the day. Very cringe. Sorry End Edit)) but I'm one of those writers that hates to edit because I'd rather spend a lifetime wincing at what I've written. (and boy I did wince now in 2021)
#4 - First home videogame with an apparent connection to a movie.
Superman: The Movie was released on my birthday in 1978 (I turned 11, that day). Superman: The Cartridge came out somewhen 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.
Superman 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 Superman represented as an edifice in the cultural landscape of Videogames (um, yeah), but I will say that it was fun for me. I won't do anything so pedestrian as to actually rate it. Oh, okay, I've given it a cool smiley. 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 astonished 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.
I'm not sure what we'll play next. We'll try something a little more mundane, Bowling, perhaps? 7752