Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #24


Before the time I was finally convinced that video games were a medium worth my serious emotional investment, my heart belonged elsewhere. Namely, it belonged to the worlds of monsters and superheroes--two things I was always writing about or using as the basis for my art projects. I've blathered on about my obsession with the former in past blog posts, so I'll add here that I was also passionate about the superheroes from the Marvel and DC universes. In school, I was known as the "superhero" guy, that weird kid who'd spend the duration of entire classes filling the back pages of his notebook with drawings of all those characters from the comic books. 

My affection ran deep: I religiously watched the Super Friends cartoon and live-action TV shows like The Incredible Hulk. I loved the 1960's Batman series and saw every episode multiple times over. I had dozens of action figures from the Super Powers and Secret Wars toy collections, and I was always sending my father out all over Manhattan looking for the coveted figures that appeared on the back of the boxes but never seemed to turn up in stores--particularly the expanded-roster set for Super Powers that included the likes of Captain Marvel (misnamed as "Shazam"), Plastic Man and those unfamiliar-but-nevertheless-cool-looking characters like Cyborg and Mr. Miracle. Considering the amount of times he came up empty, I started to believe that most of them didn't actually exist. But that didn't bother me too much; there were, after all, so many other outlets through which I could familiarize myself with all of those wonderful new superheroes who I was certain would be joining Batman, Spider-Man, Darkseid, Daredevil and the rest on my list of favorites.

Of course, there was also Superman, who was a special case: I didn't care much for how he was presented in cartoons and comic books (I found him to be stereotypically bland and overpowered), but his silver-screen portrayal was more memorable to me than any other the superhero I would ever know. Christopher Reeves put in terrific performances in what I considered to be two of the most entertaining, re-watchable movies ever made: Superman and Superman II, which were household favorites and forever stood at the forefront of our Betamax and VHS libraries. More so than what I'd seen in the cartoons, I learned most of what I knew about the character through these movies, which painted a portrait of an endearing hero who was fallible and had a clear human side.

That more than anything else was why I was so drawn to his video games, like Superman for the 2600, which everyone else seemed to hate, and the coin-op title of the same name, which was a mainstay in most every arcade I'd frequent. (I'm not even going to talk about that hideous NES title, which none of us could ever make sense of.)

Now, when I inserted that first quarter into the machine, I wasn't quite sure what Superman was going to be about. It appeared to be an action game, but the demo gave me no indication of who would be waiting for me at the end. It couldn't have been that generic-looking green monkey guy who was holding Earth in the palm of his hand, I figured, so it had to be Lex Luthor, Zod or even that electric dude from Superman IV (which we'll also never speak about again). My conjecture was cut short--my attention forcibly grabbed--by the game's intro, which featured an absolutely rousing digital recreation of the Superman theme as accompaniment to an animation sequence of Clark Kent changing into his Superman outfit while on the move. "What an amazing opening!" I continued thinking as the game thrust me into action, the hovering Superman holding his fist to the air, ready to pound the besieging forces of ... whoever.

Suddenly, it really didn't matter to me who I was fighting--that stirring intro had me too pumped to care! I was content to let the powerful approximation of John Williams' musical score, which was now reverberating throughout the entire arcade, augment my every input as I flew forward and punched out those scores of yellow and red costumed goons. I don't know why it was there, but the stage also had a large steel fence obstructing the way forward, the game excitedly encouraging me to "Break!" it (maybe the "Man of Steel" was jealous?); I was happy to oblige, if not to continue satisfying my adrenaline rush then to avoid being done in by a fence. The music grew even more riveting as I transitioned into the third area of the stage, whence the game hit me with another powerful, energetic rendition of one of the theme's movements--the Wish I Could Fly portion, which elicited goosebumps just as it did in the movie.

I don't remember how far I got into Superman that day or how many quarters I spent on it, but I know that the game's opening stage left an impression on me so indelible that I couldn't stop thinking about it the entire week. 

Future sessions with Superman confirmed what I suspected--that its actual gameplay didn't exactly set my world on fire--but man that music was still awesome. Even if I didn't enjoy playing it that much, I'd always throw at least one quarter Superman's way whenever I'd see the arcade unit, just to relive that opening stage and absorb the music's energy (you can debate whether or not that was a fiscally brilliant decision); I'd think about it all the time, particularly when I'd be ride around with my father and fall into a daydream, to which Superman's digitized music was the perfect complement. It's the only thing keeping the game relevant in my mind 27 years later.

Oh, it's not that the game isn't any good; it actually pretty decent. Though, for the amount of gameplay variety it advertises early on, it disappointingly settles into a clear formula. That is, each of its five "rounds" is broken up into three predictable segments: A horizontally scrolling fighting scene, a vertically scrolling fighting scene, and a horizontally scrolling shooter-style scene in which Superman abandons close-quarters combat in favor of eye lasers and charge shots. Compounding the problem is that you fight the same two or three enemies over and over again, including bosses, with the slim selection of newly introduced foes being mere palette swaps of those you've already faced; the action grows wearily repetitive by Round 3, when it becomes obvious that there's not much more to see beyond the game's scenery, which is fun to look at early on with its layered, scrolling cityscapes and urban settings (including the always appreciated chain of Asian restaurants) but grows more mechanical and dull as you advance.

I didn't get too many chances to experience as much, but Superman was much more fun when I could get a friend to join me. At the least, it made for a much more visceral experience, since there was always something entirely exhilarating about two pals fiercely, desperately pounding away at a control panel as if their lives depended upon the in-game result. Also, it gave us a chance to put into action the "second Superman," whose existence we couldn't explain. Though, it essentially made my life when I realized years later that he was donning the red and yellow colors of Captain Marvel, Superman's closest DC equivalent, with whom I've had a strange fascination stretching back to the Super Powers days. I was never going to get a hold of his action figure, I'd conceded, so taking control of a reasonable analog in an arcade game was about as close as I was going to get.

It was a repetitive game, yeah, but also what I'd call "reliable," a safe choice whenever we'd already hit up the usual suspects (WWF Superstars, Ninja Gaiden, Street Smart and the like) and were looking for a machine to drop our remaining quarters into before heading home. A dollar was usually enough to get us through that first stage, which was by far the best part of Superman. I'm confident in declaring as much even though I never saw the last half of the game, nor did I ever discover the identity of the game's main villain. Considering what I saw in the play-through that yielded all of these screenshots, it doesn't look like I missed very much. Well, except for maybe the flying bunny women, who at least served as a helpful reminder that Japanese developers are insane.

That, I think, is the best description of Superman the arcade the game: Reliable and complementary. It wasn't faster than Teenange Mutant Ninja Turtles. It didn't have the strength of Final Fight. And it couldn't leap tall buildings like Shinobi. But it played its role well and for a single quarter provided pretty fair entertainment value when you needed a solid capper to any arcade visit. That counts for a lot.

And what can I say about that music, man? It may not color my daydreams like it used to, but Superman's resounding melodies will always play an important part in shaping my memories of those greatly missed arcades.

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