The Death and Return of Superman was one of the biggest comic book storylines during the 1990s, even getting news coverage from mainstream media. Even during the time of it’s release, I knew about this video game and even beat the Sega Genesis version back in the day. I remember having a good experience with it, so I was looking forward to revisiting it again.
Will I still enjoy the game years after it’s original release? Let’s answer that today!
The Death and Return of Superman is a single player beat ’em up game. Both the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System were developed by Blizzard Entertainment and published by Sunsoft. Sunsoft was behind the first Superman game released on the Sega Genesis, and I didn’t enjoy that game much. Meanwhile, Blizzard developed Justice League Task Force for the SNES around the same time period, and I also found that game to be lacking. Spoiler alert – I feel the same way about this game.
For better and for worse, this game is a re-telling of both the Death of Superman and the Reign of the Superman comic book storylines. So you’ll not only get to play as Superman, but also as all four of his “replacements”. Yes, you can play as Cyborg Superman, Steel, Superboy, and the Eradicator in this game. This is one of the flaws that I immediately felt. I wish there was an additional mode where you can play through all of the game’s stages with your preferred character.
You start the game with four lives and you can earn more via 1UP powerups. You’ve got a health meter and can get health refills. And as far as I can tell, the game has unlimited continues. Choosing to continue puts you back at the very start of the stage you died in. I think that’s actually how I beat this game – I just kept continuing until I beat a stage until I finally beat all of them. The game doesn’t have any difficulty options, passwords, or save systems, nor the ability to change the number of starting lives. This is another one of these games that you have to beat in one sitting.
Moves and Abilities
All five different characters in The Death and Return of Superman play similarly. The D-Pad moves your character in the stages, which are planes instead of platforms. They attack via punching except for Steel who swings his hammer, and pressing the attack button in succession does a multiple hit combo. It’s a bit lacking, to be honest. I would have wanted a few more attack moves. Everyone can jump and shoot out a projectile. Superman’s projectile is his heat vision while the others shoot energy from their hands.
This does a bit of damage and can’t kill enemies, but it does stun them. There’s a lag to the move though, so it’s hard to use reactively. You’d have to plan it out or else you’ll miss, or get attacked.
After a jump, you can press the attack button to do a diving attack. Everyone has this and the move behaves similarly. This knocks down most enemies but it seems to only hit one enemy at a time though, so don’t expect to knock down an enemy cluster. I’d actually advise against using this on clusters because you’ll be vulnerable to counterattacks.
Pressing the jump button in midair makes your character levitate. You can move in the air via the D-Pad. Sometimes, there are powerups hidden high up in the stages, although there’s really not a lot of exploration in this game. However, one enemy can actually fly, and you’ll be able to do some aerial combat. While levitating, you can’t do diving attacks – you’ll do punches instead. It’s a neat idea, but doesn’t feel fully fleshed out.
Grab This Opportunity
Each of the characters in the Death and Return of Superman play very similar to each other. Aside from Steel having a longer range thanks to his hammer, the only other difference is how they throw enemies. But let me describe how this works first. To grab an enemy, you need to move against it.
Once you’re holding an enemy, you can do five things. Pressing attack breaks the grab and just punches the enemy. Pressing Down and attack will do a multi-hit combo. I don’t know why you’d want to do this, since just punching normally can actually hit clustered enemies.
Pressing Up and attack will throw the enemy into the background. This can destroy some backgrounds, like windows and pipes. Sometimes, there are hidden power ups that you can only get by doing this. Enemies in the path of a thrown enemy can get hit and take damage, too. This is an important move to learn and get used to.
Pressing Back and attack will make your character slam the enemy behind him, except Superboy who falls backward and does a full throw. Pressing Forward and attack will make your character slam the enemy in front of him, usually via a piledriver-style move. Except for Superman and Superboy, who throws the enemy forward.
In early stages, throws are better because you can throw an enemy into others. But later stages will have these teleport pads that will spawn enemies. Destroying them means you’ll have fewer enemies to deal with, but they can only be destroyed by slamming enemies on them. So you really need a good grab game if you want to beat this game.
The Death and Return of Superman has a few sections wherein your character will be flying towards a destination. These sections play like side scrolling shoot ’em ups.
Aside from Superboy’s and Steel’s final stages, these sections play out the same way. Enemies will assault you in fixed patterns. Every now and then, a health refill will show up. You need to get enough health refills and avoid just enough damage to make it to the end of these sections. Superboy’s final stage involves destroying a large missile. Steel’s final stage has him permanently levitating, and in that section, you’ll need to evade stage hazards and fight a boss at the end.
Too Much Return, Not Enough Death
My first complaint about The Death and Return of Superman involves the story that they’re trying to tell. The box art prominently displays Doomsday’s fist punching through a bloody version of the Superman logo, but the “death” part of the story is complete by the end of the second stage. There’s very little build up to Doomsday, and his part in the game is limited to two boss fights against him.
I would have liked a little more emphasis on how much of a threat Doomsday really was. We’re told via a static news report that no one has been able to stop Doomsday, not even the Justice League. In this moment, the game should have shown this via a scene with Doomsday beating up sprites of the Justice League.
I would have also liked to see another Doomsday sprite, with his containment suit still intact. Having Superman battle that version of Doomsday, then having the game show Doomsday getting stronger and his suit getting destroyed, would have given this side of the storyline more impact. The developers could have even given the impression of Doomsday getting stronger by giving earlier versions a limited move set.
Repetitive, Annoying Enemies
During the first stage of this game, I was impressed. You’ll end up fighting the Underworlders as regular enemies and the boss. And that’s what really happened in the comics. I thought that this would be a preview of how fun the enemies are going to be.
But no. Starting from the second stage, you’ll end up facing the same set of enemies over and over. In the Metropolis stages, it’ll always be Molotov and Chainsaw. Molotov throws Molotov cocktails and Chainsaw has a chainsaw. The developers didn’t even bother with palette swaps here.
Outside Metropolis, you’ll fight a set of four enemies. Warworlder flies and will shoot you down if you give it a chance. Destroyer has a rifle and can shoot you from afar. Razorback has a habit of doing a rolling attack. The most annoying of these four is Warbot, who can hit you out of an aerial attack or grab you with his retracting claw. At least these guys come in different colors.
What makes enemies annoying in this game is a combination of the enemy A.I. and the absence of collision mechanics. The enemies in this game are intangible, so it’s hard to get a feel of where they really are physically. It is very hard to tell if you’ll be able to grab them or not. In terms of their behavior, it’s normal for enemies in beat ’em up games to surround you or try to move behind you. But the movement patterns of the enemies in this game are almost humanlike, in the sense that they’re very erratic and hard to anticipate. This makes the game challenging but in an un-fun way.
Visuals, Sound, and Presentation
I liked the graphics of The Death and Return of Superman a lot. All the known character sprites are quite detailed and animated well. Their attacks all look good and satisfying. The main heroes even have win poses at the end of every stage. Stages are also quite detailed, but they suffer from looking the same way all throughout. I was too busy paying attention to the fighting to really notice, however.
As for the sound and music, I have no complaints. All the themes were apt for the situation, including upbeat action oriented tunes for the stages and foreboding music during the cutscenes. Sound effects are excellent, with thuds and thwacks making attacking feel good.
What I really love about The Death and Return of Superman is it’s use of comic book art. Yes, they don’t make use of comic book style panels but that’s okay. I’m able to appreciate these iconic illustrations more, thanks to them being placed against a simple plain black background. These illustrations are a good reminder of how big this storyline was back when these comic books were being released.
Now that I’ve played it the game with more experienced eyes, it’s quite easy for me to see the flaws of The Death and Return of Superman. There are only a few moves that you can do, which feels worse after playing other beat ’em up games on the Sega Genesis like Streets of Rage. You don’t have any control over which character you’ll play as. And the game’s cheap A.I. makes it difficult in a negative way. And the game glosses over the more famous part of the storyline in favor of the later events.
But despite it’s flaws, I can see how fans of Superman can enjoy this game. It’s limited, but it works. It’s difficult and can be unfair, but still manageable. Fans of this storyline might be able to bear the repetitiveness of the battles just so they can relive this famous storyline. So, who would I recommend this game to? Hardcore DC fans and Superman fans should definitely play this, as this is probably the best Superman game available. Fans of superhero games in general should also give this game a try, but after trying some of the better games available out there. People who just want a good beat ’em up game should look elsewhere.