One of my favorite games on the Atari 2600 is Superman (1979), designed by John Dunn, and based on the program code from Adventure by Warren Robinett. This game has stayed with me to this day as one of my favorite games. I started playing it again recently, and began thinking about the different aspects of it that make it such an enjoyable game to play again, even 35 years after its release.
Superman had many innovative features, and I won’t give it a full review here, but the one that I find most interesting is the game map. The world of Superman is much larger than most contemporary games of the era. The way the map is laid out is confusing and non-intuitive, making the game very difficult for a new player, but once you start to gain a sense of how the different screens that make up the city are variously interconnected, it becomes possible to navigate very quickly through a number of methods which can be memorized with some effort and repetition. First-time players can take 15, even 30 minutes and up to win, while an experienced player who is familiar with navigation can often beat the game in under 2 minutes.
Perhaps more than any other aspect of the game, figuring out the puzzling layout of Metropolis, and discovering the shortest routes from point A to point B is what makes Superman a deep, replayable experience.
Here’s a video of a speedrun that I did, showing all the techniques that I’ve learned to get around Metropolis amazingly quick. I’ll discuss the techniques in detail below:
Horizontal is the slowest means of getting anywhere in Superman. This is in part due to the fact that a 4:3 TV screen is wider than it is tall, but it’s due to the way the different screens on the map are connected to each other means that the longest trip between any two screens is very often the horizontal path.
The strength of horizontal travel is the certainty that you do eventually reach all the screens of the overworld — none are skipped, and you can access all 21 overworld screens by travelling left or right. This is the way the player will first come to know the layout of Metropolis, particularly if the difficulty setting that brings Lois Lane to Superman’s rescue immediately when he is stricken with kryptonite is set to hard mode, forcing long walks on foot to find her.
Also, there are no non-reversible boundaries when travelling horizontally, meaning you can always get to where you started from if you go the same number of screens the opposite direction, and you’ll encounter the same screens you passed through, in the same (reverse) order.
Vertical travel allows Superman to skip over several (usually three or four) screens in the horizontal sequence to reach a room much faster than otherwise possible by a purely horizontal mode of transit.
The twist is that not all vertical connections between screens are two-way. Importantly, the Bridge and Phonebooth screens are inaccessible to vertical travel. In these special screens, vertical travel exiting these rooms is one-way only. Because these are the first two screens that the player will encounter in the game, it’s very likely that they will encounter this strange property of vertical travel right away when they start playing, and will become confused and lost as a result. While frustrating at first, it also raises curiosity and invites experimentation and study.
Superman can only move vertically by flying, which means that when he’s stricken with kryptonite sickness or disguised as Clark Kent, he can’t move up or down. This makes walking much slower than flying, even though his flying speed is only slightly faster than his walking speed. It’s the freedom of motion that really makes flight faster. For some reason, the criminals who Superman has to capture, though terrestrial bound, are able to move up and down, which is necessary from a play standpoint in order to maintain a level of challenge.
Combining vertical and horizontal navigation can result in some very swift shortcuts. By cutting around the corners of the screen, it’s possible to make extremely rapid jumps from horizontal to vertical travel, allowing Superman to cover vastly more territory than is accessible through purely vertical or purely horizontal travel, in the blink of an eye.
Mastering corner travel is mainly a matter of memorization of useful routes. There are opportunities at every corner of every screen, but due to the placement of specific points of interest, there are certain important routes which are much more useful during play than all the others. This means that the amount of memorization required in order to gain a strong advantage in playing the game is comparatively small.
The subway system is a novel alternative means of getting around Metropolis quickly. In four of the screens that make up the Metropolis overworld, there are entrances to the subway system. These entrances are spread out about the overworld, but not evenly — they are mostly concentrated in the upper right corner of the overworld, three of them lying on a diagonal line, practically adjacent to each other. A fifth subway entrance is at the Daily Planet, which is sort of a “Grand Central Station”.
Moving horizontally, starting from the Phonebooth screen (screen 1), the first subway entrance is encountered immediately after the Bridge screen (screen 3). Continuing to the right, the next subway entrance is not encountered until the 11th screen, then 14th (Daily Planet), 17th, and 19th screen.
More interesting is how the subway is connected internally. Each entrance from the overworld enters the subway at one of four subway stations: blue, green, yellow, red. By going up, Superman can stay inside the subway. By moving left, right, or down, Superman exits the subway, emerging back on the overworld a great distance from the point of entry. The Daily Planet entrance is special, a light blue “Grand Central” subway room that connects to any of the four regular subway stations.
Importantly, many of the exits from the subway systems are important screens on the overworld. The left exit from the yellow station goes straight to the Daily Planet, where you have to go to win the game. The left exit from the red station goes to the prison, where Superman has to take Lex Luthor and his henchmen. Many of the other exit rooms are one or two screens away from the prison.
Once the player learns a few of the shortcuts made possible by the subway system, it becomes very useful for shortcuts. It also serves as a means of re-orienting the player if they get lost in the parts of Metropolis that they haven’t memorized, since any subway entrance quickly leads to a key landmark or point of interest.
By pressing the fire button, Superman can use his x-ray vision to see one screen ahead in any of the four orthogonal directions. By doing so quickly, he can scout ahead and determine if there’s any reason to go in that direction (eg, if one of Luthor’s gang or a bridge piece is in the next screen.) X-ray vision enables the player to cover a swath of Metropolis 3 screens wide or tall. When used effectively, x-ray vision effectively multiplies Superman’s speed by reducing the number of wrong turns the player makes, and reducing the amount of time needed to search the world.
To me, it’s an interesting and telling design choice to make the one fire button on the Atari joystick be used for this ability, out of all the other abilities they could have chosen. In the comic books, Superman punches, has heat vision, super cool breath, and many other special abilities. On the one hand, the primary driver of this decision could well have been the resource constraints imposed by the primitive Atari VCS architecture. However, picking x-ray vision, and implementing it in this way, ties the ability directly back to making the map (and navigating around it) the central mechanic of the game. Using the fire button for anything else would have detracted from this central play mechanic, and left the game less unified.
Apart from the backgrounds and the doors to the subway, Daily Planet, jail, phone booth, and bridge, the city is featureless, lacking platforms or obstacles. Despite this, the game still has a sense of traffic flow, an area of high concentration and an area of low concentration, where the criminals, kryptonite, and helicopter are more likely to be found. Because the screens in the overworld do not all have the same number of inbound routes to them, certain screens are more likely to see traffic through them.
The phone booth and bridge screens, with only horizontal access, have the least traffic. Being adjacent to each other, both rooms really only have one way leading to them that has the usual four inbound routes. This helps the player by isolating the bridge scene so that once they have placed a bridge piece back at the bridge scene, it’s less likely that the helicopter will randomly come by and take it away. It still happens if you take too long, but it’s less likely because the helicopter can only come into the bridge scene from the left or right.
The two green-sky screens above and below the phone booth and bridge have extra vertical routes into them, but since these routes are through rooms that get the least traffic in the game, it doesn’t boost the amount of incoming to them appreciably.
The subways add more in-routes to certain screens. Because many of the subways exit to screens that are 1-2 screens away from the jail, traffic is concentrated around the jail, merely through random movement — no sophisticated AI is needed. Luthor’s gang can move randomly, and the only AI they need is to move away from Superman if he is on the screen, and to head toward a subway entrance if they are on a screen that has one.
By creating a traffic hot spot in the overworld map, this area is made more interesting and important. Since the hot spot centers around the jail, it aids the player in bringing Luthor’s gang back to prison. As well, it reinforces the narrative that the jail is in a bad part of town, since that’s where the escaped criminals tend to hang out.
Bridge piece placement
The bridge explodes at the start of the game, into 3 pieces which scatter on the overworld map. The starting positions where the pieces land are the same every time the game is played, not random. But the helicopter will pick up the pieces after short delay if you don’t pick them up quickly, and move them around the map, making it seem like their placement is random. Using the corner-cutting trick, it is possible to get to the pieces very quickly, and re-assemble the bridge in under 30 seconds. When the helicopter moves pieces, it randomizes the game enough so that it will take a player a long time to realize that the initial placement is nonrandom. Once the player has gained enough experience to realize that initial placement is nonrandom, they gain a substantial advantage in winning the game quickly.
At this point, speed running the game becomes the primary driver of replayability. A master player should be able to win consistently in 1:30, and occasionally break the 1:10 mark. Winning times under 1:00 are possible, but require a great deal of luck as well as mastery. The movement of Lex Luthor and his henchmen seems to be more random than any other factor in the game, making finding them before they scatter too much a real challenge. The best times will be when the henchmen randomly decide to group very close to the jail. My personal best time of 0:56 happened when I found almost the entire gang sitting on the jail screen, allowing me to round them up very quickly. It is extremely difficult to get a score under 1:00.
The world topography of Superman is underappreciated, and deserves recognition and study for its simple genius. It is confusing and frustrating at first, but it is essential to the game for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above. The world of Metropolis isn’t simply a place where the game happens, it is an integral component of the the game, and its topology directly influences the behavior of both the player and the various AI that inhabit it. It’s nothing short of remarkable that a design this simple can at the same time be so powerful and yet subtle.