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.
While it might appear to be a very basic game to a modern eye, in its day Superman had many innovative features. 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, most of which took place on a single, non-scrolling screen. The way the Superman’s 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.
The map consists of 21 unique “overworld” screens depicting the skyline of Metropolis, plus five additional special screens that comprise a “subway” system that offers the player an alternative, often shorter path from one of the 5 entrances to one of 12 exits to a seemingly random overworld screen.
The relationship between the screens of the overworld and the subway are a puzzle for the player to learn. 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, time-consuming walks on foot to find her.
After traversing in one direction through the entire overworld, the map loops around back to the first screen where you started from, so there are no dead ends, and the game world is a closed, self-contained system.
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. This persistence of order never varies — it is the same every time the game is run — giving the Metropolis a sense of permanence and place that makes it feel like a real space (albeit an abstract one).
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 Phone Booth screens are inaccessible to vertical travel. In these special screens, vertical travel exiting these rooms is one-way only. If superman leaves the Phone Booth or Bridge screen by crossing the top or bottom boundary, and tries to reverse course, he is not taken back where he came, but to another part of the map (as shown in the illustration above).
Because the Phone Booth and Bridge screens 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 the game for the first time, and will become confused and lost as a result. While frustrating at first, it also represents a major challenge standing between the player and completing the goals needed to win the game, and 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, and must navigate the city through horizontal transitions (or the subway) only. This makes walking much slower than flying, even though Superman’s 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 through the overworld map at will, which is necessary from a play standpoint in order to maintain a level of challenge. (I guess it makes sense that the criminals are able to “break the rules” that would otherwise prevent them from moving up and down. Perhaps Superman arrests them for jaywalking — ha!)
Combining vertical and horizontal navigation can result in some very swift shortcuts. If Superman flies vertically only, he skips over screens, and will miss certain screens entirely. But, by cutting around the corners of the screen, it’s possible to switch from horizontal to vertical travel extremely rapidly, 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 screens near the Jail.
A fifth subway entrance is at the Daily Planet, which is sort of a “Grand Central Station”. This special subway entrance, colored light blue, first exits to one of the four regular subway screens — depending on which direction you go from the Daily Planet entrance, you’ll end up in the Red, Blue, Yellow, or Green subway stop, and from there you can exit or continue up along the subway.
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, and travel from stop to stop along its route. By moving left, right, or down, Superman exits the subway, emerging back on the overworld, a great distance from the point of entry.
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 quickly getting from any point the map to the jail, and, at the end of the game, from the Phone Booth to the Daily Planet. The Subway 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 and pushing the joystick, 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, near instantaneously. When used effectively, x-ray vision effectively multiplies Superman’s speed by reducing the number of wrong turns the player makes while pursuing a crook or bridge piece, and thereby reduces the amount of time needed to search the world.
It’s an interesting and telling design choice to make the one button on the Atari joystick be used for this ability, out of all the other abilities they could have chosen out of Superman’s powers. In the comic books, Superman punches bad guys, 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 Superman’s x-ray vision ability, 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, while creating an additional design problem (to provide the player with something useful to do with the ability).
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 nevertheless 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 together share two ways leading to them, rather than the usual four inbound routes. This makes these screens harder to find if you are lost, but once they know the map, ultimately it 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 half as likely as it otherwise would be, because the helicopter can only come into the bridge scene from the left or right, and not the top or bottom.
The two green-sky screens above and below the phone booth and bridge have extra vertical routes leading 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 if you don’t find them in a little under a minute, the helicopter will pick up the pieces, 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 all three of the bridge 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 new player who is learning the game quite a long time before they can realize that the initial placement is nonrandom. Once the player has gained enough experience to realize that initial placement is always the same, 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 Critical Path
The most important routes to know in Superman are:
- From the Phone Booth to the Bridge. This is trivial, since you start every game at the Phone Booth screen, and the only way the game allows you to move at first is to the right, which is where you’ll find the bridge. This is as simple as a tutorial gets. You can’t help but learn the basics of the game when you start playing. The game starts you out as Superman, but as soon as it starts, as soon as you touch any direction with the joystick, you automatically fly down to the phone booth and change into Clark Kent. The positioning of the phone booth blocks Clark Kent from walking to the left, and therefore the only way to go is to the right. Further, since the bridge blows up as soon as Clark Kent enters the Bridge screen, this inhibits him from moving in any direction besides back to the left, where in order to proceed, he must go back into the phone booth in order to change back into Superman.
- From the Bridge to the Bridge Pieces. The bridge pieces all start out very near to the bridge, but they won’t stay there too long. If you know the route, you can get there super fast, and reassemble the bridge before the Helicopter has a chance to move them. This is the key to a fast completion time.
From the Bridge screen, fly to the right, staying near the top of the screen. From the subway entrance screen, fly one screen up to the Jail Screen. The bridge pieces are one screen up from the Jail, one screen left and up from the Jail, and one screen left and down from the Jail.
Using the corners to minimize the distance, you can fly very quickly to each piece, and assemble the bridge in 30 seconds or less.
Note that if it were not for the fact that the Bridge screen cannot be entered from the top, the route to the lower bridge piece would not make sense. Because of this feature, the “Lincoln Memorial” looking screen is able to connect downward to a different screen than we’d otherwise expect — the one where the lower bridge piece happens to be found.
- From the Phone Booth to the Daily Planet. At the end of the game, having captured Lex Luthor and his gang, and re-built the bridge, Superman ends his quest by changing back to Clark Kent and filing a report of this newsworthy event at the Daily Planet. There is a super quick route from the Phone Booth to the Daily Planet screen, reachable just by walking horizontally, and since Clark Kent can only walk horizontally, this is an important route for speed running. Walk from the phone booth to the right, crossing the bridge, and proceed to the right to the next screen. Enter the subway entrance there, and you’ll find yourself on the Yellow subway screen. Immediately exit the subway to the left, and you’ll be at the Daily Planet.
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. The designer respected the player’s intelligence and had faith that a persistent player could discover the secrets of the map, as puzzling as they are, and derive enjoyment from mastering the peculiarities of navigating this tiny virtual world.
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Thank you for this posting. John Dunn created the first graphics for the PC. He created EASEL and VanGo that show the genius of his work. He never has been properly recognized.
Sonia Landy Sheridan, Professor Emerita School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Wow! What an amazing job of describing the distinctive appeal of Atari 2600 Superman. I quite agree that Metropolis is not merely a background, and that thoroughly learning your way around the city is an essential aspect of the game experience. Bravo on the depth and specificity of your analysis. Atari Superman has finally received a worthy tribute.
Back in 1979 I drew a map of the video Metropolis and assigned names to all the blocks (based on New York City) so that my gaming buddies and I could discuss the action and strategy. We too found narrative implications in the geography. What a vivid experience this ostensibly “simple” game provided.
Thank you for articulating your insights so well. You’ve helped me better appreciate a game design that I have long admired.
David West Reynolds
David West Reynolds
That's so good to hear, thank you David!
I forwarded this e-mail to John Dunn. John’s VanGo in the early 1980s provided me with a way to travel around the world and inject all my own thoughts with just ascii characters. With VanGo I also made an interactive museum for my work. I see no way to leave you a sample image. Sonia Sheridan
Sonia Landy Sheridan
My 15 year old self in 1979 eventually memorized efficient navigation methods. Combining that with pure luck I was able to complete the game in 24 seconds exactly ONE time.
The only witness was my younger brother.
Sadly nobody believed my feat, and I was never again able to even come close to replicating that accomplishment.
That's a phenomenal time to completion. I think the best I ever saw was 0:46.
Really excellent run down on the innovative game. I always enjoyed this game but didn’t take enough time to figure out the intricacies of the city, much less the attention to narrative. Great insights.Thanks!