Superman: Countdown to Apokolips

Release Date: March 26, 2003
Developer: Mistic Software
Publisher: Atari SA

Rating: 3/5

Become The Man of Steel on GameBoy Advance

The isometric view looks quite professional in the intro mini. A melancholic 8-bit interlude tune plays its high-pitched notes cut through the strolling city-walking ambience. Having the silent text narration removes the heaviness of voice narration to further enhance the far-out artistic vibe. Superman is here! – The best part of flying is the touchdown intro Superman does before the player control kicks in to start off the level.

Things happen fast and you happen faster with superspeed to effortlessly run circles around enemies. I generally stayed grounded when playing. Horizontal-oriented flight. Only on a rare and entirely optional occasion would you need to fly over something, and when it comes to ease-of-controls, having to not hold down 2 buttons for speedy movement is more comfortable (i.e. running).

Open areas in city district levels are practically devoid of stage elements having been leveled flat due to human activity. The stage elements that are there to interact with like abandoned vehicles could have been used for dynamic encounters of making enemies run behind but they’re parked in remote areas — a comfortable distance for Superman to safely pick up. These cars are bizarrely horizontally parked blocking the road, which makes it seem like a cue that you can pick them up, but at the same time such obvious positionment made me ignore them entirely. Just an obstruction. And what does it mean for me to be playing as Superman chucking cars at humans on a street? It’s flat-out strange seeing Superman walking around with a car looking for someone to throw it at.

Soon after completing a standard citizens rescue mission a more commanding plot device of the ‘rescue the princess’ variety occurs (like Super Mario Sunshine). There are no teammates to assist you here; the police just summon Superman to a hot spot. You do get ‘backup’ in the form of a password though. Out on the field there is no slowmo to enhance your time seeing things / reading situations in motion. However, with X-Ray vision you get a ‘reality-check’ that pauses the action bringing up a map screen showing mission objectives locations (i.e. bad guys), which is a good choice eliminating screen clutter like a mini-map or arrow pointer often used to designate where player should go. It’s very helpful when picking up ‘leftovers’ (the last remaining, thus harder to find mission objective spots).

Manually-driven – narrow in on enemies with narrow, penetrative, linear attacks. Super powers are as follows: ice breath, heat vision, super speed. You really have to laser focus in on enemies because Superman’s punch range is very literally translated (i.e. unexaggerated). There is a powerful feel controlling Superman’s walking with its linear rigidity via digital inputs. Aiming controls in isometric view are tested but I got the hang of it. It works well enough with rare mishaps of punching air when close but not close enough to enemies; the heat vision is generally a sure-fire hit unless the game really tests you with small hitbox-shaped proximity mines.

And I realized how hard enemies hit: the thought of Superman checking his health and seeing a low bar and being surprised as I was on the very first level amused me greatly. Arena shape heavily impacts tactics or enemy management. Enemies don’t have ‘attack tells’. There aren’t any large uninterruptible combos, but some attacks let you hit through enemies producing what is essentially a very satisfying multi-hit connection that you can setup beforehand; at most there is the shoulder charge to two-piece punching combo (x3 hits).

Manual old-school “dodging” (running out of way). Bruno Mannheim, a villain of Superman and a boss in this game, may or may not shoot a projectile as cutscene triggers forcing a spontaneity on you to dodge when unstuck. If you guys thought the melee in some other videogame was weak, just imagine Superman squaring up and slugging it out with regular badguys on the street and walking away in much worse condition than he started in. The game even displays a message actually recommending you to use close quarter combat! The charging shoulder tackle is pretty sweet though as it’s linear, real fast, and covers an entire screen. It’s like sniping someone but with a melee move. (Usually 1 hit KOs with this move on regulars, but sometimes you get to satisfyingly re-direct into the enemy with another tackle for a 2-hitter). Fast-motion opens up volatile-control thrill. Another great joy granted from this move is that you can use it to speedily slide against walls that are diagonally-oriented when colliding against them.

Having an isometric view shows the surroundings of Superman, particularly enemy-fired projectiles, well and lets you plan your tactics accordingly. Avoid electric shackle, bear hugs, proximity mines, triangulated fire, being stun-locked by two enemies attacking. Time-dependent critical events of protect the tower or rescue citizenry. The tower was in much more danger than the citizens; game-wise, the citizens can’t be harmed. Isometric view allows immediacy of determining depth for player — long-range action + time consideration — to see enemy positions and to cleanly hit numerous foes in a near-immediate strike. Linearly lining them up is a 2D-advantage an isometric view can dip into. Boss fights typically require thinking about an effective tactic that exploits that bosses particular weakness. 

Mindset change? Cowardly versus daring versus monstrous. Fun game to breeze through in one or two play sessions. ‘Mastery’ of levels, though, requires a slower, cold brutalness pulverizing the opposition with your fists. While your punches are relatively weak (?) anything that gets in your way won’t withstand them from humans to giant missile-firing machines. Getting a 3/3 ‘Superman shields’ award in stage2 and stage5 are a worthy nomination for getting Nintendo thumb, which I thought were ‘unsolvable’ when it comes to those achievements. Actually these levels aren’t unsolvable, you have to use ‘superpunch’ to get those close-quarters combat big points (the other levels for whatever reason don’t need you to use this attack).

What does it mean to be The Man of Steel? The absolute irritance of getting hit even just once; of consuming someone’s space versus having them consume yours. Then there is the recognition that closing in on opponents is more suited for action stages than open areas, which require an equal space-devouring antagonism. The amusing parts of Superman’s life are in the cutscenes exclusively, but the regular combat scenarios can be seen similarly too; it’s rather frivolous making pushovers of everyone when you get good enough to an eventual serious matter of a boss fight. But to score the commendable 3/3 Superman shields, the combat hardens one’s resolve.


CRITICISMS and FUTURE GAME DEVELOPMENT IDEAS

I’d definitely like to see this game expanded on.

The secret boss Metallo fight – He’s tough, and I imagine the player would resort to cheesing the fight or feel extreme frustration losing. Nice artistic liberty taken on car-throw attack, on his part since Superman’s is too slow, where he becomes more deadly when out-of-view. (Similar to Ninja Gaiden 2’s werewolf appendage throwing.) Also, he is the only enemy Superman can’t run circles around but in turn gets chased to a degree where you have to bait an attack to effectively recover time to turn around and fight. This fight showcases the proper conditions (i.e. enemy) for having an open field in combat.

I liked how the game was kept simple with a no upgrade system, — you are beyond military-grade, super — just up your skills. The character bio in the menu select screen that ‘unlocks’ new character bios when you encounter them is how I like this stuff: information-lite. The game starts off with a rather boring character introduction of Superman. This is informative for me since I don’t follow super hero media with anything but the slightest interest, BUT even so it’s not just unnecessary but improper to insert a backstory sequence that has no natural transitioning to the current game events; anti-action is felt far more strongly and thus more disagreeable in action videogames. 

OPEN AREA = BORING! (for non-boss fights). Open area feels carved up because zoomed-in stitch effect is created from excess multi-directional panning. Same problem I had with Zombies Ate My Neighbors [GEN]. While it looks excellent, with how relatively cramped these city environments you routinely go through are and with how the camera system advances when Superman reaches a certain off-centered distance on the screen, something which limits your reaction time, I would assess that such level structures are only able to effectively be used for intermissions, not active encounter spaces. Even the level with invisible “confining” walls that disable flying outside the train roof are immersion-stable considering the smooth streamlined motion the camera travels in.

Another thing to note is how great the “supertackle” is for maneuvering and redirecting essentially letting you roller-ring around at the highest game speed. Can’t do this in open area / world environment.

X-Ray vision is much more preferable to a mini-map (can GBA’s screen space even afford this for a isometric view?) but there should have been a visual in-game world way to indicate cleared spaces better as police presence was used to show areas that needn’t be cleared — it would have been more useful to have police in cleared areas but given their slow-impediment text box, eh.

Flying is relatively unnecessary and world-choppy by having the flight-plane distinct. Only very specific enemies in later stages can be hit from the air, and since there is slight lag from regrounding and given how grounded enemies can shoot up, flying is very much not incentivized; good decision because flying aerial battles would make awkwardly apparent fighting curving enemies (like trying to smash mosquitos with a hammer).

Cutscene use as a means of slow buildup to action event. Clark Kent also does investigative work of his own. Still image cutscenes.

There is a certain mindset required for entering passwords that gives calm, a slow setup, to a then more serious approach to battle and its sustained effort as reentering the password on a system reboot weighs on the mind. However, with infinite continues slackness in combat approach takes hold that would not occur with a life system. 

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