26/03/2018

SUNMAN (NES)

Last time out I wrote about Hangzo, a ninja-based arcade hack-n-slasher that was never actually released, despite being both 99.9% finished and surprisingly good fun to play. In what might turn out to be a foolish attempt at luck-pushing, I’ve decided to once again return to the mysterious world of unreleased videogames in the hope of finding more buried treasure. This time it’s the turn of the NES, with Sunsoft’s Sunman!


That’s a rather familiar-looking logo, hmm? But forget that for the moment and enjoy the use of double exclamation marks on the “press start” message, because it’s kinda sweet. Sunsoft are really excited for you to start playing Sunman! Oh hey, Sunsoft, Sunman - maybe in another universe Sunman is Sunsoft’s corporate mascot, appearing as a hidden character in all those famous Sunsoft games like Waku Waku 7 and Hebereke’s Popoon.


The large green head of the game’s villain hovers above the Earth. Metaphorically hovers, by the way, you don’t have to travel into space to shoot a planet-sized cyborg’s head. Disappointing, I know. Seeing this image, I was convinced that the villain would be named Doctor Thingy or Professor Whatsit, some kind of name that implied the bad guy was terribly proud of his academic achievements, but no. His name is Specter.


And this is Sunman himself, resplendent in a costume that’s all red, all the time. You know, just like the sun. Could have done with a couple of accent colours on there, buddy, although I realise it’s difficult to base a superhero costume on the colours of the sun without looking like a minor McDonaldland character.


Here we see Sunman’s alter-ego - let’s call him Kent Clark – rushing into danger as Megaro City comes under attack the evil forces of Specter. “Defeat all enemies” is the order, but that’s nonsense because it’s much easier and more practical to avoid all the enemies and dash for the end of the stage. Perhaps they’ll feel defeated when the hero ignores them entirely before destroying their evil organisation’s power structure.
As an aside, I’ve been surfing the web for many years now and I’ve visited many… interesting websites, so I hope that explains why I saw Kent Clark as wearing a jumpsuit that’s unzipped to the navel and immediately thought “yaranaika.”


“Help!” screams some poor civilian – or perhaps it’s a metaphor for the city itself crying out for justice, justice that only Sunman can dish out. Sunman delivers justice by punching things, mostly. He was never going to rid the city of crime through programs aimed at reducing the socio-economic factors that drive people to crime in the first place, was he?


First up on the punching block these lesser Specter minions, flappy bat-winged types that have guns but aren’t that keen on actually firing them for whatever reason. It’s not like Sunman is bulletproof. Anyway, what we’ve got here is a fairly straightforward NES action game. Get from one end of the stage to the other while clearing out the bad guys, or avoiding them entirely, whichever is more practical at the time. You’ve got one button to jump and one button to “attack,” which at the moment makes Sunman throw out a punch. Punching gets the job done but it’s hardly the most exciting superpower, so does Sunman have any other special skills?


Well, he can fly. I suppose that’s a super power. Either press jump twice or simply hold up on the d-pad and Sunman will take to the skies, moving wherever you want him to with the merest manipulation of the controller. He can even hover in place like an oversized hummingbird, except he’s got fists instead of a specially-adapted prehensile tongue and he dips those fists into crime rather than nectar-filled flowers. He’s not much like a hummingbird at all, now I think about it. But Sunman can hover, and fly, a superpower that makes this first area extremely easy because you can just fly past all the enemies as they only offer the most token level of resistance.


Area two of the first stage is much less relaxed, with lots of potential death-traps such as crushing spiked pillars and electric barriers. Don’t worry, though: you can take your time and carefully pick your way through the danger. There’s no time limit and very few enemies to hurry you along, so take it as slowly as you need to. This is good advice for any of Sunman’s stages where taking a more leisurely approach is a viable option, because you’ll need to work as hard as you can to preserve your health bar. It’s not just that the game has some rather difficult sections (and it definitely does) but that there are no power-ups in this game at all. Your health is refilled whenever you beat a boss, but apart from that there’s no way to regain lost hit points because there are no health pick-ups, as well as there being no power-ups for the things you might expect to see in an NES action game like special attacks or temporary invulnerability.


Now we’re really flying, heading to the top of this skyscraper while Specter’s agents harry and harass our hero. The villains aren’t very threatening, are they? I think it’s those wings, it’s as though they were all ready to fight Sunman but hadn’t realised that he could fly, so they’ve had to hastily assemble crude canvas bat-wings.


The last section of this first stage is, or course, a boss battle. Sunman fights against a helicopter. The chopper attacks with a spread-shot from the front and homing missiles from the back, and it’ll also try to ram Sunman as it moves from one side of the screen to the other. Position yourself in the gaps between the spread shots and destroy the homing missiles, and when you get the chance you can attack the helicopter by firing your laser eye-beams at it. Okay, okay, let’s address the elephant in the room: Sunman sure seems a lot like Superman, huh?


That’s because he is Superman. There are even earlier prototype versions of the game which reveal that yep, Sunman was originally intended to be a licensed Superman game, with a playable Man of Steel and John Williams’ famous Superman movie theme playing as the in-game music. For whatever reason, the Superman license was very lightly painted over with the new Sunman character. Maybe that’s why Sunman never saw an official release: Sunsoft’s attempts to convince people that this is a Totally Original Character We Swear were patently unsuccessful, so perhaps they were worried about DC Comic’s lawyers getting involved.
Personally I think the switch from Superman to Sunman works in the game’s favour, because it eliminates the Superman Paradox. The invulnerable, incredibly powerful Superman – a character well know for being immune to bullets – can be brought down by a few shots from a hired goon wearing home-made bat-wings? Hard to swallow. But Sunman? We don’t know jack about Sunman. Sure, he can fly and punch hard, but that doesn’t mean he can catch bullets in his teeth. He could be an alien from another planet with a deadly weakness to a certain element, but unlike Superman and kryptonite he’s allergic to lead. Helps to keep Sunman that bit more relatable, you know?


Back to Sunman, and after clearing the first stage we get a shot of our hero in a dramatic pose. Yes, he’s definitely looking “grate,” and I’m enjoying the sheer cheek of giving a Superman clone a big letter S on the chest of his costume. On his planet, it means “the licensing deal fell through.”


Stage two is the Grand Canyon, and Specter has hidden a missile base at one of the United States’ most visited tourist attractions so clearly he’s just doing all this for attention. It begins with another flying section, only now Sunman’s eye-beams are gone and he can only punch the enemies. This reliance on punching is perhaps the biggest problem with Sunman’s core combat, because he’s kinda the short arm of the law and it can be difficult to get close enough to the enemies to hit them without taking damage yourself. A bit of extra range would have gone a long way towards making the fights more enjoyable; something as simple as giving Sunman’s fists a glow of solar power to increase their size by a few pixels would have gone a long way.


The bulk of the stage takes place in these crystal caves. The mineral pillars move up and down to crush our hero, and there are stone walls that need to be punched through along with the usual slew of villains to batter. A lot of the fighting in this game is either against flying enemies or in segments where everyone is flying, and again the punching combat suffers. What Sunman needs is a way to attack upwards, because that’s where ninety percent of the enemies attack from. An uppercut performable on command would, again, make the combat much smoother and more entertaining. Instead you spend a lot of time trying to get Sunman on the right horizontal plain and it can be kinda awkward and fiddly.


Also a bit awkward is this section where Sunman drills into the floor by spinning around really fast. It’s not awkward to control because you just mash the buttons as fast you you can, but Sunman sure looks awkward as he pirouettes on the spot. You wouldn’t see Batman making a fool of himself like this. Hang on, if Sunman is Superman then I wonder what this universe’s version of Batman is called? Moonman? No, that sounds a bit too hippyish for Batman. Darkman? Nope, already taken. Moonbat? Yeah, sounds good, let’s go with that, although I haven’t been keeping up with Pokemon so I’ve got the nagging feeling that might be one of the newer pocket monsters.


The boss battle is against the missile. It took me a while to figure out that the missile itself was my target, because there are four little scuttlin’ robots along the walls of the arena that move up and down shooting lasers at you. You can destroy the robots but they just keep coming back: it turns out the real goal is to punch each individual segment of the rocket until it’s completely crumpled up. Now, I’m well aware that all long range missiles are fitted with safety mechanisms that prevent them from detonating unless they’re specifically intended to explode at that moment, but it still feels like punching an ICBM with my super-fists going to end up doing Specter’s work for him.


Stage three, and all aboard the Rocky Mountain Railroad as Sunman attempts to stop the runaway train. This is another stage that hews quite close to the usual “NES platformer” school of design, albeit with Sunman’s powers of flight making it play somewhat differently. The most dangerous obstacles here are the girders that hang down from the tunnels’ ceilings. If you don’t duck under them in time, they’ll slam into Sunman and cost him a lot of health.


Once you’re out of the tunnels, however, you can bid the minions of Specter a hearty farewell and fuck you by simply flying right over their heads, their feeble grunt brains too slow to keep up with Sunman as he moves at a brisk walking pace six inches above their heads.


I guess Sunman didn’t inherit Superman’s whole “faster than a speeding bullet” shtick, what with having to walk across the whole train in order to stop it, but is he more powerful than a locomotive? Yes, he is, but that’s not the issue here – the real question is whether you have the iron fingers required to hammers the buttons fast enough. I’d consider myself fairly good at mashing buttons, because I play more old videogames than most people, but this section felt especially rough on the old digits. Perhaps there’s a rhythm to it that I just wasn’t getting into. “Problems with rhythm” would definitely be a problem I’d expect to have.


Moving on to the next stage, and Sunman has infiltrated Specter’s aircraft carrier. There’s not much new to say about this area. Fly a bit, punch a lot. But what’s this? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the difficulty level, which has rocketed into the stratosphere. The stage is difficult because there are more enemies about and the ship’s deck being at the mid-level of the screen means the action is more compressed and you have less room to manoeuvre, but the real pain-cherry top this sadism cake are the jump-kicking enemies pictured above. They move very quickly, rolled up in a ball until they fly towards Sunman with their deadly legs extended, bouncing unpredictably around the screen and usually coming in pairs. This is where I really wished there was a way to attack upwards, but no: somehow these guys are stronger and faster than Off-Brand Superman and they kept kicking my arse so thoroughly that the game went from “enjoyable romp” to “deeply frustrating” in about three screens.


To finish off the stage, Sunman must chase down an escaping speedboat and blast it out of the water with his laser vision. Somehow the speedboat is more heavily armed than the battleship. There are a lot of bullets packed into that thing, and then there’s the fact it can sometimes turn invisible to deal with. Okay, fine, so the invisibility isn’t a genuine feature of the boat, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.


The problem is that this area has a very intense parallax scrolling effect on the sea and the sky. The parallax looks great. I don’t have any complaints about the background. However, the strain on the NES hardware results in so much sprite flickering that you’d be justified in describing it as “sprite vanishing.” Good luck spotting the boat in the screenshot above. Fortunately the boat is always in front of Sunman, so if you just keep firing and dodging the projectiles you’ll hit it enough times to win eventually. I hope the glory of your triumph makes up for the new involuntary spasms you’ve developed in your ocular muscles.


The final stage is Specter’s hideout, as you might expect. It begins with another fly-n-punch section that isn’t all that interesting, before moving into the mechanical deathtrap zone pictured above. The gears of my mind may move slowly – certainly slower than all the spiked crushing traps and electro-barrier in this stage – but it eventually hit me that Sunman is obvious very similar to Sunsoft’s Batman NES games, namely, erm, Batman and especially Return of the Joker. Sunman’s gameplay feels like the mid-point between those two games, and the graphical style is the same: all bright colours, mechanical greeblies and parallax scrolling punched up to the extreme. But you know what finally tipped me off about the similarities? It was the little animation of Sunman’s cape slowly fluttering to the ground when you crouch, because the same thing happens in Batman. Also, Batman: Return of the Joker is called Dynamite Batman in the Japan. I hope you enjoy that fact as much as I do.


Unfortunately, Sunman was saving it’s most obnoxious section for the very end, with a high-speed horizontal race section that will reawaken submerged memories of that one bit from Battletoads as Sunman hurtles through a series of narrow corridors made even narrower by all the blocks filling the area. As you can see above, sometimes you’re forced to guide Sunman though gaps barely wider than he is, with each collision taking two chunks off your health bar. It’s just… bad. A bad bit of gameplay. Not exciting, not engaging and the only pleasure I got from it was the grim and ultimately self-defeating kind when I saw Sunman ram his face full-speed into a metal bar.


But all that’s behind me now – I’ve reached the final confrontation with Specter! Given that he looks an awful lot like Sunman and he seems to have a similar set of powers, I’m going to guess that in the original Superman version of Sunman, Specter was going to be General Zod. He clearly ain’t Doomsday and while his bald appearance on the title screen could point to Lex Luthor, Lex Luthor can’t fly or shoot energy blasts from his hands. Not without his big robot suit, anyway.
After the miserable previous sector, this boss fight is a welcome return to Sunman not being awful. It’s a very simple fight: the boss disappears and then reappears in one of several fixed points around the screen. It’s then you task to clobber Specter before he can attack. If you hit him fast enough, he’ll take damage and teleport away; if you react too slowly, he’ll use one of the aforementioned energy blasts or summon a rain of falling rocks.
I really like this fight, a lot more so than any of the other boss battles in the game. It sounds pretty underwhelming on paper, but I like the tension that comes from having to react quickly to Specter’s new position or avoid his attacks, and he manages to be a challenge without being ludicrously overpowered. However, the main reason I like this fight is that both Sunman and Specter are both so well-animated and fluid that watching them duke it out is a real treat. I was particularly impressed with Specter’s hand motions when summoning his falling rock attack. A lot of games would have just had him raise his hand, but here he looks as convincing as a NES sprite summoning personal attack meteors can look.


Looking cool wasn’t enough to save Specter, though, and in the name of the sun I punished him good and proper. What follows is a perfunctory ending as Sunman flies past the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty has been moved from New York to the unspoiled pine forests of the America north, presumably to protect her from attacks by the likes of Specter. You get a message saying “the world returns to a peaceful time. Now and forever.” which strikes me as wildly optimistic, and then the credits roll.


Well hey, look at that: Sunman was directed by the late Kenji Eno, perhaps best known for creating the D games.
Did the videogame world miss out when Sunman was cancelled? Yeah, I suppose so. For the most part it’s an enjoyable game, and the sense of colour and style that permeates Sunman makes up for the parts where the gameplay is unremarkable or, in a couple of spots, outright bad. As a NES game by Sunsoft you know the soundtrack’s going to be good, and it is. Not quite as excellent as some of their other NES soundtracks, sure, but certainly very funky. I’d tell you to listen to it on YouTube but all the videos uploaded there appear to have been recorded in NTSC mode and so the music is playing too fast – the Sunman prototype is a PAL version of the game, you see.


There’s a lot I’d change about Sunman – the lack of an upwards attack, Sunman’s stubby little arms, the fact that the hitbox near his head feels massive yet his feet are often invulnerable, like some kind of reverse Achilles – but on the whole it’s worth checking out for the presentation alone. He might not be Superman, but Sunman has style.

4 comments:

  1. Kenji Eno in the credits is far more distracting than that missile from the second stage!

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    Replies
    1. I was certainly surprised to see his name pop up.

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  2. It would be proper to dress in white to keep in theme with the sun, as it's the source for all natural white light, yes?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose, but now you mention it its kinda strange that the sun isn't more associated witht he colour white (at least not in my cultural milieu).

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