Sunsoft’s Sunman for NES Was a Superman Game Almost Lost to Time

Sunsoft's Sunman

Sunsoft, the video games branch of Sun Electronics Corporation, released Batman for the NES in 1989. The game was very loosely based on the Tim Burton film of the same name (which also came out that year), though a Genesis/Mega Drive version would arrive later that followed the plot of movie a bit more closely. A follow-up, Batman: Return of the Joker came out in 1991, though this one wasn’t based off a movie.

It seemed that Sunsoft and DC Comics had hit it off pretty well. In fact, Sunsoft would later have a go at the Man of Steel with The Death and Return of Superman, which released on SNES in 1994 and the Genesis/Mega Drive in 1995. What wasn’t commonly known at the time was that there was a very different Superman game that had ended up on the cutting room floor.

See, in the early 1990s, Sunsoft was working on a Superman game for the NES, intended for a 1992 release. That game was ultimately abandoned, and it seemed to have disappeared without a trace. Under normal circumstances, this would have been the end of the story of Sunsoft’s Superman. But the circumstances surrounding this game are far from normal.

Sunsoft's Sunman

In 2003, a European game collector put up a mysterious game cartridge for sale. This cart was said to contain an unreleased Sunsoft game called Sunman. The Lost Levels, a website dedicated to unreleased video games, took a chance and purchased it out of curiosity. What they discovered was an almost-complete video game that starred a superhero called Sun Man, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Capital-S-on-His-Chest Superman. The folks at The Lost Levels speculated that this was originally Sunsoft’s Superman game, and that something must have happened to cause Sunsoft to lose the license late in development.

Evidence for this hypothesis includes Sun Man’s ability to fly (with a distinctly Superman-ish pose) and shoot lasers out of his eyes (Supes’ trademark heat vision). There’s a video sequence in between levels where a man who looks suspiciously like Clark Kent transforms into Sun Man. And the Game Over screen shows a newspaper clipping, which seems like a reference to the Daily Planet.

Perhaps most telling of all, the first stage of Sunman follows the structure of the opening to the 1988 Superman arcade game by Taito. In this arcade classic, the first section features A. Superman moving from left to right against a backdrop of city buildings, then B. a sequence where he flies upward against an extremely tall building and C. at the top of a building, Superman fights a helicopter using his heat vision.

Superman (1988)

All three of these sections are included in Sunman‘s first stage, though there’s an additional indoor section between parts A and B.

The pieces all lined up perfectly, but even so, this mystery wasn’t completely solved just yet. While it seemed pretty obvious that this was the case, it would take official confirmation from someone who had actually worked on the game before Sunman enthusiasts could consider this case closed.

Thankfully the day of reckoning would finally come. In 2008, Kenji Eno, whose development company had been contracted to do work for Sunsoft, spilled the beans in an interview with 1up. When asked if he’d done work on Sunsoft’s Batman game, Eno responded:

I worked on an unreleased Superman game, not Batman. Originally, I was working on Superman. But the licensors were like, “Superman can’t die. Superman can’t be damaged.” Therefore, it didn’t work out as a game… so it got cancelled. Then Sunsoft asked us to make a game with a superhero called Sun Man. So I was working on that, but we didn’t finish the game. They canceled it before it was finished. I thought that the project was gone for good, but it seems that you can see it on YouTube.

So it turns out, The Lost Levels had indeed cracked the code. They were completely right about the origins of the Sunman game.

Sunsoft's Sunman

While the game still hasn’t been released officially (and it’s unlikely that it ever will be), a bootlegged digital copy has circulated around the Internet, thus several people have had the opportunity to play the thing. I am one of those people, as is our own Tim Evens, who did a mini video review of Sunman. If you want to see footage of the game in action, you should definitely check out Tim’s review.

The world probably doesn’t need another Superman game. Wikipedia lists 17 official Superman games that have been released, alongside five that weren’t (and several more games that feature Supes in some form). The Nintendo 64 Superman game is often cited as one of the worst games of all time, and a lot of superfans would probably agree that we should probably give the old guy a rest for a while. Even so, it’s kind of nice that an 18th game can be sort-of-officially inserted into that canon, and it’s a halfway decent one at that.

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