The Death and Return of Superman has standard "beat 'em up" gameplay, in which the player controls a character that can move in all directions. A set number of foes will enter the screen and only after they are defeated can the character continue on the quest. Although different in appearance, each character has the same basic abilities: standard melee attacks (punches), grappling attacks (get close enough to character and attack), throws (holding the forward key and attacking), grab and throw upward (holding the “up” key and attacking), grab and throw backward (holding the “back” key and attacking), or grab and pummel (hold the “down” key and attack), a projectile attack, and an “ultimate” attack that destroys all standard enemies on the screen. Their attacks only slightly vary, mostly in range and appearance.
Each Superman has the ability to fly and can thereby avoid certain characters or obstacles using this ability. There are also characters that have the ability to fly and are thereby easier to defeat if confronted in the air. There are also certain areas and levels where flying is mandatory. Also, many obstacles can be passed only by flying. However, certain screens in which the character is on an elevated platform the flying ability is almost completely negated.
With the exceptions of Superman and to a point the Man of Steel, each character has two standard types of level: melee combat and flying in which only projectile moves can be used. The standard melee levels consist of the character fighting through “common” enemies and ending the level with a fight with a “boss” character. When playing the flying levels, the player can move the character anywhere in the screen while firing the character’s projectile move at greatly weakened enemies. No boss characters appear in these levels. Strangely, Superman never has a flying level and instead plays through three standard melee levels. Steel has a unique flying level that plays more like a combat level as he doesn’t use his projectile attacks and relies on his melee attack. Also, Steel has a “boss” character he must defeat in order for the game to progress.
Choice of characters isn’t allowed during the game and the player must play through the game as a pre-determined character for each level.
During the start of the game enemies are usually armed with guns, bombs, or chainsaws if they are armed at all. Superman’s invulnerability seems to have been removed, as these items are capable of hurting him. Later characters are armed with more powerful energy type weapons and pure melee characters are now robots. Most characters appear time and time again and more powerful enemies use the same game sprite but with a different color.