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Batman: The Video Game

Batman

Batman: The Video Game (Sunsoft)

Return of the Joker

Batman Returns (Konami)

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by Chris Rasa - June 22, 2015

When Tim Burton's Batman was released in theaters in 1989, it was a massive phenomenon. This was the first big live action appearance of the character since the camp TV series from the 1960s, and the visually darker but still whimsical tone of the movie made it a massive success. It also created a hugely profitable merchandising empire, with collectable statues of Jack Nicholson's take on the Joker still being made today. Kids' games like Lego Batman feature unlockable costumes of Batman as he appeared in this movie. SunSoft was able to make some easy money by striking a deal to produce official Batman games. They grabbed this opportunity by the horns, producing several different games from 1990 to 1992. Sadly, while a few stand out as excellent, this series ended up going out with a whimper rather than a bang.


Batman: The Video Game - NES (1990)

Japanese Cover

American Cover

SunSoft's first attempt at a Batman game remains its best. When it was first advertised people were skeptical; why is Batman purple? Why is it so dark? But as soon as it was released people realized that this wasn't a brainless cash in, but rather a pretty polished take on the character. It only has the most basic connections to the movie, with actor likenesses in cutscenes and the game ending with a showdown in a cathedral. With the exception of the third and fourth levels, however, it's still pretty close to the tone of the movie even if the locations go in a different direction.

Things start strong, with some foreboding intro music and a moody cutscene of the Batmobile driving around. It sets an excessively dark, sinister tone upheld by the entire game. Video games based on movies were nothing new in the NES' day, but seeing the foreboding aesthetic of the 1989 Batman movie translated so effectively to an NES game was very impressive at the time and still holds up now compared to its contemporaries.

The graphics are outstanding from start to finish, giving the impression of each level being part of a much larger world. There's an expert use of shadow here. Most of the game's backgrounds fade into darkness rather than ending with a wall or other border, making the levels feel much more open than they actually are. This is also helped by each level having a significant amount of vertical space, with the screen scrolling in any direction. There are several points in the game where you fall into a new area for seconds, and it helps create a sense of urgency and scope greater than a level timer or not being able to backtrack.

As Batman, players can both punch enemies and also use three extra weapons. The first is the iconic batarang. It's technically weaker than punching, but can hit an enemy multiple times, making it the most powerful weapon with proper timing. Next is a gun that fires small rockets. It is kind of useless because the projectile it fires is so slow, but at least it has unlimited range. Finally, Batman can throw out a spread of three shuriken (inexplicably called "dirks" in the manual, an old word for a dagger), which does pretty good damage and their spreading out makes it easy to hit enemies.

Each weapon draws from a shared pool of ammunition (referred to as pellets in the manual; the other SunSoft Batman games make a similar half-hearted effort to cover up that you're just shooting people until they explode in the games) which is regained by killing enemies. The batarang uses one "pellet", the spear gun takes two, and the shuriken spread takes three. Ammunition is fairly plentiful, and easy to refill with the large number of enemies that drop it. So the limits are mostly there to keep you from obliterating the game's bosses too quickly.

The coolest feature of the controls, however, is how Batman jumps. Like in the Mario games, you can control the height of a jump by how long you hold down the A button. It's extremely responsive, and much of the game is impossible to pass without mastering it. Even more importantly, Batman can jump off of walls when pressing the button again with the right timing. The game makes great use of this, with each of the five levels gradually requiring more and more precision jumping to progress. While more powerful enemies are introduced as well, the platforming is where the real challenge of the game comes from.

The level design provides a great sense of going places regular people could not reach. Level two, as an example, ends with a path through a small factory. This area is extremely claustrophobic, requiring you to maneuver carefully around gears and conveyor belts. The next level is the opposite, a sprawling sewer network. Despite the linearity, the visually implied scope of it wouldn't be out of place in adventure games like Blaster Master or Super Metroid. Each level has this same feeling of Batman navigating cavernous, forgotten cracks of a decaying city. It's a stunning portrayal that, while not accurate to the movie literally, nails it thematically.

Looking at the talent of the team making the game this isn't a surprise. Two names that stand out from the rest are Tadashi Kojima and Yoshiaki Iwata. Not just for their work on Batman: The Video Game, but for having the versatility to also do graphics requiring wildly different visual styles, ranging from the colorful pixel art in Super Fantasy Zone to porting the rendered scenery in Riven.

The game's music is equally impressive, with tracks by SunSoft regulars Nobuyuki Hara and Naoki Kodaka (Fester's Quest, Journey to Silius, Blaster Master). These two composers defined SunSoft's unique sound in the eighties and nineties. Batman: The Video Game's soundtrack has always been highly regarded, with fans arranging their own tributes and remixes to this day. The song used in the first and last level is particularly memorable, but the entire soundtrack is excellent. Each song is appropriately aggressive to suit the game's stark aesthetic, and you can tell that each song was composed specifically to suit the pace and look of each level. While other popular series like Castlevania also did this, it was still a huge deal at the time for a game to come together with such focused art and sound design.

Interestingly, when the game was first revealed in Nintendo Power, it presented completely different cutscenes, closer to the style of the comic book than the digitized stills seen in the final version. This prototype ROM was leaked to the public and is available for download. All of the cutscenes are completely different, with new dialogue. The game doesn't even end with a proper confrontation against the Joker, instead you fight the Firebird boss, then are treated to a cutscene where Batman walks into the Joker's office and socks him in the jaw. Some of these looks pretty cool, particularly the animation, but the artist's rendering seems like a poor trace of Jack Nicholson's likeness, making it look more comical than it probably should. The ending contains music not found in the final version. Additionally, there are 1up power-ups to be found, which were removed before released.

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Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

Batman: The Video Game (NES)


Additional Screenshots


Batman: The Video Game - Game Boy (1990)

Japanese Cover

American Cover

A few months after Batman: The Video Game hit the NES, a Game Boy version was released, partially made by the same staff and using the same title, but it's a completely different game. For an early Game Boy platformer, it's pretty fun. While the sprites are amusingly tiny, the action is pretty fast and smooth compared to contemporaries like The Castlevania Adventure.

It's interesting that the opening cutscene, the title screen, and the game's levels are all fairly accurate to the movie, with sone slight divergence in how Batman plays compared to any previous Batman games: You just run around shooting people. You get a wide array of projectiles, and while one of them looks like a batarang, the rest wouldn't be out of place in a run-'n-gun like Contra. Even the wave beam from the Metroid series makes an appearance, "W" icon and all. The graphics aren't designed to make it look like a "wrist mounted batarang launcher" either, Batman just goes through the whole game with a pistol drawn. While the character was pretty trigger happy in the comics in the 30s, this was quite a contrast to the vigorously anti-gun portrayal of Batman in comics current to when the game was made.

The platforming is a fairly interesting for a Game Boy movie cash in. Levels are linear with the typical moving platforms and pitfalls, but there's a large amount of destroyable blocks scattered along each level as well. Shooting color coded blocks like these is where you get your more powerful weapons, but if you don't shoot them you can often use them as stepping stones to completely avoid several of the game's obstacles and enemies. It gives the action a nice ebb and flow as you often have to stop and decide if it's worth taking the easy way through a level or if you will need the extra weapons to help deal with the game's bosses and more powerful enemies. So while the game is simple, the unique structure and controls help it hold up. There's also a pretty fun level where you get to control the Batwing, but it's the platforming that makes this game worth playing.

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

The best part of the game, however, is the impressive soundtrack. Naoki Kodaka and Nobuyuki Hara were responsible for the music again, and despite being on the Game Boy it sounds just as good as some of their best NES work. SunSoft's classic game soundtracks stand up there with the best of their contemporaries. Interestingly, while the music is completely different from the NES game, the Axis Chemicals background music is similar or reused across all of the Sunsoft Batman games, while the rest of the soundtracks are mostly unique to each game.

So while Batman: The Video Game on the Game Boy is a simple game, and the depiction of how Batman operates is a bit questionable, it still holds up as a fun way to kill half an hour. It was fairly popular due to the success of both the 1989 movie and the NES game, and SunSoft would make a few more Batman games to cash in on the hype.

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Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)


Batman: The Video Game - Genesis (1990)

American Cover

Japanese Cover

European Cover

Sunsoft's third Batman game unfortunately is the worse than its predecessors. This Sega Genesis title looks nice in screenshots, and has an underrated soundtrack almost as good as Batman: The Video Game, though it lacks the NES title's focus. This installment also follows the movie the more accurately than the last two games. It looks great on the surface, but is unfortunately a chore to actually play.

The game's level design is where it falls apart. The wall jumping and guns from the NES and GB game are completely gone. Instead, Batman can punch, kick enemies while crouching, and throw batarangs (which are more limited in supply than on the NES). He also has a jumping attack, a very awkward looking downwards tumble with questionable hit detection. It's extremely useful if you can master the timing of it but isn't really required to pass the game. Another under developed technique is that Batman can block some attacks by holding down the punch button, but it's so slow and limited that it's easier to beat the game without ever using it. Finally, Batman can use that iconic "wonderful toy" from the movie, the grappling hook. This was the coolest addition to the game, and any magazine showing it off made sure to have at least one screenshot of Batman ascending to a higher platform or otherwise showing the grappling hook in action.

Batman: The Video Game (Genesis)

This sounds like the basis for a good game, but the hook can only be fired straight up. So with its limited range and the loss of the wall jump, almost every level is a straight line with the occasional columns to ascend or descend. It's not the worst platformer on the Genesis, but is a massive letdown compared to the impressively huge-feeling levels of the NES version. The action itself is fairly weak as well, with more frequently reappearing enemies and bosses that require almost no technique to overcome. There is some variety, though. Keeping in line with the plot of the movie, there's a side scrolling shooter level where you get to drive the batmobile, and another piloting the batwing.

The decadent overkill of these shooter stages cannot be overstated. They're fast, absurd departures from the game proper. You get to speed along in the batmobile, gaining ground on cars. Then suddenly tanks and armored vehicles appear, freely exchanging missile fire on an urban highway. The batwing level is similar. These stages are simple, but have a nice sense of speed, and feel great to blast through after slowly trudging through the game's standard levels. While basic, these levels are fun enough that SunSoft may have been more successful building a more complex shooting game around these levels and dismissing the weak platforming and fighting action entirely.

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Batman: The Video Game (Genesis)

Batman: The Video Game (Genesis)


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Batman - PC Engine (1990)

Cover

This would be SunSoft's final Batman game to tie in with a movie. It's "based on" the 1989 film again but despite taking place in the film's locations, it doesn't really have a plot to speak of. In a weird change of pace, this game is actually a Bomberman clone! Instead of just defeating enemies, however, a few more twists are added with multi-screen levels and obstacles like busy streets to walk across.

The real reason to play this game is to see it attempting to evoke the 1989 Batman film while presenting one of the goofiest, most boy scout like depictions of Batman since the 60s TV series. Crossing the street is a big deal in this game. You have to approach a crosswalk, wait for cars to come from each direction, then cross to avoid being run over. The game hilariously doesn't even let you jay walk, you can only cross the desolate Gotham City streets where you see a traffic light and crosswalk. Now, unlike Bomberman, all enemies reappear regularly, and completing a stage requires finding a number of pieces of evidence scattered throughout each level. This is how most levels play out.

When you reach a museum that's just been vandalized by Joker and his cronies, however, your task is to methodically walk around each gallery and clean every painting. It's surreal, you're just strutting around these narrow hallways incapacitating folks with batarangs and then wiping paintings with some kind of bat-anti-graffiti-cloth until you literally see them sparkle.

Batman's only method of attacking is by standing in place and throwing batarangs, which can be pretty difficult. Whenever you lose a life, you lose any items you've gathered. Similar to Gradius, this leaves you moving at a hopelessly slow speed with only the most pathetic offensive capability. It can be nerve-wracking to waste time plodding around collecting power ups to do basic things like walk at a normal pace before attacking the meat of each level. Without the charming presentation of a Bomberman game and the expanded amount of tasks and larger levels, this gets very tedious.

This PC Engine Batman game is not bad, but every gimmick in it will be exhausted long before the game's many levels are completed. While the previous installments don't outstay their welcome, this one gets boring before it's even half over. Though it is worth a play for the fun music (the iconic first level song and some other previous SunSoft tracks make an appearance) and generally colorful graphics. For obvious reasons this game was only released on the PC Engine in Japan and was never ported to any other region or system.

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Batman (PC Engine)

Batman (PC Engine)

Batman (PC Engine)


Batman

Batman: The Video Game (Sunsoft)

Return of the Joker

Batman Returns (Konami)

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