Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Like a Harp From Hell: Batman Returns (SNES/NES/GEN/GG/SMS/Lynx)

Batman Returns (SNES, 1993)

It's a little strange, in hindsight, to imagine a slew of games based on Tim Burton's sequel, Batman Returns; the movie is little more than a series of incoherently plotted episodes featuring freaks of varying degrees of freak-ness, and a lovely Art Deco production design. What little action there is dull and static, as is usual with Burton's films.

Then again, maybe not. 8- and 16-bit games hardly needed appropriate source material to make something of quality; hell, some of the games based on Burton's first Batman film are proof of that. Out of all the Batman Returns adaptations, the SNES game, released a year after the movie, is probably the most faithful. Its opening cut-scenes and text (and even dialogue) are taken straight from the movie; no small matter, considering Nintendo's notorious (and random) censorship policies might have clashed with the film's surprisingly dark story. Remember that the film is about a freaky penguin boy, who is dumped into a freezing river by his parents, and who then goes on to kidnap newborns in his creepy toy circus train, with the intent of dumping them in toxic sludge. Hardly the stuff of Nintendo games; or indeed, superhero stories.

Batman Returns for SNES is probably a game you've played before in some other incarnation, like when it was called "Final Fight" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." I'll be the first to admit that the beat-em-up genre is sorely lacking in originality and innovation, but there's something particularly stale about this game that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's Batman's limited moveset - a simple combo, a health-draining power attack, and a screen-clearing bomb (called "test tubes" in this game). Well, that's standard enough. Maybe it's the cheap bosses, with their triple-length health bars - wait, no, that's typical beat-em-up material. The enemies are limited to about 3 or 4 regular types - again, standard stuff.

The game is limited to single-player; OK, that's a big no-no in the genre (not that it makes a bit of difference to me, playing it alone on an emulator). And it's not like the game doesn't strive for a little variety. In between typical beat-em-up levels there are a few sidescrollers, with some rudimentary platforming. These are especially frustrating; it uses the same sprites as the other levels, but sprites that big are not designed for platforming. It makes it pretty tough to dodge anything, and the limited visibility makes it pretty easy to fall from ledges, too. There's a random Mode 7 Batmobile stage thrown in, but it's pretty easy and unremarkable - and forgettable.

As bland (and sometimes frustrating) as the gameplay can be, it's one hell of an attractive package. Out of all the games based on this film, the SNES version best captures the mood and atmosphere of Burton's film. Sprites are large and well-animated, backgrounds are a perfect 16-bit version of the film's impressive production design, while the SNES quality soundchip produces solid renditions and remixes of Danny Elfman's darkly whimsical score. The levels follow the film's locations pretty precisely - even if sometimes it stretches things a bit, retro-style (an entire stage is given over to the little train driven by the organist, which shows up for all of 10 seconds in the film).

I imagine it's worth a try for genre or Batman or Burton fans. It strikes me as a little dull (even as a genre fan, and a big fan of the film) and unimaginative, but it could have been a lot worse. After all, this is a superhero game - scratch that, this is game based on a movie based on a superhero. As far as that goes, it's perfectly respectable beat-em-up.

"Just the pussy I been looking for"

Batman Returns (NES, 1993)

The NES game functions as a sort of little brother to its SNES counterpart. Just as that game was a textbook-basic 16-bit brawler, Batman Returns for NES resembles other beat-em-ups on the console. More specifically, it looks and feels very much like Konami's own TMNT games. The problem is that it feels a lot like TMNT II: The Arcade Game, which was 3 years old when Batman Returns was released in 1993. Konami had already released TMNT III: The Manhattan Project a year earlier in 1992, and that's one of the best playing and looking brawlers on the system.

In that context, this NES game feels particularly lazy and uninspired. Its backgrounds do a nice job of capturing the moody, Art Deco Gotham of the film, but due to the small sprites they end up feeling static and empty. Gameplay is likewise a little too stale; a sort of "combo" is allowed, like a 16-bit game (something the TMNT games on NES failed to manage), and Batman gets his obligatory, health-draining sweep attack. But it lacks the varied stages and big bosses of other brawlers; standard sidescrolling Batmobile stages don't leave much of an impression either.

Which isn't to say it's a bad game. But when its SNES sibling already made a fine, if by-the-books, effort to translate the film into a sidescrolling brawler, there isn't much reason to bother with it. As a side note, it does away entirely with the Elfman nonsense to give way to a pretty solid NES chiptune soundtrack, which gives it another vibe altogether. Maybe it's worth a try just for that, on second thought.

"Bruce Wayne, why are you dressed like Batman?"

Batman Returns (Genesis, 1992; Sega CD, 1993)

We can't be so generous with the games that ended up on Sega's consoles, though. To coincide with the film in 1992, a handful of very typical action platformers wound up on various Sega systems. The Genesis game is unique (by which I mean it made some odd decisions) in its adaptation: an opening cut-scene, using the in-game engine itself, shows Penguin framing Batman for the murder of the Ice Princess. This is an event that takes place literally more than halfway through the movie - believe me, I checked.

The first level, swinging through Gotham buildings with some pretty rote action-platform gameplay, isn't so bad. It's also the only Batman game released so far that makes an effort to capture all the absurd backup weapons he keeps in his utility belt: pressing start brings it up, allowing you to choose from batarangs, smoke bombs, grappling gun, a rare homing batarang, and a bat swarm.

After that first level, though... the levels are fairly detailed (though they all have a nasty, grainy look to them), but visibility becomes a major concern as soon as the second level. They're simply too dark, and they're designed full of cheap traps, like off-screen goons firing at you, and enemies and pitfalls hidden behind the environment's foreground. Another thing that struck me was how repetitive they are, especially towards the end, when frustrating segments get repeated over and over. Not that it gets any better when you reach the slippery ice platforms or the unfair bosses.

A year later an enhanced Sega CD version was released. It opens with a handful of frustrating, repetitive 3D Batmobile stages. They play like a beefier version of the SNES' single Mode 7 level - which I suppose is what the Sega CD was designed for (aside from terrible, grainy FMV pseudo-games). If you can make it past that headache, you'll find the same sidescrolling levels - though they look precisely the same, grainy sprites and all, the Sega CD version at least plays noticeably more smoothly. It also utilizes an original CD-quality score that combines rock instrumentation with some of the Elfman motifs - not that bad a job at setting the mood, actually. But still no reason to bother with either version of the game.

"You flush it, I flaunt it"

Batman Returns (Sega Master System/Game Gear, 1992)

No, not finished yet. An entirely different version was released for Sega's Master System (a near identical port also finding its way to the Game Gear); just as before, it plays like a little brother to its 16-bit counterpart. Surprise! It's also a frustrating action platformer. That's really all it is. The only thing that sets it apart is, before each level, the player is presented with two routes to choose from, one of which is standard stuff while the other, more difficult route emphasizes Batman's swinging mechanics (using his grappling gun). These segments aren't entirely terrible; let's face it, it aint no Bionic Commando (ah, but what games are?), but it's intuitive enough, and sure as hell better than the similar garbage mechanic from a certain Spider-man game.

Sure, it looks alright - that's the power of the Master System for you - though oddly, bosses are played against an entirely black background. The entire game is nearly crippled by the fact that Batman dies after a single hit - from anything. Though he respawns right where he was, it makes the game damn near unplayable. Throw in a nice little Konami-style 50 lives code, though, and it makes the game a little more tolerable - not a bad way to pass the time, I suppose. (In my brief test with the nearly identical Game Gear version, I noticed that Batman is given full health bar, which makes the SMS version's design even more baffling).

"It could be worse. My nose could be gushing blood."

Batman Returns (Atari Lynx, 1992)

Ha! And here you thought we were done. Much like the first movie, this one saw all sorts of weird ports showing up on weird consoles. In this case, the Lynx, Atari's doomed handheld, got its own Batman Returns. To be honest, though, there isn't much to say - it's an absurdly difficult sidescroller, with a bigger emphasis on action over platforming. Truth to tell, I couldn't make it past the boss in the first level - getting that far felt like an achievement.

But if we're going to be totally honest, I didn't try very hard. By this point I had just played through no less than four Batman Returns games (not including a few runs on the Sega CD and Game Gear ports), and, well, let's face it - this is not a very good game. You're often swarmed by enemies chucking bombs at you, nearly impossible-to-dodge motorcycle clowns - not to mention exploding buildings.

I'd imagine this is a pretty good looking game, when played natively - superior to Game Gear and vastly more attractive than any Game Boy game - but Christ, who am I kidding? I've never met a soul who can claim they played an Atari Lynx "natively." And with games like this, that's not surprising. 

All screenshots are my own; as usual, all box art from GameFAQs. Genesis and NES box art below:


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you kindly! But if you're a Batman fan... don't hold your breath for Batman Forever anytime soon. Even I have my limits when it comes to terrible comic-based games...