Thursday, December 24, 2015

Those Wonderful Toys: Batman (NES/GEN/GB/ARC/PCE)

Batman (1990, NES)

I've always preferred Tim Burton's Batman films to Nolan's bloated, self-serious behemoths; Batman has his roots in pulpy comics, so Burton's kooky style and Nicholson's scenery-chewing seems like a perfect match. But hey! This is about games, not movies. Specifically the games based on the first movie. The movie was released in summer 1989; the games were released over a period of up to a year after that. 

"Based on" is a pretty loose way of putting it when it comes to the NES version of Batman. I'm not entirely sure the movie was good material for a game - after all, the film is a perfect example of how Burton is little more than a glorified production designer who is utterly befuddled when confronted with action scenes in a story. But licensed NES games, after all, were mostly cynical cash-grabs, and things like "accuracy" didn't matter much when it came to filmic adaptations.


So why not Batman? We have dark, moody streets full of thugs for him to, er, explode with his boomerang. A chemical plant! That's the kind of material an NES dev lives for. Killer robots, spiked platforms, hardcore death traps, electric walls - whatever. Do I look like I care that Batman is sorta sworn to never use a gun? Give him one - wait not just any gun. Give him a pistol that shoots rockets.

Gee, guys, I haven't actually seen the movie - Batman went down to the sewers to fight hunchbacks, right? That's so Batman. What came next - oh right, he emerged in an enormous underground cavern to go hand-to-hand with tanks. That's what we're sticking with anyway. What do you mean Killer Moth wasn't in the movie? Damnit I've already drawn the sprites! 

See, it's amusing to me how quickly the game goes from "very loosely based on the film of the same name" to "fuck it let's do what we want." One especially weird deviation that's true of nearly all these games - in each one, Batman himself punches Jack into a vat of chemicals - precisely the opposite of how Batman tried to save him. By the time this happens in the NES game, you've reached some pretty hardcore platforming action.

And it is hard - and brutal, and maybe even a little sadistic. But it's never unfair. The game sets itself apart in two ways: its weapon system, and its platforming. Batman automatically has access to three weapons (in addition to punching): rocket pistol, boomerang, and a sort of spreadshot batarang. Rather than picking them up individually, like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden, you only need to find ammo. Good thing it drops early and often, because the punch attack is not really viable after the first level or so. 

The real challenge is the platforming; wall-jumping is key, and its timing becomes paramount in later levels. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, for instance, Batman doesn't stick to the wall, but rather clings for a split-second. It feels stiff at first, but once you get used to it, its precision is damn-near unparalleled on the console. The same could be said for all the platforming - it has a very measured pace to it, not unlike Castlevania, and there's a very slight delay to jumping and punching.

The platforming mechanics are honed to perfection, but maybe it's difficult to recognize that after falling to your death for the 28th time. Reflexes and memorization are important, like any NES action-platformer, but what matters most is the precision required to successfully get past the later levels. There simply is not much room for error. Not that you need to memorize the layout down to each platform; instead, you need to master the game's somewhat stiff controls, and everything falls into place after that. It no longer seems cheap or unfair, but a smoothly upward difficulty curve that reaches towards platforming nirvana.

Normally, for games like this (one that I know pretty well), I'll turn on some cheats, for a number of reasons. Mostly because I want to take my time with the game, soak in the details, get some good screenshots. And also because I don't have the time, the patience, nor the skills, apparently, to beat it honestly. Thing is, there aren't any cheats - for infinite health, anyway. Sure, you can crank up the infinite ammo, but the real challenge is in the platforming - and abusing save states will only take you so far, particularly in the grueling gauntlet in the last cathedral level (yes, eventually the game does circle around back to the film). Which means I had to do it the hard way - that is, the proper way. Beating this game was a particular boost of confidence, as the hardcore indie platformers of late have been kicking my ass and making me question whether or not I'm some platforming chump.

This particular boss - two electrified cubes on a set route - were the real test. But I survived - even though they're harder than the final fight against the Joker himself, who can be cheesed pretty easily once you get in close. Even that endless series of pixel-precise jumps in the final stage couldn't keep me down.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the game's soundtrack, one of the console's best. It was composed by Naoki Kodaka, he of Blaster Master fame. The game looks nice, too - though admittedly, its palette is pretty dark and the endless sewers, caverns, and industrial levels don't really give the game much to work with.

It's funny how the game's Batman license ultimately drags its reputation down. We remember it as a very good (and very hard) Batman game; a good superhero game; a good movie-based game... etc. Had it been an original license, it might have gone on to spawn an entire franchise, the kind of franchise uttered in the same breath as NES stalwarts like Mega Man and Metroid and Castlevania. Make no mistake - that's where it belongs.

Decent people shouldn't live here

Batman (1991, Genesis)

In typical 1990 fashion, the game was developed for both 8 and 16-bit consoles - like many others, it's a different game entirely. The Genesis version, released a year after the NES game (and only a year into the console's life itself), isn't a terrible game. It seems to serve as a decent graphical showcase more than anything else. The platforming isn't bad, but it's very standard stuff. The action leans more towards punching things that shooting - the only other offensive option is a very limited supply of batarangs.

The levels are more faithful to the movie - except, you know, that part where the Flugelheim Museum turns into a massive deathtrap full of falling chandeliers, bottomless pits, and spiked platforms - oh, and let's not neglect that scene where Batman takes to the streets in the Batmobile to mow down any poor sap who happens to be on the road that night - but hey, gamers can't be picky about this sort of thing. In any case, the game has a distinct emphasis on action more than platforming. Batman also has access to a grappling gun, but it's used for simple progression and not actual platforming. 

It's also fairly short - or maybe it's just easy. A Batmobile and Bat-plane level are thrown in there, but  they're pretty unremarkable and unoffensive. The game is lovely to look at, with some nice environmental touches (the rain in the first level, for instance), and an even better soundtrack (also by Kodaka) than the NES game. But alas - this game is not particularly celebrated, so the OST is most likely overlooked by most.

The game is probably what you would imagine from a movie adaptation released relatively early in a console's lifespan: nice production values, a little rushed and unimaginative, and entirely playable - and forgettable.

As you can see, I'm a lot happier

Batman (1990, Game Boy)

Oh, we're not finished yet. Sunsoft also developed an entirely different game for Game Boy. Batman's only offense here is a gun (here we go again...), and the platforming is entirely horizontal. The controls and physics take a little getting used to, but it handles just fine. The central hook here is the massive amount of destructible platforms scattered around the level. Most of the game's platforming revolves around shooting these - they can hold power-ups, they can impede your progress - or they can be necessary to make a jump.

It's a clever risk/reward mechanic: do you shoot that block and go for the power-up, which would make that jump even harder - or play it safe and leave it alone? It's simple, fun, and well-implemented - Sunsoft keeps surprising. The game borrows (downgraded) music from the Genesis version, and naturally its graphics can't come close to either version of the game. In fact, it's downright unimpressive in visuals, even for a Game Boy game. But then you remember how so many GB games used those big sprites and zoomed-in camera and made navigation so frustrating; playing 95% of the GB library today is something close to misery. So it works in the game's favor to use small sprites and bland backgrounds - not once was I ever flustered by visibility.

There are a couple of Batwing levels thrown in, but they're superior to the fluff in the Genesis version - these are proper, hard-as-hell schmup-type levels, and with no cheat codes - well, it was a relief to get through it. I can still get it up! The more you know.

If anyone else calls you beast... 

Batman (1990, arcade)

Nope! That's not all. Here's one you might not know: an arcade exclusive developed by Atari. Apparently it's pretty rare (not to mention, not well known at all), and perhaps for good reason. The only time I have even heard or seen reference to its existence was in a virtual tour of Michael Jackson's famous arcade.


The game itself is an unwieldy combination of sidescrolling and Rolling Thunder-type Batmobile segments. The latter parts are dull and unremarkable, but the sidescrolling... yikes. Controls are unresponsive, and the game can't decide if it wants to be a brawler or a platformer, and fails miserably at both. The fact that dying restarts a sequence, and its inconsistent compatibility with save states means that I didn't get very far. But it's all same to me. It looks nice, sure, but... no. Stay far away.

This town needs an enema!

Batman (1990, PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

And here you thought we were done. The final game to be adapted from the Burton film was an unusual game for the TurboGrafx-16 - or rather, I should say PC-Engine, because it was exclusive to Japan. The entire game consists of overhead maze-like levels. Batman must navigate and defuse all the bombs before the timer goes off. His only offense is a batarang, which merely stuns the Joker's goons - you have to walk into a stunned enemy to defeat him. Also scattered around the levels are speed and batarang powerups.

The first thing I thought when I played it was - what was this game originally meant to be? By that I mean it feels like the sort of game that was initially developed to be something else, but given a Batman skin at the last minute to coincide with the film (like, say, the way Doki Doki Panic morphed into Super Mario Bros. 2). But I couldn't find any information to confirm as such. It's not an especially attractive game, though again - its simplicity helps a lot in the way of visibility. 

After 12 or so stages in the streets of Gotham, the game moves to the museum (yes, before the chemical factory... guess someone missed a memo), where the bombs are replaced by paintings that Batman must... wipe. It's also here that the game's difficulty picks up, with teleporting platforms and gun-wielding enemies, some of which run faster than Batman himself. It's also where I stopped playing, but I'd still recommend giving it a try - it's a fun little game, and definitely one of the more unique Batman games out there.

All screenshots are my own. Box art from GameFAQs. Arcade image from Arcade Museum. The Joker boss and Keaton/Basinger image are also from GameFAQs. I didn't bother with the other box art images; they're all basically the same. 

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