What happens when you stuff crime fighting vigilante into an 8-bit cart?! You make an instant classic that’s what!!
From Silver Screen to Grey Cart
Ahh the 80’s where every moderately popular action/horror movie or comic book franchise was unceremoniously hacked down to the bone and stuffed into an 8-bit cartridge. As you can imagine this didn’t always turn out for the best, but that didn’t stop Sunsoft from following suit. With quick resolve they loosely based (I use this phrase liberally) their new NES game on the smash hit 1989 Batman film directed by Tim Burton and released it to the world in 1990.
Even as a fair weather Batman fan it surprises me that it took me this long to try out Batman: The Video Game. I mean, I loved the movie and, I’m sure I’ll get flak for this, but the Jack Nicholson rendition of Joker is probably still my favorite to this day. As I mentioned in my Drakengard 3 and Batman pickups article I heard nothing but praises for it over the years and I’m a big fan of action-platformers on top of it. But as someone who firmly planted themselves in the Marvel fanboy boat it was never meant to be. Fast-forward 28 years and with the wisdom that comes with almost three decades of gaming, my opinions on Marvel vs DC Comics hasn’t really waned, but my willingness to accept that there are some good DC games out there has. I joke of course, there are definitely quality DC games that exist…somewhere.
So, let’s don our black and yellow rubber suits and turn our entire body to take a look at this NES classic based on the infamous Dark Knight!
Make up your mind Sunsoft!
Since the dawn of video games it has always been in the best interest of a developer or a publisher to port (adapt) their games to as many home consoles or computers as they could. This is certainly a standard practice today with relative parity between each console’s version of a game. This wasn’t true though for many years and I want to say up until the 6th generation of consoles (PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube and Dreamcast) most games were wholly different depending on the console it was found on. With the exception, of course, to its name and it’s source material. It could just be me, and as a software developer myself I understand the difficulty in porting your code to a different codebase, but I have to imagine it’s easier than building a whole new game from the ground up. It’s also worth noting that developers are stubborn (I can attest to that as well) and they’ll do what they want to do, but more than likely it was due to licensing restrictions between each console manufacturer.
Following the trends, as one does in the 80’s and 90’s, Sunsoft decided it wasn’t enough to release one version of their latest licensed video game but four, count ‘em, four! One for each of the major consoles of the time. The NES/Famicom version which I’m reviewing today and one each for the Game Boy, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and finally the PC-Engine (which was exclusive to Japan). I make fun of the fact that they made four seperate games named the exact same thing, but there is a silver lining, in that it’s actually worth picking up the different console versions because they offer unique experiences. Unlike ports these days.
I’ve heard that each version of the game is at least decent, but the NES port is the one I hear the most about. And from what I can tell that version is considered the best of the bunch. The prices for the other releases aren’t unreasonable either, so I may just have to indulge myself and pick them up to give them the ole look-see for comparison’s sake. And with that I trip and swiftly fall into the Batman video game rabbit hole.
It’s not just the variants of the original that exist either. Batman: The Video Game was followed up by a sequel called Batman: Return of the Joker which also had an unrelated version on the Game Boy and then a remake on the Mega Drive/Genesis called Revenge of the Joker. Revenge of the Joker was slated for release on the SNES as well, but was canceled and never got the opportunity to see the light of day. Unfortunately, Return of the Joker and all of its variations are much rarer and much more expensive. Which is too bad because I’d love to get my hands on those carts and play them. Maybe one day I’ll get lucky and find it at a garage sale or something for dirt cheap (we can dream right?). The real kicker though is that the cover art for Return of the Joker kicks the original game’s gluteus maximus and my eyeballs may never bask in its glory in person.
It’s Always Pixely in Gotham
I’m not joking either when I say Batman’s cover art was outshone by it’s sequel and if you look closely you’ll see that it’s just as bland as it was from far away. The only interesting bit is that you may be able to discern the halftone dots used during the printing process for the label. I mean it does have the big bold Batman logo front and center, which certainly lets you know exactly what this game is about, but even the movie’s cover art was just… ok. The PAL region version suffered the same bland fate, but the Japanese one was at least a bit more interesting. Not by much, but it did have an image of Michael Keaton as Batman superimposed right next to the gigantic “Batman” lettering, which I’m assuming was ripped directly from a scene in the movie.
Once you jump into the game you’ll be presented with what looks like your standard NES graphics. Where title screens and cutscenes are comprised of highly detailed images simplified enough so that they’re still recognizable, but also fit within the 8-bit color space. And I have to commend Sunsoft’s technical artists for their skills at doing this. At no point was I unsure that I was looking at Jack Nicholson’s Joker or that the Batmobile was recklessly speeding down a highway shooting machine guns from it’s fenders.
The ingame graphics more than get the job done as well and remind me a lot of Mega Man and even Ninja Gaiden. Although the colors can be bland at times the amount of detail they eek out of every background tile is impressive, especially for the NES. Enemy sprites are distinct and easily distinguishable from the backgrounds and the environments you play in are also interesting and suit the game’s overall design. You will encounter the same palette swapped enemies in each of the worlds, but in the five total acts there was enough variety that it never felt quite as repetitive as you would think. In actuality, it was more of a heaven sent that you encountered similar enemies between each of the stages. The platforming was hard enough and seeing an enemy you knew how to deal with eased some those perilous platforming pains. Scratch that, those platforming scars may never heal!!
The one thing I can definitively say about Batman’s presentation is that it’s soundtrack is superb and jives with the action on screen perfectly! Which shouldn’t be a surprise since the music was crafted by famed Sunsoft composer Naoki Kodak who also worked on some of the de facto Sunsoft soundtracks like Blaster Master and Fester’s Quest. It has all of the trappings of a great NES Capcom game that may not necessarily suit the melodramatic Batman universe but was upbeat and an absolute joy to listen to even outside of the game. I hear a lot of great things about Sunsoft and their soundtracks and this game convinced me wholeheartedly!
Jumping with both Direction and Magnitude!
Your goal in Batman: The Video Game is to wade through five acts (each broken into 2 to 4 stages) trying to hunt down the Joker and defeat an onslaught of his minions along the way. The story (as little as there is) is forced upon you by way of cutscenes. All of which are loosely based on scenes from the movie and are surprisingly well done. They succeed in reminding you that your playing a game based on the Batman movie (with a few more pixels), but really they don’t offer you much more than something pretty to look at.
Now, when I say this game is loosely based on the movie I mean “loooooosely”. Pretty much the only thing in common is the title and maybe that the Joker is in the game, oh and that the Joker kinda looks like Jack Nicholson. At least from what I could tell (I’ll admit i didn’t look too hard) not a single scene or enemy resembles anything you would find in the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though.
Actually to my surprise, and this took a bit of research on my end, the various enemies you encounter are in fact villains and characters found in the DC Comics Universe. This includes characters like Deadshot (the guy that shoots bullets at you?) and Heatwave (the flamethrower guy?), but honestly I’m not that familiar with DC villains so it was initially lost on me.
Aside from the nod to DC comics as a whole, what I really found alluring about Batman was just how unabashedly Sunsoft condensed the Batman movie and made it a 100%, no artificial sweeteners added, video game. It’s like they took the film, cut off all the fat and relevant characters and gamified the ever lovin’ heck out of it! You want robots?! You got it. You want Mega Man style platforming without the precision?! That’s there too. Oh and I can’t forget the touch of Ninja Gaiden wall hopping and badass bosses either. But is it Batman? Well… not so much… but they do have Joker!!
When all is said and done, the one thing that makes a game memorable and stand the test of time is it’s gameplay. And Batman’s gameplay is… serviceable but still fun. You can expect to run a whole lot, jump a whole lot (especially off walls) and attack the enemies in front of you to make progress. You have four basics attacks at your disposal and all work decently well to varying degrees. Three of the four attacks will require ammo which can be refilled by collecting little missile icons that drop after defeating an enemy. The first attack, which only required your will to press the B button, is your punch. This is probably the most powerful skill, but it’s range and speed leaves you wide open most of the time. The last three are your Batarang (my favorite) which consumes one point ammo, a gun that fires missiles consuming two points of ammo and finally a circular blade that splits into three separate projectiles which is decently powerful, but consumes three points of ammo and is a little slow.
Excluding that dang jumping enemy in act 3, most of the enemies and the first couple of bosses were relatively easy to take care of, but this game is definitely challenging. Really it’s the combination of the slight delay between attacks, the massive damage some of the bosses do to you and the fact that you’re basically “locked in” after a jump that makes it hard. Though I do appreciate the variable jump height mechanic the devs at Sunsoft implemented. It took a bit of getting used to, but it made the platforming fun and rewarding, albeit a little frustrating at times. Luckily, you were given infinite continues if you happen to game over (which you probably will).
Many would consider Batman on the NES a premium and hard as nails title for the console. And gosh darn it I’d have to agree! I loved every minute playing it. It was certainly a test of my patience and my NES platforming skills to say the least. Nevertheless don’t let that deter you from trying this comic book hero classic, it’s more than worth it and a testament to the skills of the Sunsoft devs during the NES days!!
So I gotta know, what are some of your favorite games based on comic book heroes?! Have you played any of the other Batman games out there?
All original gameplay screenshots and photos by The Backlog Odyssey