I don't need to explain who Batman is, right? He's Batman. Everyone knows about Batman. People tend to remember an emotionally stunted orphan who dresses like an acrobatic S&M practitioner and punches clowns in the mouth. Here he is doing just that in Sunsoft's 1989 NES title Batman: The Video Game!
Before Christopher Nolan gave the world his dark, serious, help-I've-swallowed-a-bucket-full-of-broken-glass take on the Dark Knight, before the camp absurdities of Joel Schumacher's tilt at the material and after the loveably goofy Adam West years, Tim Burton directed Batman. You know the one, Michael Keaton plays a stiff-necked Batman opposite Jack Nicholson's Joker. This game is based on that movie, albeit rather loosely.
That's pretty much the plot, yeah - Batman wants to avenge his parrents death with full force. I like that the Joker is described as "worldly" evil. He's a real renaissance man, that one.
Here is the Joker, with a line across his forehead that speaks of recent brain surgery (possibly self-inflicted).
Oh, and Vicki Vale's in the game too, relegated to a cameo in the intro. Kim Basinger fans, drink that picture in because you won't be seeing her again. I know it looks more like Glenn Close but I'm sorry, that's all you're getting.
Don't look at me like that, Batman. You were the one who wanted to come out here and save Gotham City. I don't care that you've just realised how ridiculous your car looks, get out there and enjoy Gotham's vibrant nightlife!
You could go to the THEAT R E, or you could beat up these goons who look like they're come from Bionic Commando. Given that last time Batman went to a show it didn't end well, I can safely assume that I'm going to be smacking hoodlums all night long and probably engaging in some platforming antics. Sorry, not "antics," this is Batman we're talking about. Dark and brooding platform traversement, then.
Batman is, as the fashions of the time dictated, a side-scrolling action-platformer. Actually, despite how much I harp on about how common they were I don't seem to write about that many side-scrolling action-platformers. Maybe I subconciously avoid them. Anyway, the gameplay here is thoroughly familiar, over-familiar even, and your mission is to get Batman from one end of the stage to the next by jumping between platforms and beating up bad guys. You can punch the bad guys, naturally, because while Batman may be the World's Greatest Detective it's usually easier to get information with your fists than with a painstaking forensic examination.
You also have three projectile weapons, all of which require ammo to use. There's a standard batarang that costs one point of ammunition, a rocket that travels the length of the screen horizontally at a cost of two and a shuriken-thing that splits into three and costs, you guessed it, three points of ammo. You can switch between them at any time, although in a move so bafflingly counter-intuitive you'll wonder if the pads on Sunsoft's development console were built upside down, the button to change weapons is start. Not select. Select pauses the game. You know, like the start button should. It takes some getting used to.
Rather more intuitive is Batman's Ninja Gaiden-style ability to wall-jump - when you're up against a vertical wall, simply press jump and you'll leap away from the wall. It's not used much in the first stage, but I'd suggest you practise doing it now because it becomes vital later in the game.
So far, everything's going well, unfathomable start/select confusion aside. Batman is perhaps not as fast as you'd expect, but he controls smoothly enough and I'd like to single out the amount of control you have over his jumps for praise - short hops or long leaps, they're all easy to pull off when you need them. Enemies come at you quickly, and they need a certain amount of accuracy to defeat. Simply hammering the punch button and waiting for them to run into your bat-fists will often see them slipping through and dealing you damage, so take care on that front or jump over them when you can.
There's one thing about this first stage that stands way out beyond the gameplay, the setting and the well-above-average graphics, and that's the music. The theme of this stage, often called Streets of Desolation, is one of the finest tracks you'll ever hear coming from an NES. Is it the best NES track ever? What a pointless thing to say, enjoyment of music is a deeply personal quality that precludes definitive statements of superiority. But yes, it is. Well, it's up there with the very best, your Castlevanias and your Mega Mans, at least. Here, give it a listen.
Sunsoft's mastery of the NES's sound capabilities is well documented through games like Gremlins II and Journey to Silius, but this track has to go down as their gold standard. Composed by Naoki Kodaka, this track has it all - a pumping bassline, amazing 8-bit drum sounds and a melody that could inspire any amount of vigilante justice you'd care to imagine. Does is sound Batman-y? No, not really. It sounds better than Batman-y. There, I said it.
There's a boss at the end of the stage, because even the lawless streets of Gotham must obey the rules of videogaming. I have no idea who this guy is supposed to be, if he even is supposed to be anyone in particular: I don't remember Batman fighting a flying, armored beetle-man in the movie, but then again my memory is pretty terrible. I'm going to pretend that it's Killer Moth, because the Lego Batman games have given me a deep and abiding love for Killer Moth.
Killer Moth flies around the top of the screen, dropping balls of white-hot plasma onto your becowled head. Sometimes he swoops down to ram you, which is your cue to whip a batarang into his face. You do still have some ammo left, don't you? I hope so, because you won't be getting much further without it. This fight represented a big step up in the difficulty stakes, and the first time I attempted it I was almost instantly defeated. Always one to embrace theatricality, when Batman goes out he goes out with a bang,
A literal bang, as he bursts into flames and is completely vaporised in seconds. Well, that's what you get for storing all that bat-kerosene in your utility belt, Bruce.
Once you've figured out the boss' pattern and provided you have plenty of ammo, the fight will be over soon enough and you can move on to stage two...
...where I completely lose any sense of what the hell is going on. I'm still Batman, but now I'm fighting robotic aliens and overgrown arcade claw machines in some kind of industrial facility? I think? At first I thought I might be in the chemical factory from the film, but Jack Napier has already been Joker-fied, remember? Plus this place is filled with bare electrical wires, and you'd have to think those would be too much of a hazard for a chemical plant, even one operating amongst the famously lax building regulations of Gotham City.
It looks nice, wherever it's supposed to be. The backgrounds make excellent use of a wide colour palette, whilst the enemies and Batman himself are drawn in bright and uncomplicated shades that really make them stand out from the detail of the backdrops. Batman even has a nice extra touch of animation that sees his cape swoosh about when you turn around. Having the cape swoosh about is a big part of the Batman experience, of course, so any game that gets it right deserves extra credit.
In stage two there's more focus on platforming, because this factory is the same as all videogame factories in that it consists of a series of suspended platforms, exposed machinery and isolated conveyor belts that could have no possible practical use. If you're anything like me (impatient, clumsy,) you'll quickly learn that the admittedly more Batman-like approach of taking things methodically and cautiously is much better than just barreling ahead as fast as possible, and once you've figured that out it's just a matter of staying calm until you reach the boss.
Then panic, because you're inside the boss with nowhere to run! Okay, look, I'm trying to summon up some drama but it's difficult when you're fighting against a room. There are some guns to destroy, then you hit the blue thing in the top-left a few times, opening the electrified wall so you can hit the thing on the top-right until that blows up and the level is over. It's hardly likely to become the most famous entry in the Caped Crusader's casebook, not when you could sum it all up with a quick aside - "I fought a building and won." No clue yet how the Joker is tied into this.
On a side note, see what I mean about Batman standing out from the background? He could have easily been swamped by the background detail but nope, there he is, easily visible to all. The opposite of what Batman's all about then, really. Hmm. Anyway, the boss has been destroyed and here's the Joker!
No, but I once did the hokey-cokey with Belphegor on a wet Wednesday in Rhyl.
It's a good job I've seen the Batman movie that this game is based on, otherwise I'd think a smug ghost in a purple suit was showing me a ring-pull he'd found during his latest haunting.
Stage three begins, and immediately the difficulty take another upward leap with the introduction of these brutes. They're so tough that Batman himself has turned tail, although in this case is does look like more of a "fuck this nonsense" retreat than one born out of fear. These guys are tough, though, and they attack by jumping onto you and sticking close, draining your health every time they touch you. They're fast, difficult to hit and even harder to get away from, and for once I found myself getting frustrated and angry. That never usually happens to me. I don't get angry with videogames, I just keep chipping away at the part that's stumped me until I get it right. These guys really got to me, and I think I've just figured out why - I'm Batman. I'm playing as one of the toughest, most brilliant characters in all of fiction and I'm struggling to defeat a robot gorilla whose attack strategy seems to be "playful romping." It just doesn't feel right. Eventually I remembered that Batman has intelligence and cunning on his side as well as brute strength, and I started shooting them as soon as enough of them was in the screen for me to hurt but before I activated their murderous simian rage.
Two of them at once was a bit bloody much, though.
The second half of the stage is mostly caves and pipes, with the odd killer robot or flamethower-wielding thug to keep you occupied. There's a lot more wall-jumping to do around here, and it takes on an almost puzzle-based flavour as you figure out the best way to negotiate the jumps while avoiding the enemies. Sharing the same finely-honed thought processes as Batman himself, I quickly came up with a strategy to ensure my progress - jump toward the enemies while punching as fast as possible, hoping they don't hit me and if they do hit me, hoping that they'll drop some health when I clobber them. They don't, usually. Health pick-ups are rare in Batman.
There's another boss waiting for you at the end of the stage, and as has been the theme of the game so far he has nothing to do with Batman, or much of anything, really. He's a mohawked beefcake with a energy-bolt-firing claw on his hand, which doesn't correspond to any DC villain I know of but which is par for the course in a NES platformer. The screenshot above really captures the essence of this battle, because the boss jumped away from me, refused to look me in the eye and didn't turn and fight until I'd fired several dozen bat-rockets into his arse. He did try to attack me after a while, but the damage had already been done and my health bar easily outlasted his. Maybe Sunsoft felt bad about those robot monkeys and they were giving me a break.
Oh hey, does this mean the next stage will be set in the art gallery from the movie, after the Joker has defaced the paintings and had a little dance to some Prince?
Oh, you sweet, naive thing. Nope, it's more hi-tech backgrounds, more robots, more machinery and (ugh) more goddamn mechanical apes. This is what you've reduced me to, Sunsoft - I'm complaining about there being too many mechnical apes. I never thought the day would come.
At least the music's good.
Better than the first stage music? No, but that was never going to be the case. Musical lightning like that isn't going to strike twice in one licensed NES platformer, something that Sunsoft themselves seem to have realised judging by the fact that they reused the stage one theme for the final stage.
All pretence to a Batman-themed videogame has now evaporated. Batman spends most of his time performing delicate, precise jumps between faintly biomechanical platforms, like an H. R. Giger-inspired remake of Jet Set Willy with more wall-jumping. The wall-jumping and the batarangs are really the only in-game touches that provide any sensation of I-Am-The-Night-ness, and the generic feel of the whole enterprise is the game's major flaw - It's just not Batman enough.
I know it's difficult to create a style of gameplay that truly captures the Batman experience - no-one really got it right until Arkham Asylum came along - but this Batman game just feels like every other solid, better-than-usual sc-fi action-platformer around. There's no bat-grapple, and I know it wouldn't have been easy to get that right on the NES but Bionic Commando managed it and without swinging around like a grumpier Spider-Man I just don't feel like I'm getting the full bat-experience. The stages may good-looking and nicely detailed, but they could be from any starship or distant alien moonbase of the 8-bit era, and the bosses are... well, I don't know what they are, and when you consider than Batman has the most famous group of villains in comicdom it seems a real kick in the balls that none of them were included. I know it's not down to Sunsoft trying to stay faithful to the movie: the Scarecrow and Two-Face don't appear in Tim Burton's Batman, but then neither do 'roided-up robo-gorillas or two big white cube.
That's the boss of stage four. White boxes that move around and occasionally fire bulllets at you. You see what I mean about them missing a trick with the Batman license? The worst thing is, it's a fairly interesting boss battle, definitely more engaging than the previous "guys who jump around and fire energy at you" as you work your way around the obstacles in the room, trying to find a safe spot from which you can damage the cubes.
Sadly, the fight is hamstrung in two ways. Firstly, if you crouch where Batman is standing the the screenshot and hit punch repeatedly, the boxes travel past without causing you damage, despite the fact they've clearly just phased through your head. Secondly, you're Batman, and you're fighting a box. I cannot stress that enough. I know people like to hate on Batman & Robin, but imagine how much worse it would have been if Batman had spent the whole film doing battle with a shipping container. It would have been, dear lord, a whole one or two percent worse.
Batman has reached the final stage, and for a brief moment the game and the movie have aligned - this last area sees you making your way up the clocktower as you head to the final confrontation with the Joker. It's all very Castlevania, but rather than Medusa Heads you'll be getting angry at the exposed machinery that borders every platform and constantly chips away at your health bar.
All those gearwheels and cogs? Painful to the touch. Batman now has a much greater appreciation of the risks that come from wearing a cape, especially around large moving machine parts.
The final stage is where Batman, which has been a difficult game since early on, really becomes sadistic. There's no margin for error with any of your jumps, especially given that there seems to be some issues with the hit detection when your head moves near a cogwheel. You'll swear you didn't touch it, but Batman falls down and loses energy and I know you're not calling Batman a liar, now are you? Enemies lurk at the edge of each place you try to land, and Batman's aerial attack options are limited to "jump and hope."
The whole ordeal has forced me to revise my list of the greatest threats facing the Dark Knight. Here it is in reverse order.
5: His rogues gallery
4: Death by excessive brooding
3: Robot Apes
2: The Joker
1: Large-scale clockwork mechanisms.
For Batman's sake, let's hope Clock King never gets his shit together.
So, it's a long, treacherous climb to the top of the tower, and you will almost certainly get pissed off with the whole frustrating affair, but if you persevere you'll eventually reach the top and the final showdown with your arch-nemesis...
...this guy! Wait, who the hell is this guy, and why is the game making me fight him? Like all the other none-cuboid bosses, all this guy does is dash around the screen and fire energy blasts at you, because apparently whoever organised this group of bosses got a really fucking good deal on a job lot of energy weapons.
Screw this guy. I'm tired and cranky from struggling through the Clocktower of Gear-Based Crushings and this no-name, no-account personality void is not nearly interesting enough to cheer me up. What else you got, Sunsoft?
Alright, finally - I'm Batman and I'm fighting the Joker at the top of an abandoned clocktower. This is more like it, this is the mood that I've been waiting for throughout the entire game, so it's a shame that this is the very last piece of gameplay.
The Joker fights the same as the last guy, but harder. He can summon lightning, for one thing. I know, it makes no sense. We're indoors, for a start. The Joker's main gag is his giant comedy gun, ha ha, and get this, oh ho ho ho, if you take a hit from the projectiles it fires then you lose nearly half your goddamn health. Hilarious! Priority number one: avoid that bloody gun.
If you can dodge the Joker's howitzer of a handgun - not an easy task, because the projectiles it fires are bigger than Batman himself - it's a matter of trying to hit the Joker more than he hits you, taking special care to punch him as he runs towards you so that Batman isn't hurt in the collision. It's a tough battle, because Joker's gun is ridiculously dangerous and he's now somehow gained power over the element of thunder, but after the pain I was subjected to while trying to get up the clocktower it wasn't nearly as tough as I was expecting.
After a while, the game decided that I'd punched the Joker in the kneecaps enough times to defeat him, and the NES version of Batman: The Videogame is over.
Good work, Batman, you caught him. Now, let's turn him over to the authorities so they can lock him away in Arkham Asylum and you can go and celebrate avenging your parents' murder.
Or you could throw him to his death.
That works too. Right, who fancies a trip down the pub?
Batman: The Video Game is a strange one. It's a good game, it really is - the gameplay is solid and the wall-jumping is a fun mechanic, the graphics (and in particular the backgrounds) are fantastic and the soundtrack is right up there with the very best the NES has to offer. A few minor issues let it down, like Batman being a touch sluggish, the three-way shot being virtually useless and the occasionally frustrating difficulty level, but it's still a well-constructed, enjoyable adventure. A generic, sci-fi-tinged adventure that really has no business associating itself with the Caped Crusader. There's just not enough Dark Knight topping on the tasty dough of this platforming pizza that Sunsoft have created, and in the end it left me feeling a little unfulfilled.
In summary, then: a good game, but not a good Batman game.
Addendum: I forgot, as I so often do, that videogames used to come with instruction manuals. Upon remembering that they exist, I looked up the Batman manual only to discover that the bosses are indeed supposed to be DC villains - they're just really lame ones no-one has ever heard of. The one before the Joker is Firebug, and the stage three boss is the Electrocutioner. Best of all? The stage one boss actually was Killer Moth. This game has been completely absolved of all its flaws. Go and play it right now. Thank you, and good night.