Batman: The Video Game (Sunsoft, 1989)
In 1989, Warner Brothers released the blockbuster film, Batman. A merchandising storm ensued, with both movie-related and general Batman-themed items flying off shelves. Around this time, the NES was at the dizzying height of its popularity as a home console, and it only stood to reason that a game be made. DC Comics dropped the license to Sunsoft, and one of the NES's better late-era games was the end result.
I’ve wanted to do a Sunsoft NES game for a while now, and I may eventually do all of them… but this one was the first Sunsoft title I recall playing as a youth. I always loved the company’s style of presentation; they often found ways to inject color and vibrance into even the most gritty, drab themes. Sunsoft is undeniably late 80s/early 90s to the core. Batman: the Video Game is no exception.
The game is loosely themed after the 1989 film, though prototype graphics show that this wasn’t initially a priority for the development team. In the end, it was mostly graphics that tied the game and the film together anyway; I don’t recall Batman fighting a flying beetle-man or two separate malevolent AIs in the film. All things considered, the basics are the same: you, as Batman, must stop the Joker from dominating Gotham City with his campaign of poison and terror. Batman must travel through the Axis Chemical Factory, an abandoned laboratory, and other locales to reach Joker atop the Cathedral for the final battle. The game plays similarly to many action platformers in most ways, but one function you will be using often is Batman’s wall-jump. I mean, you have to become PRECISE with this move to get through the mid to late stages. Well-timed wall-jumping can also be used to avoid harm from certain enemies perched in hard to reach places… while you make your way over to punch them to death. Half of the game’s respectable challenge is simply navigating a level without dying, and the enemies only play a part in that. There are plenty of static hazards you have to avoid touching, such as ooze, grinding gears, and electrified surfaces. Batman: the Video Game is challenging, but thankfully, as the Dark Knight, you’re prepared for the challenge.
Batman can not only punch (quite rapidly, in fact) but can also use 3 different weapons. He gets his trusty batarangs, a triple-shot “dirk,” and…a gun. I mean, it shoots little missiles, but it’s a gun. Didn’t Batman have a thing about guns?
Anyway, you’ll need these weapons, since Batman’s up against some pretty varied and tricky opponents. Your regular baddies include little spiky toaster-ovens, dudes who look kind of like French Legionnaires, ninjas, hopping giant mutants, very slow-walking androids with claws, and dudes who squat in place with flamethrowers. Fighting most of these enemies involves either careful timing or simple blitz tactics, depending on how they move and how far they can reach with their attacks. You’ll find bad guys posted on narrow ledges pretty often, and it will usually be while you’re trying to do the wall-jump to climb vertically. When you kill an enemy, you almost always get some kind of small reward; hearts give back health, the missile icons give you ammo for your weaponry, and the “B” icon just gives you 1000 points.
The bosses are as colorful as the array of underlings, and two of them are actually machines. The first boss you fight, right outside City Hall, is a flying fireball tosser who seems daunting until you realize you can just stand to one side of his blasts and then boomerang his stupid face when he swoops down toward you. Axis Chemical Factory contains the first of the two electronic bosses; Batman must first shut down its outer defenses before blasting away at its energy core. At the end of the underground level, you fight Electrocutioner, a mohawked Mad Max extra with a claw for one hand and a deadly lightning gun for the other. (It is worth noting that most of the bosses, including him, are based off actual minor villains in the comic books.) If you’re patient, you can literally get this guy to attack the wall while you nuke him from the other side of the room. Level 4 is an abandoned laboratory that ends in a fight against another robotic boss. This one is a bit more straightforward; Batman must defeat two large and very dangerous cubes that move about the room and try to destroy him.
Level 5, the Gotham Cathedral, has two bosses: Firebug and The Joker himself. Firebug looks and behaves a lot like someone you’d expect to see in Fist of the North Star, and his routine is a pretty scary pattern of anime jumps and massive fireballs. The Joker is, well… a joke. His elaborate strategy consists of shooting you, running away, and pointing to the sky to summon lightning bolts that you can avoid by standing about one arm-span away from him. Once you defeat Joker, you get to watch one of the coolest cut scenes I’ve seen outside of Ninja Gaiden.
Batman: the Video Game has some really cool graphics, which manage to be both colorful and suitably drab for the setting of Gotham City. The background graphics are especially good; while they are undeniably 8-bit, some of them, namely the first stage, look surprisingly realistic. There are also some truly delicious cut scenes; these loosely follow the film and add a good dramatic element to the whole experience. The music was composed by Naoki Kodaka, and it is probably my favorite part of the game. The title screen music is completely flat, but every other track makes up for it. The level music is all pretty rock & roll. It’s as intense as it should be. I particularly like how mean the boss music sounds, and I especially enjoy Level 4’s music.
There was also a game for the Sega Genesis, which most consider to the better game; it’s not only on a more advanced system, it stays much truer to the film. Eventually Sunsoft also released a sequel (of sorts) for the NES, Batman: Revenge of the Joker. I have taken a cursory look at it, and it’s not a terrible game… but it’s very silly. There have been a multitude of other games released during the Caped Crusader's more prominent periods on TV and the big screen; to list them all here would not make for interesting reading. I will say, however, that most of the ones based on the later films... well, they suck just about as bad as those films did.
When the newer series of Batman films began a few years back, there was an outcry among hardcore comic/Batman fans. This says more about how good the 1989’s Batman was than it does about the new series. As a kid who sat wide-eyed in the theater during the Batwing scene and the cathedral fight in the ’89 film, I can relate to the feeling that they did it right the first time around. I also poured a lot of hours into this game as a kid, and enjoyed it enough to surmount its considerable difficulty.
See you mid-month, RetroManiacs!