Friday, July 27, 2012

The Best Batman Video Games

 The advent of The Dark Knight Rises calls for reflection on the the history of Batman -- video games. No doubt, there's been many of them across 20+ game consoles with many cash cows among them winners, losers and forgettables. But I'm not here to talk about Batman: Arkham City or anything on the Playstation, I'm talking about the past times of 8-to-16 bits, an age of Batman-rich merchandising and everything in between the Burton and the FOX animated cartoon. Before you kids of today listen to a silly-voiced Nolan-envisioned Bane, it's important to old-skool you in on the Batman games we old-timers grew up with.

There's no doubt there was a heap of licensed material released under the Batman brand since Burton reinvigorated the Batman name into the 90's with the movie and each game that followed it reached three or more consoles, each with alternate, varied results. Today, many developers conveniently just develop ports, homologizing them across the current-gen consoles. 

None of the games particularly break the mold in terms of originality and most were handled by Sunsoft, Konami or Sega (for the Sega consoles) and were either of the sidescrolling action-platform, driving or beat 'em up genres. 

Worry not, there's no Jokers in this deck as I've hand-picked Gotham's best.

Batman: The Video Game (Nintendo) / 1990

The first notable Batman game developed by Sunsoft modeled and licensed after the 1989 Burton movie. Batman was one of the grittiest games featuring and an excellent, progressive rock soundtrack as Batman hunts down The Joker through four not-too-difficult chapters inspired by locales in the movie. A simple game with some cutscenes, Batman's NES adventure is non-stop action, though lots of (platform) jumping,  wall-clinging and challenging boss fights. Though criticized for having a purple Batman, this game held true to the series' dark nature and solid game design even if it hadn't any Batmobile segments which became almost standard in later Batman games.

Sunsoft also released a Game Boy version with Batman sacrilegiously using a gun of sorts. Later released was also a Genesis version, which featured more rich graphics, colors, driving stages and a true black-palette Batman but arguably, this original version still wins, especially in the sound department with one of the best Nintendo soundtracks of all time.

Batman Returns (Super Nintendo) / 1993

During the 16-bit console wars, different licensing was almost always distributed to handle each version of the rival consoles. Konami secured the license for Super Nintendo while Sega in-house developed for their Genesis and Sega CD versions which resulted in three entirely different games. Needless to say, like most of the SNES  vs. Genesis wars, SNES usually won with not only quite possibly the best Batman Returns version but also the best Batman games produced, ever. And the game has it all: non-stop Final Fight (or in this case, TMNT-style) street brawl action through various chapters that were inspired by the movie. The action and animation are smooth as stealth, graphics at the peak of brilliance, and a mark of Konami quality reign throughout.

Like all of these action brawler types, gameplay gets stale and redundant rather quickly even if scenarios will often change to have Batman 'escaping' scenes with only his grappling gun and batarangs instead of fist-level action. Attention to detail is on point though, from the sprinkling snow in Stage one to the bosses, you know the development team did their homework for this game.

There was also a fairly forgotten NES version released months earlier which managed to get squeezed out in the phasing-out years of the aged 8-bit console, which plays out (and even looks and sound a lot) like an NES TMNT/Konami beat 'em up which is essentially a more crude version of the far, technically superior SNES one.

The rougher Genesis rendition, which stuck to platform action a la Sunsoft's Batman, made no attempt to copy this one. Now the CD one, had some of its own perks.

Batman Returns (Sega CD) / 1993
While not too memorable, like much of Sega CD's ill-fated library and history, Batman Returns on Sega CD needed to be much more for its technical, for lack of better verbiage, prowess which had the expectation of technically exceeding that of any other home console on the market. Paired with the use of digital media a la CD meant the audio capacity could blow any other game console out of the water beyond a chiptune soundtrack. The SCD version served as a grade-up to the Genesis version with mode-7 style driving action as well as the platform segments a la the Genesis version. But the real allure of the game was the soundtrack by U.S. Sega sound vet Spencer Nilsen, who used much higher quality, studio-grade synthesizers and even live recorded guitars in stages and cutscenes.

Still falling short of an overall more polished Super NES version, much thanks to its sound engine, which at times doesn't necessarily match the sprite-based game action scenes, makes it to the top of the heap while barely escaping the mediocre, albeit very challenging Genesis counterpart. If anything, the badass guitars in the game's theme song give it (certified 90's) credence alone. 

Side by Side: SEGA CD vs. Genesis Versions

The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Super Nintendo) / 1995

For those who watched Batman: The Animated Series (see: required viewing)the video game once of the same name chronicled players through the series across eight episodes featuring an array of Batman villains from The Joker to Two-Face to Man Bat for he and sometimes Robin to take on. When the producers decided to rebrand the series including Robin, the title changed, but the game stayed mostly true to FOX's acclaimed The Animated Series. Developed by Konami, gameplay reflected Batman Returns with milder Final Fight-style brawling but called upon players to recall upon some episodes and puzzles to complete each chapter.

Like the series, the animation is top-notch, graphics excellent, sound superb even if the gameplay is somewhat predictable, limited and linear with unlockables next-to-none. Adventures plays akin to interactive versions of the actual episodes from the series which allow playability of only Batman with an array of selectable weapons that will come in handy during each chapter. 

Just wait until you get to the Riddler's stage, which fleshes the best of two Riddler-themed episodes together into one wild ride. Only a couple chapters fall short and or deviate from the formulaic platform action; Catwoman's has you running up catwalks before a brief, easy fight and Two-Face's stage has you on a ho-hum top-down car chase through Gotham.

Sadly, this solo-only adventure had no battery back-up so you'll be relying on passwords to get back to each chapter.

Unlike the Sega produced, dramatically different two-player optional Genesis version, Konami's faithful reflection of the series doesn't rival the challenging, often impossible, but also noteworthy, darker Genesis version. There was also a Game Boy one which made it out long before the title change over.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Sega Genesis) / 1995
Sega's Adventures of Batman & Robin will play you like a harp from hell. Unlike the Super Nintendo version, Sega's version is a crack walk from the moment you turn on the game with a haunting, pounding electronic soundtrack by Jesper Kyd and gritty, dazzling visuals showcase. From baddies flinging their flashlights upon defeat to the checkered tablecloth whisping in Mad Hatter's stage, silky animation, fluid framerate and stunning effects crowned this game and pushed the Genesis to its fullest. By design, Adventures spiritually succeeds the gameplay of Return of the Joker (and might I add, the embarrassingly hideous Genesis version) though not nearly as weird, but with a reliance on projectiles instead of punches.
Unlike the SNES counterpart, the Genesis one has only four main villains: The Joker, Two Face and (Sega exclusive) Mad Hatter following Mr. Freeze's plot to freeze Gotham into an ice age. You play as Batman or Robin (or both, with two-players -- and you'll need it) though nether have any discernible differences, push through four enemy packed stages flinging colored projectiles at hoards of street ruffians, explosive dolls and ginormous mechanical cats.

Now, you can enjoy a play-through of the Super NES version or be on edge constantly with this rendition, crafted for the hardcore shooter enthusiast or those who made their way through the likes of Contra, Alien Soldier or Gunstar Heroes with diamond difficulty, perseverance and a demand for perfection. And the game calls for it. Nonstop throughout the game's lengthy, flashy four stages, you'll have to tough it without save files or passwords. Even though the gameplay is somewhat generic, the visuals and aspects callback to the demented nature of the series' stage bosses and themes. Unlike the SNES one referring to actual episodes, specifically The Mad Hatter's 3rd Stage "Tea Time" (use a code, you'll probably never make it through there), really should have won award for its masterpiece, the Genesis one models stages after the nature of villains. 

Seriously, this game's development team Clockwork Tortoise Inc. poured everything into this game. While I can't say I've made it too far past Stage 2 on my own merit, the design is appreciated even if the difficulty requires fierce skill.

Like Returns, Adventures of Batman & Robin also had a vastly different Sega CD version developed by the Genesis team with impressive, FMV animated cutscenes featuring voice cast from the show. While not offering much in the bat belt, the CD version plays out like a $60 interactive episode which forced lame, action-driving segments in bewteen the episodic highlights. A much watered down Game Gear one takes bits and pieces from the Genesis stage design but ultimately falters as a lukewarm underper(plat)former.

For Collector's Sake...
Batman titles don't generally score for too high prices but like many 20+ year old games, some unreasonable asking prices can be found on eBay and Amazon. While you can grab most anything on this list for affordable prices for incomplete or 'cart only' buys, the sought after complete ones in very good shape will have you spending around the cost of the MSRP.

For The Love of Batman...
Can't end this off without mentioning the biggest stinker of all Batman titles, namely the Sega Genesis port of Batman: Revenge of the Joker. Hell, even the technically inferior Nintendo version (entitled "Return of the Joker") beats this off-kilter, silly looking and slightly homoerotic blue Batman platform shooter. Unlike the NES version, which was handled by the masterful Sunsoft, another company commissioned by Sega handled what what supposed to be a remake ended up being a crude port with ugly, awkward and flamboyant character designs, lazy production and a flamboyant Joker. Largely based on the comic canon, Revenge of the Joker appears to garner inspiration from the hokey 1960's show which really only resonates in the Genesis one...

1 comment:

SilentEnigma said...

Good list, these are indeed the best Batman games of the retro/vintage eras, at least in consoles.