Batman (NES)

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This is easily the most satisfying clown murder I’ve had all week.

Continuing this week’s trend of games based on 80s movies, I played through Sunsoft’s (very loose) 1989 adaptation of Tim Burton’s “Batman” for the first time. Well, I suppose technically it’s called “Batman: The Video Game,” but nobody calls it that. That would just be silly.

I’ve heard a lot over the years about how this is one of the best games ever made for the NES. Is it true? Well, while I liked it, I wouldn’t go quite that far….

There’s undoubtedly a lot to like about Batman. The music is amazing and matches the offbeat brooding action vibe of the film, the graphics are well-drawn, characters animate extremely well for a console game of this era, and the play control is superb.

Batman is an action platform game and is divided into five stages. Each stage has multiple platforming sections and a boss fight, with the exception of the final stage, which has only one platforming section, but two bosses.

Batman’s move set consists of a jump, a punch attack, and three ranged weapons with differing attack properties: The batarang is short range and powerful, the spear gun’s less powerful shots can travel across the entire screen, and the oddly-named dirk splits into three projectiles when fired. Each ranged weapon consumes a different amount of your ammunition per shot. You can carry up to 99 bullets at once and they’re replenished fairly regularly by enemy drops, so you’ll rarely run out. As cool as these ranged weapons are, most enemies are easily dispatched with your fists, so while they make make some sections of the game a little easier, your guns are rarely necessary.

Batman’s most important technique is the wall jump. Similar to other games like Ninja Gaiden, you can rebound off walls to reach higher sections of the level. This is far from an optional mechanic. In fact, it’s arguably the game’s central gimmick, with the last level serving as a wall jumping final exam of sorts. If you haven’t perfected the technique by then, you’ll never even get a chance to lay eyes on the Joker.

It all sound great, but there are a few problems. Primarily, the game makes very poor use of the source material. The few cut scenes present between levels are a waste, as they don’t come close to telling a coherent version of the film’s story and most are only a few seconds long. None of the game’s locations are recognizable and neither are any of its enemy characters other than the Joker himself. If I had to describe the overall feel of the stages, I’d say they’re like leftover layouts from Ninja Gaiden were populated with leftover enemies from Contra. It feels very much like a generic NES sci-fi action game with a Batman sprite pasted in.

The difficulty curve is also awkward. Batman took me about four hours to complete for the first time and nearly three of those were spent in the last level. The first 80% of the game really is a breeze, but the final clock tower level feels about as hard as all the previous ones combined. To cap it off, the Joker can deal a lot more damage than any other boss. Most hazards in the game will deplete 1/8th of Batman’s health bar on contact, but the Joker’s gun will shave off 3/8th. A relatively easy game with one solitary super tough level just feels lopsided. At least continues are unlimited.

Leaving aside the generic trappings that largely waste the license and the strange difficulty balancing, Batman really is a fun ride and reminds me of a successful cross between Shatterhand and Ninja Gaiden. It’s absolutely the best game for the NES…where you play as Michael Keaton.

(Originally written 6/7/2017)

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