Batman: The Video Game (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 a 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.

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Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

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Decided to play through Batman for Game Boy real quick this morning before checking out of the hotel for the final day of Crypticon. It’s still a pretty fun little platform/shooter hybrid, but I had forgotten in the 25 years or so since last playing it what a steep difficulty jump the last level and boss are. The auto-scrolling platform navigation is stressful (as intended, of course) and the damn Joker takes like a billion hits.

I’m really glad they used small sprites that work well in the Game Boy’s native resolution instead of making the common mistake of going with NES-like proportions that make the action appear too zoomed-in. It’s a short experience, with only four levels, and I would have particularly loved at least one more Batwing flying level, although I understand why they only included the one, since they were trying to follow the rough plot outline of the movie for the most part.

Still pretty enjoyable, though. Especially for coming out so early in the system’s life. Go, Sunsoft!

Castlevania mini-marathon (NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis)

Down for the Count again!

Well, that was quite a marathon: Four classic Castlevania games (the NES original, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines) completed for the first time in ten days! I had played them all before in years past and gotten quite far in some cases, but the only 8 or 16-bit Castlevania games I’d ever beaten before this month were Simon’s Quest and Rondo of Blood. Castlevania III is easily the most difficult of the series that I’ve experience so far, although the original has its moments, too.

Overall, I’ve developed a powerful affinity for these games. They really are tense thrill rides that keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Your characters are not as quick or maneuverable as they are in other action games (except perhaps in the relatively forgiving Super Castlevania IV) and you have to master their limited movesets completely and exercise good judgement before committing to each jump or attack.

On the other hand, it has made me somewhat disenchanted with the Metroid style of adventure game that dominated the series from 1997s Symphony of the Night to 2009’s Order of Ecclesia. Playing these titles today, I’m really just pretty bored most of the time. They look great and sound amazing and appeal to the collector mindset that likes to grind easy enemies for hours on end for rare loot drops, but replacing the high stakes action platforming where one false move means death with wandering long, mostly empty hallways filled with paper tiger enemies that look scary but act as annoying speed bumps at worst just doesn’t work for me anymore. Especially when the only incentive is making your overpowered avatar even more needlessly godly. Some of these installments were better than others (Order of Ecclesia does have one of coolest Dracula fights in the series), but for the most part I’m glad this era is over and I’m hoping that some future non-terrible iteration of Konami can bring Castlevania back to its roots and deliver another game like Dracula’s Curse someday.

I can dream, right?