Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total 8-bit train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one.┬áHoly missed opportunity, Batman!

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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 and lean heavily on a cool neon-like effect where brightly colored objects pop out against the stark blackness. Characters animate extremely well for a console game of this era. The play control is superb.

Batman is an action-platforming game divided into five stages. Each stage has multiple platforming sections and a boss fight, with the exception of the final one, 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 differing 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 locations 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 and boss 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.

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!