All Your History: Batman Part 1 – Batman Begins
In 1939, an artist named Bob Kane set out to create a new comic book superhero to follow up on the smash debut of Superman the year before. After collaborating with fellow comic creator Bill Finger, the two came up with the Batman, a masked vigilante made in the mold of pulp heroes the Phantom and the Shadow. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 from National Publications, and over the next seven decades, Batman would become one of the most recognizable and popular characters on the planet, achieving the status of cultural icon in the process. Batman found success many times over in all forms of media, with popular radio appearances in the ‘40s, an internationally syndicated television show in the ‘60s, half a dozen animated series, two blockbuster film franchises, and, of course, 73 years of comic books.
But despite Batman’s multimedia dominance, his video games have struggled to find the same level of acclaim. What was this elusive secret to Bat-success? It would take almost a quarter century’s worth of games for someone to figure it out…
Despite the popularity of licensed video games in the early 1980s, Batman didn’t put in his first digital appearance until the second half of the decade. And while his first game garnered plenty of critical praise at the time, it wasn’t because of the way it captured the essence of the character.
In 1986, British publisher Ocean released Batman, a game developed by programmer Jon Ritman and artist Bernie Drummond for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, and MSX computers. The game offered players an isometric view of the action, in which players navigated the Batcave’s many traps and puzzles while trying to collect scattered pieces of the Batmobile. Once each component was collected, Batman could go off to save his captured partner, Robin. Randomized “Bat Powers”—which were shaped like little Batmen—were strewn throughout the levels, and granted the hero different powers and upgrades, like being able to float down slowly from jumps or quicker movement.
And in classic Batman fashion, the Dark Knight had to watch out for plenty of enemies who were out to get him…but this is where things started to get strange. The game’s enemies had more in common with a fever dream than any comic books Batman had starred in, and included foes like bipedal demonic heads and lizard-creatures. There wasn’t so much as a peep from rogues like the Riddler or Catwoman.
The game’s programmer, Jon Ritman, explains in an interview with Machinima that he and his collaborator Bernie Drummond were more interested in making a cartoony, isometric adventure game, and that the Batman angle was more of an afterthought:
“I sat down with Bernie to try and come up with a character. We were tossing ideas about and I just said ‘Batman,’ and I literally dismissed it in the same sentence, thinking, ‘you know, who’s going to remember who Batman is? It was so long ago.’”
But Drummond convinced him that the kids were still watching reruns of the Adam West show from the 1960s, so the two took the idea to Ocean’s cofounder, David Ward. Ward’s reaction to the idea was enthusiastic, to say the least:
“I took it to David Ward at Ocean, and he did something very strange. He ran around the office like he was pretending to be a choo-choo train, singing the Batman theme tune from the original series. I think we sold it to him at that point.”
As for what wound up in the game after Ocean bought the rights from DC Comics, Ritman admits that he and Drummond relied more heavily on stream of consciousness than comic books.
“The rest of it was totally made up on the spot. Everything was weird in the game. Very limited graphics for those days, the resolution was quite low. Bernie was a great artist, but he just made random things up and I put them in the game, so you’d have teapots the size of Batman—just because it looked like a nice teapot, and it would be a pity not to use that nice bit of artwork. And we just forgot everything to do with scale—just what looked good, and we chucked it in.”
DC had little input on the game’s content. In fact, their only note concerned the game’s Bat Powers, which Ritman initially called “Bat Pills.”
“To be honest, we completed the game—total software finished—and I sat down and wrote the bullshit that goes on the cover. You know, made it up on the spot. Must’ve taken me all of an hour, and it was sent off to DC and they came back with, ‘Batman doesn’t take drugs,’ because that was the time that that was the big thing in America.
“And, oh, God, we didn’t even mean that. It was just something to call them: Bat Pills. So, yeah, fair enough, what would you like us to call them? They said, ‘Bat Powers?’ Okay fine—we changed one word on the cover and that’s it. That was the entire input that they had.”
The game was a success, earning rave reviews from critics at the time. The positive reviews prompted Ocean to release a new game starring the character two years later, 1988’s Batman: The Caped Crusader. Unlike Ritman and Drummond’s first title, Caped Crusader took much more of its inspiration from the comics. In addition to versions for the Amstrad and ZX Spectrum, Ocean published ports for more powerful computers, too, including the Amiga, Commodore 64, Atari ST, and MS DOS-powered machines. As such, it offered a more advanced experience to gamers, providing a more polished visual presentation that resembled the panels of a comic book.
Caped Crusader also provided players with more sophisticated gameplay. For the first time, Batman was armed with an arsenal of combat moves and Batarangs, which he used to beat up the army of identical gangsters who marched throughout each level. Batman also collected clues and solved puzzles to defeat his enemies, the Penguin and the Joker, an element that represented the comic book claims that he was the world’s greatest detective.
The game scored points with critics of the time for its colorful graphics and its innovative gameplay. But even if the game had been a flop, it wouldn’t have mattered: a year later in 1989, the world went bat-crazy with the release of Tim Burton’s film starring Hollywood A-listers Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
The movie made Batman a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. The movie earned $400 million at the box office, and inspired kids and adults across the globe to start wearing the bat-symbol in public—a fashion statement that had previously been restricted to comic fans alone. The hit song, “Bat Dance” by none other than Prince didn’t hurt Batman’s cool-cred, either. Video game tie-ins weren’t just inevitable—they were required.
Lucky for gamers, publishers were more than up to the challenge. Ocean continued to release the Dark Knight’s computer-based adventures, providing a greater emphasis on action and combat than ever before. Batman was even equipped with a few more of his trademark gadgets—or “those wonderful toys”—like his grappling gun, Batmobile, and flying Batwing. The levels were based on scenes from the film itself, taking the hero through the Axis Chemical plant and through the streets of Gotham City. Ocean’s movie adaptations were their best games based on the character yet. They would also be Ocean’s last Batman titles ever.
For consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, and NEC’s Turbo Grafx 16, the movie tie-in license went to Japanese publisher Sunsoft. These titles were far more action-oriented than Ocean’s games, featuring platforming and non-stop combat. The publisher released games for the NES and Game Boy in 1989, while its Genesis and Turbo Grafx adaptations came out in 1990, sporting next-gen graphics and sound. While the NES and Genesis versions gave gamers action reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi, Batman inexplicably wielded a gun on the Game Boy, while the Turbo Grafx version offered a top-down experience that tasked players with running a maze that had more in common with Pac-Man than Batman. Meanwhile, Atari published its own adaptation that, once again, relied on heavy combat and platforming action. Because of its more powerful hardware, the arcade game offered impressive visuals and even featured actual sound samples from the film.
All told, nearly every version of the Batman movie adaptation was unique in some way or another—but, really, they were all far more similar than different. In fact, the movie tie-ins had mostly moved away from the unique aspects of the Batman character that Ocean had begun to approach with The Caped Crusader. Absent was the colorful rogues gallery and any emphasis on collecting clues or solving mysteries. Instead, gamers got action platformers that simply had the character’s name printed on the box and a Batman-shaped sprite on the screen.
And with a money-printing movie sequel in the works from Tim Burton, fans would have to get used to more of the same…
Tune in next time for Batman’s Return…