All Your History: Batman Part 2 – The Dark Knight Reprises
As the 1990s began, the success of 1989’s Tim Burton-directed Batman had transformed the Caped Crusader from a campy, 1960s throwback into a multimedia juggernaut. Suddenly Batman wasn’t just a character anymore—he was a brand. Over the course of the next five years, four different titles starring Batman would be released. But despite the fact that two of those titles shared eleven different, distinct versions between them—and that they were published and developed by nearly as many different studios—most still lacked genuine originality or innovation. How could a character with as many different interpretations as Batman end up starring in some of the most generic video games ever made?
The Dark Knight Reprises
In late 1991 and early 1992, Sunsoft released Batman: Return of the Joker for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy, with the game renamed Revenge of the Joker for the Sega Genesis. While Sunsoft’s previous Batman game from 1990 had taken its cues from Tim Burton’s film, it’s not clear what version of the character motivated Return of the Joker. In fact, it seems as if the game’s true inspiration wasn’t Batman at all, but was more likely classic action platformers like Contra and Mega Man. In Return of the Joker, Batman shoots his way through level after level of henchmen, thugs, and—inexplicably—wind spirits, with nary an appearance from any characters associated with the franchise. Eventually Batman confronts the Joker, who first attacks players with a mechanized floating platform, and then later with a gigantic Joker-bot. Needless to say, these scenes weren’t ripped from the pages of DC Comics.
Reviewers of the time were impressed with the game’s graphics and challenging difficulty. And while it’s fondly remembered among classic gaming fans, it’s plain to see that Return of the Joker wasn’t much of a Batman game, lacking in any character-specific elements besides, well, sprites that looked like Batman and the Joker. This would be Sunsoft’s last project with the license.
In 1992, Tim Burton’s movie sequel, Batman Returns, hit theaters to even greater financial success than its predecessor. The film also doubled the danger Batman faced, pitting him against both the Penguin and Catwoman. Similarly, where the first Batman had five different versions of its video game tie-ins, Batman Returns upped the ante with eight. And except for the inclusion of a few trademarked Bat-gadgets like the grappling gun, the vast majority of them offered little in the way of unique gaming experiences.
Sega published Batman Returns for its family of four consoles, with Acme Interactive and Malibu Interactive developing the Genesis and Sega CD versions, while Aspect handled development for the Master System and Game Gear. Despite the three different studios, all four versions of the game are remarkably similar action platformers loosely inspired by scenes from the movie. The Sega CD version offered a bit more variation with some Batmobile driving sequences and an original rock soundtrack.
Konami published and developed its own Batman Returns games for the Super Nintendo and NES consoles. These titles owed their inspiration to Final Fight and Double Dragon, presenting the Dark Knight with waves of evil clowns to beat up as he progressed through each stage. And despite some impressive visuals and gameplay, it’s difficult not to see the ways in which Konami’s adaptations borrowed from other games, just as Return of the Joker owed more to Contra than Bob Kane.
Atari got into the act with its own version of Batman Returns for its ill-fated handheld system, the Lynx. This version of the game was yet another side-scrolling beat-em-up, and came packed in with the second iteration of the console, the Lynx II. Meanwhile, Konami published yet two more versions, this time for MS-DOS and the Amiga computer, the latter of which was another two-dimensional beat-em-up platformer.
The MS-DOS Batman Returns, however, stood out among the pack, offering players a point-and-click adventure that mixed clue-hunting with combat sequences. This version was well-received by critics at the time, and did the most to try and bring gamers closer to the character’s essence. Players could enter evidence into the Batcomputer and interrogate enemies—though fights didn’t offer much in the way of control. Despite its shortcomings, it’s notable for the ways in which it distinguishes itself among the sea of repetitive action games that had gone before.
A few months after Batman Returns’ summer theatrical release, Batman: The Animated Series hit television screens in the fall of 1992. The show was something of a change in course for the character; instead of following the same trajectory plotted by Tim Burton’s neo-gothic film universe, the show opted instead to bring the character back to his pulpy comic book roots. It blended aspects of Batman’s original 1940s aesthetic with characters culled from the comics’ half-century of continuity. For some fans, it’s the quintessential interpretation of the character. It’s appropriate, then, that its video game tie-ins rose a bit above the rest in terms of quality and fidelity to the source material.
Of course, like Batman Returns before it, Batman: The Animated Series saw several different versions developed by a myriad of studios. Konami developed and published a Game Boy title in 1993 that hewed closely to the show in its design—or at least as close as could be achieved on the 8-bit handheld. Each level was inspired by one of Batman’s rogues, with similarly themed henchmen to beat up as the player fought towards the end-boss. Batman was outfitted with his grappling hook as well as wall-jumps and a solid set of combat moves. And for the first time players could take control of his crime fighting partner, Robin. Batman’s sidekick had a smaller life bar and lacked the grappling gun accessory, but was able to walk along each level’s ceiling, an ability Batman didn’t share. The change was small, but was clearly a nod to Robin’s acrobatic origins, signaling an attention to detail that Batman’s previous games hadn’t quite demonstrated.
A year later in 1994, Konami produced The Adventures of Batman & Robin, so-named after the animated series had changed its title. Developed for the Super Nintendo, it brought gamers even closer to the look and feel of the television show, offering high quality visuals and music, along with plenty of Bat-gadgets and more villain-themed levels. Though Robin wasn’t actually a playable character this time around, reviewers praised the game for its high level of authenticity.
Sega published games with the same name for the Genesis, Sega CD, and Game Gear consoles. Despite both being developed by a studio called Clockwork Tortoise, the Genesis and Sega CD versions couldn’t have been more different from each other. On the Genesis, Batman and Robin worked together in a run-and-gun action game with impressive visuals, while the Sega CD game was made up entirely of driving sequences that were relatively derivative of those found in Batman Returns from two years earlier. What helped set it apart, though, were fully animated cutscenes that were produced by TMS Entertainment, one of the Asian animation studios that worked on the show itself. Not only that, the cutscenes featured the show’s cast of voice actors—a first for a Batman video game. Fans of the television show consider the edited-together cutscenes to comprise a “lost episode” of the series, even though Warner Brothers Animation had nothing to do with the story’s creation.
All in all, the games based on the animated series represented some of the most innovative entries into the character’s video game history—and would remain some of the best examples of what could be done with Batman in the medium. As the 16-bit console generation came to a close in the mid-1990s, it seemed as though the character was on a bit of an upswing. While none of the games were flat-out amazing, Batman had established a decent reputation as a video game hero.
Of course, this was all before Joel Schumacher came on the scene to show just how far Batman could fall…
Tune in next time for molded-rubber bat-nipples…
Click here for Part 1…