All Your History: Batman Part 3 – World’s Greatest Defective
In 1995, Warner Brothers released Batman Forever, directed by Joel Shumacher, and starring Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie was a smash at the box office, out-performing its Tim Burton-directed predecessor, Batman Returns. But despite the more impressive haul, the movie was slammed for its shift toward cartoonish camp…not to mention the provocative costumes that prominently featured molded nipples, an addition for which Shumacher’s films are now infamous. While Batman’s movie adventures were taking a turn for the strange, his interactive exploits took an undeniable turn for the worse…
World’s Greatest Defective
Acclaim had acquired the rights to make 1995’s video game tie-in for Batman Forever on the Super Nintendo, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, and Game Gear consoles. But instead of looking to previous games made by the likes of Sunsoft or Konami for inspiration, Acclaim and developer Probe Entertainment went in a different direction.
In an interview with Machinima, the game adaptation’s producer, Douglas Yellin, was kind enough to offer detailed insights into how the project went wrong. He explains that Acclaim’s console ports of the Mortal Kombat franchise had been a huge success for the publisher, and they wanted to try and replicate that success with Batman Forever. According to Yellin, Acclaim invested over a million dollars in greenscreen technology and bought an entire building to convert it into a fully-functioning studio, replete with flying rigs and stunt pistons.
“We hired professional stuntmen, directors, make-up artists, voiceover actors, and created custom costumes for each of the game characters. We embarked on a two-month shoot to capture several hundred moves. We’d actually worked very hard to get the look to be true—the staff were all huge Batman fans and really cared about the output.”
The team had grand ambitions, giving the playable Batman and Robin characters Mortal Kombat-style fighting game controls in a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Batman could fight enemies both in front and behind him simultaneously, and the Dynamic Duo could fight enemies cooperatively. The team felt these mechanics were unique and true to the characters.
Unfortunately, despite how high it aimed, the project had more working against it than in its favor. According to Yellin, Warner Brothers gave the development team the movie’s script and bible with rules on what they could and couldn’t do with the characters, but otherwise stayed out of the game’s creation. Yellin and his team weren’t given access to sets, costumes, or even concept art for Batman and Robin’s suits because Warner wanted to keep the assets from being leaked.
“The only actual costume we were given access to by Warner Brothers was a bat-suit, but from Batman Returns, which not only didn’t match the film look, but was exceedingly difficult for the stuntman to move in, especially in July. His sweat pooled in the non-permeable boots and quarts of water needed to be drained every few hours. When later in the process we did see photos of the real costumes—with bat-nipples on the suits—we knew we were in trouble, and not only because we didn’t match the film.”
The game was trashed by critics and failed to turn a profit for Acclaim, even though it managed respectable sales for the average release. The loss was mostly because of the high costs of the greenscreen investment, says Yellin. According to the producer, the reliance on greenscreen also boxed in the development team’s creativity, as the motion-captured performances took up more memory than hand-drawn animation would have, but didn’t look nearly as good on-screen.
“Ultimately, licensed properties, and especially movie games, always got dumped on by reviewers on principle, so we weren’t expecting or aiming for critical acclaim. It’s frustrating, but didn’t really hurt anyone’s feelings. A few reviews took the time to get what we were doing and gave us some good marks for that. But the critical flop of the film was ultimately what did us in, more so than the game’s admitted mediocrity. It’s nearly impossible to make a game for a bad movie into a tremendous hit. Our big villain was campy Jim Carrey in a red wig and leotard—not exactly the stuff video-game designers’ dreams are made of.
“On the other hand, Batman Forever remains one of my favorite projects from an experience point of view, working with great people on both sides of the Atlantic, trying new things and working with great talent, and I wouldn’t change that.”
In 1996, Acclaim also released Batman Forever: The Arcade Game as a coin-operated machine, and on the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn consoles. Developed by Acclaim subsidiary Iguana Entertainment, the Final Fight-style game earned middling scores at the time. One reviewer summed it up perfectly with the opening line, “Holy mediocrity, Batman!” The Arcade Game didn’t offer much in the way of Bat-specific innovation or originality, falling in line with its generic predecessors. Both Batman Forever titles set the bar pretty low for the character’s future games. Sadly, few managed to rise above it.
In 1997, Joel Shumacher struck again with Batman & Robin, a movie that is widely regarded today as one of the worst superhero films ever, if not simply one of the worst crimes against cinema of all time. Its cast of George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Uma Thurmon couldn’t save it in the eyes of critics and fans alike, and it earned the lowest worldwide box office of the Burton/Schumacher franchise. Unsurprisingly, its video game tie-in, released a year later in 1998, suffered a similar fate.
Once again, Acclaim teamed with Probe Entertainment to create Batman & Robin for the PlayStation, which, in many ways, turned out to be one of the most forward-looking and innovative Batman games ever. It featured three playable heroes—Batman, Robin, and Batgirl—each with their own unique vehicles that they could use to navigate an open-world version of Gotham City. Players busted up muggings and beat on thugs while gathering clues to try and stop the villainous Mr. Freeze’s crime spree.
While reviewers praised Batman & Robin’s detailed visuals, which at the time were considered “nearly brilliant,” the game as a whole failed because of poor control, combat mechanics, and camera issues. It’s likely that its association with one of the most reviled movies in recent memory kept the game from finding an audience, as did the lousy reputation that video game tie-ins had earned by this point. Even still, many of the elements that set Batman & Robin apart from earlier Batman games would be revisited—and mastered—a little over a decade later. But before that could happen, the Dark Knight had even further to fall.
In 2000, Ubisoft published Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, a Kemco-developed game based on the direct-to-video animated movie of the same name. While the television show that spawned Return of the Joker was well-regarded, the game managed to sink the character to new depths of crappitude. Released for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64,and Game Boy Color, the game was yet another Final Fight-style button masher that enraged reviewers with its poor graphics, repetitive combat, and shoddy gameplay.
Ubisoft seemed to right the Bat-ship a bit in 2001, releasing three separate games based on the character. For the Game Boy Color, they published the mostly well-received action platformer Batman: Chaos in Gotham, which was based on the current incarnation of the character’s animated series, now called The New Batman Adventures. The show also served as inspiration for Batman: Gotham City Racer for the PlayStation, a game comprised entirely of driving sequences similar to those found eight years earlier in Batman: The Animated Series for the Sega CD. But the best-loved title of the three was Batman: Vengeance, which came out for the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo GameCube, and Microsoft Xbox.
Vengeance featured performances by many of the same voice actors who’d been portraying the characters in the animated series since 1992, including the now-legendary duo of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. The third-person action-adventure game scored major points with critics for its high production values in terms of visuals and sound, though its troublesome controls diminished its lasting reputation. Even though Vengeance stood pretty well on its own merits, many seemed to elevate it simply because it was a Batman game that didn’t outright stink.
If only the same could be said of 2003’s Batman: Dark Tomorrow, released for the GameCube and Xbox. Published by Kemco—the same company behind the Batman Beyond game—Dark Tomorrow was based solely on Batman’s comic book adventures. But the final product left a bitter taste in gamers’ mouths because of its confusing gameplay and awkward camera. It was a complete flop.
That same year, Ubisoft released one final game based on the animated series, Batman: The Rise of Sin Tzu. Featuring a brand-new villain created by comic book superstar Jim Lee, the game seemed to many like a step backwards, replacing Vengeance’s mission-based action and adventure with yet another tired beat-em-up. While it fared better with reviewers than Dark Tomorrow, Rise failed to make an impression, and neither gamers nor comic readers have ever heard from Sin Tzu since.
By the middle of the decade, it seemed as though Batman was a character who just couldn’t hack it in the world of video games. A few of the titles bearing his likeness were fondly remembered, but the majority of his games found their way into bargain bins and garage sales rather than anyone’s permanent collections.
And while 2005 would see Batman’s cinematic exploits rebooted with great success, he still wasn’t quite free from the clutches of the villainous movie tie-in…
Tune in next time to see Batman become as steady as a rock…