This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
Licensed properties, games that play on the name of a franchise that was popular elsewhere, have always had a mixed reception, especially on the NES. Some games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game and The Goonies II were great, putting people into the virtual world with gameplay that matched the already established environment. Others, too numerous to pick any out, were either quickly thrown together platformers of the jump-on-an-enemy-to-kill-them variety, reskinned versions of other games, or unplayable garbage (looking at you, Dungeons and Dragons games).
Batman was one of the good ones. Based off of the 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the game based off of the movie that brought Batman back to box office prominence throughout the 90s was considered a top-notch action platformer. It was a rare case of an A-list license living up to the hype as a video game and not just as a way to expand the brand.
In 2012, and after some lean years that involved Joel Schumacher having to apologize for what he did to Batman & Robin, the Batman license has both top-notch movies and games once again, with Arkham Asylum winning multiple Game of the Year awards. Does the original Batman stand up in 2012 the way it did in 1989?
HOW WAS IT THEN: Batman the video game completely turned over any expectations of a movie licensed video game property because it didn’t suck—it was really good. Surprise!
Batman had four methods of attack: he could punch anything at no cost, or he could use various projectile attacks that cost pellets (acquired by picking up a “P” when defeating enemies). The Battarang, a short-range boomerang, takes up one; the gun takes up two; and a disc that flares out into three wider discs takes up three. Batman also has a wall jump that he could use to reach places and find shortcuts. Various enemies, virtually none of which were related to the movie itself, were found throughout the stages in strategic locations that made getting by them more complicated than simply beating them up. Bosses were at the end of every stage, and a short cinematic played between stages, often just to show how awesome
Batman was. Elements were borrowed from Ninja Gaiden and its ilk, but
this was definitely a Batman game in look and feel.
About the only thing wrong with the game was that there was no actual fight with the Joker, the bad guy in the original movie; he’s taken out in a cutscene. The lack of a password option was a bit of a bugbear but not unusual in the NES era. In the end, what mattered was that Batman looked, sounded, and played better than most games of its time.
HOW IS IT NOW: Coming into this, I wondered if a 23-year-old, bog-standard beat-em-up could stand up as well in 2012 as it did when it was new. One could be forgiven, for thinking a game like this wouldn’t stand up, especially considering the game’s mechanics were not only standard issue in the 90s, but they’ve once again become standard issue by a glut of retro themed games, led by Oniken, that use those mechanics in their games today. Along those lines of thinking, I didn’t have high expectations going in.
As it turns out, Batman is not only enjoyable, but it actually stands up as an outstanding game in 2012—not just “decent,” outstanding. Surprise!
When playing a game like this, feel is as important as anything; if I don’t get a good feel for the character I’m playing as, then I’m not going to enjoy the game and likely won’t finish it. Batman feels right; I had complete control within the confines of the game and of what my virtual avatar was doing. I was at first turned off by how there’s a slight delay between the button press and Batman actually jumping, signified by his loading the jump before executing it; in other words, he’d squat in the way a person would bend his knees before jumping to slam dunk a basketball. However, I came to appreciate it because it meant I wasn’t jumping around willy-nilly like a four-year-old on pixie sticks. I adjusted to the jump within ten seconds—without muscle memory behind me, like it would be in a game like Mega Man—and it felt natural within twenty. That’s a testament to the programming.
Another testament to the game design is that hits aren’t cheap in this game, even in the later stages. While it’s possible to get stuck in a loop of sorts, where Batman can’t reach safety before his period of invincibility wears off and gets hit again, causing a couple of hits as a result. It works out, though, because that initial hit is always the player’s fault, either through getting complacent or not having the skill to take on a certain part of the game. Enemy placement is also well done, ensuring that they’re in an easy location when first seen but becoming harder due to their placement later on. Batman was known for being a difficult game, but it’s a true difficulty; the later stages are very hard but can be mastered through skill and memorization, unlike some games where cheap hits occur because of lazy design.
Batman didn’t have a password or a save function, but it was short; it can be beaten in under an hour, and there’s no real reason to go back afterwards. The lack of a password is offset in 2012 by anyone who’s playing on an emulator, but the cartridge is good for an occasional romp or a speed run for those readers into that kind of thing and is affordable enough to make it worth it (Retro Games Plus has it for $6.95). It’s worth the purchase just to hear the music within the game, which is about as good as chiptunes get.
If Batman were to be reskinned and released in an otherwise unrecognizable way in 2012, it would still be a great game and would carry the torch for retro-styled gaming that hundreds of lazy developers fumble. Taking out the extras that the today’s games have, such as a boss run, save slots, and other goodies, Batman is a better game than current standard bearer Oniken (itself a good game) and worlds better than every other game that permeates Desura or XBLIG. The things that don’t stand up are minor. Everything else makes Batman worthy of a full playthrough even today.