It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Nintendo Entertainment System filled up our childhoods, and an overplayed gesture by game companies was to put popular movies or TV shows into 8-bit form, luring us in like a Siren’s Song. Occasionally we were given licensed gems, but more often we were plagued by nightmares stamped with a wicked seal of approval. Depending who you ask, Batman: The Video Game can fit snuggly into either of those columns.
(images not in HD)
Coming off the heels of one of the hottest films ever, Sunsoft cashed in with an action platformer roughly following the events of Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster (note: the “The Video Game” was slapped on the end of the official game title so you didn’t get faked out thinking you were actually playing the movie). We follow Batman through some factories and chemical plants, into the sewers, and ultimately to the top of a tower to do battle with The Joker.
The first thing that might grab your attention here is the play control. You may not have expected it, but this game falls somewhere between Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden (you're stuck going a direction when you jump, but if you walk or fall off a platform, you can move back and forth on the way down). I felt like Batman was more fleet of foot than someone like Mega Man, too. You can move quick enough for most of the enemies, and even make you way upwards with some trademark Wall Jumps.
Perhaps it was young coordination issues, or maybe it was a bit of teaching by our good friend Samus and the Etecoons, but the Wall Jump is awesome, and being able to do it to your heart’s desire for minutes on end is incredible. Not only is it integral to advancing through some stages and attacking enemies, but if you’re skilled enough you can even take some shortcuts a few times. It actually isn’t all that complicated either; simply press “jump” again while in contact with a wall. You don’t even have to press the opposite direction or anything. I must’ve been a dumb kid with toes for thumbs (and thumbs for toes, the horror!).
At just five complete Levels, the length of the game felt appropriate to me, for the era in which it was released. Each Level is broken up into Stages, and when forced to continue, you restart at the last part of the stage you were working on (if you have to continue in a boss room, you return to the previous stage, which is expected). I certainly appreciated that, as having to restart a full Level when continuing (I’m staring daggers at you, end-of-the-game Ninja Gaiden run..) is no fun for anybody. Stage 5 features two bosses, and after you clear the first one, you never have to fight him again. If you don’t beat the game immediately after him (you won’t), when you return you’ll go straight to Joker. Definitely welcome.
The music in this game is decent, though sadly not with Danny Elfman’s flair. It isn’t good enough to write home about, but it IS good enough to put in a Negative World review of the game. You’re reading it!
The graphics are decent, though not top notch. The cutscenes feature motion and are drawn well enough, usually depicting the Batmobile doing something Batmobile-ish, or the Joker with a few lines of text. The color schematic fit the mood, and worry not; Batman’s signature purple cape and cowl are here, too.. Surely you remember this iconic scene?
Unfortunately, for a licensed game, I would’ve liked to seen a little more licensed stuff. For starters, there is no Bat Gun that fires missiles in “real life.” The Boomerang (your primary projectile) isn’t even a “Batarang.” In those previously mentioned cutscenes, we see a lot of the Batmobile but never get behind the wheel ourselves. And with the exception of The Joker, the bosses you fight are just some videogame guys never before seen in the DC Universe. For a game following the movie, you’d figure that maybe Jokers thugs could be in there, especially on your way up the Tower of all places. (Thinking back, you’ll recall that Batman did battle with the strongest of the bunch there, gripping him by the neck with his ankles, and smashing his head into a giant bell!)
There is a stark contrast in difficulties throughout your journey, never remaining very consistent. I know this is a huge issue (and I hear it mentioned a lot nowadays, too), but some enemies could be dispatched so easily just by punch-punch-punching, and other guys would have you swearing under your breath and draining your life like a vat of Smilex. (“Oh no, he chose brand Xssssssssssssssss.”) The same treatment would be applied to the area leaders; sometimes you could just sit in the corner without worry, and other times you’d have to frantically do everything in your power just to stay alive. I’m not sure what I’d prefer in this situation, but getting dropped after one or two attacks doesn’t really make for a good fight. Let’s just say that Joker is the final boss of this game for a reason. If I broke my final gameplay down in minutes, I think that nearly half of my playtime could be attributed to “moving towards--” or “fighting The Joker.” Continue usage, most assuredly. (No, I’m not complaining about the end guy beind superhard, haha, that’s how games work!)
Perhaps spoiled a bit by “the times,” but it’s a bit of a bummer that you can’t power up weapons or gain new abilities. Of the three things that enemies drop, one of them doesn’t have any real use in the game. “Points?” What is this, Mega Man (1)? Probably the most useless thing in the entire game, your score is wiped out after you have to continue (which are unlimited, thank goodness), and you can’t earn an extra guy or anything with them. If you could apply points towards extending your health meter beyond the 8 units you’re allotted, or maybe the amount of ammo you could carry, or the damage they do, it could make this game a little more tolerable for less patient gamers; even the archaic Kid Icarus grants us this courtesy.
I gotta tell ya, I enjoyed this game a whole lot more as an “adult,” somehow overcoming the twitchy, freak outs and lack of discipline that plagued me many years ago. I had some stupid errors through the course of the game, sure, but I overcame them, and eventually The Joker laughed for the last time. Breaking new ground in just 20 minutes was a bit sobering, wondering how much time I’d wasted so many years ago. What other games can I topple relatively easily now? The questions are numerous..
Should you give it a shot? Its fun for what it is: an NES action platformer. If you’re looking for Batman, there are PLENTY of other Batman titles that you can play now. Arkham City has released on the Wii U, and even Arkham Origins – a prequel – has hit the Wii U as well. If you’ve “gone retro” and you happen to see it out in the wild, consider picking this one up as it could provide you with some short-term fun and excitement, if the price is right, of course.
I don’t expect everyone to run out and get this thing (for a myriad of reasons, namely "I don't need no stinkin' NES games!"), but it is certainly neat to see where Batman got its start in videogames, and especially how far we’ve come since then. He was brawling with fists blazing on the NES, and he’s still punching thugs’ lights out on the Wii U...just with a little more panache.
The music is..."decent"?! IT'S MOTHERFUCKING AWESOME! One of the best NES soundtracks out there! Danny Elfman has nothing on Kodaka san. Go to 1:24 for the first stage music, those of you who haven't heard it.
EDIT: I'd have complimented you on your extsensive review, but now I guess I'm just too darn upset.
@chrisbg99 They were definitely among the top producers of great gaming tunes on the system. Not only did they have brilliant composers like Kodaka san, but they also had a unique sound thanks to one of their engineers whose name I can't remember. From what I understand they found a way around the limitations of the NES's sound channels and managed to create insane percussion effects by synching up one of the main sound channels with the noise channel, and still they had room for those catchy basslines and sweeping melodies. Not sure how they pulled it off. Personally I think it was some sort of deal with the devil.
EDIT: After looking into it, it seems they found ways of using the relatively limited and hard-to-tame DPCM sample channel for melodic basslines, freeing up the triangle wave channel for extra percussion oomph, paired with the noise channel.
@PogueSquadron Yeah, this and Gremlins 2, which was another fairly ambitious movie license from Sunsoft. I'd dance a merry jig if we got Journey To Silius and the rest of their library, even if I'd personally rather get the original NES carts.
@Mr_Mustache Sorta like the 3/4 top-down view sections, yeah. It's built on the same engine as Blaster Master (and Gremlins 2, I think?). It's definitely not as good as as Blaster Master, but not quite as bad as, say, Angry Video Game Nerd would have you believe. It has its issues to be sure, but for some reason I actually enjoy booting it up from time to time. It might have something to do with me paying a couple of bucks for it last year, and not full price back in the 80's.
Speaking of Sunsoft and licenses: Why the hell did they, in the late 80's, decide to make an Addam's Family game starring Uncle Fester? What could have convinced them to get the license for that?
I can only assume it's because the show was in syndicated reruns at the time and had a bit of a following.
It has really divided reviews on the Internet. GamesRadar calls it the 46th worst game ever made while IGN rated it their 45th best NES game of all time. (I suppose, depending on your view of 8-bit gaming, those two rankings aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.)
It uses the Master Blaster engine and is an absolute bitch. It has unlimited continues, though. I've played it just a bit and really dig it so far.
@kriswright@chrisguy Oh, so it was in syndication at the time! That might explain a thing or two. I was mainly familiar with the show through my parents, who had watched back in the day (I guess).
If you're having troubles with Fester's Quest, I suggest you stick around the streets where you start off and farm for weapon upgrades. Once you have the best weapon you can plow through pretty much anything, as long as you have the appropriate thumb stamina. You could use an auto-fire controller to help things out even further, but if you've got the max upgrades you might not feel a need for that sort of thing.