28 October 2008
Even in a best of list, there are certain games that stand out. This is one of them. It simply delivers in so many best ways. One of the most underrated games on the NES. One of the best platformers on the NES. One of the best comic book games ever. One of the best licensed games ever. It's the last one that really resonates. Yeah, that's right. Forget all the consoles that have come since the venerable 8-bit NES, the rule of thumb is that games based on licenses tend to suck, and I can't think of a single licensed game since 1989 that makes any best of lists.
If I had to name one developer that took the greatest advantage of the NES hardware, it would have to be Sunsoft. Batman features amazing graphics; they're dark and moody, yet detailed, and the enemies feature excellent animation. The game is equally impressive in terms of audio. Every track is memorable fits its level very well, plus just about all of the sound effects are spot on.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. How does one possibly make a great game based on a license? The simple answer is that you take the key elements of the original source material, but at the same time you also allow yourself the creative freedom to make a great game. This is exactly what Sunsoft does. Consider Batman's weapons array. You've got the typical punches and batarangs (boomerangs, actually), but your other two weapons are a spear gun and a three-pronged dirk. The former basically jump straight out of the pages of the comic book while the latter are more-or-less original additions that make the gameplay much deeper. And fans have no right to complain, because the boomerangs--ahem, I mean batarangs--are by far the most useful attack.
Batman makes excellent use of cut scenes between levels (i.e. The Batmobile blasting through a doorway, and the "Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight" line from the Joker) — perhaps inspired by Ninja Gaiden, which was released the previous year. However, the gameplay, level design, and bosses exercise surprising freedom compared to the Batman movie that starred Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
Everything has a more futuristic and fantastic feel. On the first level, you encounter robots the roll along the ground with spikes protruding from them, and there's even a lone red ninja that slashes with a sword and throws shurikens. The Bosses are also surprisingly original with the Joker being the only one you'd expect. At the end of the first stage you fight a flying beetle man, while at the end of the second you duel against a diabolic machine that is spread across the entire screen.
All of the above awesomeness, and there's even wall jumping, another commonality of Ninja Gaiden. In this case, though, wall jumping is essential, and it pushes your dexterity to the limit. Timing the jumps as well as their distance is crucial for ascending through areas of stage 3 and 5, especially when enemies and damaging rotary blades are strategically positioned to makes Batman's life as difficult as possible.
Fantastic use of color and detailed sprites make this a game that has held up wondrously well over the years. A particularly nice touch is that when Batman loses his last bar of life, he dies in a burst of flame in the shape of a bat.
The music is top-notch overall, but the sound effects may be even better, from the springing sound as Batman leaps between walls, to the thwick of his batarangs, and the swishing of his fists.
From the incredible level design that is often as vertical as it is horizontal to the unique array of weapons that does Batman's utility belt justice, this platformer truly stands out as a gem. The only drawback is that the game is fairly short—don't discount the difficulty, though—and the replay value is limited.
I may be a comic book fan, but it doesn't take any bias to realize how fantastic this game is. To this day, I marvel at how Sunsoft took one of the most enduring characters in comic books, innovated beyond the myriad clichés that would have made a safe and "true" homage to the character, and pushed the limits of the NES hardware.