The 1989 summer release of Batman impressed me long before I fully appreciated comic books' greatest detective—one of its most iconic and fantastic characters ever created. Of course, summer block busters are also closely tied to merchandising, so naturally there had to be a video game tie-in. Not so naturally, the video game actually ended up being one of the best platformers on the NES.
Welcome to part three of The SunSoft Seven. You can find the previous installments here: part one and part two. While SunSoft's time in the limelight as a game developer has come and gone, during its heyday it produced some incredible titles that rivaled even those of the big N, itself. That such a relatively small creative team could create such wondrous games across such a variety of genres deserves to be celebrated.
It's a Dark, Deserted City...
You won't find any eloquent turns of phrase in the game's introduction, but at least it's free of Engrish. The story moves along quickly with villain (Joker), victim (Vicki Vale), and hero (Batman). You don't need much more, and there's trademark excellent SunSoft music to create the ominous mood to support this story.
A Techno-Dystopic Gotham
Whereas many video game adapt ions go awry in being overly constrained by the source material, this game is not afraid to breathe new life into the already rich and dark atmosphere from Tim Burton's set. You'll find all of the darkness that pervaded the film along with the addition of science fiction elements to Gotham's dystopic atmosphere. Some of the highlights include mechanical bombs that lurch toward our hero, an evil computer run amok at Axis Chemicals, and fire-belching robotic tanks in stage 3. And don't forget the epic climb up the cathedral tower in the final stage.
Before each stage starts you're treated to a cut-scene—some as elaborate as an animated batmobile blasting into Axis Chemicals (Stage 2), others as simple as a still image with text—that helps link the caped crusader's adventures together. These cut-scenes loosely follow the movie, and fortunately they're short and to the point, so the action keeps rolling with little pause.
Batman's Utility Belt
Thanks to incredible problem solving skills combined with a handy utility belt, Batman is one of the most unstoppable comic book heroes in existence. Translating this quality to the NES does add an additional challenge: you need to hit the select button to switch weapons. Awkward as that button press may be, the pace of action makes such a demand more reasonable. Enemies don't constantly stream at you as in some platformers. Instead, you can creep ahead, get a look at upcoming terrain and enemies, choose the (hopefully) right weapon for the job and get the necessary select button presses taken care of ahead of time. In gameplay terms, there's rarely any harm in being more of Batman the detective than Batman the action hero.
What does this utility belt include, you might wonder? When you defeat enemies, sometimes they leave a weapon pod behind. Each one is worth ten units, and your utility belt includes three different weapons that cost different amounts of ammo: boomerang (1 unit), spear gun (2 units), dirk (3 units). The balance between these three weapons is quite brilliant. Boomerangs are short range but if you throw them right they hit an enemy multiple times. The spear gun will fly true and straight while covering the whole screen. Your final option (the dirk) also has fantastic range but quickly splits into three separate shots covering a much wider expanse than the spear gun. With all that said, though, it's amazing how many enemies you can beat with a good old knuckle sandwich—your only free weapon.
The Ninja Bat-Jump
Though Ninja Gaiden popularized wall jumps, Batman uses a very similar mechanic. Rather than carbon copy the mechanic, Batman added its own twist to it. Consequently, Batman does wall jumping better than Ninja Gaiden. In Batman jumping against a wall doesn't make you automatically stick to it. Rather, after making contact with the wall you'll slide until you hit the jump button again, making you spring off of it. Learning to carefully time when you spring off the wall is crucial when your ascents are complicated with flame throwers and spinning rotors of death.
A Very Different Prototype of Batman
Thank you Unseen 64 for opening my eyes to the fascinating world of cancelled games and prototypes. Batman offers an especially interesting example. A prototype of the game featured a totally different art style (based on Alan Moore's The Killing Joke) as well as a totally different end boss—Firebug rather than the Joker. According to one rumor, actress Kim Bassinger was not happy with how she made the transition to 8-bit graphics, resulting in SunSoft removing her almost entirely from the cut-scenes. Check out this video to see how the NES Batman prototype differed from the game that was actually released.
The Brilliant Score
With only four real music tracks for the stages (since stage one is recycled for stage five), you might be tempted to judge this soundtrack a little harshly. How foolish that would be. Listen to these tunes. Listen to them again. One more time, because by now you're certainly hooked. Indeed, the first stage is among the greatest tracks I can recall for the NES. The music blends perfectly with the dark setting, evoking an eerie feeling as well as complementing the science fiction elements. Short as this soundtrack may be, very few beats are wasted—yet another stellar score by SunSoft.
One of the less-heralded facts of the 8-bit era is that developers produced a shockingly large number of great games based on licenses, and Batman is one of the finest examples of this phenomenon. Until relatively recently you could safely call it the best Batman game ever made, but with the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum that's no longer as safe an argument as it used to be. Nevertheless, this NES Batman remains one of the greatest comic book video games. Don't let your character's small sprite fool you, there's gameplay galore to be found here, along with tremendous visual and audio artistic vision.