Review by ClamChowdaPowa
A terrific, immensely playable movie-based game for the NES.
Any game based on a movie, particularly one from the late-80's, is cause for alarm. After all, their track record isn't exactly great. And when it comes to this particular type of game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, more often than not you'll end up with either A) a somewhat playable but generic and overall mediocre game with characters from the movie simply pasted into the game (Predator), or you'll get B) an unplayable mess that serves as the electronic equivalent of a train wreck; you know you shouldn't keep playing it, but it's just so completely and utterly awful, so devoid of playability or imagination, that you just can't bear to take the cartridge out (Total Recall). Sadly, movie-to-game adaptions for the NES don't usually deviate very far from those standards. For every one Gremlins 2, there will be three Wayne's Worlds. Superhero games are especially susceptible to terrible game adaptions (just look at the sheer number of awful Superman games are out there - there's literally 2 or 3 decent ones out of many). And if a superhero game is based specifically on a superhero movie, well, it's a recipe for disaster - just look at 1995's Batman Forever, which made Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo owners the world over collectively throw their controllers down in a fit of futile, bitter tears.
Movie-based Batman games didn't always have it so bad, though. Indeed, games based on Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and 1992's Batman Returns were almost unanimously good, with remarkably few misfires, and with the exception of perhaps one or two PC games, none could be considered especially bad or unplayable. And, of all those games released between roughly 1989-1993, SunSoft's adaption of Batman for the NES is among the very best, maybe even THE best. Indeed, Batman for the NES is one of the games responsible for getting me into the NES and thus video games in general back in, geez, the early-90's (has it really been that long?), when I was only 4 or 5 years old. Subjectively, yeah, I have a bias towards this game. Objectively, though, my bias doesn't really matter. This is a great game, regardless of personal memories. SunSoft did almost everything right with this one. Almost...
One of the few problems with Batman is a problem that is found in many NES games. Luckily, it's often a trait of the very best (Contra, Ninja Gaiden). Of course, I'm speaking of the high difficulty level. Batman's isn't as high as some others, but it's definitely tough. Oftentimes hits are just unavoidable, although learning to time your jumps just right and managing your weapons is key to success (more on those later). Unlimited continues certainly help, though, and the game is usually quite fair as far as to where it places you after using one. The difficulty is pretty high, but not insurmountable.
The other major problem is one that doesn't deter from the gameplay, but does from the overall storyline. Batman uses cinematic cutscenes not unlike Ninja Gaiden, and they follow the plot of the movie quite well, Like the film, The Joker is terrorizing Gotham City via poisonous substances and his goons, and Batman, naturally, isn't having any of that, and thus it's his job to defeat The Joker and save the city. The problem here lies in the fact that at certain points the in-game levels don't follow the film at all. The game starts off well-enough, with Batman on the streets of Gotham, and follows that with the Axis Chemical Factory. Of course, the levels have all been NES-ized (for lack of a better description), which means you'll be jumping on platforms, fighting enemies, and going through areas that weren't seen in the film, but that's to be expected. Starting with the third level and continuing through the fourth, things deviate from the film significantly. Level three takes you through the sewers, and level four is some kind of mechanical factory. The fifth and final level, however, wraps things up appropriately enough at the cathedral and the final showdown with The Joker. The Sega Genesis version of the '89 Batman follows the film's plotline much more closely, but considering how well done the rest of this NES version is, the lack of movie-perfect stages is a small complaint.
The gameplay is of the side-scrolling, platforming variety, but it's done exceptionally well. Batman has the standard punches and jumps, as well as the ability to cycle through three weapons: Batarangs, a missile gun, and a three-way missile gun, although the Batarang is probably the best weapon, due to the multiple, continuous hits it can inflict. Throughout the game, as you defeat enemies, they'll leave one of three items: a heart, which obviously replenishes life, albeit only one unit (the heart is relatively rare), a "B", which is only good for points (not really a focal point of this game), and a missile, which is good for 10 units of ammo (you can hold up to 99). Also, Batman has the ability to cling to and jump off walls, not necessarily the ability that would first come to mind when thinking of Batman, but one that seems appropriately Batman-ish nevertheless. Mastering the timing of this wall jump is essential to making it through the game successfully (there are a number of tricky jumps that need to be timed just right, lest you take an unnecessary hit, plus the jump is absolutely needed simply to make it through the levels; There are areas that can't be accessed otherwise), as well as when and where you need to use specific weapons (unlike the jump, you could go the whole game without using a weapon, but you'll have a much harder time without at least occasionally busting the Batarang out here and there). Your enemies are the standard assortment of thugs and bosses, not really connected to Batman (aside from The Joker, of course). Some of the bosses can be pretty tough, but like other aspects of the game (and any good boss battle), timing is key.
Luckily, the controls are up to the task of handling all of this; They're spot on. Batman controls perfectly. Some may question the slight delay when jumping (Batman quickly crouches before jumping, as if he's "winding up"), but it adds an element of realism, albeit slight; It can take some getting used to, but it's a nice touch. Aside from the questionable choice to make the start button cycle through your weapons and the select button pause the game (wouldn't the other way around make more sense?), and the fact that you can't control Batman mid-air after jumping, there's not much to complain about, control-wise. They're consistently tight and responsive.
Graphically, Batman is terrific. The opening screen features a digitized Batman, and the in-game sprites, while small, are nicely detailed and animated incredibly well. Even Batman's cape flutters as he moves. The cutscenes all look great and advance the story very well. The stages are alternately gothic and, I don't know, technological, I guess. The first, third, and final stages retain the dark nature of the film, while stages two and four and are more along the lines of scientific laboratories. It sounds odd, but they work, and the amount of detail in the levels is astounding. Colors and shading are used effectively, to the point that some stages (parts of level two, for example) could be mistaken for 16-bit at first glance. You can even see little side alleys and stores in the first stage. From start to finish, SunSoft did a phenomenal job, Batman is a truly great looking title for the NES.
They didn't slouch in the sound department, either. The sound effects are serviceable, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They certainly do their job and sound fine for the NES, but where Batman really shines is the soundtrack. It's not often mentioned along with the greats (Contra, Double Dragon, etc), but the music is just awesome. And unlike a lot of NES games with scores that start strong but dip in quality as the game progresses, the soundtrack is superb the whole way through. None of it is taken from the film, but the evocative tunes fit the mood perfectly. Sometimes up-tempo, other times a bit slower, but all of them define the classic NES style of music. After all the other strong aspects of the game, the perfect music is the icing on the cake.
Taken separately, Batman may not do anything especially groundbreaking, but almost everything has been given the first-class treatment, and it all comes together beautifully. This game is FUN. From the layout of the levels to the general challenge presented, the game is a pleasure to play. While there's not really anything as far as alternate paths or endings, the game is so well-constructed that it's fun to replay it as-is. It's not an especially long game, but not all that short either. It's the perfect length for what it is, so no battery or passwords are needed, and the unlimited continues will let you beat the game in one sitting with no problem.
It's clear Batman was a top-tier title for SunSoft, since every aspect of it has obviously been well thought out, to excellent results. While Konami would handle Batman Returns (to okay but not outstanding results), SunSoft would come out with Batman: Return Of The Joker in 1991, employing even more impressive graphics. While fun in it's own right, the overall result just isn't quite as memorable as this first Batman game. From beginning to end, this is an outstanding NES title, one well worth acquiring (and it's so common, it won't cost you much to do so). Batman is proof that not only can there be decent movie-based games, some can excel incredibly.
Product Release: Batman: The Video Game (US, 02/28/90)
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