80 Years Of The Bat – Pixelated Shadows: A History Of Batman Video Games, Pt. 1
by Ben Martin
80 Years of The Bat is a column created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the most beloved characters ever created, Batman. Since his creation in 1939, Batman has managed to transcend his native medium of comic books. Eight decades later, the character has a presence in every area of entertainment. Over that time, Batman has garnered generations of fans; thus, always remaining relevant. Throughout the remainder of 2019, 80 Years of The Bat will examine decades worth of Batman material from every medium. For the next few installments of the column, we’ll delve into the history of Batman in video games beginning with Pixelated Shadows: A History of Batman Video Games Pt. 1! [PLEASE NOTE: Pixelated Shadows will cover THE MAJORITY of Batman video games, but not every single one of them. If it did, that would take longer than one season of Batman ‘66!]
In the mid-1980s, a new form of entertainment had become all the rage. Video games were a revolution as they were arguably the first form of interactive electronic entertainment. What started as a fun way to pass the time and spend your quarters soon made its way into households. Playing video games at began with computers, but soon video game consoles took over. I have never been much of a PC gamer, but I have played many of the Batman-based console games. For the first installment of Pixelated Shadows, we’ll delve into the foundational era of gaming, PC, and cartridges! In The Dark Knight’s case that begins with:
- Developer: Ocean Games
- 3-D isometric game in which the object of the game is to collect seven pieces of the Bat craft dispensed throughout the Batcave. As expected, being designed in the early days of gaming Batman (1986) features primary colors and gameplay. You merely walk around the board, avoiding your enemies as opposed to confronting them. Therefore, the gameplay becomes repetitive fairly quickly. But hey, these Bat games had to start somewhere.
Batman: The Caped Crusader
- Developer: Ocean Games
- Operating Systems: PC, Apple II, Atari ST, Amiga
Batman: The Caped Crusader is a title that proves how rapidly video game technology tends to advance. Released a mere two years after the previous game, The Caped Crusader is an arcade-style game. Although not an actual sequel, this second Bat-game, put out by Ocean Games facing-off against The Joker and The Penguin. This aesthetic is unique as each level takes place within a comic book panel; thus, you’re playing as Bats within the confines of a comic book! In addition, this second video game also allows Batman to punch and throw Batarangs.
Batman: The Video Game
- Developer: Sunsoft
- Consols: Nintendo, Game Boy, Sega Genesis, Sega Mega Drive
- For those who have been reading this column for any length of time, you know Batman (1989) kicked off my love for the character and his world. Thus, it’s no surprise that Batman: The Video Game, based on the ‘89 film, was the first Batman video game I have ever played. Aside from the classic double-bill of Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt (1985), Batman: The Video Game is my second favorite Nintendo (NES) game of all-time. In its way, this game manages to capture the overall vibe of the film on which it is based. Granted, the game has a much vibrant 8-bit color palette than the movie that inspired.
This side-scrolling platform game very loosely follows the plot of the Batman ‘89 as The Dark Knight works his way through 5 different levels to reach and defeat The Joker. Each level takes place in of the iconic locations from the movie (Axis Chemicals, the town square, Gotham Cathedral, etc.) with a jaunty earworm of a midi composed score provides a backing track. Obviously, The Caped Crusader has to punch, jump, and Batarang his way through a multitude of enemies (including comic book character bosses) to confront Joker.
Now, just because I love this game does not mean I’m any good at it. In fact, despite its only consisting of a quintet of levels, I never have beaten the game. But, in my defense, Batman: The Video Game does have a reputation for being notoriously difficult, and frankly, I’m not an exceptionally skilled gamer. Still, I think this is a classic Batman game as-well-as one of the better movie-predicated games around!
Batman: Return of The Joker
- Developer: Sunsoft
- Consols: Nintendo, Game Boy, Sega Genesis
Game developer Sunsoft’s second foray with Bats was a direct sequel to Batman: The Video Game (1990), despite having no genuine connection to the ‘89 film on which that previous game is based. Batman: Return of The Joker, finds our cowled hero on The Joker’s trial following his escape from Arkham Asylum. Batman must fight his way through henchmen with heavy weaponry to reach his archenemy. However, the clock is against The Cape Crusader as he must stop The Clown Prince of Crime from launching missiles loaded with fatal laughing gas into Gotham City!
While the gameplay mechanics of Return of The Joker are similar to those of Sunsoft’s previous endeavor, I must say the gameplay is much smoother. The side-scrolling and platform don’t seem nearly as jittery this time around. On a related note, I was shocked by how much the graphics improved on this game! Return of The Joker combines a more traditional comic style with elements from the Tim Burton film to make a visually entertaining experience as well.
A Sega Genesis version of the game, re-titled Revenge of The Joker, was released in 1992. Despite owning Nintendo consoles as a kid, I must say that I think Revenge of The Joker is a cut above Return from the standpoints of graphics and gameplay. A Super Nintendo version of Revenge of the Joker was also in development, which would have been similar to Sega’s iteration. Alas, this SNES version was ultimately canceled. I, admittedly, have only played the Game Boy version of Return of the Joker, which I found to be more frustrating than fun. Both Return and Revenge of The Joker hold an essential place in Batman’s game history as this title was first to feature Arkham Asylum.
- Developer: Konami
- Consoles: Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Sega Mega Drive, Sega CD, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Tiger Handheld
- As is well noted, the audience and critical reception of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) was a lukewarm one at best. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the sequel from being a behemoth of ancillary products, which of course, included a video game. Famed game developer Konami (Metal Gear Solid) took over the cape, cowl, and game development for the video game adaptation of Batman Returns. Unlike Batman: The Video Game, Returns is a side-scrolling beat-em’ up style game as opposed to a platformer. As you might expect, this game consists of The Caped Crusader punching, kicking, and Bataranging his way through various enemies.
The SNES version of Batman Returns is an even split between Bats beating up members of The Red Triangle Circus Gang, and several boss levels in which our hero fights The Penguin and Catwoman, respective. These seemingly endless levels of fighting, set against the backdrops of the film on which the game is based. When combined with a midi interpretation of Danny Elfman’s phenomenal film score, this version of the game does a fantastic job of capturing the tone of its cinematic source material. Alas, the Sega versions of Returns barely attempts to be an adaptation.
On the contrary, the game put out for Sega systems seem more concerned with being a combination of a platformer and a beat-em’ up. An approach which would be fine-and-if all of the characters didn’t seem slightly disproportionate. I say if you’re feeling nostalgic and want to play this game, go with the SNES version. It should be noted, however, that Batman Returns, in both of its console iterations, was the first game in which you could drive The Batmobile!
The Adventures of Batman & Robin
- Developer: Konami
- Consoles: Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Sega Mega Drive, Sega CD,
- Like most Bat-fans, I think Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) is the most significant adaptation of Batman and his universe made to this date. As a kid, I was very fortunate to have a lot of merch, toys, etc. related to The Animated Series, which was later retitled The Adventures of Batman & Robin. However, I didn’t get around to the video game based on this show until a little later in life. Despite my slight delay in playing it, Konami’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin is one of the finest and most fun games of the cartridge gaming era.
The game combines a platformer with a fighting game in which Batman and Robin can choose to utilize specific gadgets for each level. While the gameplay itself is a ton of fun, the best thing about this game is its tone and structure. This video game manages to completely capture the look and tone of its namesake in every way. Many of the game’s levels are based upon specific episodes of the series down to the finest detail. Each level consists of Batman and Robin battling a major character from their rogues’ gallery: The Joker, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Penguin, The Riddler, etc., with each level being unique. For any fan of the cartoon on which The Adventures of Batman & Robin is predicated, I cannot imagine you would not love it. After all, the animation style of the show is perfectly transplanted into 16-bit gaming!
- Developers: Akklaim, Probe Entertainment
- Consoles: Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Super Nintendo, Game Boy
- The last Batman video game of the cartridge era was yet another shadow of The Dark Knight’s cinematic presence. Yup, that’s right, go ahead and take a shot because we’re talking Batman Forever! I distinctly remember getting this game for Super Nintendo for Christmas ‘95, and I was thrilled with it! As the movie-based video games, before it had, Batman Forever manages to translate the tone and aesthetic of its filmic source material into the gaming format.
Unfortunately, though, as an adult, I find that aesthetic to be the game’s highpoint. Otherwise, the gameplay is just a repetitive beat-em-up created using the Mortal Kombat (1992) gaming engines. Sure, the gameplay is fun for a while; but then it just frankly gets old. Furthermore, Batman Forever’s graphics are a bit rough looking, even by 90s standards. The only thing I enjoyed about this game is that its a nostalgia trip. Alas, I can recommend it for anything other than that specific quality. Now, this game did have a spin-off, Batman Forever: The Arcade Game (1996), which was the first Batman game to be released for Playstation (PS1) the following year, and it was an equally unimpressive outing.
In Part 2 of Pixelated Shadows, we’ll go back into the Batcave to explore the first generation of Disc-Based Console games, which The Caped Crusader inspired! Keep your browser tuned, same Bat site, same Bat column!