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Retro Corner: Batman

by on October 7, 2011

Game: Batman (1989)

Developer: Sunsoft

Publisher: Sunsoft

Originally Released on: NES, Gameboy, SEGA Megadrive

Currently Available on: Currently Unavailable

When Batman: Arkham Asylum was released to great critical and retail success, it broke the mould and began to change the public perception that all games adapted from or based on licensed property rights were a waste of time. The title showed that a game based on a book, for example, could be original, inventive and a whole lot of fun.
But why have we all held adaptation games in such low regard prior to the aforementioned Batman title? Years and years of lacklustre movie tie-ins and nonsensical comic book videogames had almost pre-conditioned the hardcore gamer to expect the worst from these titles. Throughout the 1990’s, companies such as Acclaim, Ocean, and most infamously Ljn, were responsible for releasing a mass of licensed games which were lazy, derivative and bug-ridden. Often consumers still bought the games in droves, as they wanted to play as their beloved heroes, but they began to learn to be wary of these releases.

It is no surprise that none of the companies mentioned are still successfully producing games, but it must be made clear that the Market didn’t always think like this. In the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, for instance, there were few preconceptions. It was still a brave new world for gaming, and fans were eager for all sorts of titles. Of course, there was still a high number of duff adaptations and original titles alike, but there were some really classic and innovative games too. One of those is a game the Godisageek Retro Corner will take a look at today – Batman, the film adaptation on NES, from 1989.

The game was only loosely based on the Tim Burton film that was released the same year, but came out some time afterwards – in order to allow it to be competed properly and to the best ability of the development team. It featured five stages of play – each with their own unique bosses, whereby gamers could play as the Dark Knight in some side-scrolling, platforming action. The game was well received at the time and has actually gone down as one of the few popular and fun Batman games we have ever seen.

But why was this title successful when so many others failed miserably? Firstly, for the 8-bit generation, the graphics were impressive and varied. Whereas a lot of NES action games featured lazy, generic levels that all looked the same, and were derivative in structure, Batman, although it only featured five different levels, had some nicely drawn backdrops, each with different colour schemes and distinct characteristics. These included the Gotham City streets, factories, and the Gotham Cathedral Bell Tower – where the final battle with the Joker took place. The platform structure in each stage was challenging but not unforgiving like some other games that required pin-point jumps to be made, lest you fall to your doom. On top of that the character sprites were all large and bold. Main characters were easily recognisable and Batman looks suitably dark and intense. The variety of animation frames and movements was also good, with distinct movements that convincingly portrayed the action on-screen.

But it was perhaps the options the game offered in terms of attacking and traversing the levels that were new and exciting. As a platform action title, of course regular jumping was included, but another move that was very apt for the Batman character, but one that had rarely been seen in games at the time of release was the wall jump. Introduced in the Ninja Gaiden games, Batman could also perform the useful move when jumping toward one surface, to hit it and jump in the opposite direction, thus reaching previously unobtainable heights. This is something you could picture Batman doing in the comics and fits in with the source material well – something that most adaptation titles forget.

Also a cool feature was the variety of attacks in your arsenal. Of course there is your basic short-range punch – your go to attack which is unlimited. But as you proceed and eliminate bad guys, you will pick up a variety of particular weapon power-ups, that each provided ammo for one of three projectile weapons you can wield, each with different speed and directional properties – which were required to successfully defeat specific enemies. These were the Batarang, Batdisk and Bat Speargun. Players could switch weapons at will – providing they had enough ammo – to suit the situation. Luckily almost all enemies drop ammo, which perhaps makes it a bit too simple to take down basic baddies, but boss battles will soon sap your supplies.

With the fact that there is only really one big bad guy in the Batman film, rather than have the Joker appear in every stage, the developers made use of several other enemies from the extensive rogues gallery from the Batman comics. Under the premise that the Joker has hired a variety of goons to help him defeat Batman, we get to also face off against Killer Moth, Electrocutioner and Firefly.

They may not be the biggest household names, but they each possessed unique skills such as flight and speed, that could lead to unique boss battles, where you would need to employ different tactics to take on each one. There are even two inventive battles against machine enemies – such as those found in the Contra series, where you have to destroy different guns and sections of the huge machine to put it out of action. These are a welcome change of pace from the usual one-on-one battles, and allow for some very tricky situations where attacks are coming at you from all sides.

And this leads me to the issue of difficulty. NES games were much more difficult than modern games and most gamers today would be amazed by the harshness of some titles. Luckily, Batman walked a fine line between being challenging, but not becoming irritatingly impossible. Players benefited from infinite continues, so the lack of a password system to make play easier wasn’t a big issue. Okay, it did mean that you had to complete the game all in one go, but that was what gamers were accustomed to at the time. The lack of limited continues eliminated the intense frustration of the game over screen and having to begin from scratch.

It is for all of these reasons that the game still stands up as a good template for what makes a successful adaptation. Great visuals that suit the character and offer graphical variety, innovative controls and player abilities, keeping elements of – and not straying too far from – the source material, whilst still providing some new experiences, and not being so fiendishly hard that you never want to turn on the game again. These are actually rules that a lot of games could stand to live by. It is a safe bet that with the rush for game developers to match adaptation releases to their corresponding film release, we will still have to put up with some painful gaming experiences and disappointments. But it just goes to show that when a title is given some time like the NES Batman, or is not necessarily restricted by a release schedule, in the case of Arkham Asylum, great things can be achieved. With it’s own sequel, Arkham City, due later this month – Batman seems to have a bright gaming future, that Sunsoft and Nintendo paved the way for.

Batman is currently unavailable to purchase new, but can be bought second hand from sites such as eBay. The God is a Geek Retro Corner is part of “Feature Friday” and will return on the first Friday of next month. You can see previous entries into the GodisaGeek Retro Corner by clicking here.

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