Sunsoft's Batman is one of my most beloved games, and one I enjoyed a lot during my early teen years
when Funcoland was the shit. Now I am a 22 year old man and I must share my affair with the rest of the world.
Even the movie was significant for me: it was one of the first movies I'd ever seen, and I remember renting it from the
library numerous times along with Ghostbusters 2, even though at that age I had to cover my eyes every time
Joker was on camera.
A little earlier, in the summer of 1989, Tim Burton's Batman film had become the season's biggest box office
hit. It (along with
a few key graphic novels released around the same time) revitalized a broad public's fascination
with Bob Kane's iconic Dark Knight detective. It was also a massive merchandising phenomenon, with every
manner of tie-in imaginable, the most important of them being a video game on everyone's favorite
8-bit Entertainment System. The developer fortunate enough to nab the coveted license was Sunsoft,
which at that time was a small team comprising the software development wing of Sun Denshi Corpooration.
Sunsoft was still a relative newcomer in 1989, having only a handful of Golden Age arcade titles and
Famicom/Disk System adventure games on their curriculum vitae -- seemingly an odd match for a license that
clearly called out for a linear side-scrolling action game. Though they didn't have the experience,
they did possess all the other necessary attributes: money, talent, motivation, a little inventiveness,
and an inspiration: Akumajou Dracula.
Batman: The Video Game only loosely adheres to its source material, to the point that
it can't really be called a proper adaptation. Though this aspect is often lambasted by some ("I don't remember
that in the movie!"), it's really something that should inspire only gratitude. Instead of lowly thugs, dumb muscle,
and an inept swordsman, Batman will have to face a daunting army of robots, cyborgs, soldiers, motion-tracking
bombs, biologically-enhanced warriors, and... an inept swordsman, on top of a variety of environmental hazards.
And where Burton's Batman was inflexible and incapable of anything more than a basic kick, Sunsoft's is
an agile martial artist of ninja-like abilty, unleashing punch flurries, whipping batarangs, missiles,
and dirks, and acrobatically scaling walls -- this latter being, in fact, the game's defining feature.
Not long after Batman first descends onto the streets of Gotham City, Batman: The Video Game should spark
a feeling of familiarity among many gaming veterans. The way Batman moves, jumps, and attacks is very
reminiscent of Konami's classic horror-themed action game Akumajou Dracula, though a number of improvements
have been made for the sake of maneuverability. Batman's punches have a quicker startup and can
be thrown quickly. His forward jumps still lack nuanced adjusting but he can turn around and
attack during the jump, and vertical jumps can be adjusted slightly. It's also important to
note that the jumps and wall-jumps have different gradations of height depending on how long you hold the
button. This mechanic in particular plays a crucial role in later stages where the platforming
challenges become more intricate.
And speaking of the wall-jumps, it is without a doubt the game's coolest aspect. Not only is
it fun and innovative (I only know of one game before it with a wall-jump, UPL's obscure arcade game
Ninja-kun: Ashura no Shou), but it also serves as a way for Sunsoft to pack even more action and strategy
into the platforming segments, in a way standard ladder-climbing or gap-jumping mechanics can't match.
The sub-weapon system is also a nice development. Pressing the Start button cycles through the items
of your utility belt, which includes batarangs (short-range), missiles (long-range, thin shot) and
the oddly-named dirks (long-range, wide shot). Just to save you a trip to the dictionary, "dirk" is a
Scottish word for long daggers. When one is selected it becomes your main weapon so long as you
have the sufficient amount of sub-weapon units required to use them, which are collected straight
from defeated enemies. They can also be used while crouching, an upside compared to the "Up
plus Attack" method. The downside is that you can't switch between using punches and projectiles
on the fly, so it'll take a couple plays to know when to switch between the various attacks.
Batman is renown (or notorious, depending on one's viewpoint)
for its fiendishly-conceived stage layouts. I can't think of any Famicom game more often mentioned for instigating
controller-throwing tantrums, coupled with aspersions of "cheapness" and unavoidable hits.
In actuality though, you couldn't find a fairer, better organized game in the system's entire catalog. It's true that players
who rush into a new group of enemies and obstacles without a plan, thinking that reflexes alone will allow them
to succeed will generally obtain only a smaller life-bar. To be successful in Batman requires
a certain level of forethought; surveying the next obstruction and picking up cues as to the correct time
and place to jump into the fray, what weapons to use, or if the situation would be easier to deal with just
by avoidance. As a matter of fact, with the proper strategies there isn't a single flamethrower blast,
grinder, acid droplet or pool, leaping mutant, gear, or even boss you can't regularly overcome without
taking a single bit of damage.
Equally remarkable is the game's presentation, which is rendered well enough to make Batman one of
those lucky handful of Famicom games to effectively aestheticize the hardware's limitations. The visuals of
Gotham are appropriately gritty yet saturated, with deep shadows dousing the game's environments. At times
it resembles a moving noirish figure playset or a panel from a Mike Mignola comic viewed from a distance.
The sprites are small but are clearly defined, with nice animation, especially those of Batman (check out
his cape flapping after a long jump). The music is, as anyone who's played the game will tell you, some of the
most memorable of its time, in an era when every major game coming out of Japan had a catchy soundtrack.
Most of the tunes are anthemic theme-song style melodies (as that's what the NES does best) but there are
occasional downbeat moments. A lot of them are particularly aggressive for an 8-bit system, with pronounced
percussion. This is especially true of the second stage's theme, which starts out sounding like
a punk rock song and was apparently charismatic enough for someone to move it to the first stage
for the American and European releases.
Adding even more flavor are the cinematic scenes interspersed between stages and the opening demo,
sporting robust comic book-style graphics and accurate likenesses of Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger.
Not to give away too much, but the ending sequence is uniquely haunting and should have been how the
film ended had the director been a little more courageous.
Enjoyment of Batman: The Video Game relies heavily on the player's level of commitment.
For those without much, they will find it to be a frustrating and unpleasant experience that will
end with either hair-pulling, controller-throwing, Genie-abusing, or power-switching; resigning themselves
to be one of the many skeletons lining the game's dungeons in its now decades-long reign. But
action aficionados willing to endure temporary hardship on the way to the reward of mastery will no
doubt discover that Batman: The Video Game is one of the finest experiences around. And to them -- to
us -- it only comes as a bonus that the game also envelops us in an 8-bit world like few
of its kind can, or have ever done.