It's been quite an eventful year so far. So much so that juggling work, life and passions have been something of a struggle. Then came Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to prove that I'm not the only one with a lot on my plate. Imagine being given hundreds of millions of dollars to create a film many comic book geeks like me have been waiting to see for decades and ending up with this confused mess of a movie! Makes finding the time to review classic games seem trivial...
Anyway, enough sly digs at a disappointing movie, let's look at the history of DC's icons in videogames. I've collected a cornucopia of their console iterations to talk about - over 50 in all - so let's get started. We're focusing on console games here, so PCs and micro-computers will remain for another time, along with any I may have missed.
Batman has fared quite well in the gaming sphere of late. The Arkham games are all top-notch, with only a rushed and broken PC port of the last game tarnishing its reputation. Did he always translate so well? There's been many Batman games and luckily, there are many highlights.
Back in 1989, Tim Burton's original movie was everywhere. SunSoft held the console rights and produced a slew of decent platformers. The first of these was the NES game, a colourful game that's graphically very impressive for an 8 bit title. It controls are as smooth and responsive as Nintendo's little box will allow with some nice power-ups and a cool wall-jumping mechanic.
The GameBoy game, while still relatively good, suffers a lot from the limited hardware. It's obvious that this was a near-launch title (at least in Europe) as the sprites are small and the graphics simplistic. But the biggest fault in my eyes is that there's nothing about it that feels like a Batman game. The NES release has gadgets, acrobatics and atmosphere. This has guns and platforming that's more of a mix between Contra and Super Mario Land. If that combination sounds good - and it should - then you will like this game. It's just that it could be skinned to any franchise and be exactly the same.
The Genesis, with its focus on arcade ports, shied away from the platformer and got a beat 'em up. It's standard fare with some bare bones platforming elements. Competent, but nothing special, although there are some exciting Batmobile segments. The Japanese-only PC Engine game, on the other hand, is completely different to anything else in this package. It's an incredibly fun and polished arcade game. It perhaps most closely resembles Pac-Man with a touch of Bomberman. The levels vary in size and complexity and the best include some light puzzles. The aim is to collect everything. Some are power-ups like a speed increase or weapon upgrade, but the focus is on random objects scattered throughout. I believe they may be bombs or computer parts, but they could just as well be groceries for all that it matters. Their sprites look closer to that anyway. You can use your batarang to stun enemies and if you walk into them, they fly off the screen. They re-spawn after a couple of seconds so it only clears your path temporarily. You have to be careful whenusing your Batarang; you remain stuck on the spot while you're projectile remais in the air, leaving you open for attack. It's a fun hidden gem that has that same addictive quality as Bomberman that'll keep you playing 'til the wee hours of the morning.
There was something of a competition to get the rights to Batman. Software Creations created a SNES prototype, probably as a presentation to Warner Brothers to obtain the rights. It failed. The reason? Well, whoever ripped the ROM and released it to the internet probably explained it best by naming it "Real Shitty Batman". The barebones beat 'em up was just that, having only one enemy, two attacks and ending with a glitchy representation of the Joker. Despite having far larger sprites than the norm for te time, they're childishly drawn and lacking in detail. Would it have been a good game had it gained funding and reached completion? It's hard to say, but judging by this mess I doubt it.
RETURN / REVENGE OF THE JOKER
After the hype of the 1989 blockbuster subsided, SunSoft began work on a new Batman game. Unlike Batman: The Movie, Return of the Joker (also known as Revenge of the Joker) tried to be the same game over all the consoles it released on barring the GameBoy but more on that later.
First out the gate was the Mega Drive/Genesis version. For some reason, I found this more difficult than the 8 bit counterpart. The sprites are larger, and the field of view lessened making it feel zoomed in by comparison. The trouble with this is that it's harder to see what's coming. Enemies will shoot at you before you've realised one is there. The result is a game that relies more on level memorisation than reflexes and therefore a far more frustrating expeience. Both versions have slight issues with the jumping, being ever so slightly delayed but they're not so hard to get used to. It's more prominent in the NES game, making some of the timed jumps annoying, but that version is still the one to play. If you thought the first Batman pushed the NES graphically, you'll be stunned by this game. There's some awesome parallax scrolling effects which puts to shame the more static Mega Drive version, even though that has more colours.
The GameBoy gave us a completely different platformer and is lesser for it. The wall jumping returns but is far more difficult to pull off and the controls are slippery and unresponsive. Some enemies respawn in the blink of an eye, and with the unforgiving fall-back when hit, it leads to many cheap deaths. It may look good for the GameBoy - at least in screenshots - but the controls completely let it down.
The SNES would've got it's own version had it not been cancelled. It would've looked and played somewhere in between the Mega Drive and NES versions. The beta was leaked online, and despite being very playable, is obviously unpolished compared to the others. If it were released, I doubt it would be an improvement on the NES game, but I think decent sales and reviews would've still come in.
SunSoft's licence had expired by the time the second movie came out and again there was another bidding war. This time Konami won out on the Nintendo rights with SEGA getting to release their own versions for their own consoles. SEGA released their games to market first with four titles on each of their systems.
The Mega Drive version is notorious for giving us a purple Batman, which does sound odd. Many reviews I found online state his as a negative, but in truth it fits in well within the graphic design as a whole. The controls take some getting used to, particularly the Batclaw grapple gun but once you get the hang of it, there's no real issue. A lot of the levels are open world and directionless which does invite exploration, but there's little reward to checking everything out. I just found this frustrating. Being firmly on the Nintendo side of the console war, I have no nostalgia for this version, but I can certainly see why some would enjoy it.
This entire game is also on the Mega CD version. The graphics are a fraction better with adde intro animationss and an awesome CD soundtrack, but the biggest one-up over the cartridge is the new driving sections. They looked spectacular at the time, but unfortunately fail to impress now. I found these sections are a more enjoyable ride than the platforming but are nevertheless stunted by an extreme difficulty curve. The Batmobile doesn't appear to be as manoeuvrable as your enemies making it hard to dodge projectiles or get into the perfect shooting position
The Europe-only Master System game is basically the same as the universally released Game Gear port. The graphics are obviously a little better on the Master System, but beyond that, they're identical. This is by far the worst of the SEGA games with stiff controls and one-hit deaths marring any enjoyment you may have had. Not terrible, just mediocre.
Konami's games on Nintendo's machines hold up far better. They were released a year later to coincide with the VHS release and the extra time spent shows. Both are beat 'em ups tailored to each console's strengths. The NES looks a little simplistic, but it plays fast and controls very well. The SNES game, however, is a real gem. I'm surprised it's not mentioned in the same reverence as other Konami beat 'em ups at the time such as Turtles in Time or The Simpsons Arcade. The sprites are large and detailed with an overall beautiful aestheic making it the best of the Returns bunch.
Atari also entered the ring and made a game for their ill-fated Lynx handheld system. It a real looker and shows off what the Lynx was capable of. Alas it it also a very poorly at game design. It's so bad that the entire game felt like that Monty Python boxing sketch. The less said about it the better.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
To me, the 90s animated series is the best depiction of Batman on screen and thankfully some quality gaming came out of the licence. Several titles came out based on the series, again spearheaded by Konami and SEGA. This time Konami was first out of the gate with the SNES and GameBoy games.
Both are very different yet each are excellent in their own right. The GameBoy game is obviously compromised by hardware, but the large well-designed levels are surprisingly good for a licenced game. The SNES version is in fact one of my all-time favourite SNES games and one that I keep finding myself coming back to time and again. The graphics are gorgeous and represent the show perfectly. The platforming levels themselves can seem a bit sparse at times, but they're well designed, thoughtful affairs with the occasional light puzzling. And then there's the finely tuned fighting mechanics which, when combined with the many gadgets available from your utility belt, make for an incredibly rewarding experience.
Later on in the game, you'll need your brains just as much as your reflexes as different play styles are introduced. In fact, each section which is based on a different villain can vastly different from the last. Joker's stages, for example, begin slowly as it introduces you to the mechanics but by the end of his segment, your fighting on top of a rollercoaster in a high-octane set piece. Later on, you'll be searching for clues by flashlight or puzzle your way out of the Riddler's virtual maze - a devious section had me stumped for the longest time. Overall it's bursting with imagination and invention making it the king of retro Batman games.
Some people, however, do prefer the SEGA games though I admit I'm not a fan. Sure, you can actually play as Robin this time round, but the constant barrage of enemies from start to finish gets tiresome very quickly. It's graphically and technically impressive, but the game design is severely lacking in my opinion. The gameplay is fast and frenetic with too much going on screen at once, but the arcadey feel is what SEGA is known for and it certainly appeals to a certain type of gamer. SEGA took the same route as Batman Retuns for the Mega CD port by adding driving segments. They're a lot better than the last game, but I still rate it far lower than any of Konami's offerings.
Batman Forever saw more movie tie-ins, this time by Acclaim. I liked the film very much upon release but in the years since it's aged very badly. The games have aged badly too, but they weren't much cop upon release anyway. All of the home console ports save the PlayStation are pretty much the same game and none of them are any good. They play somewhere between a one-on-one fighter, a beat 'em up and a platformer but doesn't do any of those genres well. The controls are similar to a 2D fighting game where up is jump and the face buttons are kicks and punches of varying strength. This makes any platforming segment intolerable and god forbid you need to use a specific weapon. I attempted each port (including the Game Gear which looks like an arcade kill screen), and none of them were any good. Avoid.
Just when you though things were dire for Batman, the Arcade game, which was ported over to the PlayStation arrives. It's by no means a great game - Konami's Batman Returns still trumps it in my opinion - but at least it's playable. The beat 'em up game-play is frenetic and chaotic with sprites filling the screen. This does makes it a tad confusing during play as it's easy to lose where you are and harder to pick up items or pull of special moves. You'll have some fun playing it but there's better examples of the genre on each of the systems represented. Some are even included in this compilation.
BATMAN & ROBIN
As much as I try to forget that abomination of a movie, it still manages to creep back into my consciousness like a fever dream. The PlayStation game does similar things to me, albeit for different reasons. The promise of the game is extremely high, but it ultimately fails in the minutiae. Let's start on a positive note by talking about the good stuff.
For starters, the pixelated, low resolution graphics that are steeped in heavy fog are far easier on the eyes than anything Joel Schumacher passed off in the movie. Graphically, it pushed the limits of the PlayStation rather nicely. It also took the ambitious route of being a wholly 3D open world. In many ways, you could say that this is the progenitor to the Arkham games. It's quite fun to search for clues and power-ups, even if they do mostly consist of finding coins and buying papers from vending machines.
Now the negatives, which are unfortunately almost game-breaking. Batman uses the dreaded tank-controls à la Resident Evil which just make things worse during any fight. They're passable for slow-moving games like a survival horror or even action games where the mechanics are designed around the control scheme. They have no place in your standard action game - and the action here is very standard. Enemies bum-rush you and that's about the extent of their AI. When inside buildings (which play as levels) they're plentiful too, and you'll be fighting the controls more than them.
The streets are a little calmer. The open world is an impressive feat for the time, but most everything looks the same. When I first played it, I was sure I was going in circles, leading to nowhere. The draw distance is so shallow that you cannot see oncoming cars, or whether their friends or foes (and the only way to find out, is if they bum-rush you). Eventually you'll learn which type of car belongs to which side, but it's not as obvious as walking enemies. You'll occasionally see brightly dressed people (enemies) bullying drably dressed people (civilians) and you can save the civilians if you want, but I don't think they truly want it. Every time I've tried, the victim just gets in the way. He will casually walk into your line of fire or even the dying remnants of a smoke bomb and get injured. This would probably be funny if it didn't also affect your own life bar.
This is a game that's got some good, even amazing ideas held within, but is heavily marred by its execution. A perfect adaptation of the film then.
After this, UbiSoft took the reigns and created some cheap cash ins. Batman Beyond is probably their most high-profile title and is a functional beat 'em up but quickly gets tiresome. Kudos to them for translating the game from the N64 and PlayStation to the GameBoy Color. Everything is there in 2D form, even if it does play like balls. The big-boy consoles play a lot better, with the CD storage adding FMV cutscenes that the graphically superior N64 couldn't manage.
Chaos in Gotham is an unremarkable platformer for the GameBoy Color. It has some nice animations, but is otherwise entirely pedestrian. the Playstation's Gotham City Racer is basically the driving elements from Batman & Robin beefed up into a full game. Unfortunately it feels rushed both in its game design and visuals with some horrendous pop-up and terrible controls that dampen any enjoyment the idea may have had. At least here's an original animated story in there from the TV series' production team.
UbiSoft's two GameBoy Advance offerings might as well be the same game. Batman Vengeance and Rise of Sin Tsu are both handheld 2D platformers based on 3D GameCube counterparts. Just like Chaos in Gotham, there's nothing much of note, but at least they're playable.
Electronic Arts took control of Batman Begins, the first of the excellent Dark Knight trilogy, and the only one of the series to get a game tie-in. The console games were good, though not great but having played both now, I think I prefer the simpler charms of the GBA game. It takes the same route that UbiSoft took by turning a 3D action adventure into a 2D handheld platformer. The levels here are detailed and entertaining, allowing you to crash through windows and enter buildings. I'm not too keen on the fighting mechanics, but they're passable. Not a bad game by any means, though I wouldn't go so far as calling it a hidden gem.
Overall, I don't think Superman has fared at all well in the gaming sphere. The closest I got to a good game was a beat 'em up based on the then recent comic book's storyline that shocked the world. SunSoft again took the reigns to create a beat 'em up based on the Death and Return of Superman. It's an epic storyline that spanned multiple issues and even spilled into DC's other superhero comics such as Supergirl and The Justice League. In fact, it was completely butchered in movie form it by shoving in Doomsday at the end of Batman v Superman.
I can't say I'm a huge fan of beat 'em ups but I have to say that Death & Return of Superman is one of the better ones I've played. It's not what I would consider a classic, like I now believe Konami's Batman Returns to be, but I definitely got some enjoyment out of it.
In 1987, the Japanese took a stab at the Man of Steel for the NES. Kotobuki System's Superman has an odd feel to it. It is more cartoonish than anything western developers may have conceived, but I do think it is one of the better games based on DC's stalwart character. The undeniably Japanese style (I think they call it "chibi") is somewhat off-putting at first, but once you get into the game, you realise that the mechanics underneath are solid. I believe this is perhaps the only game where you get to play as Clark Kent as well as Superman. The Mega Drive, Game Gear and Master System games are all mediocre at best. Despite an admiral effort from SunSoft for the SEGA's 16 bit machine, I find little to enjoy and less to write about. They're all attempts at platform action games with poor, boring gameplay.
In 2003, Infogrames took a shot at an isometric GBA action game that again has some good ideas, but implemented poorly. The small character sprites are dumped in an almost empty world with very little to explore or do beyond attack enemies or have banal conversations with allies. Your main attack is your laser vision, which is very imprecise but you can also punch and throw cars. None of these attacks are satisfying so the designers compensated for this by making the enemies very weak, at least in the early levels. The flip side is that it gets boring very quicky which is only helped along by the woefully bland graphics. It's not very good, but at least it's better than Electronic Arts' 2006 movie tie in of Superman Returns. This GameBoy Advance game is basically Sudoku interspersed with some of the worst shmup levels ever devised.
And then there's Superman 64 - the zenith of terrible videogames. In truth it is not that bad. Sure, it's broken, uninteresting and frustrating as all hell, but have you played the prototype? This early concept somehow manages to feel more like a more finished product than what was released. Flying through rings are replaced by basic missions in the over-world such as rescuing an ambulance or defeating a number of enemies. Metropolis looks far more complete too, with more buildings, fewer flat textures and a nicer coloured fog.
Does all these previously unseen additions make for a good game? No, it doesn't really, but it does prove that the designers intentions were far more ambitious than what we got. It's still buggy and boring, and probably needs about half a year to complete yet I find it fascinating to play. How can the prototype be better and more technically proficient than the final game? Perhaps we'll never know.
There are also several games that feature both Batman and Superman, yet the only one to put them face to face in combat is Justice League: Task Force, a 16-bit fighting game by Acclaim. It's very unbalanced with some characters being far more powerful than others, but it serves its gimmicky purpose. There are far better 2D fighters out there, but this holds the distinction of being the first to place the Titans of DC into a ring. We'd later have Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe and Injustice: Gods Among Us, each doing a far better job with more modern hardware so Task Force is now a bit of an obsolete curio.
The GameBoy Advance got three Justice League games by Midway and Warner interactive. I found all three of these more fun than the standalone Superman games, even though only Injustice for All features him in any significant way. Here you join up with Wonder Woman in a 2D platformer that can seamlessly transform into a basic shoot 'em up. The controls and visuals are nice but it lets itself down in the level design. Because you can now fly, some sections can simply be bypassed by zooming overhead.
Chronicles is a much more interesting being a top-town action game with multiple characters to play with. You can eventually play as many of the Justice League including Batman and Superman, which adds to the variety. I got a lot of fun out of this one. Justice League Heroes, the last game on the collection only features The Flash as a playable character, but Superman can come swooping in to help as a power up. It's another isometric action game that plays more like a beat 'em up than the other Justice League games. The Flash may have some cool moves, but it does get repetitive quickly.
So who won the Batman v Superman videogame fight? Definitely Batman. There's never been a great Superman game and I find that very disappointing - and a little baffling. I can't imagine it to be too hard it a talented deelope like Rocksteady gets involved. The main gripe I have with the Superman games, and one that has seemingly stumped many designers, is that Superman is not represented as an invincible force of nature. Each title has the standard life bar, continues and 1-ups which only emasculates the hero. Batman, on the other hand, is vulnerable physically and mentally which not ony lends itself to good stories, but interesting gameplay.
To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses Retroarch with the NEStopia, SNES9X_Next, TGBDual, VBA_Next, Picodrive, Genesis Plus GX, Handy, Mupen64, Mednafen PCE and Mednafen PSX cores to emulate the games on modern PCs. XBox 360 controllers supported for all games. Manuals for some games included in the Manuals folder. Tested on Windows 10.
FULL LIST OF GAMES:
The Adventures of Batman & Robin (GameGear, Genesis, SEGA CD, SNES)
Batman: The Animated Series (GameBoy)
Batman: Chaos in Gotham (GameBoy Coloe)
Batman: Return of the Joker (NES, GameBoy)
Batman: Revenge of the Joker (Genesis)
Batman: Revenge of the Joker BETA (SNES)
Batman: Rise of Sin Tsu (GameBoy Advance)
Batman: Vengeance (GameBoy Advance)
Batman: The Video Game (NES, GameBoy, Genesis, PC Engine)
Batman & Robin (PlayStation)
Batman Begins (GameBoy Advance)
Batman BETA (SNES)
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (GameBoy Color, N64, PlayStation)
Batman Forever (GameBoy, Game Gear, Genesis, SNES)
Batman Forever: The Arcade Game (PlayStation)
Batman Returns (GameGear, Lynx, Master System, SEGA CD, NES, SNES)
Death & Return of Superman (Genesis, SNES)
Gotham City Racer (PlayStation)
Justic League: Task Force (Genesis, SNES)
Justice League: Injustice for All (GameBoy Advance)
Justice League Chronicles (GameBoy Advance)
Justice League Heroes: The Flash (GameBoy Advance)
Superman: Man of Steel (Game Gear, Master System)
Superman (GameBoy)Superman 64 (N64)
Superman 64 BETA (N64)
Superman: Countdown to Apokolips (GameBoy Advance)
Superman Returns (GameBoy Advance)