Region Reviewed: J-NTSC
Year of Release: 1990
Once upon a time in the 80's, the mass population of the planet Earth had forgotten about the Caped Crusader. Long ago was the '66 show starring Adam West and Hollywood wasn't touching comic book movies with a ludicrously long bargepole. But then, in 1989; a film came along that almost single handedly reinvented the proverbial wheel, becoming a pop culture landmark in the process. That film was Tim Burton's Batman, starring the super awesome Michael Keaton as the (best) Batman (ever). Kids loved it, adults loved it...It was dark, it was cool, it was violent, it was strange (in the good way) and trumped basically everything before it in terms of the blockbuster. Batman had never been bigger!
Part of this reinvention process, Warner Bros decided to take what they saw happen with the toylines of the Star Wars and the like and ramp it up to the nth degree. There were licensing agreements out the wazoo! The Dark Knight was on everything and was absolutely everywhere, from the day of the films release right up until the magnificently gothic sequel descended in 1992. While video game based on films wasn't anything new by this point in time, the sheer number and different variations that existed for the one film was truly flabbergasting, with no matter your system of choice? You pretty much got a Batman game. Good times, right?!
Great examples of Bat-games includes the brilliant Amiga title from Ocean and the differing Batman: The Video Game titles from Sunsoft on NES and MD/Genesis. The aforementioned Sunsoft games in particular are both highly regarded classics in their own right(s). But, Sunsoft decided to go a bit of a different route when they came to make a game for the Japanese market on the PC-Engine. This review? Yeah, it's on that one…
Picture the scene: you're a young importer. You are human so obviously wanted to be Batman (and drive Keaton's sweet ride of a Batmobile). All the other kids you know were rocking their other Batman games, but you saw an advert and you ran with it. Of course, Japan does everything better, because logic. Your Batman game is gonna beat all others. That's the line of thinking.
Though back in 1990, any young importer who fit the bill of the above were very likely left confuddled beyond belief. While very brave (and bold) to buy a game on its name alone, especially when all those shoddy LJN published tie-ins existed prior; a top down/isometric puzzler would have very likely made you feel like you've just been punked by the Riddler. As let's be honest, people. While at the time the game got some surprisingly fantastic scores it's ultimately a bloomin' unofficial sequel to Pac-Mania utilising the Batman property to odd effect.
In Batman you play as, well; Batman [“I'm Batman!” - Ed.] and your overall mission is loosely based on the events of the cinematic blockbuster. Locations featured (so loosely based you could whack a Batwing in there) are all set within Gotham City, broken to four main areas: the City streets (first and fourth), the Flugelheim Museum, Axis Chemicals and the Cathedral where the final battle with the Joker takes place (“there's a Bat in my belfry”).
Each area has a multitude of Stages to break the 'action' up further, each with their own sub-missions. The said missions are a bit lolsome, if you ask moi, but none more so than when you rock up at the Flugelheim. But, we'll get to that.
The game actually controls very well, yet in all honesty, it would be difficult to muck up considering Namco had already perfected it by this point in gaming history. You move around the top down/isometric perspective in maze-like areas, taking out baddies along the way who try and interfere with your Bat-business. It really is rather Pac-Mania, hence the previous mention. Main difference is that you're Batman, so instead of eating ghost following power pellets, you're flinging Batarangs into the faces of unsuspecting mimes and thugs, then Bat-rushing them as they're all dizzy and what not. There's multiple power-ups, of course. Included are speedy boots to zip around in no time, screen clearing bombs and the like. Nowt outstandingly original, that said. Oh and unlike Pac-Mania, you aint jumpin' no where (but you do descend pretty awesomely at the start of each stage – and the grappling hook does make its eventual cameo).
While hardly pushing the PC-Engine to its absolute limits, I do feel that Sunsoft has presented the game in a rather nice way. The sprites actually have personality, which is appreciated; although small and somewhat chunky, they do look cute. I dunno, maybe I have a preference for odd cuteness. Perfect example is during the climax when Joker is all “Uh no, sir!” and unleashes a gang of chattering explosive teeth in your general direction for your stunted Batman to traverse. You can always tell what’s going on and there's a definite boldness to what's on screen. When the action breaks up further with the pixelated cut-scenes, it's all just improved upon further. Hell, there's practically full sequences from the film recreated, which is ambitious considering the look and feel of the levels themselves during gameplay.
The music is a highpoint of the title, but also highlights the major flaws of the gameplay: it's surprisingly pretty darn sweet, while also very, very repetitive. It will make you work up a sweat though and get stuck in your head all the same, so props to that. The ending theme with Bats standing on the building edge during the credits is also so heroically recreated from Elfman's score that you'll want to punch crime in the cranium. Vigilantism is pretty dope, after all.
But, let's get back to the near laughable weirdness of it all. The opening stages are basically collectathons that would appeal to the Banjo in all of us. But it does seem odd that Bats would be on such a mission. It gets weirder once you get to the Museum. Bats job? Clean up the graffiti left behind by Jokers gang. Seriously. It's at this point you'll be thinking to yourself: “WTF, Sunsoft?”! This from the same company who unleashed the (to be fair, equally inaccurate yet insanely good) Batman on NES and its (somewhat more movie accurate) 16-Bit Sega counterpart. Why isn't this just Bats platforming, punching, kicking and utilizing his sassy gadgets!? Because Japan, obviously! Well, that's probably not the actual reason, but its one easy enough to chuck out there.
Once you've done your Bat-janitor work, in Axis you get more into movie territory by placing bombs about the place (not with the Batmobile, mind). Then its back to the streets to go and rid the back alleys of Jokers balloons (n'ah, you don't get to do it in the Batwing/Batplane; that would be logical), before eventually making your way to the final battle with Mr. J (knocking out the additional thugs along the way). Unlike the film, there's no Vale in sight and Batman more just bumps the Joker off the side of the building, so his intentions are a little less obscure here than in the film. Then you get credits. Then its the end.
I cannot help but wonder what could have been with this game. It doesn't feel like it's some cheap cash-in, it's just on that very strange level of retrogaming that titles like Godzilla on Game Boy fall into. Their own little category that's often difficult to explain, if you will. After all, Sunsoft rarely made a bad game back in the day and it's no change with this, really. It's not bad, it really isn't. To say it is would be unfair, but to say it's the best Batman game available in relation to the 1989 film would be one of the furthest stretches I've seen/heard. The game works in its own right, but just skewers the perceptions one may have of a Batman game prior to playing.
When chatting about the music, I mentioned the games major flaw being its repetitive nature. Each area has 12 stages, so that's a lot of mazing and collecting to get done and in one sitting just wears on the player, or at least did on me. There is a password system in place and the game is challenging enough that you will see the Continue screen a fair few times. The fact it almost feels like a chore to get to end rather than satisfying (as it is in say, practically any beat-'em-up of the day) to complete. While we all complain if a game is too short (well, I don't tend to, if its paced well enough – blame the arcades that raised me), this just feels too long to not be a looping cabinet. As stated; it's not awful, it's just off. Perhaps the addition of mini-game like break ups, or even Sunsoft doing something along the lines of what they did for the Sega game in presenting driving stages, etc. would have just helped break it all up enough to the point where you are suitably refreshed before going back to the rinse-repeat formula that this PC-Engine output gives the player.
Overall, I've alluded to my general opinion and it pretty much falls in line with the modern consensus you're likely to find online. It's an intriguing little entry into the franchise as a whole, one that really comes out of left-field when you compare and contrast with the opposing games by Sunsoft themselves on the other major consoles. Considering this wasn't released in the West for the North American TG-16, gives it its own cult appeal as a fairly mammoth exclusive for the Japanese PC-Engine market. It's one collectors of Bat-merchandise and retro video games will likely love for its not-so-obscure yet still somewhat-obscure nature. But, for the gamer? I'd certainly recommend you crack out the Ootake and nab a ROM to try before you buy. It's not for everyone, that's for sure and certainly included within that pile of populous exists even the most ardent Batfan.
Verdict:- Tim Burton's Batman (1989) is undeniably a classic, totally iconic and a real must-watch for anybody, anywhere. Sunsoft's Batman (1990) is a heck of a lot more debatable in all areas, however.
I've given it a middle-of-the-road 7/10, which some may argue toward being a tad too leniant, while others may just flip their table in disgust demanding more top marks across the board.
While incredibley simple up-front and a breeze to understand, the struggle is real; much like the frustration and confusion the game can present in multiple ways.
I'm just so hard pressed to call this a bad game. I've spent a shocking amount of time with it over the years and it has taken me a good while to pluck up the courage to complete.
But it is an oddity and far from perfect.
Second Opinion:- Transbot is Batman! Well, Transbot is Transbot. But this game surely isn't Batman, right?
As amusing as it may be for this overlord to chuckle heartedly at Earthly fleshbags going all uber-hipster and splashing a ton of their hard earned monies on such a puzzling import, Transbot honestly can't remove himself from the reality...
Sunsoft got it right with the Nintendo and Sega Batman games. This one fails. If you want to play Pac-Man, go play Fantasy Zone: The Maze!
Transbot Scores:- 5 out of 10