“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
-The Joker, Batman (1989)
“The following is a guest post by The Spoony Bard Mage.”
Batman. Iconic, heroic, bad ass, and purple? Purple, at least, in the NES Batman game from 1989 by SunSoft, which was tied to the Tim Burton movie from the same year. You’ve got to love creative use of the NES color palettes, am I right? In its time, this game was very well regarded, and was the most well-received of the many Batman games created by SunSoft around the early 90’s. Has it stood the test of time? Yes and no.
I am trying to be as objective as possible since this game was a childhood favorite of mine, which most likely has to do with the fact that my parents were fairly adamant about me not playing any violent games. My dad loved Batman though, so this one managed to fall through the cracks. Meanwhile, I was too young to have even seen the Batman movie from 1989 starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger which this is “based” off of, and I’m not even sure if I had seen the Adam West Batman TV show from the 60’s which I would eventually fall in love with. I certainly hadn’t read any Batman comics at that point. So this could very well have been my introduction to the Batman franchise – memory is a fickle thing.
The game is a platformer and beat ’em up that still feels innovative despite its age, but like many NES games from that era is short, with only five levels each broken up into one or two stages and then a boss. I can’t necessarily complain about the length though, as the amount of patience required to actually determine a strategy to beat this game’s bosses, while continually dying and having to continue back at the previous stage, is Sisyphean. The actual aesthetic of the game, with its dark colors, well rendered cut-scenes, and kick ass music is on point. If you’ve never seen the 1989 movie, however, you might be a bit confused as to what’s going on.
The plot of the game loosely follows that of the 1989 movie, but doesn’t add enough context for the player to know what’s going on unless you had actually seen the movie. So of course I turned to the Batman NES game manual, and even then I was pretty sure most of the level scenarios were not actually part of the movie, but I’ll let that slide as it was perfectly normal back in the day to create a game for a popular IP that didn’t actually do its story justice. Side note: I love how the manual tells you EXACTLY what to expect in each stage, including the stage’s boss – so much for the element of surprise. Basically, The Joker is tormenting Gotham, and you need to go defeat The Joker.
In terms of atmosphere, SunSoft got it right. The game is suitably dark in color (which is likely why the Batman sprite had to be purple), the cut scenes are well-rendered for the NES era, and the music is one of my all-time favorite NES soundtracks (though they don’t make use of the actual Batman movie score, which is a shame). Playing this game puts me in a serious head space where I feel like I am The Batman, and I am on a quest for justice. The single image of Jack Nicholson’s Joker with the movie quote: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” is a fond (if not maudlin) memory from my childhood.
Though the level scenarios are obscure, they are also well-designed and present a real and satisfying challenge. Right off the bat (see what I did there?), one thing that truly stands out in terms of game mechanics is Batman’s ability to wall jump, which was a truly innovative idea back in the day. It’s no gimmick either; levels were designed with wall jumping in mind and are as vertical as they are horizontal, and you need to get good at doing it in order to advance. Walls and floors have hazards such as spinning gears, electricity or acid, so you need to pay special attention to where you latch on to a wall, and oftentimes you’ll need to drop off a platform you’re standing on, grab its side, and then use it to propel yourself over a hazard. Often you’ll have to wall jump back and forth while waiting for an opening to attack an enemy right on the edge of a platform. Mastering this mechanic is truly satisfying and makes you feel like a real superhero. You can control the height of Batman’s jumps by holding down the jump button longer, but sometimes the jumping can be a bit janky and you’ll find yourself missing a platform and falling, cursing heavily, and having to climb way back up.
The enemies are… interesting. They certainly do present a challenge, and their various attack patterns are unique and require different strategies to avoid, but they have very little to do with the Batman franchise or the movie. There’s a soldier who runs at you, a futuristic looking flamethrower guy, a Frankenstein looking dude who fires a gun at you, ninja, tanks that shoot fireballs at you, a gigantic dude who leaps at you, and a few different mechanical / robot enemies. Compared to the truly wonderful 1993 SNES Batman Returns game by Konami, where you actually beat up thugs and gang members, the enemies here really feel out of place. Still, they are placed strategically in the levels so that their attacks actually present a real hazard, and you’ll often find that you need to use your entire arsenal to prevent you from losing your eight health bars and a life.
Batman is armed with his trusty punches, and three weapons from his Bat-arsenal: a spear gun, his trusty batarang, and throwing stars (or as the manual calls them: “dirks”). Though the game is designed that you can brute force punch your way through enemies, each weapon is unique and useful enough that it makes sense to actually use all of them and will make your life easier. The spear gun fires a single projectile that can travel the length of the screen but stops when it hits a wall, the batarang is short range but can travel through walls and do devastating damage if it hovers within an enemy’s hit box before returning, and the dirks fire three at a time in a vertical pattern while travelling through walls and cross the entire length of the screen. Use of these special items is dependent on your “pellet points” which are renewed by drops from enemies, and are plentiful. Other enemy drops include hearts (which return one health bar), and a “B” drop that adds to your score (which is nonsense as it’s so easy to farm these drops as the score then becomes irrelevant). Continues in this game are unlimited, and when you lose your three lives during a stage you can continue where you left off. Except during a boss.
The game’s bosses are also obscure enemies that have nothing to do with Batman (except your final confrontation with The Joker), but they are forces to be reckoned with and the main reason you’d want to rage quit this game. Of course, they start out easy enough – the first boss, “Killer Moth,” has an easy to predict attack pattern and can be easily slain with batarangs, but they get harder and harder from there. You attack them sensibly with your weapons but you can’t tell how much health they have left and they won’t die – often you need to come up with a brute force strategy (or look one up) to beat them. What’s worse, if you use up your pellet points during one try at a boss and die, they don’t regenerate on your next life. Use them all up and you’re mostly sh-t out of luck as punching them to death is difficult. If you lose all your lives during a boss, you get transported back to the beginning of the previous stage that led up to the boss. Fair enough, but the bosses become so difficult that after suffering this a few times, it makes you want to throw your controller at your television. The Joker is notoriously difficult, and to this day I only beat him once, just to prove that I could.
So that’s Batman for the NES, a truly gorgeous game that is rewardingly challenging but also frustratingly difficult. If you have an hour or two to spare and are a huge Batman fan or platforming enthusiast I’d highly recommend giving this game a go – but you may want to spare yourself a headache and look up how to beat the bosses if you can’t figure out how to do it on your first go.
The 8-bit Review
The game’s colors are appropriately dark and brooding for the Batman franchise, and the cut-scenes are brief but memorable. Background items such as Gotham City Hall in the first boss battle or Jack Nicholson appearing on televisions during the fourth stage add some life to the game, though most of the levels are slightly generic warehouses or industrial settings. Still, the overall aesthetic is very rich for the NES era.
For me, this game’s soundtrack by Naoki Kodaka is on par with classic NES soundtracks from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden. I have to reduce the score because, perhaps due to licensing issues, they didn’t make use of the actual Batman movie score. That being said, this is a great 8-bit soundtrack which you can listen to on YouTube:
The game mechanics are unique and fun, wall jumping is used to great effect and informs the level design, and the arsenal at your disposal is actually useful to beating the enemies. However, the jump mechanics are a bit janky, and the lack of boss health bars makes it difficult to know how much damage you’ve done. While the game gives you drops to boost your score, the score is meaningless as these are easy to farm.
This game is very difficult, but I have to reduce the score because it does not always feel fairly so. Mastering the game mechanics and especially the wall jump takes time, and is rewardingly difficult. The enemies are actually challenging in their attack patterns and placement. The bosses, however, are truly frustrating, and the main reason why people would avoid this game. You might think you have a reasonable strategy to defeat them, but after dying several times and then watching a YouTuber exploit their way through, it is very deflating as it completely disregards the amount of thought you have to put into defeating the regular enemies.
If you are not already a skilled platformer, this game is going to be tough to get in to. The wall jump mechanics require finesse and a lot of practice even for those who play a lot of other platforming games, and could easily frustrate a novice.
While there are frustrating gameplay elements in this Batman game, the fact that it is relatively short and genuinely challenging makes it fun to pick up from time to time to revisit, if not to try to beat your old completion time or see how far you can get before you want to get up and walk away. Still, it is a linear game and if you finish it once, that’s all there really is.
While this game certainly borrows aspects from other popular games at the time such as Ninja Gaiden which came out the year before, the aesthetic and gameplay feel unique and well thought out. It feels like its own game rather than a clone of another, and was the first truly successful and popular Batman home console game to hit the market.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
This game is super nostalgic for me, but at the same time carries memories of the sheer difficulty – I never managed to beat it as a child. Generally I tend to play it till the fourth stage when the difficultly shoots up exponentially, and I’m satisfied. It’s a beautiful game for the 8-bit era and I have very fond memories of it, but at the end of the day, it’s not nearly as good as the SNES era Batman games, or the more recent the Arkham series of games. That being said, if you’ve never played it, it’s worth an hour of your time!
Aggregated Score: 6.5