With the onslaught of Batman Returns video games I found it surprising that they bothered to create an NES edition although looking back it should have been common sense. One of the biggest movies of the previous year would of course hit the biggest platform of the time (in terms of install base) even if it was in its twilight years. With Sunsoft resigning itself to an endless parade of Looney Tunes games Konami picked up the slack. If it weren’t for a few glaring flaws there is no question this would be the best brawler for the system however the solid foundation underneath still means it is worth your time.
The game follows the plot of the movie pretty closely meaning you’ll have to take on the Red Triangle Circus gang as well as Catwoman before the finale against the Penguin. Like its SNES big brother this is a beat em up and in many ways seems like a shrunken version of that game. However there are enough differences that make the two games unique. The one area that I wish both games were identical is in their balance; the SNES game is perfect while this game is unfairly punishing. There is still plenty of fun to be had but I doubt most will have the fortitude to see it through to the end.
It would be natural to compare the game to Konami’s TMNT brawlers but in truth Batman is armed with a few more moves than the bros. Aside from the standard punch and jump kick he can also perform a sliding attack and the rare ability to block in a beat em up. Seriously why do so many of these games exclude this? Anyway in addition there’s the life draining spinning cap attack which looks really cool. The grappling hook sees little use unfortunately unlike the 16-bit versions of the game. A limited supply of batarangs are your only other offensive weapon which is uncommon for the genre.
In following the movie so closely the game is limited in a few ways. The Red Triangle gang comprise the entirety of the enemies you’ll face and there are only a few types. Even worse you only fight one type at a time, unlike every other brawler. Once you know how to deal with each enemy it becomes a matter of going through the motions. That’s not to say it is easy; these guys know when to back off, block attacks, and even wait for a cheap shot. But it does rob the game of the variety that comes from different matchups. There are two levels that put you in the seat of the batmobile and bat ski boat (that will never sound cool) for a change of pace. These levels almost feel like bonus rounds than a real challenge but you take what you can get.
Somewhere along the way it seems the game was never balanced. Although you are primarily attacked in groups of two most enemies take an absurd amount of time to die. Since you are dealing with waves of enemies it becomes incredibly repetitive, especially in the late stages of the game when you are dealing with 6 or seven waves before moving on. Boss battles are even crueler since they take even more damage and can dish it out as well. There are some like the circus strongman and the penguin’s….duck where it isn’t immediately apparent when they are vulnerable to hit without receiving damage as well.
What makes the game so difficult aside from these design decisions is the way it handles lives. Technically you only have one life. If you manage to find a heart or have full health and receive more (this will rarely happen) then you receive a “box”, which is basically an extra life. You can have a maximum of two and with hearts occasionally hidden in the environment it is possible to hit that point. But that would require a near perfect run which would take a miracle. There are passwords and unlimited continues to record progress but both throw you back at the beginning of each level. As grueling as each level is starting over is not an enticing prospect.
Batman Returns certainly looks the business. Sunsoft’s Return of the Joker set a high bar with its borderline 16-bit graphics and Konami’s turn at bat nearly meets it. The sprites are larger than in most NES titles with very good animation for the time. I would imagine the fact that you’ll rarely fight more than two enemies at once is part of the reason but whatever. The system’s color limitations actually benefit the game as the darker atmosphere of the movie is really conveyed well here. You’ll recognize stylized versions of the film’s locations with a degree of detail not common for the NES. There are even cut scenes in between each stage that while brief move the story along. This was a top class production from top to bottom.
It’s just too bad that along the way the game wasn’t balanced properly. With a few adjustments this could easily have been the top beat em up for the system, even above games like River City Ransom and TMNT III. As it is I recommend it only if you have a high tolerance for frustration.