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Batman: Return of the Joker

The original Batman for NES was everything we were looking for in a Batman game: pretty, challenging, and most of all fun.  After its success it was only a matter of time until a sequel was announced.  Batman: Return of the Joker in many ways surpassed expectations while also falling short of them.

Batman: Return of the Joker was released in 1991 for the NES with a later port to the Genesis in 1992.  Unlike most Batman games this was an original product not tied to a movie or particular comic book storyline.  The Joker has escaped Arkham Asylum and it’s up to Batman to stop him.  Sunsoft wowed everyone by creating one of the first great Batman games and while this does not reach the same heights as that game it still manages to be one hell of a ride.

Eschewing the melee combat of the first game Batman is equipped with a gauntlet that is able to fire various projectiles.  If you’re familiar with Batman’s history you know that guns are a big no-no for him, but we’ll let that slide for gameplay sake.  In fact all melee has been removed with the exception of a slide attack that doesn’t see much use.  Because of the focus on guns this feels more like side scrolling shooter rather than an action platformer.

Throughout the 7 levels there are many segments of forced scrolling that really reinforce this, and there are even levels that have you don a jet pack for some Gradius inspired action.  Boss battles equip you with a very large life meter and almost take on the air of a fighting game as you contend with the Joker’s henchmen.  There’s nothing wrong with the change in focus, but it is disappointing that the complex platforming and difficult enemies have been removed.  The game is a simpler with those elements removed and suffers for it.

What does hurt the game the most is the lack of polish, starting with the controls.  The first game lived or died by its pinpoint accurate controls but sadly Sunsoft did not spend as much time in that category.  Batman slips and slides even when you try to come to a complete stop.  The platforming as well borders on nightmarish at times because of the sloppy controls and spotty collision detection.  It’s disheartening to land what seems to be a perfect jump only to fall through the edges of a platform because the game decides it wasn’t close enough.

The challenge is about average until the midpoint of the game at which point it borders on the retarded at points, with missiles coming from all directions, enemies dropping in droves and the hit or miss platforming.  Thankfully there are passwords to save progress and you’ll need them.  Batman was a very challenging game but nothing that could not be overcome with perseverance.  The same cannot be said of Return of the Joker.

But at least it’s insanely pretty.  At its release some of the more…….”enthusiastic” publications of the time claimed Return of the Joker resembled a 16-bit game in an 8-bit cartridge.  It doesn’t match such lofty praise but there are times where it comes close.  Unlike the tiny sprites of the first game everything has been increased by almost 50% and the detail is insane for an NES game.  The look of the game is inspired by the comic book and heavy on the Gothic architecture.   Many effects uncommon for the NES such as parallax scrolling and line scrolling are on display.

Batman Return of the Joker served as a showcase for Sunsoft’s mastery of the NES hardware and next to the unreleased in the US Mr. Gimmick is probably the most technically accomplished game for the platform.  That performance comes at a price however, the screen flickering is at times ridiculous, to the point where half the screen is missing.  They really should have reined in their ambition.  Ah well, the game suffers for our entertainment.

While not on the same level as the original Return of the Joker is still entertaining despite its problems.  Sadly the game does not have the gameplay to match its graphics but still packs enough thrills to last an afternoon or two.

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