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Batman (NES) artwork

Batman (NES) review

"There are many out there who might make the mistake of thinking Batman is just an ordinary video game. They’ll go and think things like, “it’s just an outdated platformer,” or “this just looks like some crappy licensed title from a technologically obsolete era,” or “he doesn’t have superpowers, so it’s fine if we shoot him in the mouth!” For a brief time, these thoughts crossed my mind as well. Yet after playing for just a short while, my usually normal blood pressure turned into audib..."

There are many out there who might make the mistake of thinking Batman is just an ordinary video game. They’ll go and think things like, “it’s just an outdated platformer,” or “this just looks like some crappy licensed title from a technologically obsolete era,” or “he doesn’t have superpowers, so it’s fine if we shoot him in the mouth!” For a brief time, these thoughts crossed my mind as well. Yet after playing for just a short while, my usually normal blood pressure turned into audible hypertension, and my controller became sweatier than an overweight thug when confronted by the Dark Knight in a back alley after a failed attempt to steal some lady’s purse. I am positive this was the blood rush of excitement, and not of frustration.

Batman begins its first stage with a reasonable interpretation of a routine night patrol through Gotham City, but it quickly evolves to my wondering what century I’m in. Beyond the average everyday punks, it seems the streets also happen to be littered with bloodthirsty toy cars and the occasional flamethrower-wielding mutant. The action soon moves to a construction site, mysteriously guarded by homing mines, guys on jetpacks, and a lone ninja, which only served to further my addled confusion. Indeed, while this development was odd by anyone’s standards, it was certainly also pleasing enough to take in stride—I’ll be the first to admit right now, I do not possess anything resembling the deductive brain of the World’s Greatest Detective.

After intensive investigation, I eventually discovered that despite technically being based on the 1989 movie version of the Caped Crusader, the game’s creators have seen fit to throw away unimportant bits like exposition and certain plot details; these notions have been replaced by killer robots and a more vibrant, vaguely futuristic theme. Each stage is left only the thinnest of analogues to a scene from the movie; a setting like the chemical factory of Joker’s origin morphs to an obstacle course rife with toxic waste hazards and improperly insulated electrical conduits. Naturally, Batman will be forced to spend his time navigating this sort of treacherous area while delightful electronic beats play in the background; he’ll have no sidekick, and only the aid of his trusty projectile weapons array. I suspect some may find the end result unfitting for the characteristic grit and noir of the Batman oeuvre; but having played through the levels, I now applaud this deviation from the source material in a similar fashion to how I appreciate the campy 1960’s television series. In any case, this adjustment in art direction is not entirely tangential, and black remains very much a part of the color scheme.

As platformers tend to do, Batman takes full advantage of its protagonist’s unparalleled ability to leap great distances. In addition to his normal jump, Batman can also “Batman” jump (which is the same jump, just twice as high). The controls are very forgiving to this effect, luckily for the player. To normal jump, you “tap” the button, and to Batman jump, you “press” it; I’ve never had a problem executing the subtle difference between the two. This is especially important, because Batman can also wall jump consecutive bounds, to such an extent where all heights are attainable when faced with two adjacent and perfectly vertical surfaces leading up to that point. Within the confines of this game, this will be a skill that demands absolute mastery from the user; straight down to the split-second decision of whether the next push off the wall should be normal or Batman in order to avoid the spinning gears that drain health and cease all momentum. A foothold may occasionally be available partway up—only with one flamethrower mutant on the perch, waiting to complicate matters more. This sort of climbing is an ideal, palm-sweating exercise of one’s manual dexterity; never excessive in length, so players can relish the flood of precious endorphins afterward.

Also in keeping with platformer tradition, the stages all climax with an old-fashioned boss battle. Larger and stronger than the rest of the already oversized bunch, these are foes that don’t leave obvious, glowing openings and genuinely offer the impression of being fully intent on leaving our hero nothing more than a bat-shaped funeral pyre. Now, such fights are thoroughly enjoyable tests of guts and hand-eye coordination when the predictability factor is low; however, there are two boss instances where the game relies on a far-too-obvious “security system designed to eliminate intruders” motif. Gotham’s infamous gallery of mentally unbalanced villains could have otherwise been easily invoked; a random Arkham Asylum patient with a switchblade could have fulfilled the role of Stage 4 boss more satisfyingly than what they ended up using. (It’s literally two boxes that move around and shoot sideways.) I can overlook the first time; the second usage remains a small blemish on the game’s cowl-shielded face.

What’s more egregious is the failure to make Batman himself visually impressive, especially amidst the comparatively more striking scenery and vast assortment of foes. He definitely looks shorter than usual, and his outfit comes off as a drab shade of blue. Unarmed, or in his ammunition-less state, all he can manage is a pitiful one-armed fisticuff dance of patience that’s generally used in combat by hitting the button repeatedly and waiting for the target to come. Upon switching to batarangs, the dart gun, or throwing dirk, there’s a slight improvement to be had, but it’s clear that this is a Batman that suffers the curse of minimalism in his appearance and handiwork; I suppose even dark knights don’t always have time to be instilling fear into the hearts of their enemies. On the other hand, it makes the fights look more dramatic when your avatar is ostensibly the perpetual underdog. This was a really long time ago, back when he was possibly still working out how present an image.

From a classical age, Batman maintains a status as a piece of classical gaming. It somehow seems fitting that Batman is ultimately a game that utilizes common video game conventions to extraordinary effect; I believe the final product is one that should appeal to any ordinary person. I myself have never actually been able to complete the game all the way through, although I was quite close at one point. But I do not regret it; I feel it just confirms that I am a regular human. (And my controller is also worn from overuse by now.) Regardless, I encourage you to try for yourself if ever given the opportunity. And if you can succeed, you may even be a little cut above the rest of us.

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Featured community review by disco1960 (January 03, 2008)

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