Retro Review: “Batman Returns” (SEGA Genesis, Jolly Jinglings Special)
Welcome back to Jolly Jinglings, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all dancing sugar plums, fairy type or otherwise.
In 1992, “Batmania” was in full effect. The success of Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989 had reignited mainstream interest in the Dark Knight, what followed was a marketing blitz of toys, school supplies, breakfast cereal, and every other piece of cinematic synergy that we are all used to now, but for the time, this was a novel occurrence for a superhero movie. What we’re concerned with today, however, is the movie’s sequel, Batman Returns, which landed in theaters during June of 1992.
Despite its summer release date, Batman Returns took place during the Christmas season. It also set the rather unfortunate precedent of superhero movies shoehorning multiple villains into a single movie, this time with the Caped Crusader facing off against both the Penguin and Catwoman (meee-ow!).
Naturally, video game adaptations were soon to follow, with the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive version to be released before the end of that year. This was one of those times when games of the same name were radically different between the Genesis and its contemporary successor, the Super Nintendo. While the latter would be an arcade-style brawler developed by Konami, the Genesis version of Batman Returns is a side-scrolling action game developed by Malibu Interactive and published by SEGA.
So, is Batman Returns still worth a play today? Is it the perfect superhero game to get into the Christmas spirit?
For those unfamiliar with the film’s plot, the Penguin (aka Oswald Cobblepot) is a malformed outcast raised in the sewers of Gotham City. When he finally reveals himself as an adult, the powerful business mogul Max Shreck takes advantage of public sympathy for Cobblepot, and positions him to be the next Mayor of Gotham. Their machinations draw the attention of the Batman, so it becomes clear to Shreck and Cobblepot that the Dark Knight must be disposed of. Enter Catwoman (aka Selina Kyle), a latex-clad, whip-wielding, femme fatale who-
You know what? Forget it. The Batman Returns game sure did. Other than the title screen sequence where the Ice Princess falls from a rooftop, the are zero references to the movie’s plot. No story interludes. No banter between Batman and his nemeses. Does it matter? Not really. Most likely, anyone interested in picking up the game would probably be familiar with the story already, so a strict focus on gameplay works well enough in this case.
As the Caped Crusader himself, you can jump, punch, grapple, and glide through Gotham’s underbelly and the criminal scum that inhabits it. Of course, bats also has his trusty utility belt filled with a number of “wonderful toys”, including batarangs, smoke bombs, homing batarangs, and a bat summoning attack.
Not only do you have this small arsenal of tools and abilities at your disposal, but you look pretty cool using them. Batman’s character sprite has a lot of detail, and there is plenty of flare to his animations. I certainly wouldn’t call him “nimble”, but he has a powerful swagger that makes him look like a force to be reckoned with. The end result is a game where the player actually feels like Batman – the Tim Burton film version of him, at least – and that’s a bound to be what most kids were looking for in a Batman Returns game.
Things start to get a bit weird when enemies start coming at you, though. Sure, there are plenty of circus-themed thugs from Penguin’s Red Triangle gang, such as fire breathers, clowns on unicycles, rocket-bearing penguins, sword swallowers, motorcycle riders with massive skull masks, and some kind of juggling leprechaun that can disappear into his hat. However, one of the first enemy types you confront in the very first stage are gargoyles that somehow come to life and fly around the screen as though they got lost looking for Castlevania Bloodlines. It’s just an off-putting way to start the game, if you ask me.
Speaking of which, the first stage overall isn’t the best introductory environment for a new player, either. The level is set on the rooftops of Gotham, and there is naturally a lot of verticality to the layout, and therefore a lot of need for using your grappling hook. It isn’t always clear which direction is the best way to go and climbing with the grappling hook is a bit clunkier than it should be as you have to push up and then jump when Batman looks up. It takes a hair too long to get set, and it’s definitely one time where I wish that the standard Genesis game pad had an extra button or two.
Once you get used to it though, the first stage becomes a breeze, and the stage designs get better as you progress – mostly, anyway. Despite making no references to the movie’s plot, the progression through Gotham still mirrors the events of the story fairly well. You will take your crimefighting crusade to the streets, an abandoned apartment building, a church, Shreck’s department store, the Red Triangle Circus, the back of a moving train, and the sewers.
There’s a lot of great effects at play in many of these stages, and each are pretty unique in their layout. The department store has Batman climbing escalators and climbing through destroyed floors, the apartment building has a slight inclined cant to it, and some busted up brick walls in the foreground to keep it visually interesting, levels on the back of trains are always a good time, and the circus has a cool funhouse sequence, albeit a bit short.
There are hidden areas in many stages, too, which can sometimes be found by breaking walls, either by punching them a few times or swinging into and crashing through them (nice). Here you will typically find health, extra lives, and additional ammo for your special weapons.
Every stage has a boss fight or two, and while there are showdowns with a strong man and a few clowns, most bosses are some version of fighting Catwoman or the Penguin, the latter of whom mostly flies around on an umbrella-copter until the last couple of stages. Once you figure out the patterns (or in the case of Catwoman, safe spots) for these fights, the bosses are actually pretty easy – perhaps the easiest part of the game.
On the flip side, the most difficult part of the game is neither the standard enemies nor the bosses, but the platforming whenever it demands that you use the grappling hook in a precise way. The first time this happens in in stage two, where you have to drop down and grapple to a small anchor point multiple times to move across a massive floor of spikes. It’s pretty damn tough, but at least the spikes don’t kill you instantly like the open pits do. The worst example of this comes in the final stage – The Penguins Lair – which adds the frustration of slippery iced-over surfaces to the mix. It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely difficult, and I expect that even the most surefooted vigilantes will find their crusade against evil cut short by these moments. At least there is no time limit, so you can take as much time as you want positioning yourself, and the checkpoints are very generous if you die.
Visually, Batman Returns makes fairly good use of the Genesis hardware, particularly for a licensed game in 1992. The character sprites are fairly large for a side-scrolling action game of the era, and we’ve already noted above how expressive Batman’s animations are. The developers also managed to achieve some nice effects in the stages. For the most part, the backgrounds have lots of detail in them, including some interesting color choices that add a lot of grit to the environments. The overall color palette has a lot of dark blues and purples in it, which certainly matches the license. You’ll also find parallax scrolling (a Genesis mainstay) for good measure, some interesting elements in the foreground to break up the more mundane designs, and a few faux transparencies, too.
However, while there are some small patches of snow scattered through some stages, you really wouldn’t know that the game is set during the Christmas season. No lights hanging from buildings, trees shining through windows, and no holiday displays at Shreck’s. Not a critical flaw, but a missed opportunity to set the scene and enrich the larger environment of Gotham City.
On the sound side, there are no real voices to speak of, and the sound effects are a bit dull and jarring, which is typical of many western-developed Genesis games. The music, however, is on the better side of average for the Genesis. While none of the tracks will stick in your head for long, all of the orchestrations are well done, and several stages have some very catchy tunes, well worth a pause in the action to take them in.
There’s not too many lingering gripes to mention that haven’t already been laid out, but there’s a couple worth mentioning. For one, your character needs more “looking space” in front of him when the screen is scrolling. As it is, you only get about one third of the screen to work with, so enemies can seemingly come out of nowhere to inflict some cheap hits as a result.
It’s also worth noting the limitations of the three-button Genesis controller again, as Batman’s move set seems slightly limited. In addition to the frustration of trying to use the grappling hook in a pinch, the air “glide” move doesn’t work reliably, and your batarangs really should have a dedicated button rather than being one of your several special attacks that require pausing the game to select.
I really wanted to like Batman Returns when I first sat down with it. I soon started to hate it as stage one progressed, I then I began to really like it a few stages in, and then the final stage made me hate it all over again. Overall, Batman Returns is a decent game and it probably pleased fans of the movie in 1992, even if it doesn’t tie itself very closely to the events of the film. It’s a tough one, too, but you will eventually hit a stride if you don’t give up, and there is a secret code to skip stages if you get hung up and want to experience the entire game. There’s also slightly different endings depending on how you play through the end credits sequence (yup), so there’s that small bit of replay to account for.
To be completely honest, though, I think that I would prefer to play Konami’s beat ’em up version of Batman Returns on the Super NES rather than the Genesis side-scroller. Sure, the Genesis game makes you feel more like Batman and probably takes a few more risks, the SNES version is a more finely polished game with less frustrations, it more closely follows the story of the film, and the sound and visuals make you feel more like you’re playing through the movie, too.
If you’re interested in picking up Batman Returns, you could do a lot worse, and it won’t come at too high a price, either. Loose cartridges can readily be found online for less than twenty bucks, and it’s probably worth that if you are a Batman fan or a retro gaming aficionado. It’s worth remembering that there was also an enhanced version of Batman Returns released for the SEGA CD in 1993, but that may be best left to a future Jolly Jinglings event.
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