Batman for NES was a welcome surprise that no one saw coming. After numerous licensed games that were absolute turds like Back to the Future and Superman Sunsoft showed everyone how it’s done. That game went beyond being a great licensed title and is actually better than the majority of the system’s library. Two years later Sunsoft would follow it up with Return of the Joker. Visually spectacular in a way few games on the NES could match Batman: Return of the Joker unfortunately does not live up to its predecessor but is still worth purchasing just to see what the NES can really do.
Rather than loosely tying into any of the films the game’s story is self-contained and based on the comic books. This is immediately apparent when looking at Batman himself. The first game captured the gritty look of Gotham City but its sprites were on the small side. Due to the system’s color limits Batman was a purple sprite which looked silly. Bruce Wayne now has a costume that closely resembles the comic. The sprites here are some of the largest and most detailed on the system but the game’s graphical prowess doesn’t stop there.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Return of the Joker is one of the most technically accomplished titles on the NES. At this point Sunsoft were just showing off. The backgrounds are insanely detailed, even more than the first game. Layers of scrolling are often three or four layers deep; this could easily have passed for an early Genesis outside of its limited color palette. While the game moves at an extremely fast clip it is often plagued by heavy flickering. Something had to give and while it is annoying it isn’t game breaking.
Ridiculous production values don’t make a great game however and Return of the Joker suffers a bit in this regard. Rather than melee combat Batman fights with a wrist mounted gun. Considering the character’s history and stance on firearms it’s weird but it’s a video game so go with the flow. There are a four different power-ups; crossbow, batarang, sonic neutralizer, and shield star. Of the four only the crossbow and neutralizer are worth a damn. The batarang looks and functions very similarly to the weapons in Fester’s Quest and Blaster Master, making it useless in most situations. There is also a slide attack that is basically useless as most enemies pack weapons of their own.
With larger sprites and gunplay involved the focus has clearly shifted to mostly action. And even that isn’t as great as it sounds. The bigger characters limit the number of onscreen enemies to two at most which is disappointing. The level design is also affected. Since you the sprites take up so much space there isn’t enough room for the kinds of elaborate platforming scenarios that made the first game so great. It’s just as well since the controls are a bit sloppy. Batman slides a little before coming to a full stop and is lumbering in his movements.
Despite that the game has its moments. It is big on spectacle with a number of cool scenarios at every turn. From being attacked by a blimp overhead to a few fast paced shooter segments the game does its best to keep you from becoming bored. Even the boss battles are a break from the norm. Here they are presented as a one on one fighting game style battle with both displaying large health pools. Technically these battles should be interesting but the boss patterns are so simple they become repetitive.
The original could be brutal, especially towards the end. Return of the Joker is more moderate in its difficulty. The sloppy controls will lead to plenty of cheap hits and there aren’t any healing items. However the levels are so sparsely populated that the majority of your time is spent navigating platforms or dodging turrets. While I found the boss battles simple and overly long they can be impossible with the wrong weapon. In particular the stage four cannon is not a good match for the batarangs. The generous password system helps get around the limited continues and makes the game more accessible as well.
Batman: Return of the Joker came so close to being one of the best NES games of all time. In many ways it still is. Its flaws however keep it from true greatness. It is still one of the better Batman games but could have been so much more.