Movie licensed video games are bad. Even at a young age I knew this was a fact. After suffering through the likes of ET for the Atari 2600, Back to the Future, and especially Rambo it didn’t take long for me to avoid any game with based on a license. While that served me well there were the occasional gems that came out of left field and were truly great games. Sunsoft’s Batman is one of those titles, a game loosely affiliated with the film of the same name. While its hooks to the movie were added later in development it doesn’t matter as Batman is truly fantastic.
That last point does have some merit. Originally the game started life as just another comic based game with a different story and cutscenes. Someone wisely chose to tie it to the film although they could have done a better job integrating the two. Most of the cutscenes consist of the Joker reciting lines from the movie with no context and outside of the final level none of the stages mirror the film. Yet somehow it still works. Funny that.
That being said while it isn’t directly based on the movie the game captures the look and feel of it pretty well. This is a situation where the system’s color limitations actually work in its favor. Gotham as it is commonly depicted is a dark and grimy place. Sunsoft’s artists make excellent use of shadow and darkness to recreate that vibe. You’ll just have to get used to a purple Batman, oddly enough. The soundtrack is similarly exceptional. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is about the point where most began to regard Sunsoft as a truly exceptional developer on the NES.
Unlike the later side scrolling brawlers that would dominate the license Sunsoft’s game is an action platformer. Your fists are your primary weapon and actually the strongest weapon in the game although your range is short. Complementing them are three weapons: batarangs, rockets and shuriken, each using up different amounts of ammo. The batarangs may be the weakest but are secretly the best weapon in the game. They use very little ammo and inflict extra damage when returning and with smart use can stun lock enemies and bosses. Both the rockets and shuriken pale in comparison to the point where I never bothered using them.
There’s a healthy amount of punching bad guys in the face but the focus is firmly on platforming. The controls are very tight giving you a large degree of control over Batman’s jumps. This is incredibly important as your platforming skills need to be on point to progress past even the second level. The most important skill is the ability to jump off walls. This particular ability is put to the test as every successive level becomes more complex and requires a level of precision not too common for that period.
The level design is fantastic, full of vertical movement atypical of the genre. Most levels are wide open spaces full of deliberately placed enemies and platforms. Their arrangement can be tricky but is very satisfying to navigate without taking hits. At the same time it isn’t afraid to get in close and intimate. The sewers and caves of stage three are a perfect example of this. They are full of narrow passages with electrified water and rotating turbine blades to dodge on your way to each epic boss encounter. The boss battles run hot and cold; some like Killer Moth are incredibly easy. Others like the Electrocutioner and Firebug are a nightmare to say nothing of the Joker.
There is a significant difficulty spike at the midpoint and it comes unexpectedly. You’ll face more aggressive enemies and the traps and environmental hazards are more tightly packed together. The levels also become longer as well. The final two stages in particular can be a nightmare just to reach the bosses with any decent amount of health. I suppose the high difficulty makes up for the fact that the game is short at only five levels. Despite their length I would have loved even one more level to even out the game.
Batman was one of the best licensed games for the NES throughout its lifespan and is still fun for a quick little romp. I would even go so far as to say it is still one of the better games starring DC’s hero. It’s a bit short but the difficulty means you’ll spend a little more time going through it in one sitting.