Batman (NES, 1989)

For my money, modest as it is, I don’t think there’s even been an inherently riskier bet as a video game consumer than a movie-licensed release. This is not to say that it’s impossible for a game to be crisp and enjoyable simply because it was first a major motion picture — I can remember playing the Super Nintendo version of Aladdin, for example, and being sufficiently entertained.

The issue lies more with the limited potential such efforts seem to bear, time and time again. Indeed, Aladdin was a reasonably fun game, but it brought nothing new or all that exciting to the table. It was, at its core, the encapsulated stereotype of what “platforming” meant at that time, with a visual filter of Disney’s Aladdin slathered all over it. This removes a basic level of creative control from the hands of original-minded designers and thinkers, so it should come as no surprise that for every tolerable effort, there are about five truly terrible ones. Even worse, as the source material may be something an entertainment savvy player enjoys in its original form, a botched conversion to the magical cartridge box could awaken resent both of misspent funds, as well as conceptual betrayal.

I provide this throat-clearing not to suggest that the game I’ve set about to review, Batman, falls prey to these pitfalls. Quite the contrary, Batman is a jewel, though one with some scuffs. I only offer this disclaimer to lay the tracks for what will no doubt be harsher reviews of much more loathsome stuff in the future. In the annals of movie-licensed games, especially the early years, Batman is the exception, and for most of its brethren, there are no rules.

Despite the possible appeal of the lazy route of staying tethered firmly to source material (in this case Tim Burton’s Batman), this game does no such thing, keeping only the broad thematic strokes of the film and focusing on quality and diversity of the platforming experience. The levels are considerably outsized re-imaginings of the film’s locations at some points, and outright original creations in others. The music, as well, is catchy and memorable if nothing else.

Batman himself is armed with weapons you never see sign of in the film, most noticeably a pistol that fires what appear to be blasts of flame. The opening level, a dark and damp looking Gotham City, continues the pleasant distortion. The aesthetics of the levels seem slightly more futuristic than what the film suggests, and the villains follow suit – at the first level’s conclusion, you’re confronted by a jetpack jockeying gunman named Firebug, a strange and arguably pointless tweaking of the Batman villain Firefly.

The most perplexing boss encounter undoubtedly comes at the conclusion of the second and fourth levels, which pit you against non-human foes. The former appears to be a mechanical attack system at the core of a chemical factory, while the latter are little more than two blocks that circle around a room, damaging Batman simply by blunt force trauma.

The liberties taken with character design, and the abilities they possess, continues straight through to the final boss, the Joker himself.  Matching mettle with Batman atop Gotham City’s bell tower, the totes a gun with a barrel longer than he himself is wide, and by hoisting his arms aloft he seems able to rain down lightning from the heavens.

These divergences from any sort of fealty to the plot or characters you’d expect the game to deliver could, I admit, be off-putting to somebody with a penchant for strict canonical adaptation. To those people, I would only suggest that sometimes the surreal and the stilted can be more evocative than the faithfully recreated.

All in all, Batman is a must-play for any devotee of the NES era, or any fan of either Batman, peculiarity, or both. If there’s any major criticism to make, it’s that the game is far too short at just five levels long — I could stand to have played much, much longer.