The great thing about writing about a Batman game is that I don’t have to explain who Batman is. He is, for want of a less overused expression, iconic. If you see the silhouette of a bat, you know that somewhere on the dark and lawless streets of Gotham City, a clown is getting his teeth knocked out. Today that never-ending ballet of violence is cast in the appropriately monochromatic tones of the Game Boy, with Konami’s 1993 I-am-the-Night-em-up Batman: The Animated Series!
In an effort to promote his brand, Batman has stitched the name of the game onto his cape. No, of course not, this is the logo for Batman: The Animated Series, the cartoon on which this adventure is specifically based. BTAS, as the cool kids most certainly do not refer to it, is the good Batman cartoon; the slightly darker, Art-Deco-ish, Mark Hamill as the Joker iteration of the Batman mythos. It’s still probably my favourite version of Batman, so I’m looking forward to playing a video-game version of it.
Here’s Batman now, lurking in the shadows and scowling. As this makes up about eighty percent of being Batman, I feel it’s important that they included it in the game’s intro.
Actually, the intro is a rough recreation of the cartoon’s intro, a minute-long mini-adventure where Batman foils a bank robbery and then poses on top of a building, which is the other twenty percent of being Batman. The Game Boy version does a good job of recreating the show’s opening within the graphical limitations of the Game Boy, and there’s an excellent version of the cartoon’s theme music. Honestly, even if the game itself turns out to be terrible I’ll be glad I played it just to have heard a bleepier yet still atmospheric version of Danny Elfman’s classic Batman theme.
I’m not sure where these kung-fu fighters fit into the proceedings, mind you. This is a picture of two martial artists trying to flying-kick each other while a crowd of gangsters gathers around and flips them the bird, right?
Oh, I see, it’s the bit in the intro where Batman leaves the two tied-up bank robbers in the street. “They’re the police’s problem now,” thinks Batman as he scowls in the shadows on a rooftop. “I should get back to thinking up ways to kill Superman for some reason.”
Upon hitting start, you’re treated to a scene that sets up the first stage. Someone is making explosive teddy bears, presumably in an attempt to undermine Batman’s image as the Dark Knight when the public sees him running through the streets with a load of cuddly toys under his arm. Also, try not to look at that clown’s face for too long, because it’ll give you nightmares.
So, we’ve got clowns, laughter and exploding teddy bears. I wonder which villain could possibly be behind this nefarious scheme?
Calendar Man! I mean, The Joker! Obviously it had to be the Joker’s doing. While there are several DC Comics villains for whom “teddy bear bombs” would be a perfectly acceptable method of attack, I doubt that Toyman or The Dollmaker will be making an appearance in this particular Batman game.
The action begins, and within seconds you’re commanding the Caped Crusader to punch a clown. It’s little wonder I like Batman so much.
So, Batman: The Animated Series is an action-adventure platforming affair, as I’m sure you all expected it to be. In these early moments, it feels like a rather generic example of the genre. Batman walks and jumps and punches, and he does so in a very middle-of-the-road manner: not particularly agile, but also not plodding around the place like he’s just woken up after a Sunday-morning lie-in.
The aim of this first area is to find all the bear-bombs scattered throughout the stage. This isn’t difficult, because the level’s not very big and the bears aren’t that well hidden. They’re placed inside large, gift-wrapped boxes, for starters. How does Batman reveal the bear-bomb within? By punching the box, naturally This isn’t one of those Batman products where the World’s Greatest Detective does any actual detective work. For instance, the Joker gets in touch with Batman and explains his plan at the start of this stage. Batman will not need his Holmesian intellect to crack this case.
This isn’t just any action game hero, though. It’s Batman, and as such he should have some abilities that set him apart from the ordinary run of man otherwise he’s just a bloke in a Halloween costume. Well, he does have some special skills, the first of which is the ability to wall jump in a manner reminiscent of the NES Batman game. It’s the skill you’ll need to use the most in this game, so taking the time to master its complexities is vital. Those complexities mostly boil down to there being two different off-the-wall jumping distances, corresponding to how long you hold the button. Sometimes you will only need the short hop, so don’t forget it’s there.
As we move into the combination Build-A-Bear Workshop / bomb-making facility that makes up the later parts of the first stage, Batman gets the chance to show off his other most useful trick: the handy bat-grapple. Batman’s a close second to Spider-Man when it comes to superheroes known for swinging from a thread, so naturally he comes equipped with a grappling gun. There’s no swinging, though. Yes, as strange as it might sound the grapple gun only works vertically, and even then it’s only to grab onto certain ceilings. You can haul yourself up and down on the cable, but you can’t live out your Tarzan fantasies. The most common applications for the bat-grapple are leaping up through specific platforms to reach a higher level, or to pull Batman up, let go of the rope and use the aerial control you have over Batman’s horizontal movement to nudge him towards platforms below. That’s what I’m trying to do in the screenshot above: when I let go of the rope, I’ll be able to make Batman fall onto the right-hand platform. This lack of swinging might seem disappointingly limiting, but the vertical-only Bat-rope is integrated into the stages well and the lack of swinging eliminates any potential problems with awkward swinging physics and difficult-to-judge dismounts.
The bomb factory is attached to a Gothic mansion, because of course it is. This is Gotham City, after all. The only places in Gotham City that aren’t Gothic mansions are Wayne Tower and the sewers where Killer Croc lives. Inside the mansion are wall-mounted candles, so this being a Konami game I naturally tried punching the candles to see if power-ups would fall out. They did not, sadly.
You can’t blame me for trying, though. Just look at it! If you swapped Batman’s sprite for a bloke with a whip and a leather skirt you’d have no trouble convincing people that this was a Castlevania game.
You and I know both knew that the boss of this stage was going to be the Joker, even if the last few screens did make me think, if only for a very brief moment, that it might be Dracula. No, it’s definitely the Joker, he’s laughing at Batman and everything. He looks pretty good, too: recognisable as the character even when rendered in so few pixels, especially in motion when you can more clearly see that his mouth is opening and closing and he does not, in fact, have a yawning black void where his face ought to be.
The Joker’s battle plan is simple: he ducks into one of the hidden doors in the background while spawning a wave of exploding, ambulatory teddy bears. Your first task is to avoid the bears, something I found was most easily accomplished by grappling up to the ceiling and hiding up there until all the bears have blown up. Once they’re gone, the Joker will reappear for a moment, so you can swoop down and give him a smack. He’ll vanish again, summoning more bears, and so on and so forth. After the seventh or eight punch in the head, Joker will come to realise that his plan was, on the whole, a bit crap. Congratulations, Batman! You’ve saved Gotham City once again, and her citizens will rest easy for, oh, seven seconds or so.
The next stage introduces Mr. Freeze – you’d think he’d call himself Doctor Freeze, wouldn’t you? - and he takes his chance to mornge on about his emotional pain, blah blah blah. Listen, Freeze, we’ve all had tragedies in our lives but we don’t go around building ice guns, now do we? Maybe you should channel your negative emotions into something more worthwhile, like artistic expression or charity work or fighting crime while dressed as a flying mammal.
For his part, Batman responds with a very un-Batman-like pun. What is this, Batman and Robin? C’mon, Bruce, stick to the glowering. Also you appear to be talking to the Batmobile.
Oh, and the Scarecrow is there, too. Hello, Scarecrow! I’m sorry, but Batman doesn’t have a pun for you. If he did, I’m sure he’d say something like “as a creator of fear toxins, you’re outstanding in your field!”
The main point of stage two’s first area is to introduce and acclimatise Batman to a new type of threat: people with guns. The clowns in the first stage could sometime throw exploding bears, but on the whole they weren’t into projectile weaponry. These mobster love guns, though. They enjoy nothing more than standing still and firing bullets at head height, watching Batman slowly advance on them by ducking under their shots each time they fire. Whether they enjoy the following events – when Batman punches them so hard they disappear from this reality – is up for debate. Certainly, no-one’s ever returned from the Batman Punch Dimension, so it must be great.
Robin shows up, late. The time he missed will be docked from his wages, or at least it would if Batman paid him anything. Robin’s inclusion in the game is hardly surprising: he featured quite prominently in the original cartoon, to the point that he was pushed to the forefront and the show was renamed The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Whether this was intended to get people interested in Robin before Batman and Robin (the movie) was released, or because network execs decided what kids really wanted from their Batman cartoon was less Batman, I’m not sure, but here he is. Batman goes after Mr. Freeze while Robin tracks down Scarecrow, in what must be quite a blow to Scarecrow’s self-esteem.
And yes, you do get to play as Robin. There are three main differences between Batman and Robin. Robin has a smaller health bar, and when he grapples up to the ceiling he can move horizontally by swinging along like a kid on some monkey bars. Robin is also the only member of the Dynamic Duo to be harassed by floating pumpkins. But where are these pumpkins coming from?
Why, they’re coming from under the Scarecrow’s hat, of course. No, really, Scarecrow lifts his hat up and pumpkins fly out. I have to assume these are not literal pumpkins but are instead manifestations of Robin’s exposure to the fear toxin, although that implies the thing that Robin fears the most is jack o’lanterns. You’d think it would be faulty trapeze equipment.
This Scarecrow battle is a good example of how many of the boss fights in this game play out. The boss is briefly vulnerable, before deploying a set of projectiles or other hindrances and then disappearing for a short spell. Batman or Robin must avoid the projectiles until the boss reappears, during which time you can hit them. It’s simple, pattern-based gameplay of the most videogame-y sort, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the rogue’s gallery are as well-drawn and possess enough individual charm to make each battle feel less similar than they really are.
Back to Batman, who’s making his way through Mr. Freeze’s cryogenic lab. It’s trying to trick me into thinking it’s less linear than the other stages by sending me through various doors to reach the next part of the stage, but there’s still only one path. Let’s put it down to Batman being Batman and thus always knowing exactly where to go, shall we?
The big shake-up here is that the bad guys aren’t just shooting regular bullets at you: they’ve got ice weapons that will freeze Batman solid for a few seconds if he’s hit by them. This forces the player into a more cautious style of play. Getting shot with a regular bullet is an unfortunate but fairly commonplace consequence of being Batman, but being hit by a freeze ray is enough of a pain in the arse that you’ll go out of your way to avoid having to deal with it.
The fight against Mr. Freeze is a little different in that he doesn’t disappear, as such, but he does run away while his massive frosty laser beams bounce around the room, an attack I had an embarrassing amount of trouble avoiding given that they travel along a very predictable path. I was just too eager to punch Mr. Freeze, that was my problem. There’s really not much else to say about this one other than it reminded me of a Mega Man boss fight, but that might just be because of the way the segmented door closes behind you once you enter the room.
Moving on, and Poison Ivy has kidnapped Harvey Dent, who I guess hasn’t become Two-Face yet. Are we looking at a retcon situation, where Two-Face is created when a mutated venus flytrap eats half his face? Sadly not, and Harvey Dent isn’t even the point: Poison Ivy is merely using him as bait to lure Batman into a deadly game of whatever the botanical equivalent of cat-and-mouse is. I’m not especially worried. Any villain whose fiendish schemes can be thwarted by a big bucket of Weedol does not exactly inspire fear.
Then Catwoman shows up and drops a sick burn on Harvey Dent. I know that everyone is boring when compared to Batman, but you could have been a bit gentler on poor old Harv.
The next few areas see Batman making his way through Catwoman’s mansion. I say it’s Catwoman’s because its full of cats and oversized novelty cat-collar bells. She probably stole it from someone else, sure, but she’s put enough of her own stamp on it that I feel justified in calling it Catwoman’s mansion. A lot of it is also on fire, which isn’t very thematically appropriate but does mean that the focus of the action switches from fighting goons to navigating dangerous terrain. It’s a welcome change of pace that feels no less Batman-y than the stages that have come before it.
Here’s Batman with some teeny-tiny cats. They don’t do anything important, I just thought you might like to see Batman surrounded by kittens.
At several points during the stage, you have to fight Catwoman. It differs from most other boss battles because it’s a straight-up one-on-one fight – no gimmicks, no projectiles, just punching and kicking. Specifically, Batman tries to punch Catwoman and then get far enough away that her kicks can’t reach him, which is easier said than done because she’s got surprisingly long legs. Many was the time I thought I’d retreated to a safe distance, only for the tip of Catwoman’s boot to poke me in the eye. She’ll also jump off the back wall and over your head if you try to pin her in the corner, which is the only part of this fight that makes reference to Catwoman’s famed agility. She’s decided to go toe-to-toe with Batman, but as you fight her and she runs away, only to be waiting to do it again in a later part of the stage, it quickly becomes clear that she has no real intention of beating Batman and is doing this for fun. It’s an extension of Catwoman and Batman’s already BDSM-tinged relationship, a superhero 50 Shades of Grey. Well, 4 Shades of Grey, in this case.
“Nothing can stop me from saving Harvey, Selina. Not even our erotically-charged ballet of violence and sweet, sweet pain, two bodies honed to the peak of physical perfection wrapped in leather and latex passionately clashing again and again. No, I’m going to take a very cold Bat-Shower and then save Harvey. I’m definitely going. I’m leaving right now, Yup.”
Now Batman’s heading into Poison Ivy’s botanically-themed lair, a terrifying place of deadly mutated thorns, creeping grass that acts like a conveyor belt and, erm, walking palm trees. I’m sure those are supposed to be coconuts, but they don’t half look like an arse. Fortunately, you can put these waddling freaks of nature out of their misery with a well-placed punch or two. You wouldn’t think punching a tree would be all that effective, but then again you are playing as Batman.
This stage is where the design philosophy behind Batman: The Animated Series’s levels clicked for me. There are a lot of very deliberately-placed traps and enemies that require specific actions, or sequences of actions, to negotiate without taking damage, and as a result the gameplay is less action-oriented than you might expect. There are times when haste is the proper course of action, mostly when you spot an enemy that can be rushed down and eliminated before they have a chance to react, but on the whole this is a game that rewards a slower, more methodical style of play. Paying attention – usually something I struggle with – is key, and although it rarely gets more complicated than figuring out enemy movement patterns and safe landing spots, it all comes together well for two main reasons. One is that it feels like the way Batman would handle things. Superman may be said to have the morals of a Boy Scout, but Batman definitely has the “always be prepared” angle covered and a slower, more thoughtful approach is very much his thing. Then there’s the technical aspect – the Game Boy was not as well-suited to fast, rapidly-scrolling action as the home consoles of the time, so slowing things down prevents the system’s limitations from becoming too apparent.
As for the boss, you don’t fight Poison Ivy directly but rather (surprise surprise) a giant mutated plant. It’s one of those fights that feels difficult at first, but eventually the pattern clicks and it stops being a challenge. Vines appear from the ground, and you avoid them while closing the distance to the big plant. Once you've punched the big plant, a wave of vines will pop up, and the only way to avoid them is to run back to the left of the screen, where you go straight back into dodging vines and closing the distance to the big plant. Ivy will fire the occasional crossbow bolt at Batman, but on the whole it doesn’t really feel like her heart’s in the fight.
A succinct opening for the next stage: the Riddler and the Penguin have escaped from Arkham Asylum! Hang on, why was the Penguin in Arkham anyway? He’s just a mob boss. A mob boss with a pointy nose and a fixation on umbrellas, granted, but that hardly qualifies him for incarceration in a psychiatric institute rather than a regular prison. Of course, the real question is why anyone is sent to Arkham Asylum, a place that’s easier to escape from than a slightly awkward dinner with your new partner’s family.
When it’s a grown man leaping over rooftops and clobbering criminals while dressed as a bat?
The Riddler-themed part of this stage takes place in a series or rooms that would make Super Mario weep with envy for all the power-ups hidden in those question-mark blocks. There are also tiny Riddler dolls with knives for arms who want nothing more than to stab Batman in the shins. Batman’s appeared in so many crossovers that I’m sure Batman vs Puppet Master can’t be too far away, but for now we can mostly ignore the dolls and the roaming enemies that I think are supposed to be chess pieces and focus on the task at hand. That task is finding the correct route though the Riddler’s maze. Every room has at least one switch – and not a very well hidden switch, I should add – that Batman must punch in order to open the room’s exit. However, some rooms have multiple switches and exits, and only one path will lead you to the end of the stage. So, it’s a matter of trial, error and memorisation, or at least it is if you want to finish the stage quickly. Me? I didn’t have anything better to do, so I spent a while randomly hitting switches and travelling in loops until I eventually stumbled upon the correct order. Let’s pretend I did it just to annoy the Riddler, shall we? Ignoring his meticulously laid-out mental challenge and simply brute-forcing my way to the end seems like the kind of thing that would really piss the Riddler off. Consider it my revenge for having to do the Riddler’s Batmobile challenges in Arkham Knight.
The Riddler fight very much sticks to the usual pattern of “disappear and fire projectiles” school of combat, probably more so than any other boss fight because he actually disappears between attacks. When he’s visible, you’ve got the chance to land a single attack before he splits into four Riddler clones. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because four Riddlers aren’t any more handy in a fistfight than one Riddler, but the clones will then turn into balls of energy and fly towards Batman. You can eliminate the clones by hitting them, but as you can see they’re well spaced out, so the key is getting rid of as many clones as you can. One or two clone-balls are easy enough to dodge, avoiding three is tricky but doable but having all four of them flying at you almost guarantees you’re going to take some damage.
Once the Riddler’s been dealt with, you’re back to playing as Robin in the game’s toughest and probably least fun challenge: a vertical chase against the Penguin as he flees to his waiting airship. There’s nothing hugely complicated about this section. You just have to get Robin to the top of the tower before the timer runs out by grappling to the ceiling above and swinging “through” the appropriate, traversable pieces of the scenery. It’s not even especially terrible to play. It’s just that after the slower approach of the rest of the game it’s a bit jarring for speed to suddenly be of the essence, especially when combined with a tight time limit and dismounting controls that are just sticky enough to be frustrating.
It doesn’t help that Robin’s daring chase is immediately rendered moot by Batman turning up and declaring he’s going to do all the work anyway. Thank, Batman. Robin can go and sit in the Batwing, reading the Gotham City A-Z and drinking Panda Pops like when your dad used to go to the pub and leave you in the car outside.
As Batman makes his way through Penguin's airship, beset on all sides by mechanical swans and the dread power that is hummingbirds – yes, you have to punch some hummingbirds, for pity’s sake – here’s something I really like about this game. Batman wears black, yeah? And thanks to the Game Boy’s four-colour display, a lot of the backgrounds are black. Thus, Batman tends to blend into the background. Normally this might be a cause for complaint, because being able to see your character is quite important, but in a Batman game it totally makes sense. Lurking in the shadows is Batman’s whole deal, and he’s easy enough to see when he’s moving that it’s not as much of an issue as some screenshots might suggest. I don’t know whether this effect is something Konami purposefully exploited to give the game a real Batman vibe or just a serendipitous accident, but it adds a lot of character to the visuals.
It’s time to fight the Penguin, who’s riding around on a flying duck, throwing umbrella bombs and generally trying to stay out of Batman’s way, which seems like a good strategy to me. The Batarangs came in handy during this fight, I must say. What’s that? I didn’t mention you can throw Batarangs? Well, you can. You can switch between Batarangs and punches with the select button. Robin even uses a slingshot instead, which is a nice touch. The problem is, the game seems to be deeply opposed to you using the Batarangs. You have to collect them before you can throw them, and Batarang power-ups are few and far between. On top of that, you can only carry nine of them at a time, they don’t do any more damage than a regular punch and the small dimensions of the Game Boy’s screen means that you’re never really that far away from the thing you want to damage. As a result, it’s entirely possible to forget that the Batarangs are even an option. Still, they were helpful here, with the Penguin floating just out of punching range.
A bad day for Batman and Robin gets even worse as the Batwing is shot out of the sky on the way back to stately Wayne Manor. Which fiendish villain could be responsible for this attack? I mean, I’ve punched most of the big names into unconsciousness already. Is it Maxie Zeus? The Clock King? Egghead?
Oh, it’s the Joker. Again. Arkham Asylum really isn’t fit for purpose, is it?
Check out the crashed Batwing, it’s a nice visual flourish in a game that has plenty of them: the falling snow in Catwoman’s stage is also good, as are the defeated poses most of the villains slip into when you beat them.
Rather than ending the game with one last full stage, Batman: The Animated Series draws to a close with a single boss fight against the Joker and his remote-controlled clownbot, a device that was rejected by Dr. Robotnik for being too impractical. It tries to fall on Batman’s head with its spiked underside, and it’s very easy to avoid and subsequently punch. It can also throw playing cards. These are also easy to avoid. It’s a bit of an anticlimax, honestly, but I’ll let the Joker off because his last criminal caper was only a few hours ago, so he’s hardly had the time to put together a truly fiendish master-plan. “I’ve got a clown-themed robot, so I’ll drop it on Batman’s head” probably seemed like a good idea on short notice.
So, you dodge the robot, punch it a few times and eventually it’ll fly up into the air and land on the Joker, teaching him a valuable lesson about never trusting clowns and bringing the game to a close.
For a game that had mini-cutscenes at every opportunity with accompanying (and rather good) art, it’s strange that the game’s ending is nothing but a few lines of text about how Batman and Robin are hungry and they’re going to get Alfred to make them some dinner. It’s not the content that’s the problem – two hard-working buddies talking about grabbing a bite to eat is a much more enjoyable conclusion than Batman standing on top of a building and monologuing about how he’ll never rid the city of crime – but I’m disappointed that there’s no artwork to go with it. Batman and Robin sitting down at the table in full costume while Alfred serves them from a silver platter, that's the kind of thing I wanted to see.
Batman: The Animated Series is a good game. Even though VGJunk was never intended to be a “review” site, I generally try to come to some kind of conclusion, and while those conclusions are usually a little bit more nuanced than this there’s little else I can say about BTAS. It’s just a good game. Solid, dependable, rarely frustrating, true to the source material and respectful of the limitations of the hardware on which it appears. It’s very similar to Ninja Gaiden Shadow in that regard, and both these games are two of the best action-platformers the Game Boy has to offer. Oh, and the soundtrack is great, too. What more could you ask for? Apart from useful Batarangs, I mean?
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