Friday 25 December 2015

Snes Review - Batman Returns (Game 096)

What does Christmas and a ‘Batman’ side scrolling brawler have in common?
More than you may expect.

Developed by Konami
Published by Konami
Released in 1993

Like it or not, there's a predictability about Christmas Day. Unless you go out of your way to break with tradition, you always know what you'll do on this most glorious of days. For me, it starts with pancakes, then opening presents (with my daughters seeming having a "who can open the most, the quickest" competition). After that we will eat the traditional British roast turkey dinner, watch The Queen give her Christmas address and enjoy a family friendly film. Then it's more food, more presents and maybe even a bit of singing Christmasy songs or playing a game. Of course there are slight variations each year. Who joins us will vary. While turkey is always on the menu, the side dishes vary and of course the music we listen to and the film we watch will depend on what's popular at the time. Yes, love it (like me) or hate it, you know what to expect on Christmas Day.  That's why it bizarrely resembles a 16bit side-scrolling beat‘em up.

Just like Christmas Day, everyone knows what a retro side scrolling brawler involves: You will move a character towards the right of the screen and fight every enemy that you meet. By far the most famous examples of the genre are 'Final Fight', ‘Double Dragon’ and 'Streets of Rage' but during the 90’s it was a very popular genre. Naturally, the subject matter and characters you control varied. There was 'Turtles in Time' featuring the 'Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles', there was 'Golden Axe' and Magic Sword' set in fantasy realms, there was 'Captain America and the Avengers’ set in the Marvel Universe featuring the popular comic book characters. In total nearly 40 different side-scrolling fighting games were released on the Snes. With so much competition, three things were needed to ensure commercial success. You needed a gimmick to disguise the fact that every level sees you doing the exact same thing. You needed giant detailed sprites so the player had something nice to look at and the screen didn't look too empty (despite very little going on). You also had to have a strong brand, either an established license or something generic and easily identifiable to the audience. 'Batman Returns' had all three and that's probably why Super Play once said "it's undoubtedly the best scrolling beat’em up ever. Make no mistake about it; it's an absolutely top notch game". It is also set at Christmas which makes 'Batman Returns' a game to dig out on this most festive of days.

The game is of course a film license based on the 1993 Tim Burton film.  It was a time where 'Batman' was trying to escape his camp Adam West image and be taken seriously as The Dark Knight.  If memory serves it was one of the first to be given a 12 certificate and as an 11 year old I was very unhappy I couldn't see the film. The Snes adaptation consists of seven scenes from the movie's story, touching on Selina Kyle's tragic transformation into Catwoman, Batman fighting The Red Triangle Circus Gang and concluding with the a showdown with The Penguin, stopping his vengeful plan to kidnap all of the first-born sons in Gotham City. Told through visual-novel style moving stills, the game borrows not just the film’s narrative but also actor likenesses. With a five minutes long introduction (which according to Super Play magazine "had hundreds of digitised stills from the film"), story is not an afterthought, its a central part of the game. The locations you visit also echo the 'Batman Returns' film and the music you hear is either lifted from, or inspired by Danny Elfman's cinematic soundtrack. All of these elements combine to make the game feel "big budget" and familiar to anyone who has seen the source movie. Clearly the attempt to remain true to the film was well received in the gaming press. According to game critic Jonathan Davies, "within the constraints of the scrolling beat am up [Konami] have come up with one of the best film games ever".

While the limitations of the side scrolling beat em up genre means character development and story arcs are diluted, it's unusual for a developer at this time to go to such effort to tread the same ground as the original movie. This even extends to the art direction. The enemies Batman repeatedly punches are pixelated  versions of the thugs seen in the film and the bosses too are all the same villains from the 'Batman Returns' film. Film license games generally have a well deserved reputation forbeing terrible. Obtaining the license is expensive and while it attracts an audience it does eat into a game's development budget. As a result, compromises are made and the experience is marred. This thankfully isn't the case with the Snes version of 'Batman Returns' and the game would still be good were the art, music and story changed to something generic. The highest praise you can really give to a licensed game.

With the impressively detailed large sprites taking up a great deal of screen real-estate, the number of foes on screen is limited. This presumably was to avoid slowdown, but it actually favours 'Batman Returns'; it means the game doesn't become overwhelming. Too often in games like this, the player can feel unable to defend themselves against a seemingly non-stop flood of enemies. The worst games in the side-scrolling beat em up genre have enemies continually besting the hero with pincer attacks.
As the playable character can only normally attack or block in one direction, when surrounded their death is inevitable. Of course with two players the problem is solved, but 'Batman Returns' was a film that didn't feature Robin meaning the game is strictly single player. Fortunately Konami has seen fit to make sure Batman is prepared for numerous foes at once, without feeling boxed in and restricted. It’s the subtle things that just make the difference. Our hero is always in the middle of the screen, so can't be assaulted by unseen enemies off screen. Most clown grunts will also stand at the edge of the screen momentarily, allowing you to take stock of where each wave appears from and react accordingly. Bizarrely though, it feels slightly like the clowns have rushed in to take down Batman but suddenly reconsidered this plan when they see him. It's understandable as he presents a formidable force that most people would want to stay clear of. 

As should be the case, the Dark Knight is handy with his fists. Pressing the Y button unleashes a fast flurry of standard punches, ending with a high kick. But it isn't mindless button bashing as Batman can also block by holding down either of the two shoulder buttons. Timing a strike after a block means an increase in the damage inflicted, so button combinations yield far better results.
But Batman wouldn't be Batman without gadgets and his utility belt is filled with batarangs for distant foes and limited test tube smart bomb that knocks down all enemies on screen. Most satisfying of all though is the assortment of grab manoeuvres, in which he brutally crushes opponents into the floor. It feels almost like a very basic precursor to the "flow fighting" seen in the incredible 'Arkham' Games on modern consoles. This is especially true when Batman grabs two clowns at once and bangs their heads together. With some environments having destructible elements , the whole game feels somewhat barbaric though. It’s slightly at odds with the joy filled Christmas trees and romantic snow that fill most levels.

However, while Batman may be able to throw a clown into a shop window, he can barely stand up to any bosses in the game. 'Batman Returns' is a game of difficulty spikes, yet they don't exactly sneak up on you; they are at the end of every level. Not only are bosses at least three times stronger than you, all the combos you've been using on the level enemies seem to take off next to no health. Unless you know some underhanded tricks or exploit a glitch it can literally take ten minutes to beat some, simply because every attack barely scratches their indestructible bodies. 'Batman Returns' is not a long game, an hour on repeat plays. However, at least a sixth of this will be spent trying to defeat Cat Woman, who for a mid-game boss is far too overpowered.
Not only can she absorb seemingly every other hit, she is invincible when cart-wheeling (which she can do as much as she wishes). With a whip she can stop you getting close, and she can also use this whip to deflect your long distance batterangs. The most efficient way to win is to grab her from an angle, but this is a tricky move to do and you'll fail to make it connect more times than you'll succeed . Luckily for my ego, I'm not the only one who struggles with the Cat Woman fight. The staff of Super Play magazine also despised it. "We're not entirely convinced when you run into Cat Woman. She takes absolutely ages to kill and we defy anyone to get the better of her without losing at least 6 lives in the process. It's a nightmare."

If this was the only tricky boss fight, things wouldn't be so bad but predictably every stage end is an unfair ordeal. The limited number of continues simply isn't enough to finish the game unless you know the tactics needed to beat each boss in advance. (And that's even including the bonus continues  you get from using the Konami code!)

In fairness there is a technique to each boss fight, rather than just punching them over and over as is often the case in the majority of these sorts of games. In fact, much effort is made throughout 'Batman Returns' to keep things interesting and fend off the monotony.  Konami consciously diversified the game play by alternating the brawling sections with platforming levels. In every other stage, the depth of the game is removed and action only takes place in two dimensions. Initially it feels jarring not being able to move toward the foreground and background, but what's more surprising is that you can also not punch enemies when the game is in this perspective. Instead, you have to resort to your projectile weapons and grappling hook to make progression.  What is interesting about these single plane levels though, is that this mode of play was all that was on offer in the passable Mega Drive and the awful Amiga adaptations of 'Batman Returns'. The 'Final Fight' brawl sections of the Snes game were actually unique to the system, they, rather than the platform stages, are the novelty.  So perhaps it would be better to label the Super Nintendo game as a platformer with 'Final Fight'-alike sections rather than the other way around. Having said that, as Jonathan Davies points out; "given that the best bits of the ‘Batman’ films are generally the ones where the Caped Crusader is hitting people, Konami probably made the right decision making this a beat-em-up".

Before the Arkham games, people would often cite the Nes 'Batman' game as the best title to include the Caped Crusader. Playing the platforming sections of 'Batman Returns' actually feels like a return to this title, albeit a return with much bigger sprites. Their inclusion in the game certainly improves the experience as a whole. These stages feel more technical, more calculating and at the very least, they give your fingers a rest from pounding buttons - which gets rather exhausting after a while. The varied game play approach is assisted further by the inclusion of a Batmobile chase scene in level five, in which you climb aboard Batman’s car to chase down clown cars. I applaud the variety but as Jonathan Davies said in his Super play review "this driving game bit, to be completely frank, isn't much cop. it's quite a relief to get back to hitting people".

At the time of releasing 'Batman Returns' Konami had really found their feet on the Snes. All the greatest games in the early years of the Snes' life seemed to have a Konami (or Capcom) logo on the box. Prior to 'Batman Returns' they had already released fan favourites  Axelay, Contra III, Super Castlevania IV and The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, so any new game, regardless of genre, was greatly anticipated. However as Super Play noted in their review, "the trouble is that no matter how much effort goes into them and no matter which top publisher try their luck with them, scrolling beat em ups at their core are all the same". Even with platforming sections and an ill advised driving stage, a large part of the game will involve punching someone in the face until they fall over and then doing the same to the next one that comes along. As is always the case, after the first few levels you've seen all the good parts of the game-play, the remainder are just variations on it.

This is only a problem if you expect more from a side scrolling beat em up, but much like Christmas Day you know what you're going to be doing way in advance.

Considering 'Batman Returns' came out in Spring '93, all the Christmasy bits must have felt out of season. Now of course, we can play it at a time that's in keeping with the theme of the game. With my Christmas Day routine defined by tradition I don't see a time when I could slot in a quick hour long play through of 'Batman Returns' but it wouldn't be a bad way to spend an hour. Though perhaps 'RoboCod' would be a touch more appropriate in front of my children. Like all the best Christmases, 'Batman Returns' looks great, sounds enchanting but (love it or not) you'll get exactly what you expect.

For me, I love familiarity.  I wish it could be Christmas everyday.

Where did I get this game from?

The way I bought this game is as predictable as a side scrolling fighting game; I found it on eBay. Of course the price goes up the closer you get to Christmas, so if you fancy grabbing a bargain you should consider buying it at a time similar to its original release date - shop in the spring. I actually own the Super Famicom version. Its half the price of the western version, has all English in game text and a far better box inspired by the comic books rather than the ‘Batman Return’s movie poster. 

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