Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Batman Returns for the Super Nintendo

Ah, Batman. If you are of a, ahem, certain age you will know two popular cultural manifestations of the Caped Crusader. A child of the 60s, 70s and 80s will have at some point caught Batman the TV series with Adam West as our titular hero, and Burt Ward as Robin. In their campy way they thwacked and walloped an assortment of exotic but not-too superpowered villains. Favourites like The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman, King Tut, Mr Freeze and so on. Gotham City was a bright and sunny backdrop as the Dynamic Duo foiled the schemes of sundry criminal masterminds.

And then, something happened. In 1989 an edgier, darker Batman assaulted the cinema. Out went the campery and tongue-in-cheek humour, in came a tortured Bruce Wayne with revenge issues, a slicker, more menacing look, and a cache of cool coincidentally appropriate for mass market spin offs. Among the cornucopia of chiropteran-coded commodities we inevitably find video games. The home computer versions by Ocean and Sunsoft's outings on the NES and MegaDrive were very well received and, most importantly, did the business in the software charts (coincidentally, all were praised for their soundtracks too). Likewise, Batman cleaned up and so come 1992, Batman Returns graced the cinema. A much better film than the original, in my view, we saw then hot properties Michelle Pfeiffer and comrade Danny DeVito cast as Catwoman and The Penguin. The hype machine cranked up, and out came the games. Sega's iterations of Batman Returns weren't regarded as much cop, except for the stunning Mega CD version. And Nintendo? Handled by Konami, the licence went in a different direction to its prequels and rival games. It went all fighty.

Batman Returns on the Super Nintendo owes more to Final Fight and Streets of Rage than anything else. Here you play Batman (like duh) and scroll from left to right dispensing fisticuffs and kicks to an army of clownish goons. You have an array of thin clowns, a number of fat clowns who try and bounce their bums on your head, and an assortment of weapon wielders. Bomb throwers, jugglers, fire eaters, bazooka wielders, swordsmen, you know, just the sort of personnel no self-respecting crime gang would do without. And can you guess what's waiting at the end of each level? Oh yes, that would be a boss for you to mix it up with. In later stages, as you might expect, you get to square off against Catwoman and The Penguin. All jolly good fun.

As beat 'em up action goes, this is the best I've so far played on the Super Nintendo. The sprites are super meaty like Streets of Rage 2, and when you slap about the enemies it feels very satisfying. Though he doesn't have as many moves as the aforementioned, Batman can grab enemies and drive them head first into the ground. The background is also partly destructible, and much fun can be had picking enemies up and throwing them against a wall or a shop window. Even better is driving them against a lamp post - probably the best sound effect ever heard in a 16-bit beater. Konami also deserve credit for trying something a little different. Thumping and kicking is interspersed with brief Shinobi-style sections (though, naturally, it's the batarang and not shurikens that get an outing). There's a few platformy bits and a driving section not dissimilar to the celebrated Mega CD version. The risk of introducing mini-games within games is it can interrupt the action and be jarring and/or tedious. Just ask fans of Mass Effect 2. Here though it complements the fighting nicely, not least because they can be justified in terms of fidelity to the film plot. And they play well.

Is there anything wrong? It's single player. And, unfortunately, technical limitations mean there can only be three nasties on screen at once with you. That isn't too bad because the difficulty is balanced in such a way that this doesn't matter, and any more would surely kick your ass. Perhaps it's just me, but I feel Batman is a bit lumbering as well. But in all, these are nitpicks. The game is easy to pick up, the moves don't demand convoluted combinations of button presses, and as a rule the game's aesthetic is consistent with the film. It makes for a very attractive package.

Can anything else be said about Batman Returns? I suppose the standard leftist reading of Batman applies here. Billionaire playboy gets his kicks from beating down on all manner of lumpen trash. Chooses to use his wealth to indulge a fetish for hard edged cosplay instead of pouring resource into socially useful causes, thereby dampening the emergence of future henchmen and master criminals. Speak of a libertarian bourgeois fantasy who cracks skulls without the encumbrance of the law. And in context, the rebooting of Batman was part of an established cultural trend in films and gaming all about reclaiming the city. Starting with Dirty Harry and Death Wish, it spoke to the anxiety about city centres abandoned by the middle class to crime and urban decay. By the late 80s, re-gentrification and regeneration was well underway in the big cities (London, New York) but the trope of clean up was abroad and fed by repeat panics about unruly, juvenile criminals and alleged no-go areas. Batman Returns is another iteration in this theme. We see ordinary people, in this case women and children, getting harassed by The Penguin's minions and as for the enemies, most are suitably dehumanised as eminently punchable scary clowns. They're bad 'uns, but deserve the summary justice what's coming to them.

Also, SNES Batman Returns is entirely appropriate to Batman's dark turn at the cinema. Platform games are all very well, but they tend not to confer cool, young adult vibes the films plugged into. Konami's decision to go with a brawler was, in this regard, inspired. The early 90s were the time the mediocrity we now associated with film tie-ins set in and, as a rule, they tended not to offer anything fresh. Batman Returns might look like a Final Fight rip off with a licence appropriate skin job, but by offering destructible backdrops and decent mini-games, they innovated within the beat 'em up genre and successfully pushed the envelope of what a game-of-a-film could be. Recommended.

1 comment:

Karl Greenall said...

Great that this thought provoking review comes out on the evening that Freeview Channel 28 airs the latest episode of the excellent and very dark GOTHAM!