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‘Batman: The Brave and the Bold’ on Wii is like Playing The Show. With Laser Swords. [Review]

When I was out in San Diego for Comic-Con, one of the things I was most looking forward to was the playable verision of Batman: The Brave and the Boldfor the Wii that was set up at the DC Booth. After all, a video game based on the animated series that’s essentially a sequel to the 1966 live-action “Batman,” but expanded to the entire DC Universe? That’s like six different things that I love all rolled into one.

Of course, by the time I actually got a few spare moments and headed over to the DC booth, there was a kid at the ‘Brave and the Bold’ setup who was completely enthralled with it, and while I seriously considered shoving him out of the way in the name of Batmanology, I’m actually not that big a jerk. And besides, seeing a twelve-year-old totally have a blast making Batman beat the crap out of a bunch of thugs (and also barking orders to his dad, who was playing Green Lantern) was more than enough to make me happy about the game without even pressing a button.

With its release this week, though, I finally got a chance to play it myself, and I have to say, while it has its fair share of limitations, I thought it was great.Despite the fact that they’re about as different as two games can be while still existing in the same medium, I can’t help but compare “Brave and the Bold” to last year’s smash-hit Batman game, “Arkham Asylum.” Even though they’re about the same character doing the same thing (beating the crap out of thugs and super-villains), they’re wildly divergent approaches, and they both succeed based largely on atmosphere. That points to one of my favorite things about Batman, which is that the character is so adaptable that he works in almost any settings, whether he’s exploring a creepy madhouse full of murderers and hallucinations, or trying to stop Catman and Catwoman from using a magic diamond to turn Gotham City’s population into cats.

And yes: That is the plot of the “Brave and the Bold’s” first level. Although to be fair, is it really any sillier than throwing bat-shaped boomerangs at a green lady who was shooting glowing acid bombs at you from inside a giant flower? Probably not.

Both games even give Batman most of the same equipment: Batarangs, a glider cape, explosive gel, an electronic device that opens locked doors. Even so, I think we can all agree that if Arkham Asylum has one major failing, it’s that Batman did not have a laser sword, which brings me to what might be the most crucial point about this game: In it, Batman has a laser sword. And that’s awesome.

It’s also a pretty good indicator that the emphasis here is clearly on having fun with the characters, and that’s not just exactly what a game should be about (that is why they call them “games,” after all), but it’s also very in keeping with the show, and that’s “Brave and the Bold’s” greatest strength: It’s essentially like playing through the show. The levels are structured as “episodes,” complete with a “pre-credits” sequence where you can get the hang of your new teammate while fighting, say, Two-Face or Copperhead before you get on to the main story. And like the show, each “Episode” has its own guest star that goes through along with Batman, controlled either by the second player or the CPU. In the first stage you get Robin, in the second you get Blue Beetle, then Hawkman, and finally Guy Gardner.

Each episode is also framed with animated cutscenes that set and wrap things up, but more important than that, Batman and the other characters actually talk to each other during the game. You’ll be running through the level between fights (or occasionally during them) and they’ll start talking to each other about the villain they’re after, the situation they’re in, or their relationship with each other.

It’s a great bit of storytelling that really makes it feel like you’re playing the show rather than just a collection of fights punctuated by the occasional cutscene, and they’re every bit as well-written as the actual show. They’re frequently hilarious — the first episode starts off in a Cat Museum where the backgrounds might just qualify as the best scenery in a video game ever for its depiction of spacesuit-wearing “Cats of the Future,” who of course shoot lasers out of their eyes — but there’s one later on where Batman talks about dressing up as Hawkman for Halloween and how his dad helped him make a cardboard mace, and the conversation surrounding it just nails Batman perfectly. It’s not just that it wouldn’t be out of place in the show; it wouldn’t be out of place in any good Batman story in any medium.

Also, not to be the guy who reads too much into things, but I think the selection of partners for Batman makes a subtle overarching plotline in itself: Robin’s the former sidekick who feels overshadowed, Blue Beetle is the kid who looks up to Batman, Hawkman is the hero Batman looked up to when he was young, and finally, Guy Gardner the hero who sees himself as Batman’s equal. Again, I’m not sure if that was where the makers were going with it, but it goes a long way to explaining why they went with Hawkman rather than Aquaman, whose extremely popular “BATB” version seems like a natural choice.

There’s also plenty of nifty little DC eye-candy in the background, like a statue of Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott in a Gotham City park…

….And vending machines stocking Booster Gold’s Super-Soda….

…Which of course is liberally stocked at Ted Kord’s lab.

As far as gameplay goes, “Brave and the Bold” is essentially a straight-up old-school beat-’em-up, the direct descendant of “River City Ransom” and “Streets of Rage” — and, incidentally, the Genesis/SNES “Batman and Robin Adventures” game, which also went out of its way to mirror its television counterpart. In that respect, it’s part of a recent side-scrolling Beat-’Em-Up Renaissance that includes “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Shank,” and as someone who thinks of Capcom’s “Final Fight” as one of the greatest games of all time, I could not be happier about that.

Still, as much as I love that style, I recognize that a lot of my affection comes from nostalgia. This is, in effect, the perfect Batman beat-’em-up that I never got when I was a kid, right down to the fact that the Gentlemen Ghost episode (which starts in the clockworks of Big Ben and then moves to an underground ruin where Batman fights zombies and ghosts) is more than a little reminiscent of my beloved Castlevania series. That’s great for me, I’m not sure how it’d go over to the younger audience that it’s geared for, when they’ve grow up with 3D games. But then again, “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” — probably the highest profile entry in the resurgence of side-scrollers — seemed to do all right for itself, and if they’ve got a DS, they’re probably familiar with it.

Either way, it’s clear that the designers have as much love for side-scrollers as I do. The episode where Super-Gorilla Grodd invades Science Island (and you have no idea how happy it makes me to type that phrase) even has a bit of meta-commentary from Blue Beetle during the conversations, where he talks about how the lab is laid out like a video game and then calls out the backgrounds for using the same mountain over and over and over.

As a Beat-’Em-Up, the gameplay is going to get very repetitive. It’s just the nature of the genre; once you’ve unlocked the laser sword, you pretty much have access to all of Batman’s thug-beating abilities. The different moves employed by the other heroes do their part to keep things fresh, but if you don’t have fond memories of just wailing on the Y button in “Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage,” then it might not be for you. I will say, though, that the special attacks look great — little animated cutscenes that blend almost seamlessly into the actual gameplay — and while I can intellectually acknowledge the possibility that someone could get tired of hearing Batman yell “HAMMERS OF JUSTICE!” and then drop a ten-hit combo on a thug, I can assure you that this will never, ever be a problem for me personally.

I do have one big problem with the game, however, and that’s the difficulty, which is completely nonexistent. It is quite literally impossible to lose this game; when one of the heroes gets KOed, you just lose a few coins (because of course your fallen enemies turn into coins), an when you’re out of coins, you just get back up anyway.

Now, before I go into the “Back In My Day” speech, allow me to assure you: I don’t think that every game needs to be as difficult as “Battletoads,” but “BATB” goes out of its way to remove the challenge. There’s one sequence where you have to glide down a shaft lined with spikes (which is actually pretty reminiscent of “Battletoads,” now that I think of it), and the first time I tried it, I screwed up and ended up on the spikes with the last of my health. I’d like to think I would’ve made it on the second try, but when the game respawned me, it was after the obstacle. It had apparently decided that this was too hard for me, and thus removed it from my path entirely.

Now, on one level, I can understand this. For what looks on the surface like a pure beat-’em-up, there actually is a lot of story going on here that’s presented in a very innovative way, and the last thing the designers want is for people to have to repeat sections over and over again until they’re sick to death of Batman and Robin yammering on into the night about the same thing they’ve discussed a hundred times because they can’t make one tiny jump, But at the same time, I’m playing a game, not watching the DVDs. I am perfectly okay with the demise of finite lives and continues (which were really just a holdover from the arcade economy that necessitated a level of difficulty that would keep the player putting quarters into the machine), but when nothing has a negative consequence, things become less fun. If I get past the spiked pit even when I fail, why should I even try?

Of course, the counterargument to that is that you’d enjoy the actual playing regardless, and “BATB” is actually pretty competitive. The heroes get ranked at the end of each stage based on how well you did, and while that’s a great way to get bragging rights, it sort of loses its luster when you’re playing the single-player mode. But even that does deliver the fun; the combination of the story, thrashing bad guys, and being able to summon strikers like Black Canary, Booster Gold, the Golden Age Flash, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man is enough to make it a highly enjoyable experience for fans of the show.

So if you take nothing else away from this review, it should be this: “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” is absolutely, without a doubt the best game about Hawkman we have ever gotten. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the best game about Hawkman that it’s actually possible to make.

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