Wonderful Toys: A Level-By-Level Journey Into The Amazing Batman ’89 Video Game [Video]
I was an unabashed fan of the 1989 Batman movie around the time of its release (particularly after it hit VHS), but the years have worn down my appreciation of it, and quite a few aspects of it don't entirely stand up to the scrutiny of a critical lens anymore.
There are a few pieces of media related to the film, however, that I feel just as positively about as I ever have. The Prince soundtrack, for one. And for another, the Sunsoft-developed game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that included a few cutscenes with lines from the movie, and largely ditched its plot otherwise. I took a stroll down memory lane with it, and it still holds up.
Batman is a weird mix of game mechanics cherry picked from other, revered games of the era. For example, this game's Batman is required to very precisely jump off walls to get where he's going, which is very similar to a mechanic from the Ninja Gaiden series. Certain boss fights seem very similar to Contra, while others tend to resemble something closer to Ninja Gaiden, Metroid or Castlevania. Weapon switching reminds me a bit of Mega Man. And something Batman shares with all those games: punishing difficulty.
Dying is a fact of life in this game, and I thought it'd be worthwhile to go through each individual stage to examine just how tough it really is. But before I do that, I want to take a moment to examine the thing that most closely ties this game to the movie, the cutscenes.
Here are the cutscenes that got used in the game:
It's a very pared-down version of the movie plot, that basically boils down to: "The Joker killed Batman's parents" (or "parrents," as the screen before the title screen spells it) and "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" The game story connects to the movie, but it doesn't make all that much sense in the context of its stages. Like the Prince soundtrack, it's like something totally unrelated to the film.
Here's why: They weren't the original cutscenes. The original ones, while having very little to do with the movie beyond Vicki Vale appearing, the Joker being the villain, and a plot involving poison gas, do actually kind of explain why Batman goes to the various, weird levels he goes to.
Also: Batman doesn't seem to actually live in Gotham City in this version. At least he's very surprised by the mention of it. Here those are:
The original plot is more comic-booky, and I think I like it more. Of course, what really matters is the gameplay, so let's get to that.
Stage 1-1: A Stroll Through The City (Full Of Tiny Tanks)
The first stage is one of the few that feels like it takes place somewhere that could really exist -- a city street -- and even then it involves Batman punching tiny little tanks that want to kill him. This game is unapologetically video-gamey, and I love it for that.
Before we move on, take a quick look at that screenshot up there. I think there's a lot to like about the visual presentation of this game. For one thing, Batman's costume isn't black, at least not outside of the cutscenes. He's bluish-purple, which is just another reason to believe Sunsoft wanted to make a comic-focused game more than a movie one. Another clue? That guy shooting at Batman is supposed to be Deadshot. No, really! A good many of the non-boss bad guys are based on DC villains. The guys who shoot fire are Heat Wave. The guys who are constantly running up to you? That's Shakedown. It's wonderful, and not something I noticed until I returned to the game much later. Yeah, it's weird that there are literally dozens of Deadshots and Heat Waves running around Gotham, but again, it's very video-gamey.
Also, when your attack is set to punching, the bar above the life meter just says "BATMAN." That's outstanding.
Stage 1-2: Where The Jumping Starts
This area looks similar to the last, but it introduces the jumping mechanics of the game, including jumping off the walls. A new set of regular enemies wearing jetpacks, called Enforcers is introduced, and near the end, Batman's attacked by KGBeast. Yup, that's him. He changed his look, I guess.
Stage 1-3: Firefly Peters Out
The first boss is Firefly, and he's deceptively easy. You can beat him by hitting him with the Batarang or with Batman's speargun when he swoops down. That's right. He has a gun. That would drive me crazy in a comic or a movie, but this is a video game. I don't know why it doesn't here. I'm more upset by the guns on the Batmobile in the cutscene, to be honest.
Stage 2-1: Fun With Acid
This part takes place in Axis Chemical, which is the last time we're going to be seeing any setting from the movie until the very end of the game. This stage used to drive me nuts as a kid, because the dripping acid would always get me. It's tame compared to what's coming, though.
That robot-looking thing, by the way? Nightslayer. I honestly don't know if the developers took regular bad guys and just gave them Batman villain names or what, but, you know, they're NES graphics. Squint. Maybe that'll look like Nightslayer then.
Stage 2-2: Someone Fire Axis Chemical's Electrical Engineer
There is no way this place is up to code. And the open wires? About 1,000 times worse than the dripping acid. Your wall-jumping game has got to be right.
Stage 2-3: This Isn't Still A Chemical Plant, Is It?
Ace Chemical has a hidden sawmill inside it, clearly.
Also, Maxie Zeus appears in this level, but all he really does is just run around. His sprite honestly looks a whole lot like Deadshot's.
Stage 2-4: Paging The Contra Aliens And/Or Mother Brain
This thing is called the Machine Intelligence System, and it's a clear indicator that the developers just wanted to stick a Contra boss in here. It's fun, but Lord help you if you run out of items. Then, it's impossible.
Stage 3-1: The Obligatory Sewer Level
Why is Batman in a sewer? Because this is an NES game.
Also: The thing to the right isn't a Man-Bat, even though it really looks like one in certain poses. It's a "jader," one of the few enemies without a comics name. The things that look like ears are apparently epaulets. Gotta dress fancy in the Gotham sewers, I guess.
Stage 3-2: Check Out Those Bright Sewer Lights
No wonder the jaders were all dolled up. There's track lighting! It looks like Batman's about to fight Dr. Wily.
Before this point, this stage is a lot like the last one, just with green water in the sewer.
Stage 3-3: I Will Eat His Heart
Batman emerges from the sewers into a cave full of larger tanks (called EEVs) that want to kill him. They look a like an H.R. Giger version of the Dark Knight Returns tank. Maybe Batman got the idea on this adventure.
Stage 3-4: Electric Punk
The guardian of the sewer caves is the game's version of the Electrocutioner, who has a killer mohawk and conductor arms. Sure, he's a direct rip of a Ninja Gaiden boss, but I actually really like this version of the character.
Stage 4-1: Where On Earth Is This Supposed To Be?
Unless there was a lengthy scene in the movie about the Joker's secret Technodrome that was left on the cutting room floor, this level is the developers just saying, "F*ck it." Again: You can do this in a video game. Secret, high-tech headquarters with TV screens and secret experiment tubes are just a thing in these old games. They certainly do make for cool screens to run through.
Stage 4-2: Different Decor, Same Crazy
Honestly, I'd love to see a movie about this game's trillionaire Joker with access to space technology.
Stage 4-3: One Great Gag
This is the very first thing the player sees on this stage. This is the only time an exit is ever labeled. Batman can't make that jump, so you have to spend about 15 minutes falling down, jumping off walls, and probably dying in a literal pit of fire.
The developers really wanted to make it seem like the Joker designed this place, it appears.
Stage 4-4: Another Contra Boss
This one's a computer with two moving boxes that shoot at Batman. When one is destroyed, the other one flips out and starts firing much more frequently as it runs across the bottom. I rarely made it this far, and I remember these things being pretty tough.
Stage 5-1: Back To Reality
Following a trip through an electric madhouse, an insane sewer and a Technodrome, this stage finally returns Batman to a location from the movie: The belltower where he fights the Joker. Sure, the movie didn't have Heat Waves waiting for Batman on physically impossible platforms next to giant gears, but this is closer.
Stage 5-2: The J...I Mean, Firebug
Believe it or not, Firebug was the intended final boss of this game. As you may have noticed in the original cutscenes above, there was no last Joker fight. Batman just punches him and that's that. This fight is pretty tough -- Firebug is a little hard to predict at first, but compared to everything that preceded it, it's not nearly as impossible as you might expect.
Then, The Joker
He summons lightning from the sky. He summons lightning from the sky.
Batman punches The Joker off the tower (no gray area this time) and that's it.
The Sunsoft Batman game was among the funnest licensed video games ever made, at least by my estimation, and it far exceeded the quality of pretty much every subsequent Batman game until Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009. The Arkham games couldn't be more different from Sunsoft's Batman in terms of polish and gameplay, but they do the same thing philosophically: They take what's good about current games and synthesize them into a Batman game that plays well. Strict adherence to a particular storyline or property isn't nearly as important.
But I'll tell you one thing even those Arkham games doesn't have. When Batman dies in those games, he doesn't explode into Bat-fire.
You don't get any cooler than that.