Released: February 1990
US Cartridge ID: NES-B4-USA
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Based on Tim Burton’s 1989 classic cinematic reimagining of the iconic American superhero, Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game for the NES was released in early 1990, four months after the movie was released on VHS, and eight months after Batman‘s initial theatrical run. Riding on the long-lasting popularity of the Caped Crusader’s return to form, the arrival of Batman‘s video game adaptation was warmly greeted by players nationwide, many of whom still proudly wore their Batman t-shirts, carried Batman lunchboxes, and battled one another with Batman action figures during recess on playgrounds across America. With the popularity and the recognition of the brand at an all-time high, Batman: The Video Game became a huge commercial success, even garnering a much coveted Nintendo Power cover feature.
Loosely following the plot of the film, Batman is situated in Gotham City amidst preparations for the 200th Anniversary Festival. The Joker, the infamously twisted sociopath who many years ago murdered Batman’s parents, has crippled the city with a large-scale nerve gas attack. The villain takes refuge in the tallest steeple of the Gotham City Cathedral, and to reach him, Batman must fight his minions across the deserted city streets, the Axis Chemical Factory, an underground conduit, and the ruins of an old lab before he is granted the opportunity to wreak his brand of vengeance on the man who stole his childhood innocence and shattered the fragile sense of peace on the streets of
Batman is a platforming action game that splits itself across twenty distinct stages, with each new area being introduced via impressively animated cinematic cutscenes, similar in style to those in Ninja Gaiden. Longtime comic fans will recognize several DC villains that attempt to thwart Batman’s efforts at the behest of The Joker, including Firebug, Killer Moth, The Electrocutioner, Shakedown, and Heatwave, all as well-rendered representations of their print likenesses, especially considering the limitations imposed by the NES’ hardware on sprite size and the size of the color-palette.
The Bat is well equipped to handle the throngs of henchmen sent his way – in addition to his already-powerful punch, Batman wields three tools designed to launch deadly projectiles at anything in his way: a spear gun, the batarang, and a multidirectional shuriken. These special items, though they offer a powerful advantage, are limited in their usage. To fire, “pellets” must be collected from downed enemies in order to refill the ammo counter. Batman’s method of attack can be switched on the fly by pressing Start, and while this works well once enemy placements have been committed to memory, it can be awkward to switch in the heat of battle; as hitting the Start button requires the player to take their right thumb away from the A and B buttons, Batman is effectively left wide-open to attacks during the time it takes to select the desired weapon.
Small quibbles with the finger gymnastics required to activate a special weapon aside, Batman‘s controls are beyond reproach. Batman responds to inputs with a level of precision rarely seen in an NES-era title. Jump height, like in Super Mario Bros., is dictated by the length of the time that the player holds down the A button – Batman will always land
exactly where planned by the player once the slightly odd timing is mastered, and avoiding low-clearance obstacles poses no problem for the skilled player, even in the tightest of corridors. Batman’s wall jump is similar to that demonstrated by Ryu Hayabusa in Ninja Gaiden, though unlike in Tecmo’s masterpiece, mastery of this technique is required to advance beyond the second stage. Thankfully, the fluidity with which Batman moves makes this achievable; attacks are equally as user-friendly due to the reliability of their timings, and the most difficult of enemies can be taken down with little issue once their patterns have been mastered.
Batman‘s spot-on controls initially belie the game’s infamous difficulty level – the level of frustration that most players will inevitably experience is directly attributable to the stage design. Platforms and enemies are expertly placed to test the skills and reflexes of the best NES gamers, with obstacles often demanding an incredible amount of deliberation when attempting to choose the optimal course of action. Though the game rarely feels cheap, it is always eager to provide the callow player with Batman’s stylish death animation; that said, after revisiting the game over screen several times, the hero’s tendency to burst into flames in the shape of the bat signal serves as an irritatingly persistent reminder of how much still needs to be learned in order to succeed. Unlike modern games, Batman refuses to show any mercy whatsoever, but viewing the ending for the first time is resultantly an incredibly rewarding experience.
Batman‘s aesthetics play to the strengths of both Sunsoft’s development team and the NES hardware, making it a showcase game for the year it was released. Suitably fitting
the tone of the movie, Batman‘s stages are incredibly dark and atmospheric, being loaded with subtle details that thoroughly sell the menacing tone of the source material. The lack of background detail becomes a graphical strength in many stages, as it is convincingly justified by the overall grim and gritty tone of the setting. Batman (though purple, most likely so as to make him stand out against the backdrops) moves with surprising grace thanks to the level of attention paid to small details: Batman crouches down before launching himself forward in a lengthy jump, and running will cause his cape to flow behind him in a convincing fashion. The soundtrack is among the most lauded of the NES elite, demonstrating Sunsoft’s mastery of NES sound chip manipulation (arguably besting the noblest efforts of Capcom and Konami) through tunes that are always appropriate and infinitely memorable, featuring heavy bass, full percussive accompaniment, and melodic hooks that rival the best pop music of the age.
Batman, for the uninitiated, would be easy to cast aside due to the terrible reputation that movie-licensed games often deservedly earn (Friday the 13th, Total Recall, Conan: The Mysteries of Time), though players would be remiss in doing so, as they would miss out on one of the most polished platformers of the 8-bit era. Amazing graphics and sound, unrivaled play control, and a difficulty level that will fairly make most gamers cry all carve Batman a spot amongst the best for Nintendo’s beloved console.