Exploring the Lair of The Evil... Someone
I really wanted to talk about the NES Batman game. That one is a marvel, isn't it, working with the limited capabilities of the NES to create one of the best platforming experiences on that console. Even today it's still hailed as one of the greatest BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. games ever made. It wasn't the first Batman game, though, and my need to be as thorough as possible on this site has led me down yet another strange rabbit hole of games I never knew existed. Games probably better left forgotten.
That's the prefect introduction for us to discuss the first Batman video game. Released in 1986 and published by Ocean, this title is... well, really something. Bearing in mind that the 1989 Tim Burton film hadn't been released yet, and wasn't even something Warner Bros. was promoting yet, that meant Ocean had to base their game on the only version of the property most kids would know: Batman '66 (which, back in the 1980s, was still regularly showing afternoons on syndicated television). That was the Batman of the era, and this was his game.
As you would suspect, then, this game is kind of goofy (as befits the Adam West Batman). It's an isometric exploration game with absolutely no combat. Instead, the world's greatest detective has to explore the many, many rooms of the villain's lair, looking for the pieces he needs to escape. There are tricks, traps, and enemies, but Batman has to rely on his wits (and your careful note taking) to survive the day. Explore everything, collect every item, and be the one to save Batman (and, in the process, save Robin as well).
You will note that in that description I don't mention a villain. Perhaps the instruction booklet for the game made mention of the owner of the evil villain lair Batman has to explore (my money is on JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled.), but most of us attempting to play this game now won't have access to that. We'll just know what the Internet tells us, and there's no mention I could find of the specific villain we're battle against (metaphorically). No actually main villain shows up in the game, and as the game lacks any kind of cut-scenes at all, there's no real mention of who is behind all this or what is going on. Wikipedia says the quest is to "save Robin", but that's also not mentioned in the game.
What is mentioned? Well, if you're lucky enough to complete the game, you'll eventually figure out that Batman is trapped in this dungeon (a colorful, funhouse-like dungeon) and he has to collect the seven pieces of the "Batcraft" (not Batmobile, or Batsub, Batcraft). Once those seven pieces are collected, Batman then has to make his way to their final location so he can board the Batcraft and ride out of the dungeon to victory. It's a simple concept, and players will likely be able to track down two or three pieces before they either get bored or frustrated with the game.
Considering the era in which the game was made, and the systems this was released for (ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Amstrad PCW), the 1986 Batman game does a lot with what it's given. While most wouldn't look at Batman and think "I want an isometric exploration game with absolutely no combat", it's surprising how well the style of the game suits the character. This is a thinking puzzle game, something that does make sense for the world's greatest detective. Each room requires you to think your way through the solution, to figure out what the programmers want you to do to collect a piece, or reach a door, or just survive. The game is about logic, not action, which is different from other Batman games, but not necessarily in a bad way.
Some of the puzzles are quite devious. There are block pushing puzzles, enemy avoiding puzzles, platforming challenges, and more. As the game goes on and the rooms get harder, you have to start combining various skills learned in the previous rooms to find the solutions to the challenges. You may have to hop on a block that will disappear after, just so it can free a different block that will start moving, and then place a platform on that block so you can reach another platform with an item you need. It you fail, you'll have to reset the room (or die) and try again. Late rooms can feel positively unforgiving, certainly rising to the challenge for the players.
Reviewers at the time loved the game, and I can see why. For the era, this is a solid platforming title with smooth play and a lot to do. It slides into that nascent, not quite developed Metroidvania experience, one of the many games grasping for direction on how to mix platforming and exploration into a fun and cohesive game. This title gets a lot closer than most games in 1986 could achieve, all while providing decent graphics for the consoles. I think even when it was released it wouldn't have been considered perfect, but it would have been far better than most releases for the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, or MSX.
With that said, that's a low bar to set by today's standards, and it's with the passage of time that this game starts to really lose its luster. While the isometric game play was fine at the time, it does feel clunky. Anyone that has played a smoother platforming experience in the years since this game's release will become pretty annoyed at how this game controls. That's a weakness of the format, to be fair, as isometric platforming is always a chore. Hell, one of the greatest games of the SNES, Super Mario RPG, is an isometric game with some truly obnoxious platforming. If Square couldn't do it at the height of the SNES era, it's not exactly fair to expect Ocean to do it on much older consoles. It does limit the fun, though, all the same.
And while we're picking nits, the presentation on the game is lacking. I'm not going to complain about the colors (I played this on Amstrad CPC, and I thought the game used the limited color capabilities of the console quite well). Instead, it's the sprites, specifically those for Batman, that are awful. When you look at him, he looks terrible, like some fat and dumpy guy in Batman pajamas slowly moseying through the levels. I'm not expecting super crisp graphics, considering the consoles at hand, but they could have made Batman look more like, well, Batman. And a little more speed for the experience would have been nice.
Worse, though, is the sound design. There's exactly one tune that will play, and it's a variant of the Batman '66 theme song. Whenever you accomplish something (find one the Batcraft parts, or finally reach the Batcraft) you'll hear the short theme song jingle. It plays briefly and then goes away, and that's all the music you get. The rest of the time it's just the sounds of Batman moving (the steady bleeps of his footfalls) and then the occasional bass thud of an object getting jostled. That's it, and it gets tiring really quickly. You're better off just muting the game and playing some other tunes instead (maybe the Batman '89 soundtrack so you can get down with the "Batdance").
There are limited charms to this game, to be sure. If you were one of the players to get this game when it came out, you might have enjoyed the experience at the time. Coming to it now, you can see why it got praise in its era and was held up as the best game for the various consoles it was featured on. But with modern eyes, and modern sensibilities, this game struggles to hold up. It feels archaic. It's a curiosity, and not a bad one all things considered, but in just a few short years a true Batman masterpiece would come out, and this game would get quickly forgotten.