Blocky Fighting, Little Mystery

Batman & Robin (1998 PSX Game)

If we asked what was the worst 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. movie of all time, the answer would resoundingly be Batman & Robin, Joel Schumaker’s second bite of the Batman apple, and the one that (while studio approved in every respect) killed the film franchise for the better part of a decade. We went from getting a Batman movie every couple of years, like clockwork, to a seven year gap where DC couldn’t figure out what to do with their most successful superhero franchise. All thanks to bad story, bad comedy, and terrible rubber suits.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the worst Batman game of all time is a title often lumped onto the game based on that awful movie. Batman & Robin, the video game, was released in 1998 by Acclaim, developed by their usual third-party studio, Probe, and it was met with lackluster enthusiasm from the general public. Part of that was because the movie it was based on was a failure, generally hated by fans and audiences alike, and the game (coming out a year after the film) was expected to be as bad as the movie. It is, oh it is, just in very different, very Acclaim ways. This is a bad game that’s almost worthy of the title “worst game ever” (and it certainly would be if Superman 64 didn’t exist), but we have to credit the developers’ ambitions in their attempt to do something more than just another standard beat-em-up title like so many Batman games before.

The plot of the game loosely follows the plot of the movie. Mr. Freeze is out, terrorizing Gotham City, looking to steal diamonds for his nefarious plan to coat the city in ice. Meanwhile, Poison Ivy is free and roaming, wanting to bring down the patriarchy with plants. The two team up, across various missions, to rain crime and villainy down on the city. It’s up to Team Batman – Batman himself, alongside Robin and Batgirl – to try and fight this nefarious duo before the city is ruined and all hope is lost.

Unlike many previous Batman games, Batman & Robin is not a belt-scrolling beat-em-up. While punching and kicking action is in this game, as there are plenty of goons to take down along the way, the game plays out more like an open-world sandbox adventure. As your chosen hero (who you can switch in the Batcave at any time) it’s your job to ride around Gotham, looking for crimes to stop or crime scenes to investigate. Clues will be hidden at these locations, and you have to collect these clues to figure out what the villains are up to. Clues are taken back to the Batcave, and then can be analyzed on the Bat-computer. Once you have an idea of where to go, you can check the map, find that location, and head out into the city.

As an idea, this is kind of interesting. It plays on the thought that Batman is the world’s greatest detective, and this allows the player (as the hero) to do some detecting. At least minimally, anyway, as none of the clues are all that deep or interesting. “Oh, I got a brochure for Gold & Wonder, who are doing a special show at 7:00 PM. I guess I should go to the jewelry store and wait until 7:00 PM to find the bad guys.” All the clues play out like this. Finding them is easy enough, as there are question marks hidden anyway. Knowing where to go is easy, too, since none of the clues are deep or hard to parse. You just have to collect them because if you don’t then you can’t do the mission.

The missions themselves are pretty simple. You go to the location, wait for the bad guys to arrive, and then punch them and collect whatever loot they were trying to steal (for “safe keeping”, which means we really know how Bruce got his fabulous wealth). Sometimes there will be block or switch puzzles at these locations, but most of the time it’s just a matter of exploring, fighting, exploring again, collecting everything, and then leaving. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you’ve gotten through all the missions of the game.

The problem with the missions is that they are all universally boring. There isn’t much to do except explore and collect, and that gets tedious pretty quickly. The levels themselves are long and twisty, but there isn’t much to really do in them. They’re long for the sake of length and not to be interesting. It’s like the developers said, “we want the game to be this long,” and the only way they knew how to do it was to pad everything out so that the player had to walk around more and waste time. There’s a lot of time wasted in this game.

Not helping matters is that the fighting part of the game is boring. Probe made this title, just like they made the previous console game, Batman Forever, which had needlessly complex fighting that you could ignore with roll-kicks. Here all you have to do is button mash until enemies fall over and explode, time and again. The enemies themselves aren’t challenging because there aren’t many of them in any single location (likely due to memory limits) and they all have the worst AI possible. They’ll stand there, sometimes with you literally right in front of them, hardly noticing you exist. The combat is basic because there’s never really any fear that you’re going to die.

I do like the idea of the open world area with missions hung off the map. I like the idea of you having a wide open city to explore and things you can do along the way. Thus feels like an early prototype of the types of games we’d eventually get from the likes of Batman and SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002., free roaming adventures where you do more than just find the next stage, the next villain, the next fight. The problem is that this game game out so early in the development of that kind of game design that it doesn’t have enough going on in it to feel like a real game. The game came out three years before Grand Theft Auto III, which defined how to do open-world, mission-based gaming in a 3D city. Batman & Robin might have gotten here earlier but the game absolutely doesn’t do it at all well.

It’s also incredibly ugly. Developed for the PlayStation, the first game console in Sony’s line, the hardware was not up to the task for these 3D, detailed humans or environments. It looks barely better than Resident Evil (the first one), but it doesn’t feel better. Resident Evil wisely hid its shortcomings behind fixed camera angles and far-out zooms. Batman & Robin puts the bad graphics right in your face with a close up, third-person perspective. This also causes the camera to sickeningly wobble around often, leading to a game that both looks ugly and makes you sick while you play it.

Slow, repetitive, ugly, and poorly made, that’s the Acclaim way. Surprisingly, the CEO of the company at the time said that they delayed the game by a year (it was supposed to come out with the movie) so they could add polish and make it as good as possible. Hilariously he said, “the old Acclaim may have pushed these products into the marketplace,” implying that giving the game time would “do it right”. The extra time might have made the game better, but it didn’t make it good. This is still a bad game, through and through, just with a heart that was almost in the right place.

I actually would have been interested in seeing a game like this come out from a competent developer, one with the knowledge and know-how to make an open-world game on a solid scale, with good missions and good fighting and a lot of mysteries to solve while you glide around as Batman and-

Oh, I just reinvented the Batman: Arkham series, didn’t I? Well, at least we knew this idea could eventually work, right?