"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
In 1986, a Batman game was released by Ocean. As the first video game iteration of Batman, it's darn good. Especially considering that it's an isometric platformer. A genre of gaming that is nearly impossible to get right.
It is a game that I had not played until a recent remake had come about. It is a comic book game that I honestly had no recollection of prior. As a guy that's played a fair share of Batman titles, this was pretty odd. Mostly because it was released for European home computers, which is kind of a weird place for the very first Batman game.
In my mind, the first Batman was the 1989 Sunsoft classic. I'm not even close as Europe received not one, but two Batman games I've never heard of before Sunsoft released their version.
WTF is a ZX Spectrum?
I, like most Americans, have no idea what a ZX Spectrum or an Amstrad CPC is. I vaguely know what an MSX is, but that's mostly thanks to Kojima's Metal Gear franchise.
This was because in the 1980s, the NES dominated America and Japan. Sure the Mega Drive and the PC Engine competed, but ultimately came well short of Nintendo. Europe however was an entirely different beast that Nintendo couldn't handle. The layout of so many different languages and currencies proved too difficult for the company to handle, so they left it in the hands of Mattel.
Mattel was able to get the NES in to Australia, but ultimately fell well short in Europe and even after Nintendo set up a direct branch, they have still struggled to gain dominance even today. Meanwhile, America had been devoid of a home console in the post-Atari world and Nintendo was able to grab prominence. Likewise, the economic boom in the 1980s left many Japanese gathering new forms of entertainment to fit their new lifestyles.
Europe approached it a little simpler. Instead of purchasing an expensive console with a shortage of games, they bought computers that they then turned into gaming platforms. Personal computers like the ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Commodore 64, and MSX were successful gaming machines due to the multi-functionality of the system paired with the low cost of the games. Dad was then able to use the computer for business and Junior could play his games. It was a computer for the whole family.
For a bit of perspective on the price difference in games, Batman came out for the low price of £7.95. Meanwhile, the original Super Mario Bros originally retailed anywhere from $40-60. Exchange rate aside, that's a fairly large difference. This was because the games were significantly easier to program. In fact, it was so easy that game magazines would often publish submitted hacks for their readers. A Batman fan even achieved "Hack of the Month" in Your Sinclair.
It should also be noted that Sega gained significant ground in Europe with their lower priced cartridges and savvy in attacking markets Nintendo had ignored. Pair that with the fact that NES games were long delayed from their foreign counterparts and these factors changed Europe in to a drastically different market than America and Japan for games.
I am Batman
In 1984, Jon Ritman had finished a soccer game called Match Day. At a time when competition for soccer games was minimal, Jon was paid for the game sight unseen. The game was a guaranteed success due to the popularity of the sport in England, even if it wasn't really any good.
Fortunately, the very day he turned his completed work in was the day he was shown an advanced copy of Knight Lore. It showed him something he'd always wanted in gaming. With this, he had inspiration for his next project.
Jon then brought a friend of a friend in to help. Bernie Drummond was brought in to give the game some artistic merit. Together they then created Batman. Following the titles success and using the same engine, Head over Heels came out to high acclaim followed by Monster Max a few years later for the Gameboy.
Interestingly, the choice of Batman came through a brainstorming session between he and Bernie over which popular characters they could use for the game. Jon rejected using Batman originally thinking that nobody would recognize him so far past the hit 60s TV show. Thanks to Bernie's pushing, the game turned in to Batman. They then had David Ward from Ocean show it off to DC and a hit was made.
That's not Holiday Batman. That's the Amstrad CPC.
Batman is an interesting game to play. I would probably liken it to Metroid in design style, even though it was released in Europe two years after Batman. Much like Metroid, you start off as a powerless Batman that must find power ups to advance further in to the game. You can try to beat the game without the power ups, but I wouldn't recommend it. Unlike Metroid, this game will mess with you.
For example, in the image above is an area with one of the first power ups. They are the Bat Boots. These boots allow you to jump. You read that correctly, this is a platformer that doesn't automatically let you jump.
There are two ways to enter the room, but both will throw you on a conveyor belt. Either way, the belt will push you down to the area below. The trollish enemy runs a pattern back and forth on the line. With appropriate timing ideally, you can make it to the second or third platforms. The only problem is that the second platform disappears if you go one step to far, and the third platform will bounce you back in to the troll if you try to run to get to it. The only way to easily make it past is to get the movement right with in a single pixel so that the second platform doesn't disappear or the troll doesn't touch you and cause you to explode.
Yes, Batman explodes when he loses a life. It's actually kinda cool. Anyway, all that work is the only way you can earn the ability to jump in the game.
As you'll note, neither of those platforms have anything distinguishing it from the other. Stylistically, this is something you'd find in "Nintendo hard" games. I'm not really sure if it's my rust towards the 1980's mentality of game design or if it's awkwardness, but I had to change the way I attacked the game. Instead of thinking about speed, I had to think about how the game is trying to kill me. And it is definitely trying to kill me. There are power ups that explode, similar to poison mushrooms in the Lost Levels. There are Riddler traps that remove any powered abilities, stripping any perks you get. And on top of this, there are a 150 levels and traps waiting to kill you with many still requiring this perfect measurement of distance to advance. Thankfully there are save points, conservatively scattered throughout.
All this work just to put the Batmobile back together again. This won't stop the Joker and Riddler, nor will you gain the opportunity to save Robin. You'll just get your wheels back so you can chase after them.
The walls have eyes
For all the complaints about difficulty, the game is fun to play. Sure you can't punch the Joker's henchmen in the face, and yes sometimes touching random blocks will kill you, but that's the appeal of the game. It's designed for those that don't mind a good hard puzzle. Similar to Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, it requires multiple playthroughs to understand how things are going to work. Things that don't sink in with the first playthrough. Once you figure the mechanics of the 3d angle, there is so much more to do with the game. Finding Batman's equipment is just the beginning as you have to search for all seven of the Batmobile's parts.
Batman is one of those games that you would get a pad of graph paper for. Something to remember where to go and what you've seen.
That quote is from an actual publication. Ocean even had a memo drafted with Sinclair User quotes.
Batman is a good looking game for a console that couldn't put out good looking games. The hardware and memory limitations would force developers to think creatively and more often than not, that's exactly what you would get. The level structure is diverse considering it consists of 150 screens of square imagery. Enemy design is simple, but unique enough to differentiate their attack patterns and designs. The baboon's in particular are very interesting even if they are a bit creepy.
The music is fairly simple though the intro/game over score is probably the most haunting batman rendition I've heard. You can choose from three audio options, though the two others only proceed to mute the effects and then mute everything. Not really a necessity with audio settings these days, though with a family computer in the 80s it was probably essential for slackers that were supposed to be studying.
While the most recent PC remake of Batman is the most colorful, it isn't the only one. Watman was released for DOS by the GGG and Kakarot and it is my preferred version. The pixels are still maintained while the colors are enhanced leading to an all around better product.
A Gameboy Advance version was made off of the DOS version by the same creators. Stylistically, I prefer the Gameboy Advance version, but the gameplay was changed to make it work. Stretching the window tweaks some areas in the games and makes it a bit different to play. Some conveyors move faster as do some enemies. Not enough to greatly change the experience, but it changes the feel of some areas.
The recent PC remake of Batman is brighter and more colorful, but the improved graphics take some getting used to. The pixel perfect jumps are more difficult with the smaller pixels. It's noticeable, but the adjustment period isn't too long as the enhancement doesn't change any of the gameplay. In the end however, I felt like I was getting lucky with some of the jumps rather than measuring it out like I used in the original versions. It also for some reason gave Batman a rather large head. Smaller headed Batman just feels natural.
The brilliance of a modding community
Spanish modder Titobruni created a Gears of War mod styled around Bernie Drummond's designs. He calls it Batman: Adventures in Gotham City and it is a stylish mod for anybody that owns Gears of War for their PC. It is being released as an episodic affair with two chapters currently available. He does seem to be improving with each chapter. Adventures in Gotham City is fairly rough around the edges, but it does have plenty of charm. Looking at the models for Harley Quinn, Catwoman and the Penguin showcases a charm to his work.
Just be aware that English is not his native language. It reads like it.
This Batman kinda reminds me of Bat-Mite
In 1989 Batman: the Puaj Edition was released by Rodrigo F. A Micro House published little mod, this game is much shorter than the Batman it copied. Running 21 levels, it's changes are fairly significant.
Other than Micro House being plastered over every level, the game plays out with a devilish Batman trying to find his way to the last stage of the game. To do so he has to precision jump across deadly skulls placed throughout the levels. With this addition, the platforming becomes much more difficult. It acts as an exercise in frustration more than a video game, but devil Batman does have his charm. He can jump from the outset, so that's pretty nice.
The game is short and simple, though the way it is designed guarantees you'll get lost. It's a flawed mix. Overall, you won't be missing much by not playing it.
The Batmobile lost its wheel and Joker got away
Without this first game to lay the foundation, we might not have seen too many good Batman games. Two of the biggest games today are Lego Batman and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Both were made by European developers that might not have had the chance if Batman hadn't gained the ground it had early on with this title. While Traveler's Tales had a series of games to back them up, Rocksteady Studios did not. Without this solid foundation established by Ocean, DC could have kept development to American and Japanese studios.
Thanks to Jon Ritman's chance, Batman left a solid foundation amongst gamers in Europe. Thanks to Bernie Drummond's persistence, we got one heck of a good licensed franchise in gaming.