I've long preferred Burton's pair of Batman films to Nolan's noisy, bloated, self-serious behemoths. But hey! This is meant to be about video games. And how the four very different games based on Burton's first 1989 Batman film kinda-sorta gave me some gaming confidence back.
"Based on" is a pretty loose way of putting it when it comes the first NES Batman game. Contrary to what studios and publishers think, superhero movies really don't make great material for video games (superheroes in general, on the other hand, certainly have the potential...). For instance: this film. It's not exactly action-packed, and Burton isn't exactly an action director. I'd say he has the worst concept of filmic action of any major big-budget filmmaker, actually. You're probably familiar with the NES adaptation: awesome and hard as hell.
The action platformer - the bread and butter of the NES library - well, hell, I guess it would lend itself to Batman too. Why not? We have city streets full of thugs and - well, throw some robots in there too. A chemical plant? That's the type of level NES developers live for. Death traps, insta-kill pits, electric walls, whatever. Do I look like I care that Batman is sorta sworn to never use a gun? Give him one anyway - hell, give him three different guns.
Gee, guys, I don't remember much of the movie - did Batman go down to the sewers and fight hunchback monsters? We'll throw that in there too. Did he emerge in a massive underground cavern and fight tanks hand-to-hand? We'll pretend he did. What do you mean Killer Moth wasn't in the movie? Damnit, I've already drawn the sprites! Ok, throw him in there too.
I'm sorry, I'm not very funny and I sincerely apologize. But it is amusing to me how the game quickly goes from "very loosely based on the film" to "fuck it, let's do what we want." By the time Batman himself punches Jack into the vat of chemicals, the game takes a steep turn into hardcore NES platforming action.
And it is hard, and brutal, and sadistic, but only occasionally unfair. The game sets itself apart in two ways: Batman starts off with a choice of three secondary weapons - a missile gun, a returning batarang, and a sort of spreadshot gun. You won't see other weapons, like in Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden - instead you'll be looking to pick up ammo from dead enemies. Luckily, they drop frequently - after the first level, it's not really in your best interest to use the short-range punch anymore.
The real challenge is in the platforming. The key is the wall-jump; but unlike Ninja Gaiden, Batman only clings to the wall for a split-second. Like Castlevania, though, the general pace of the game is slower and more measured; there's a slight delay when jumping and punching.
The platforming mechanics are honed to perfection, but it can be difficult to see at first after you fall to your death for the 28th time. Reflex and memorization are important, like any NES game really, but what's more important is precision, especially when you get to the brilliantly devious death traps in the later stages. But the controls and the perfect way the challenges ramp up means you'll never die feeling cheated (well, usually).
For games like this, that I know well enough, I like to turn on Game Genie codes, mostly so I can really take my time, take note of the details, and get some nice screenshots. I got so into the platforming bliss that I turned on an infinite ammo code, to get those enemies out of the way so I could focus strictly on pure platforming. But then you get to a boss, and who has time to memorize those kind of patterns anymore? Except there's no infinite health code. I got worried I might not even be able to finish the game - Mutant Mudds has recently been kicking my ass and making me feel like a platforming chump.
This particular boss is harder than any other in the game, even the final fight against the Joker. But I survived - even that endless series of vertical, pixel-precise platforming in the final stage couldn't keep me down. Fitting, then, that the last fight against the Joker is something of a joke - an easy pattern, and an easy trick.
I used to think it was a solid game with little more than nice graphics, a lovely soundtrack, and a brutally unfair difficulty. But I persisted, and discovered that this already-loved game is actually underrated. There's nothing like taking on a series of exacting platforming challenges and coming out victorious - and feeling like it was due to your precise and steady hand instead of dumb luck.
In typical old-school fashion, Sunsoft adapted the film for Genesis and Game Boy, as well, and they're all totally different. The Genesis was only a year old by the time this game hit, and it serves more as a graphical showcase than anything else. Its platforming is fine, though standard, and the action leans more towards punching than throwing things. It follows the film more closely - except for that part where the museum turns into a massive deathtrap full of falling chandeliers and bottomless pits, and also the part where Batman gets in the Batmobile to take to the streets and shoot down any poor sap who happens to be on the road tonight - and there's a distinct emphasis on action rather than compelling platforming.
But like the NES game, it's lovely to look at, it has some great environmental touches (the way the rain changes in the first level, for example), and the music is even better than the NES. But the bosses are predictable and easy, and the game is unusually short. Batmobile and Batwing sidescrolling shooter levels are thrown in there, but they too are inoffensive and unremarkable. It could be worse, though - have you seen the way Spider-man was treated on the 8-and-16-bit consoles?
And once again, the Game Boy adaptation is an entirely different game. And surprisingly not bad! Its platforming is limited to horizontal, and the action is entirely made up of Batman shooting guys. The platforming can be tricky, and the physics take a little getting used to, but it plays well enough. The central hook here is not wall-jumping, but instead destructible blocks. Littered through the stages are squares that can be shot - they can drop power-ups, they can be used as platforms, and they also can also impede your way to the next platform.
The key to the game is choosing whether or not to shoot a block: you could get that power-up, but it will make the next jump that much more tricky. Or you might need to shoot it anyway just to make room for your next jump. It's a simple but clever mechanic, and it's well implemented. While the game does borrow the great music of the Genesis version, it can't match either game in the graphics department - even for a Game Boy game, it doesn't look particularly great. But that's fine, because the small sprites (Batman is literally half the height of the Joker) and lack of background detail actually affords more visibility - too often Game Boy games would spring for large, attractive sprites, and the screen would be overly cramped, sometimes making platformers a hellish experience on the handheld.
There are a couple of Batwing stages thrown in, too, but they're more interesting than the Genesis fluff - they're hard as hell. And hey, what do you know, no Game Genie codes for this segment either. And I made it through! I can still get it up. What a relief.
Here's one you might not know: Yes, another game from the 1989 film, this time an arcade game. And it's pretty obscure, as far as popular film adaptations go. Made by Atari, not Sunsoft, the game is a strange combination of action-platforming and Rolling Thunder-type shooting segments. It's an arcade game, which means it was designed to be cheap and unfair, and on top of that, it's clunky, inconsistent, and rather dull. It does use music and voices from the movie (though it eventually gets creepy hearing Jack Nicholson deliver those lines randomly in the middle of a level), and it is nice looking, but... no. Stay far away.
All screenshots are my own. Box art courtesy of GameFAQs.