8-Bit Replay – Batman: The Video Game (1990) for NES

The history of video games based on movies is littered with poorly conceived duds that were quickly rushed to market to capitalize on publicity for their source material. That was especially true in the 8-bit era, which inflicted numerous outright unplayable disasters onto naive fans hoping to relive their favorite movies in game form. Somehow, the NES release of Batman: The Video Game, based (albeit loosely) on the Tim Burton blockbuster, avoided most of the pitfalls that have wrecked other movie games and actually became one of the best titles on the platform.

Truth be told, the game doesn’t have much to do with the plot of the movie. Honestly, it feels like it might have started development as a comic book adaptation unrelated to the film, with tweaks made along the way to align the two together. Its most direct tie-ins are primarily in the form of the brief cutscenes between levels. Nevertheless, the game does a pretty good job of capturing the general tone and feeling of Burton’s Batverse. More importantly, it’s a very fun – if extremely challenging – video game in its own right.

Batman: The Video Game (1990) - Joker cutscene
Title:Batman: The Video Game
Year of Release: 1990
Publisher: Sunsoft
Gaming Platform: NES

The NES Batman is a side-scrolling platformer that sends DC Comics’ famed Caped Crusader on a quest to end the Joker’s reign of terror upon Gotham City. To do that, he’ll need to traverse five areas of the city with two to three levels apiece: the Gotham streets, the Axis Chemical factory, underground sewers, a secret laboratory, and the Gotham Cathedral’s bell tower.

Gameplay mostly consists of running through the levels and punching bad guys until they explode and disappear. (The “no killing” aspect of Batman canon is conveniently ignored here. To be fair, however, the Burton movie was also a little lax in that regard.) Basic villains include numerous faceless thugs who hit or shoot at you, and usually move and attack in simple repetitive patterns. Mixed with these are a number of characters who were certainly not in the movie, such as flamethrower troopers, guys wearing jetpacks, robots, and mutant monsters that leap all over the place.

In addition to punching, Batman has three weapons you can quickly switch among: a batarang, a pistol that shoots mini rockets, and something called the “batdisk” that flings a spread of three oval-shaped projectiles. The batarang is the most useful weapon in general. It can be thrown rapid-fire in multiples and uses the least ammo points, but unfortunately it also has the shortest range. The batdisk is the most powerful, but is slow to shoot and uses the most ammo. That one is really only good for hitting enemies at a distance before they get close to you.

Batman: The Video Game (1990) - Batarang throwing

In a big improvement over many other 8-bit games, the control physics in Batman are very tight. While your hero has way more stamina for jumping than a real human being would, he cannot leap impossible heights or change direction in mid-air. The sense of gravity is plausible for video game purposes. Although he does sometimes fall great distances without harm, you can suspend disbelief that his cape may slow down his descent like a parachute.

On the other hand, the whoosh sound effect every time he jumps grows annoying quickly.

One of the best features of the game was borrowed from Tecmo’s popular Ninja Gaiden. Batman can scale walls by hopping from side to side. This is an essential skill to master in many levels, especially the vertical climb of the clock tower.

Batman: The Video Game (1990) - Wall climbing

The graphics are pretty terrific by NES standards. The city may not be laid out in any sort of logical fashion (the sewer system extends several stories underground, and the factory has far too many unnecessary treadmills), but the game really captures the feeling of grimy urban decay that Burton emphasized in the movie. That’s a tough thing to accomplish in 8-bit form.

Of course, one graphical aspect that stands out immediately is that Batman himself has been given a bright purple costume. This was done for pragmatic reasons, so that the character sprite would not get lost against the dark backgrounds. A black costume, as Batman traditionally wears, was apparently too difficult to make work with an 8-bit palette. Even the Batmobile seen in cutscenes has a green sheen to improve its definition. A purple Batman may seem kind of silly at first, but it won’t take long for you to stop questioning it. (The game was so popular that Neca eventually issued a purple Batman action figure in homage to it.) The character’s movements and poses look great. I love the way his cape flutters behind him when he runs and jumps. A detail like that could have been easily overlooked.

In between stages, cutscenes recreate famous scenes from the movie. This is as much of an attempt as the game makes to “adapt” the film. They’re short, but they’re enough to sell the connection. The graphics in them are very good, down to a fair representation of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. (I wonder if the actor was paid for his likeness rights?)

Batman: The Video Game (1990) - Batmobile cutscene

None of Danny Elfman’s music was licensed, but the game has its own exciting score to drive the action. The theme over the opening menu screen is quite evocative and memorable, considering the limited musical range available to the NES.

As mentioned, the story in the game has little to do with the Batman movie. Until the very end, the level bosses are either C-List characters from Batman’s comic book rogues gallery (such as Killer Moth and Electrocutioner) or robotic obstacles invented for the game. In fact, a prototype version of the game was designed with Batman facing off against Firebug as the final boss and never actually meeting the Joker. The release version foists in a second boss battle on that level to give Joker some screen time. The character seems to be designed more after Cesar Romero than Jack Nicholson, and inexplicably has the magical power to summon lightning strikes.

Batman: The Video Game (1990) - Joker showdown

As much fun as the NES Batman can be, it’s also infamous for its difficulty. Some levels are murderously hard to get through without dying. Certain obstacles simply cannot be passed without taking damage, and the levels are incredibly stingy with doling out health-recovery hearts. Power-ups you can pick up along the way include those hearts, ammo refills, and “B” logo blocks that, as far as I can tell, do nothing at all. Almost invariably, the hearts and ammo only appear when your health and weapons are already filled up, and are nowhere to be found when you need them.

At various points, hatches in the ceiling will drop little scurrying robots to attack you. If you stand beneath them, you can theoretically pound away at those ‘bots until they give you enough heart refills to take on the rest of the level. The problem with this strategy is that it often takes a very long time for any hearts to show up, and the robots have a nasty habit of hitting you and depleting your life meter more than you can refill it.

While the game has a Continue option when you run out of lives, it does not offer a password feature to pick up from the same spot later. In replaying the game for this review, I frequently found myself so frustrated at needing to redo some levels over and over again that I’d give up in exhaustion, and then have to start over from the very beginning when I felt like playing again.

I suppose if the game were easier, it wouldn’t feel nearly as satisfying when you actually beat it. Nor would it hold as much interest to revisit later. So long as you aren’t a stickler for expecting a faithful adaptation of the movie’s plot, Batman is an essential go-to title that any NES fan and retro gamer ought to keep in playing rotation.

Batman: The Video Game first hit the market in Japan at the very end of 1989, marketed for Nintendo’s Famicom console. The game didn’t make its way to American shores with NES branding until early 1990. Be aware that developer Sunsoft later released a Nintendo Gameboy title as well as a 16-bit version for the Sega Genesis that were both also called Batman: The Video Game, but were actually entirely different games.

Batman: The Video Game (1990) NES box art

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One thought on “8-Bit Replay – Batman: The Video Game (1990) for NES

  1. “(I wonder if the actor was paid for his likeness rights?)”

    Quite possibly. There have been numerous reports about his unprecedented, massive back-end paycheck (upwards of $60 million). Fine print may have included video game appearances.


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