8-Bit Replay – Batman Returns (1993) for NES

Because Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman had spawned a video game spinoff that was very popular in its own right, his sequel of course needed its own game adaptation as well. In fact, it got several different adaptations spread out among a host of gaming consoles. Unfortunately, the NES version of Batman Returns was a huge disappointment, even more so than the movie it was based on.

By 1993, the NES console was winding down its run and had largely been supplanted by the more advanced Super Nintendo (a.k.a. SNES), as well as competitors such as the Sega Genesis. During that time, development of titles like Batman Returns focused primarily on the 16-bit platforms, with 8-bit versions spat out mostly as an afterthought. Having left for college around that time, I lost interest in gaming for a few years anyway. Honestly, I don’t think I even realized there had been a Batman Returns game on NES until many years later, after I took up an interest in retro gaming. Finding it now, I clearly didn’t miss much.

Batman Returns NES (1993) - Cutscene
Title:Batman Returns
Year of Release: 1993
Publisher: Konami
Gaming Platform: NES

Although the 1990 Batman: The Video Game had been published by Sunsoft, gaming rights to the sequel movie were split between Sega and Konami. Sega released separate 16-bit (for Genesis and Sega CD) and 8-bit (for Sega Master System and the portable Game Gear) games, while Konami did the same for the SNES and NES, respectively. That makes at least four distinct games all called Batman Returns released across six consoles around the same time. Such was the confusing state of the gaming industry in the early 1990s.

For retro gaming purposes, my interest is in the NES, as that was the console of my youth. The SNES or Genesis versions of Batman Returns may well be better than this one (though it looks like all of them received pretty middling reviews), but I never used those platforms and don’t have much nostalgia for them now.

While Konami was a top-tier developer in the 8-bit era, not all of its games were winners. The NES iteration of Batman Returns feels like something that was churned out quickly to capitalize on the movie, probably with about half the budget and resources as the 16-bit version. Because it differs so much from Sunsoft’s prior Batman, it can’t rightly be called a sequel to that game either. Any fond memories you may have of playing the prior game should stop there and cannot be carried over to this one.

Where the Sunsoft Batman was a fast-moving 2D platformer largely cloned from Tecmo’s popular Ninja Gaiden franchise, Konami’s NES Batman Returns is a sluggish beat-’em-up more in the vein of Double Dragon, but not a fraction as polished or fun. Gameplay is almost entirely side-scrolling with a small amount of 3D vertical movement on the ground as your Caped Crusader lumbers into the frame and punches clowns, acrobats, stilt-walkers, and other weirdos from the Red Triangle Circus Gang to death on his quest to capture (or murder) Catwoman and The Penguin.

Batman Returns NES (1993) - Batman Punching

The game follows a rough sketch of the movie’s plot without much nuance despite the extended cutscenes at the start and between levels that seem to take forever to dole out limited story details. Fortunately, those can be skipped.

Your character moves very slowly, and most of the fighting action consists of standing around and punching enemies as they come to you. Batman has a sliding kick and a jump-kick, but the controls for them are awkward and they never seem to inflict much damage. More powerful is a move where you fling your cape around and knock down anyone standing next to you, but doing so depletes your life meter for some reason, likely just to make the game more needlessly difficult.

Batman can throw a batarang, but he only carries five of them and refills are scarce. He also has a grappling pistol that fires straight up into the air, which can theoretically hurt enemies above you but only rarely hits anything you aim at. Switching to those weapons is cumbersome and leaves you open to attack.

The game offers two on-rails driving levels, one for the Batmobile and one for the Batboat. Both are so poorly executed that you could practically let them run without touching the controller and achieve almost the same outcome as trying to dodge all the obstacles you’ll inevitably hit anyway.

Batman Returns NES (1993) - Batmobile Chase

The graphics in Batman Returns are, technically, a step up from Sunsoft’s Batman. The character sprites are larger and more detailed, and Batman’s costume is a much more sensible blue color than Sunsoft’s delightfully inexplicable purple. The backgrounds attempt to evoke some of Tim Burton’s elaborate production design. At the same time, the whole game looks more cartoonish and, frankly, cheap

The worst aspect of the game is that the controls are terrible. I lost countless battles simply because Batman was too slow to throw a punch or to dodge an attack, and his kicks almost never land properly. Meanwhile, the enemies are much quicker, more nimble, and their hits do more damage.

The health meter colors are confusing, with next to no heart refills, and you only get one life. This is extremely problematic because the game frequently throws countless waves upon waves upon waves of enemies at you to deplete your health meter down to next-to-nothing before you get to the level boss, who will quickly take you out and send you all the way back at the beginning of the stage when you Continue.

Batman Returns NES (1993) - Batman vs. Catwoman

Sunsoft’s Batman was famous for its difficulty, but the game was extremely fun, if challenging. In contrast, Batman Returns is downright infuriating. The levels feel nearly impossible to beat, and getting through them is repetitive and tedious.

By the last stage, it took me about 40 tries of redoing the entire level before I could even get to Penguin with more than a quarter of my health meter going into the battle, much less to actually defeat him. Finally having done so, the game threw me a final insult by wrapping up with the image of a squawking penguin (the animal kind, not the character) telling me that I took too long to beat the game and should start over at the beginning. Then it cut right to credits. That’s it, the end!

I looked up a walkthrough video on YouTube that shows a slightly better ending, presumably for someone who gets to it faster, but I’m not inclined to replay the game just to achieve that for myself.

If it has any saving grace, the NES Batman Returns at least offers a password option to pick up playing from higher stages at a later time. The Sunsoft game neglected to do that much. But the Sunsoft game was entertaining enough that I’d actually want to play through the whole thing in one sitting. This one is not.

To be blunt, I hated this game. I only finished it out of some misguided sense of obligation. Now that I’ve done that, I will happily go the rest of my life without ever playing it again.

Batman Returns NES box

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