8-16 bit Batman Games: The Road to Arkham

By Paige Francis Posted Monday Sep 4, 2023

Filed under: Epilogue, Paige Writes 19 comments

A big part of my retrogaming experiment was to experience entire franchises and series. As I have shared, classic RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are on the list. On a whim, I decided there are major, important titles I have never played that I would like to try, like the Metal Gear games. And while I’ve always been a big fan of The Legend of Zelda as a whole property, I’ve never actually played any Zelda games other than the first, gold-cartridge TLOZ and Link’s Awakening on the original Gameboy. I’ve even added all the main-line (I think) Mario Bros. games, and Sonic games from the original Genesis release through the GameCube generation. But naturally, at the last minute, I decided I *really* wanted to play a different “series” of video games I’ve only barely dabbled in: Batman.

Before I get into the topic, some news. FoxMaster released a 4th “Self-aware Lara Croft” video a few days after I published last week’s post:

A few things really stood out to me. The boulder trap, of course, is something FoxMaster had previously posted about. An earlier, I’m assuming, run-through by the Lara ‘bot resulted in the ‘bot having Lara casually take two steps back and to the side, *just* clearing the path of the boulder in time. As I talked about last week, the Lara ‘bot tends to move purposefully, casually, and with precision. As the Lara Personality frequently says, “I don’t always run. When I want to be careful, I walk.” In the published video, Lara handles the situation by vaulting over the incoming boulder. I would imagine this change in behavior is down to tweaking the goal-seeking variables. An AI routine with heavier weighting to caution might favor stepping back and out-of-the-way. Weighting the desire to move onward might prompt the AI to consider more action-oriented responses. Indeed, if I remember correctly, the only way to complete certain sequences is to run or leap into unknown circumstances. Obviously, the earlier version of the ‘bot would refuse to do so unless they accidentally ran into a pre-rendered sequence trigger. This also illustrates how this generation of Tomb Raider is the perfect game for this, as many of the situations can be handled in more than one way.

Something else noteworthy is the solving of the three-gates puzzle. “Puzzle” might be a bit of an overstatement, as the solution is just to jump, climb, and don’t-die your way through a maze of rooms to reach three levers, that each open one of the three gates in the hall to the tomb. However, passing through the main interchange of the maze requires its own lever-activation sequence to reach all spaces. Lara ‘bot seems able to keep in mind her goal of flipping 3 switches to open the 3 gates, which may be showing that FoxMaster has tweaked the “long-term” and “short-term” memory routines. Or it could still all be random and the result is purely clever editing.

Furthering that question, we also see some potential evidence of Lara ‘bot’s memory interacting with another feature I mentioned last week; the feeding of the Lara Personality comments back into the routine. This appears to create commentary at several points:

  • Lara wonders aloud when she might actually encounter a “tomb” in this game (note she also mentions how traps are frequently set for “raiders”) just before entering the actual tomb entrance room. “Ah, I spoke too soon.”
  • The Lara Personality comments on “remembering” where the doors are and where the right room to go to is several times. It would be interesting to learn how much of this was spontaneous, and how much might have been prompted by the “timer cool downs” I mentioned last week. These cool-downs are used to reset and redirect the AI routine when it can’t move forward. That is, after 30 minutes of exploring a room (a sequence that is cut down for the video,) Lara Personality comments “I hope I can remember where that room is” when the routine is reset or repurposed.
  • Within the tomb, Lara ‘bot spots the “alive” mummy at a point I’m not sure many first-time players would. She draws on it, comments on it, and watches it for further movement. Of course, as Lara isn’t currently moving, the mummy doesn’t move, and Lara ‘bot decides she was mistaken. How the Lara Personality comments on these actions is interesting. The Lara personality *appears* to be narrating the thoughts of the Lara ‘bot as it acts; but remember, the personality isn’t making any decisions for the Lara ‘bot, only commenting on how the Lara ‘bot reacts to the stimuli fed to it in order to play the game. That is, the Lara ‘bot “detected” a small movement, which at this point I’m sure it has filed in long-term memory as a potential threat (bats or wolves approaching from a distance, for example.) I would assume the game paused at this point, while the Lara Personality did a search based on what it “saw,” the mummy, combined with the recent event “saw an enemy move,” followed by “not seeing an enemy move.” Fed to the ChatGPT routine for a comment, the result is “I thought I saw that mummy move, but I guess I was mistaken.” This could also explain why Lara ignores the mummy when its head follows her movements as she walks near it; her short-term memory has filed the mummy away as “not an enemy/ignore.” Until the music changes or a cool down expires and suddenly she notices the movement again, and “kills” it.

I am certainly looking forward to covering more of FoxMaster’s work! Fascinating stuff!

But now, back to Batman.

Long-time readers know, and very likely will see proof of in the links to other Twentysided articles, that Shamus was a fan of the Arkham Asylum games by Rocksteady. Largely because of Shamus’ writing, I bought the GOTY Edition of Arkham Asylum for PC, but just never could get into the game. I never made it to the first boss, honestly. I think it was the camera position more than anything. AA (and I presume the later games, I’m sure I’ll mention it when I get there. Wink wink. Nudge nudge) uses a third-person camera offset to the right by an amount that makes my head hurt. I’m sure, objectively, it’s only a few degrees off-center, but it is clearly more than the 0.5 – 1 degree that an over-the-shoulder cam normally is…at least in my experience. And so, I’ve never really played any of the Arkham games. I also didn’t like AA’s version of Harley Quinn, but that’s an entirely different discussion. Also one that’s already happened thousands, if not millions, of times around the internet.

So, why I decided Batman games might be a fun place to fool around in retrogaming is honestly beyond me. I only knew they existed, and even then it was at least half-reasoned only by the thought that all those Batman movies *MUST* have had video game tie-ins. Of course, that’s a scary thought itself as movie-based games have a largely well-deserved reputation of…being crap. But the decision was made and the games acquired. First up: Batman (the Video Game). This game is based on the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie. Three versions were made: one for the Famicom/NES with a Gameboy version, one for the NEC PC Engine (no North American release for the TurboGrafx 16), and one for the Mega Drive/Genesis. The PC Engine and Genesis versions follow the movie’s story a bit more closely than the NES/Gameboy version. The Nintendo and Sega versions are both side-scrolling beat-em-ups with slightly different mechanics; the PC Engine version is a top-down shooter/item-collection game. The Genesis version comes the closest to “looking” like the movie. The PC Engine game is quite colorful and bright; the NES version features highly-saturated, vivid browns and purples, while the Genesis version uses a mix of browns and greys, including the most movie-accurate looking Batsuit.

Unfortunately, but not necessarily unexpectedly, the controls are a bit clunky. Also common to older video games, and practically a feature of run-of-the-mill beat-em-ups, is difficult-to-master timing. Mastering the boundaries of the “hit box” is very much part of the strategy, as well; as you will notice when I run into the bouncing lasers. I did find it interesting that you can defeat enemies by doing a Mario-jump onto their head. This is subverted when I reach the first boss, labeled “The Kickboxer” in the information I read on this game. You know, that famous Batman rogue. He punches hard and has longer arms than Batman, but never kicks . The strategy to beat him is as I demonstrate: jump/somersault (double jump, basically) so that you land right behind him and you can get a punch in. This strategy makes an appearance in a much better Batman game.

Batman (the Video Game) is not much fun. Maybe if I would have played it in 1990 it would have been a different experience, but I’ve never really been into beat-em-ups, so probably not. Also, disappointingly, the music is pretty generic late-80’s action music. Nothing even remotely resembling any of that influential, definitive music created by Danny Elfman for the modern Batman era.

Next up is Batman Returns (the Video Game), obviously another movie tie-in. Batman Returns (the Video Game) was released on several platforms from 1991 to 1993. I chose to play the SNES version here, but I may visit some of the other versions in the future for reasons that will likely become obvious. The Sega Game Gear and Genesis versions were released first. The Genesis version is similar in gameplay to the Batman Genesis game, but does showcase better visuals and a more striking design that suits the movie. The Game Gear version does a good job of copying the Genesis graphics, but this version and the later-released Sega Master System version are simpler beat-em-ups. The SMS version also features more basic colors and graphics. The Game Gear/SMS version of the game share a plot and a branching storyline mechanic, allowing the player to choose an easier/harder path at a few chapter changes. They are fundamentally different games from the Genesis version. A Sega CD version was released in late 1993. For the most part it was identical to the Genesis version, although it did feature the addition of several driving levels that took advantage of the limited additional processing power the Sega CD could add. Of course, it also featured some beautiful 16-bit static original art that apes the look of the Batman Returns movie, and an actual, recorded CD score rather than digitally-generated music. An Atari Lynx version of the game was also published in 1992. It was a side-scrolling beat-em-up like most of the other games, but with a much more generic graphic design. However, the game has been praised for it’s visual and audio quality; but not so much its gameplay.

There was an NES version that echoed the look of the Batman (the Video Game) design, and an SNES version that may be the star of the show. Like the Sega CD release, the SNES version came out in 1993. Gameplay was very similar to Final Fight, an SNES mainstay that lent its design and mechanics to dozens of SNES titles. The game primarily uses a 2.5D side-scrolling brawler design, with side-scrolling 2D shooter levels interspersed.

While I may be able to slowly get into a Double Dragon-style beat-em-up, Final Fight games were never in my wheelhouse. But, despite my failure to complete the first level, I was super-impressed by the large, detailed sprites and the automatic combos Batman was capable of. The (poor) attempt at a cinematic opening was eye-catching if laughable. Unfortunately, for my younger readers, that “The Bat The Cat The Penguin” thing was…real. That was an actual advertising slogan for the movie. The colorful vibrancy of the game is also an obvious downside, as well; this *is* a Batman game, and one based on Batman Returns on top of that. It was *not* a colorful movie. Batman Returns was the most desaturated, shadowy and monotone Batman until the gamma-challenged Nolan franchise began.

There was also a DOS-based Batman Returns, and a subsequent controversial Amiga release. The Amiga version was *implied* by the publisher to be an Amiga port of the DOS game, even using screenshots from the DOS game to advertise the Amiga version. However, on release, the Amiga version turned out to be a side-scrolling beat-em-up reminiscent of a mix between the Lynx and Game Gear versions. The DOS game is a gorgeous action-adventure game rather than a beat-em-up, much more similar to more recent entries in Batman video game history. I’ve never played it, and I suspect I’m missing out. I think I’ll give both the Sega CD and the DOS versions a whirl in the future. And who knows, the gameplay of the SNES version was certainly fun enough until I couldn’t figure out how to stop getting shot. From what I can tell reading online, the secret is literally to make use of the 2.5D. Change planes, cross the screen, then drop down to attack at close quarters.

In 1992 Sunsoft was going to release a sequel to the Batman (the Video Game) title they had developed (the first Batman game we talked about.) Revenge of the Joker was, depending on who you ask, planned as an SNES title before that version was dropped and a version for the NES and Genesis called Return of the Joker was released instead. All three versions share the same storyline and general gameplay. The NES version is generally considered the superior version, and is actually considered one of the most graphically impressive titles ever released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The SNES version, which, obviously, is available for download, is considered a bit buggy with all sorts of difficult timing issues. Bizarrely, the Genesis version is actually thought to be the most difficult version to play, bordering on almost impossible.

I may try the NES version in the future just to compare, but I didn’t find the SNES version enjoyable at all. I had put my difficulties down to the games unfinished/unofficial state until I read up on it and found out about the notorious difficulty (in addition to the buggy weapons.)

The Adventures of Batman and Robin is a 1994/1995 game based on the second season of Batman: The Animated Series. The title was developed for the SNES by Konami, Genesis and Sega CD by Clockwork Tortoise, and the Game Gear by Novotrade. The Genesis version features side-scrolling beat-em-up and front-to-back dodging/shooting levels. The Sega CD is comprised of vehicle driving levels connected by animated cut scenes produced by Warner Brothers Animation. The Game Gear version is a simpler side-scrolling beat-em-up, and the SNES version is a bit more of an action-platformer, although it’s hard to draw a line dividing the SNES and Genesis gameplay. Most noteably, all versions use graphics in the style and colors of Batman: TAS. The SNES version takes the prize, though; with larger sprites and slightly more faithful colors.

This actually feels like a well-planned game with excellent, responsive controls. I will likely revisit this one in the future, although I was getting a bit tired by this point. Learning each game’s controls was wearing on me as well. Modern games seem to have settled into pretty consistent control decisions (except Nintendo, which insists on doing it backwards most of the time) but each of these Batman games used different buttons for attack, jump, and use. Oddly, even when some of the later games added the ability to remap controls, there were certain things that you couldn’t do. Like map “Jump” to Y/Triangle.

Batman Forever (the Video Game) is a 1995/1996 release developed by Acclaim, based on the third Burton-timeline Batman movie. Acclaim gained a lot of notoriety for using motion-capture-based sprites in Mortal Kombat, and they revisited the technique in Batman Forever. The graphics on the SNES, Genesis, Game Gear, and PC versions were praised, but not much else. While the SNES and Genesis versions were action-platformers similar to the previous game, the controls are generally considered complex and a bit buggy. The Game Gear and PC versions had noticeable input lag. Additionally, the Game Gear and Gameboy versions stripped out the puzzle solving, leaving basically a fighting game. In fact, as you can see from the footage below, the levels are tiny. Puzzle-solving must be interesting…I never figured out how to get past the first area. The fighting was unpleasant.

I can’t really recommend trying this game. In fact, for the most part, these are all Batman games that you’re only going to revisit out of extreme nostalgia. Or beyond-reasonable completionism. They’re not fun; only the Batman Returns releases and The Adventures of Batman and Robin promised anything like enjoyment. But next week we’re going to look at the 6th console generation, the point at which processor word-length stopped meaning anything (because anything past 64 bits is mostly pointless, for most things). There are five upcoming Batman games on retro systems we need to look at before we get to the nominally “modern” Batman games.

See you next week!


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19 thoughts on “8-16 bit Batman Games: The Road to Arkham

  1. PPX14 says:

    Ooh 6th gen next week

    1. Oh, yes! I’ve already captured footage from Batman Vengeance.

  2. Jaloopa says:

    I had Batman Returns on the SNES. In the days of limited budget and game choice (as the SNES wasn’t the current console when I had it so we were limited to what showed u in second hand shops), it ate up a lot of my time even though I didn’t have any real love of, or skill at, the side scrolling brawler genre.

    Am I getting confused with another game or did it have Batmobile driving sections too?

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      It did have them, but it’s far from the only Batman game that does.

    2. Oh yes, it does, as Dreadjaws already answered. I meant to talk about them, but my train-of-thought had moved on by the time I finished writing about the brawler levels, and I missed the oversight in proofreading. It’s these driving levels that makes me want to try the Sega CD version of the Batman games, as Sega considered front-scrolling racing games to be a specific strength of the Sega CD/Mega CD. And I vaguely remember a 32-bit racing game or two being among the handful of 32XCD titles…maybe Daytona USA?

  3. Dreadjaws says:

    I think The Adventures of Batman and Robin holds up quite well these days. Can’t say the same for the SEGA version, since its only real appeal are the cutscenes, with the gameplay being far more basic.

    The DOS game is a gorgeous action-adventure game rather than a beat-em-up, much more similar to more recent entries in Batman video game history.

    Considering the style of the gameplay and the 1-on-1 combat (plus how sparse it is) I’d say the DOS game has much more in common with Lucasarts old Indiana Jones graphic adventures (Last Crusade, Fate of Atlantis) than anything else. There’s a lot of detective work involved, which was kind of a first for a Batman game (even though it’s a major part of his character). I really enjoyed the game back then, but I don’t know how it’d hold up to today’s standards. Adventure games at the time used to have really obtuse puzzles and annoying design choices that have not aged well and only nostalgia can get you through them these days.

    1. You’re probably right. An awful lot of adventure games, especially of the point-and-click variety, are remembered fondly but don’t hold up well when revisited a few decades later. I must admit that, upon playing the King’s Quest and Space Quest collections, I tended to zip through the games quite quickly. Of course, when they came out, those CGA and EGA graphics were *STUNNING*, they were literally the selling point of most of these games…heck, of the entire GENRE. Although slightly more relevant, I was always a fan of the point-and-click adventure Noctropolis. Loved the atmosphere and writing, but it was a notoriously (not the worst) difficult example of “pixel hunt” gameplay, with almost all wrong clicks leading to death. I never actually finished it, despite having bought it two or three times by now (always cheap). Frustrating game. Like so many PC games, the box is the best part.

  4. Zaxares says:

    The 8-bit/16-bit era was a fascinating time for gaming. It was a time when we had two vastly different platforms in terms of computing power, but the 8-bit consoles were around for so long that developers had learned all the ins and outs and were able to make use of various programming tricks to squeeze out as much as they could out of the old machines. At the same time, because they had been around so long, they had a MASSIVE audience. The 16-bit consoles needed time to proliferate and gain market share, and so we had a situation where new games would actually come out sometimes on the 8-bit consoles despite the potential offered by the 16-bit ones. Past the early 90’s, I don’t think there has ever been another time where consoles of multiple generations were really seeing new (and sometimes exclusive) games being made for older gen consoles despite there being newer consoles out.

    1. I think the closest to this situation is the relatively underpowered offerings by Nintendo that (arguably, ARGUABLY) started with the N64. Nintendo, by corporate philosophy, designed “leaner” systems. This at times required games developers to come up with different versions of games that would run on the current Nintendo hardware offering. At other times, and I think we see this with the Wii U (although it was a topic of discussion with the Gamecube) Nintendo and some other developers had to figure out how to get “AAA” titles to work on the system to keep from losing market share. Nintendo-owned properites weren’t always enough to keep the systems competative.

    2. Syal says:

      The current generation has the most of that I would say. The PS5 came out three years ago, and this year Octopath Traveler 2 still released for the PS4.

      1. CSilvestri says:

        I feel like both the scarcity of new systems and the Switch existing are probably factors here. No point in making a game for just PS5/Xbox Series if it doesn’t really need to be and nobody has them. And, if they can get it on the Switch, surely the PS4 and Xbox One are no problem.

  5. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I couldn’t find the one I played as a kid on Amiga and some googling tells me it was Batman: The Movie.

    1. I missed the computer releases for that game. It seems very similar to the NES version of the game, with better visuals. Wikipedia says the game was well-received on the Commodore. I don’t actually remember either of the Batman game DOS releases, despite working in a Software, Etc. around this time.

  6. RoJ says:

    This is either a side note or a doctoral thesis, but I find it interesting what makes a game qualify as part of a ‘series’.
    I played these games when they came out in the 80’s-90’s and then the Arkham games as they came out (I am old, yes), but I never considered these as part of a series. Zelda and Final Fantasy games very firmly ARE, despite being effectively different universes (that all happen to have chickens of unusual powers).

    Is it just the numbering scheme?

    It might just be the numbering scheme.

    1. “Series” is definitely not an entirely accurate label for all Batman games. However, there are surprising conventions common to most of the various Batman titles. I’ll be talking about that next week!

    2. Syal says:

      Partially the numbering scheme, partially having the same developers. Stuff like Batman and Star Wars don’t usually have the same developers, they get rented out to different groups who make different things. Mario and Zelda for the Phillips CD-i isn’t usually considered part of their series because they were rented out to different developers. Less of a series, more of a franchise for that type.

      1. RoJ says:

        Franchise is another point along this same spectrum, good point. The batmens definitely were in a franchise together, like when you and your cousin-in-law buy a grubby dunkin donuts.

        Now we can more meaningfully argue that the best game in the Assassin’s Creed series was the one where they set it in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as part of the swords and boats genre.

  7. Soylent Dave says:

    Batman: The Caped Crusader is the best Batman game of its generation, fact.

    It came out only slightly before the Batman: The Movie tie-ins, which was a shame as it got all overshadowed by dark broody Tim Burton Batman.

    1. I filtered primarily for console games and missed this one, and it’s predecessor, Batman. I’ll see about trying them in am emulator on the Wii U! A fun retrogaming experiment.

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