Last week I looked at 8- and 16-bit Batman games. This week I’m going to cover 32-bit and the sixth console generation, which actually presents some titles worth revisiting for more reasons than just nostalgia. I also have a few revisions to make to last week’s post, and I’ll cover the latest video update from FoxMaster and his AI Lara ‘bot.
In ongoing news, FoxMaster has posted the fifth “Self-Aware Lara Croft” video. If anyone is just now reading about this, YouTuber and programmer FoxMaster is using fairly common game-playing “AI” routines to have a ‘bot play Tomb Raider 1 on the PC. Additionally, he has created several puzzle-solving methods to enable path-finding, door-opening, trap and enemy response, and a level of environmental and situational awareness. He has also added a “personality ‘bot” using ChatGPT, voice cloning, and Google searches that comments on the environment, game-play, and situations, from the point of view of “being” the Lara Croft character. That is, the conceit is “Lara Croft playing Tomb Raider 1.” This personality layer creates a compelling “appearance” of Artificial Intelligence, although FoxMaster himself regularly points out that this really is just appearance; there is no AI. This accesses an ongoing debate on the nature of AI; but from a programming standpoint, I’m fascinated by the actual functioning of the game-playing, puzzle solving, and personality scripts. I first wrote about this two articles ago, if you want the full story. Here is the latest video:
Just like last week, here are my observations:
- The video starts with “I’ve assimilated new information…” and also shortly thereafter includes a plot summary of the game as it pertains to the current level. This implies to me that the Lara ‘bot’s ChatGPT prompt was updated to look up some form of “level summary” when entering an area. FoxMaster has made no mention of having the Lara ‘bot “watch” the cinematic cut-scenes, while he has already described the method by which the ‘bot can “learn” from a Google search or lookup table. This information clearly stays in long-term memory. When Pierre appears after she completes the first encounter, Lara ‘bot tries to approach him and talk to him first, asking if he is Mr. DuPont. When he appears the second time, she recalls his behavior in the first fight.
- Early on we see the Personality ‘bot commenting on things in terms of game-play and game design. This could be a coincidence in the footage captured, a choice by FoxMaster in what to include, or a natural consequence of each level of the game becoming increasingly arbitrary and gamified.
- Another example of the personality ‘bot commenting on audio cues. I find it incredibly satisfying that Lara ‘bot mimics certain musical cues. Previously, IIRC, she mimicked one of the “discovery” sounds with “doo-doo-doo” and now we get Lara ‘bot repeating the “DUM DUM” bass cue when threatened by the gorillas. Of course, this also leads to Lara commenting that she wouldn’t have survived the encounter if the music hadn’t warned her she was about to be attacked. Don’t think on that concept too hard, you’ll get into an inception loop.
- FoxMaster, I suspect intentionally, left in a few flashes of the high-contrast texture analysis the ‘bot’s “vision” uses for path-finding and perception. This one is in color; I wonder what information the color screen discloses that the earlier black & white images didn’t.
- Two situations are shown that earlier versions of the Lara ‘bot couldn’t solve: having to use the slide, which the ‘bot would have identified as an unsafe route, and Thor’s Hammer. FoxMaster directly commented a few weeks ago that the Lara ‘bot couldn’t solve the Hammer puzzle; the ‘bot never attempted the solution to stay on the button until the last second before dodging. This time the ‘bot tries a few solutions before coming across the actual solution. FoxMaster didn’t previously mention the lightning room, but I wonder how much time and effort it took to get the ‘bot to decide just running through the room was the acceptable solution.
- Also of note in the Hammer room is the ‘bot’s repeated attempts to jump onto the hammer, beyond what a player probably would. The jumps onto the handle are a bit more understandable, but it seems clear that the jumps toward the head of the hammer aren’t even coming close. However, the ‘bot’s “vision” shows there is a texture edge in the right place (the vertical side of the hammer) and it seems the ‘bot can’t work out that the angled texture connecting to it to form the back end of the head implies it’s not a “grip-able” surface. This shows that the ‘bot is grabbing a “concept,” the edge of the vertical texture; not the surface that would need to be perpendicularly “attached” to the edge. Rather cheeky for Lara ‘bot to call out the devs for a design flaw, though admittedly she would probably be right more often than not.
- I find it interesting that the ‘bot was able to “read” Damocles and Atlas, but not Thor or Neptune, at least initially. One of several potential signs that the ‘bot could have been upgraded significantly from the start of the video to the end.
- Lara ‘bot’s response to the “stupid invisible wall” was priceless. That’s a gamer for sure.
- Several more examples of the personality’s comments being fed back into the personality’s situational analysis. “One less bat to worry about. Two less bats to worry about.”
- The Lara ‘bot is able to ignore an identified threat that isn’t an immediate danger toward the end of the level. Lara also has learned to take shortcuts, jumping across a gap instead of walking around.
- The personality ‘bot puns constantly, recites poetry, and even puns two lines of a song “I believe I can dive” based on (I would guess) “I believe I can fly.” I’ve heard punning is a ChatGPT thing.
- The long-term memory recall is interesting. When Lara ‘bot “recalls” where the room with the key-slots is, she remembers it based on “when” it happened, not according to “where” she was in relation to that room. I would really like to know how this routine works.
Check out FoxMaster’s work, if you haven’t yet. Plus, I highly recommend replaying the original Tomb Raider with all modern HD upgrades and patches. It’s not a hard process, and makes the game a pure joy to play. I haven’t made up my mind whether to play the PC HD version, the PlayStation version, or the Saturn version when I revisit the Tomb Raider games. I’ve got all three.
Back to Batman. While I covered probably the most-played 8- and 16-bit games last week, I certainly didn’t do all of them. Some readers pointed out a couple of games that I had missed entirely, like the early home computer games Batman and Batman: The Caped Crusader. From what I can tell, the Amiga and Atari ST versions of the second game are both quite good. The first game was made for earlier computers, and appears to only feature 4-color graphics. I was unfamiliar with both games. I do, however, have the Sega CD versions of Batman Returns and The Adventures of Batman & Robin.
Batman Returns for the Sega CD adds more vehicular levels, in addition to having the Genesis beat-em-up levels. The Sega CD specialized in this rail-shooter type of video game. Gameplay is enjoyable enough, but don’t question why motorcycles can ram the Batmobile. And that the second type of enemy is apparently “White Ford Bronco.” The driving segments feel like they were lifted out of another game and graphic-swapped, honestly. The beat-em-up levels are, best I can tell, identical to the Genesis version of the game.
The Sega CD version of The Adventures of Batman & Robin, to the contrary, has none of the action/adventure or beat-em-up elements of other versions of the game. It is only a rail-shooter/vehicular combat game. The graphics are reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series, and the music is much better than in Batman Returns. The most desirable part of the game are the animated sequences that play between levels. They were created by Warner Brothers Animation and are generally considered a “lost episode” or “extra” episode of The Animated Series. The first few stages of the first level seem to feature Batman dealing with rush-hour traffic, but soon enough you’ll be dodging giant, homing, pumpkin monsters trying to eat the Batmobile. At least, that’s what they look like to me.
I found both of these games to be more enjoyable than most of the console Batman games released so far. As you may recall, I could only really recommend the Super Nintendo version of Batman Returns, a Final Fight-style brawler; and The Adventures of Batman & Robin, mainly because it had the best controls of any of the early Batman games and had captured the visual style of The Animated Series. Batman Forever was a major letdown, feeling like a platformer/beat-em-up derivative of Acclaim’s Mortal Kombat.
Likewise, the Acclaim-developed follow-up, Batman & Robin, bombed when it was released for the Sony PlayStation in 1998. Footage from this game is from the Wii U PlayStation emulator, WiiStation. Capturing game footage from a PS3 requires a splitter/multiplexer/selector that “doesn’t” pass through the HDCP copy protection on the HDMI connection. I had a splitter that would do that, but I hadn’t used it in a while, and it wouldn’t power up when I went to capture footage from the PS3. The emulation for this game is pretty decent, although you will note a particular music loop gets stuck for most of the video. I’ve watched someone playing the game upscaled on an emulator for better graphics, but the default game doesn’t hold up, visually. PlayStation games featured two different designs of 3D objects: 3D constructs based on triangles, and what generally looked look oozing stacks of pixels approximating the movements of a sprite. I mean, it’s the same hardware doing the same things; those triangles are still there; the problem is how complex you try to make the textures. Like I said, I’ve watched the “Classics” version of the game being played at 720p, and it looks 10 times better than the original default game.
Gameplay is, well, it’s Grand Theft Auto III three years before that game debuted on the PS2. You jump in the Batmobile, drive to where your mission instructions tell you, then get out and fight your way through a mission area in a 3D environment. Unfortunately, since you’re doing GTA3 on a PlayStation, the game generally feels slow. The controls aren’t responsive. The graphics were certainly praised at the time, and if you look at online comments there is a lot of praise for this game by people who played it when they were 7 – 10 years old. But overall, level design and controls were pretty universally panned. This game seems to be considered one of the worst Batman video games. The biggest sin, to me, is that it’s just not that interesting. The game uses designs straight out of the movie, and poorly-encoded quotes by Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy play over the menus. Ostensibly, you can play the game as Batman, Robin, or Batgirl, but the choice never came up when starting the game. I didn’t go looking for it in options; the second and third characters may be unlockable, I don’t know. I feel bad for not giving this game more time, but it’s just not comfortable to play. It’s feels like playing a flight sim made for a 486 PC on a 386 SX. If you know, you know.
More than any of the other games, these last two efforts by Acclaim most resemble the archetypal “movie tie-in” game. Make it *look* as much like the movie as possible, and nothing else matters. This last game was technically a platform exclusive, but older readers will remember there was a period of time where the PlayStation stood alone, at least at the cutting edge. All of the competition was either still coming or was already considered to be on the way out.
It wasn’t until the big three of the 6th Generation were established that we got another Batman game. The same year Grand Theft Auto III was released, Batman Vengeance, a 3D action title released on the Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, and PC was published. Based on the third season of Batman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, Vengeance does a great job presenting the animated art style, and features almost all of the voice actors from the animated series. The big problem with the game is poor controls and poor camera. Batman moves at two speeds: full sprint and drugged. The line between the two is VERY close to dead stick. Despite being designed for a controller with analogue input, Batman turns in large, sudden jerks that feel more like an 8-direction d-pad than an analogue stick. Graphics design fails *only* in comparison to what is accomplished over the next few years on the same consoles. Batman Vengeance received largely moderate reviews, the poor controls and short play length (the clip above is actually something like 1/7, 1/8th of the game!) cited as reasons. It’s worth seeking out and playing, at least for completionist purposes. The problems with the game aren’t so overwhelming you’ll wish you had avoided it.
In 2003, Batman: Dark Tomorrow was released on the Xbox and GameCube by Kemco. Don’t remember Kemco? They’re best known for Kid Klown and doing the Top Gear-based games. Batman: Dark Tomorrow is considered a contender for being the worst Batman video game ever, mainly for extremely finicky, die-if-your-timing-is-off-by-a-millisecond controls and a Resident Evil-style point-at-the-action-not-where-you’re-about-to-jump camera. I’ll be honest, my first few tries with the game reinforced that reputation, but I watched a few videos of other people playing and tried it a few more times. In the end, I think this game actually has a lot to offer.
Dark Tomorrow, unlike all other Batman games released since the early days of electronic gaming, IS NOT based on a movie or TV Series. Dark Tomorrow draws on the 90’s era comics, featuring Tim Drake as Robin, Barbara Gordon as Oracle, and Cassandra Cain as Batgirl. Visuals still seem at least touched by the animated series, as well as some lines of dialogue. This game, and another 6th generation entry, Batman Begins, can be seen as proto-Arhkam Asylums. Dark Tomorrow, for the most part, shows you how NOT to do all the various features of the Arkham games. Yet, despite its reputation, the game is playable, and IMO manages to fit into that niche of being rewarding when you get it right. I’ll be returning to the game to finish it soon. The GameCube version features more “collectible” content than the other versions, if my information is correct.
Batman: Rise of Sin Tsu was released only 7 months later, still in 2003, and thus almost certainly wasn’t a response to the poor reputation of Batman: Dark Tomorrow. But boy, is it completely different.
The game is a 3D beat-em-up that returns to The New Batman Adventures setting. For the first time since 1998, you can play as a character other than Batman: Dick Grayson’s Nightwing, Tim Drake’s Robin, and Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl are all playable from the beginning. Batman and Nightwing play heavier, tanky characters; Robin and Batgirl are faster and rely more on speed and dodging. Cut-scenes will still feature only Batman. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that this game is FUN. You can jump right in and have a blast without having to learn controls or combos. From everything I’ve seen learning them will, much like in Arkham Asylum, only increase your fun as you get more comfortable with the game. Button-mashing works perfectly well when you start out. Voice acting, once again, is provided mostly by the original cast. I can’t recommend this game enough. I had a blast playing it and intend to finish it.
The final game of the 6th console generation is the only console game; and one of only TWO licensed video games released, based on the Christopher Nolan Batman film trilogy. 2005’s Batman Begins is the only survivor…planned stealth/action games based on The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were both cancelled. Both of those games would have been 7th Generation games, but the 6th Generation Batman Begins is probably a good model for what we would have seen.
The graphics are excellent for 6th Gen hardware; not so extreme on the Xbox or PS2 but very impressive for the GameCube. The controls are decent enough and you have access to the kinds of tools and actions that will soon appear in the Arkham games. There are three major differences, all of them problematic to a degree. The camera is better than the previous games, mainly in that you have some control over it; but it shifts to an omniscient POV of Batman more often than in Arkham Asylum. Each time it does, your ability to put yourself in Batman’s boots is diminished. This is one of the most praise-worthy aspects of the Arkham games…the fact that you FEEL like you’re Batman. The second major problem is the inferior level design and game prompts. Again, an improvement from previous Batman games that tried to approach this level of interaction and complexity, but a failing compared to the excellent game design of Arkham Asylum. Third, one of the major gameplay elements is supposed to be “fear.” You may pick up on this as Christian Bale’s Batman goes on and on and on about using fear as his weapon. You’re supposed to be able to use elements in the environment, do certain things in the right order, to increase “fear” in your enemies, which will make the fights “easier.” There’s also an interrogation mechanic tied into this. This is NEAT, but it also feels rather pointless and needlessly complex.
I don’t want to learn HOW to BE Batman, I just want to swing down from the rafters, silence a henchman, vault onto his buddy and take him out in one punch, then disappear into the shadows while Joker screams at his henchman for disappearing and people start yelling “It’s the Batman! Where is he? Where did he go?”
Speaking of which…
See you next week!
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Video Compression Gone Wrong
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Punishing The Internet for Sharing
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A wild game filled with wild ideas that features fun puzzles and mind-blowing environments. It has a great atmosphere, and one REALLY annoying flaw with its gameplay.