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Monday, December 12, 2016

Replaying SEGA's Batman: Revenge of the Joker (1992)

This article was primarily inspired by my buddy Shaun Robinson, who had fond memories of playing an 8-bit console game in which the Batman battled Killer Moth. I had no clue which game he was talking about and, using our collective retro-nostalgia skills, determined he was referring to the Batman: Revenge of the Joker SEGA Genesis game released by Sunsoft in 1992. Shaun grew up a SEGA kid (as opposed to a NINTENDO kid, which is a story in itself). I just HAD to track this game down, having completely missed it the first time around.

Similar to my last video game review, I'll be reviewing this more as a DC comics fan first, and an aficionado of retro video games second. My main drive for this review is to determine if Killer Moth actually does show up in this game. It would be pretty rad if he does.

Batman: Return of the Joker is the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) successor to Sunsoft's Batman: The Video Game NES console game released in 1990. Batman: Revenge of the Joker, which is what we'll be reviewing in this article, is the 1992 SEGA Genesis remake of the Batman: Return of the Joker console game for the NES. So... two different games: 'Return of...' and 'Revenge of...'. We'll be reviewing the latter.

If you were old enough to remember 1989's Batmania, then you're probably going to remember seeing this ad in select video game magazines sometime around 1992:


At a glance, the art in this ad tells me that this game is based on the comic book - Batman is wearing his blue & grey costume (whereas if this had been a game based on the movie, he would've been wearing an all-black costume). Note how the ad doesn't have any screenshots of the game or tell you what type of game it is (ex: fighting game, shoot-em up, strategy, platform, etc). All we can presume is that at some point in the game we will be fighting Joker and, since this game is on a 16-bit system, it will feature better graphics than an 8-bit console game (i.e. NES).

The protective case for the game itself is pretty ubiquitous... it really doesn't give you any new info we didn't learn from the ad - except that it's meant for 1 player.

source: zonesega.com

The back cover of the case gives us another view of the Joker and Batman going at it. Who illustrated the cover and back cover? I wish I knew. Instinctively, I want to say Norm Breyfogle, since he was the MAIN Batman comic book artist around this time period, however... I've been known to be terrible at identifying comic book art - so don't take my word on it. The Joker fighting Batman while wielding a giant mallet was not an uncommon sight to Canadian kids growing up in the 80s. A very popular lunch box around this era had a very similar design:

image source: www.terapeak.com
This image was inspired by the Kenner Super Powers Collection action figure toyline (notice Joker's mallet has his face on it? Exactly like the toy!) and was most likely illustrated by José Luis García-López (since I *believe* he was illustrating all of the official artwork for the Super Power Collection merchandising).

If you want to read the play-by-play and my experiences playing the game, keep reading. Otherwise jump to the overall review of this SEGA game.

One of my favorite complaints from the early 90s NES and SEGA era is "The art on the case of the game led me to believe that the in-game graphics would be much better than they actually turned out to be." I'd say that complaint is justified when you boot up the game:

Not shown (because these aren't animated gifs), the purple sky background moved independently and quicker than the foreground, alluding you to think that this game was going to be using some high-end graphics.

That was our opening: First an image of Joker, crouching on the sidewalk (with Batman in the far distance), and then a shot of Batman looking at the Bat signal. That's it. No context as to what's going on. Did Joker bend over to pick up a dime and this alerted Batman? Hence, the mystery. But really, who cares? This was 1992 and it's not like we had a glut of Batman video games to choose from [, yet]. We'll take any excuse to fight the Joker.


The opening sequence music is 90s chiptune at it's best. This game has quite a few memorable beats which helps you get into the spirit of the game (and shows just how hard the developers were trying to work with what they had). You can listen to the ENTIRE game soundtrack thanks to Classic Vgm Soundtracks' YouTube channel.

When you start a new game, this screen appears:


Prior to this game review, I've never heard of Ringler Studios. A quick internet search tells me that they've developed Mario Lemieux Hockey (SEGA), ESPN Sunday Night NFL (SEGA, SEGA CD, SNES), Super Slap Shot (SNES) and ClayFighter (SEGA). I wasn't much into sports games, but ClayFighter I *do* remember. ClayFighter was released in 1993 for the SNES (and one year later for the SEGA Genesis) when interest in console fighting games (i.e. Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Fatal Fury, etc) was at an all-time high. ClayFighter was promoted as a 'kid-friendly' game that still delivered intense action without the bloodshed and gore. I remember playing the SNES version at a friends' house or two - this was always a 'weekend rental', I don't remember anyone ever having purchased this game for their own private collection. ClayFighter did relatively well on the SNES console market, and the SEGA port was hailed as almost identical to the SNES version. Let's see if Ringler Studios can deliver on this Batman game.


Starting with level 1-1, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this game didn't look terrible. Having seen no screenshots whatsoever of this game prior to playing, I really had no clue what to expect. The colors are nice and bright, and Batman and his enemies are easy to distinguish from the background.

Again, you can't see this because these aren't animated gifs, but the light blue strip at the top of the screen moves quicker and independently from the rest of the action on the screen, so it gives it an interesting visual effect.


The game begins with Batman on a rooftop (familiar territory to most Batman video games) as he works his way across the level taking out thugs. In this game, Batman has a wrist-mounted blaster and you have the option of changing the type of projectiles he fires [boomerang shot, spread shot, etc] every time he destroys a crate. In this way, this game sort of reminds me of Konami's Contra for the NES (1987). It's not long before Batman is dodging booby-trapped corridors, battling sentient gargoyles and jumping up platforms - and suddenly I'm reminded of Konami's Castlevania for the NES (1986).



About mid-way through level 1-1 I hit a snag, and it took me some time to figure out how to get past "the row of sentient gargoyles that are too high to jump over and seem to be impervious to blaster fire". Thankfully, the SEGA controller only has three buttons (jump, shoot, kick) and a directional pad, so you know the solution will either involve a) jumping, b) shooting, c) kicking or d) a combination of a, b and/or c. [Hint: depending on your health meter, mashing all three buttons can activate 'invincible' mode.]


So far, I'm not seeing anything that would lead me to believe that this is based on a Batman comic. I don't remember Batman battling any living gargoyles, unless the Spectre was somehow involved. Let's also not forget that Batman is against guns, so him using a wrist-mounted blaster to take out thugs is a little out-of-character for him. More on that later. But... I'm willing to overlook all of this if we can start fighting some comic book-themed villains.

Level 1-2 has Batman on a rooftop, again, but this time there's a blimp in the background lobbing rockets at him as he traverses the level shooting thugs. I really didn't expect this coming. At this point, I've forgotten about my search for comic accuracy and am thinking this game is quite entertaining.



The level ends with Batman (possibly) shaking his fist at the ominous blimp that was reigning napalm on his the entire level.




Level 1-3 - our first boss battle! I was hoping this was coming soon. So... who do we have here?



Hmmm... they seem to have omitted his name. The only villain I immediately thought of when I saw this guy was Agent Orange - a disgruntled Vietnam vet who fought Batman and the Outsiders in issue #3 of the comic of the same name back in 1983,..


...but upon further inspection, it's looking less and less like him. The drones he keeps calling to attack me really leads me to believe I don't know who this is. Blimp man? Crash Man from Capcom's Mega Man?


Seriously, though. Who is this?
It doesn't matter. I'm not going to bore you with the details of my victory (a lot of sliding and shooting), but once the boss has been defeated, you are rewarded with this cut scene:




Level 2-1 has Batman fighting thugs in an industrial warehouse. Not bad. Pretty accurate to a Batman game - especially if he's fighting the Joker (who also seems to have a plot involving chemicals or something).



Level 2-2 gets a little nuts as Batman is now flying with a jet pack on a side-scrolling shoot 'em up stage. While this game MAY not be comic accurate, I AM wildly entertained. [Besides, I'm sure Batman has used a jet pack at some point in the comics.]



Surprisingly, there is NO level 2-3 or final boss for level 2, and level 2-2 concludes with another congratulatory cut scene:



Level 3-1 now finds you on snow-covered terrain. This initially got me excited, thinking that if there was ever a level for Mr Freeze to appear, this would be it. This level was more difficult than the previous ones, as we're starting to see slippery terrain and booby traps that are really difficult to evade (i.e. random bolts that shoot out at you with no warning) - it's just a matter of memorizing where the traps are triggered and dodging them. Thankfully, dying only sends you back to the beginning of the level, and not the beginning of the game.




Level 3-2 was the longest level yet. My hopes of a Mr Freeze appearance were dashed when the locale was now moved to a cave. The hardest part about this stage is that there's not much room to navigate and you have to jump off and on conveyor belts while getting shot at by thugs and avoiding falling stalactites.



Just when you think the level's over, there's even more to go... like the chamber of ceiling spikes that descend on you:


I've said it before, and I'll say it again - up to now this game has been very challenging and enjoyable. It requires a lot of maneuverability on Batman's part (with all the dodging, ducking and weaving), but is quite satisfying to play,


Level 3-3 - alright - our second boss battle! I'm genuinely excited. Can you tell? Who have we got here?...

Okay. I have no clue who this is supposed to be, but whoever it is, Batman looks damn near repulsed. The first Bat-villain I thought of was The Squid (wearing some sort of power suit) - but that seemed like a long shot considering The Squid never wore a costume:

Batman v1 #357 (1983) - The Squid: a vewy vewy dangewous man. 

When the boss battle actually starts, we're getting a very Mega Man-esque opponent (aesthetically speaking). Notice the build? Huge shoulders with spikes on them, an exaggerated torso with tiny legs, and a helmet with a diagonal line on it. Actually, this whole battle is very Mega Man-esque and involves a lot of jumping, sliding and shooting. Unlike Mega Man, you DON'T have the option of switching to a weapon that will exploit the enemy's vulnerability. Whoever this was supposed to be, this boss was damn near impossible to defeat. Your shots barely hurt the boss, while his bullets take a HUGE chunk out of your health. As you can see, there isn't much room to navigate and dodge his attacks (which seem to take up most of the screen).



Tell me this doesn't look like a Mega Man villain...

After an incredibly grueling fight (and sore thumbs), you are treated to this cut scene:




Level 4-1 has Batman fighting villains on the top of a train. The screen moves, and if you somehow get stuck in a trap as Batman is moved off the screen, Batman gets KO'd.  Batman fighting thugs on a speeding train fits right in with Batman's MO... so this works for me. I'm not going to lie: the levels are getting more challenging - I must've jumped and landed between boxcars (and landing to my death) at least two dozen times before completing this level.


Level 4-2 is in an industrial area of some sort, and it involves conveyor belts, elevators and things shooting at you. It was a tricky level and took me quite a few dozen tries to complete it in one piece. A lot of it relies on memorizing where the 'surprise' villains pop out and trying to trigger the trap without being in the direct line of fire. I'm also learning that kicking (and slide kicking) is a stronger attack than shooting at enemies.



Level 4-3.. boss battle!


Okay. I give up. Even if I were to stretch my imagination to it's limit I'd still have no clue who this is supposed to be in the DCU. The Idol-Head of Diabolu? Dzamor (that mystic thing that gave Enchantress her powers)? I've pretty much given up on the hope of this game actually being based on the Batman comic book, and have abandoned all hope of seeing Killer Moth by this point. Yet, I just can't stop playing.



House of Mystery v1 #144 (1964) - Idol-Head of Diabolu

Strange Adventures v1 #187 (1966) - Dhzamor
These boss battles are getting more and more difficult. Once you've overcome this... Aztec Idol-Head, you are rewarded with a congratulatory cut scene that is the same as level 1's [seen above]. That's a bit of a let down. I was figuring after battling something like this, the least they could do was grant me the privilege of viewing a new cut scene. This review is about 2 weeks later than it should be because this Aztec Idol-Head boss took many many MANY tries to finally beat (due to little careless errors on my behalf).


Level 5-1 has you fighting your way through a sewer. If I was hopelessly naive, I'd be half expecting Killer Croc to appear in this level. By this point in the game, I don't think we'll be seeing any DCU-related villains unless it's the Joker. This level requires a lot of skillful jumping and dodging, as enemies pop-out EVERYWHERE.



Level 5-2 is another side-scrolling jet-pack level. So far, the jet-pack levels seem to be the easiest and simply involves a bit maneuvering to avoid enemies and flying obstacles.


Level 5-2 ends with the same end-level cut-scene as Level 2. I'm a little irked that they are re-using previous cut-scenes. I've actually been looking forward to seeing these. Nothing says 'good work' like a pixelated image of Batman posing in a triumphant matter. I'm not even being sarcastic.


Level 6-1 is frustratingly difficult. Enemies are firing weapons at a more rapid rate and jumping around. There are some traps/obstacles that make it impossible NOT to take damage. IF you make it past the onslaught of enemies and the force fields, you need to leap from drop-away platform to drop-away platform.



Level 6-2: This level caught me by surprise. I'm sure there was a really cool 16-bit effects happening on this level, but I was too busy trying to stay alive to notice. Lots of things going on onscreen - there's a fall-away floor, grenades being lobbed at you from a rolling tank and mines that are falling from the ceiling. This is one of those levels where you NEED to keep moving or else you'll die. You just need to stay alive long enough to make it to the end of the level, which feels like an eternity.




Level 6-3: Alright - the main event! Batman vs Joker! Up to this point, this has been the most comic accurate character representation in the game.



In this very long boss battle, the Joker floats around on a platform shooting bubbles at you. Thankfully, you have lots of room to maneuver around his aircraft and take the occasional shot at him. He's not impossible to defeat - but it's going to involve plenty of jumping and kicking, sliding, and shooting upwards. There was a mixture of relief and disappointment when I finally beat the Joker. Relief that this long battle was over, but a bit of disappointment that this was the last boss and that the game was over - and this wasn't nearly the most difficult boss battle. I mean, I've just defeated the head-lining villain - the game's over right?

The level ends with the same cut-scene as level 3. No unique end of game cut-scene? Interesting.

To my surprise, there's a Level 7. Just when I though I'd beaten the final boss of the game, there's another level.

Level 7-1 starts in a jungle (again with the Aztec theme) and somehow ends in a futuristic cave. There's a lot of build-up here, and... oh boy... is the last part of this level ever tricky. Timing your jumps from moving platform to moving platform (without hitting spikes) takes several tries and will involve quite a bit of trial-and-error. Prepare to redo the first part of this level quite a quite a few times.



Level 7-2 - We battle the Joker...again...



Or is it?



What the hell is this thing? The green-and-purple color scheme says Brainiac (which would be pretty cool, admittedly), but the face [?] says Predator:

Predator. Image source: http://avp.wikia.com/


After some fierce dodging, jumping and shooting, the Joker is once again revealed:



This was a really LONG boss fight and take a really REALLY long time and many MANY tires to complete. In short, it felt like what a final boss should feel like. Defeating the Joker in his cyber battle suit armor [?] resulted in an animated cut-scene of an island blowing up and Batman flying away on his jet-pack. I was a little sick of this game by this point, as I'd felt I had sunk many hours into a Batman game that yielded no Killer Moth (or any other Batman villains besides Joker) - which was the main motivation behind this review.


---

Batman: Revenge of the Joker was only released in the United States (and by extension, Canada, I'm assuming). As previously mentioned, the NES and Nintendo Game Boy versions go by the name of Batman: Return of the Joker. The Japanese version, released as Dynamite Batman for the Famicom system, was released in 1991 (same release date as the NES version, I believe). So, a short chronology would go:

Dynamite Batman & Batman: Return of the Joker (Famicom, NES) - Dec 1991
Batman: Return of the Joker (Game Boy) - May 1992
Batman: Revenge of the Joker (SEGA Genesis) - 1992

A noticeable difference between the NES version and this SEGA remake is that the NES version contains a lot of blacks, oranges, reds and greys in its color palette, while the SEGA version is noticeable brighter with a different array of colors and more detail. Between the two, I'd say the SEGA version looks a lot better. Batman is slightly larger in the SEGA version. He takes up more of the screen [at the expense of screen real estate to navigate in], thus making it a bit more difficult to battle bosses in close quarters and etc.

screenshot from Batman Return of the Joker NES. source: http://www.mobygames.com/
NES vs SEGA screenshots

Both the NES and SEGA versions of the game have that 'independently moving background effect' that leads you to believe these games were operating beyond their 8-bit weight class - they actually had some of the nicer graphics of all the other NES and SEGA games out there available on the market at the time.

An interview with Dave Siller (VP of Product Development for Sunsoft during the early 90s) revealed that Famicom's Dynamite Batman was meant to showcase the new Sun FME-7 chip developed by Sunsoft: 
"That game, "Dynamite Batman" started off as a "tech demo" for the new Sun FME-7 chip, which enabled larger characters made from more and better sprite manipulation. An upgrade so to speak from the then standard "Castlevania" type/sized character which was most common in that era for serious action games. Apparently the dev-team in Nagoya, Konan City more specifically, built a demo with a larger character with some action techniques and some horizontal flying capabilities. The US marketing people of course wanted to tie-in a license and since Sunsoft was already in the Warner Bros. fold, it got finished off as a Neo-Batman games with Dark Knight tendencies." (Famicom World forum, 2014)
Here's more info from Dave Siller about the Sunsoft FME-7 chip (if you're into that sort of thing):

"Essentially, the FME chips enabled a great color palette choice and didn't require complex solutions to add more colors. Better sound was also achieved by adding a music synthesizer that played through the fewer channels allocated by the famicom's original audio channel architecture."
"There was a new third generation stable of Famicom/NES games that would have been killer if they would have seen the light of day. Unfortunately, the Genesis and later the SNES killed that development. It always seems that once developers get a good handle on producing greater software, the hardware changes and it's an all new ball game."
"I did not have NES/Famicom development started in the US, as we worked with Sunsoft Japan on development. That was also because Sunsoft was now using a line of enhancement chips known as FME 5a, 5b and 7. They did not want to orientate us in the US regarding their tools. It was agreed that we would design and plan and then let Japan develop. The third generation of NES/Famicom were going to be killers! I kid you not!"
"The reason that Konami and Sunsoft pursued enhanced chips was because the Famicom needed the help. Of course more color palettes and better sound were the natural extensions as well as greater sprite manipulation. It was not possible to add channels to the famicom, but having a better "Yamaha" style synthesizer was. It was inevitable that newer hardware would eventually come and take over the marketplace. It would not have evolved much further than that, but we can only speculate."
...and there you have it. This game was originally planned as a demo and was re-cast as a Batman game. This explains why there are nearly NO comic accurate elements in this game.

From the same interview, Dave Siller tells us why Batman had a gun in this game:
"We were able to convince WB to allow Batman to have a weapon in "Dynamite Batman", also known as "Return of the Joker". Batman was at that time entering a creative phase where he would be older and known as the Dark Knight. It was imagined that Batman would then resort to the use of weapons as criminal elements were getting armed more heavily themselves. It was always a fight when dealing with "licenses", something that frustrated both Japan R&D and myself, but that was the direction that we were heading due to the zealous nature of Sunsoft of America's marketing director." (Famicom World forum, 2014)
So, they tried to justify Batman shooting thugs by sliding it into the Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns cannon? That's interesting. All things considered, I feel sorry for the people who bought this back in 1992 thinking they were getting a Batman game. Noticeably absent was Batman's ability to generate a 'swing line' or an ability to throw gas pellets at villains.

And what of all that unique chiptune music? Why didn't they go with a chiptune version of the Danny Elfman film score? Dave Siller replied:
"I simply don't know as I was not there at that time. I would suppose that the original Batman theme would require an additional license that would make the costs unacceptable unless it was a HOT seller beyond what was possible."

Other notable differences between the NES version and the SEGA version is that the NES version had a two-button controller function, so your only option with Batman was to jump and/or shoot. The option to kick and slide in the SEGA version most likely gave the designers the justification to make it more difficult than the NES version.

The 1989 Batmobile and 1989 Batwing do appear in the NES version, but only in cut-scenes and not as playable vehicles. Additionally, if we're to believe the Angry Video Game Nerd (and really, why shouldn't we?), the NES version had hit detection issues that would send Batman reeling backwards every time he was hit. This is somewhat corrected in the SEGA version.

What's the replay value on this?


This is NOT an easy game. There is no option to select the difficulty mode. It's an unrelenting and unforgiving game. For a careful player, there's a lot to take in. As you progress throughout the game, the levels have more enemies 'pop up', more booby traps and more moving platforms - it progressively gets more difficult. A game that is sometimes so difficult, that you'll just say to 'hell with it' and try to speed your way through the level trying to take as little casualties as possible.

Based on this, if you're going to play this game, ensure that you have a responsive controller. If your control pad sticks because at some point you spilled a soft drink on it when you were younger [face it, we've all done it], then you will not be able to navigate any of these levels very well. You're going to need to be able to leap, slide, dodge, shoot and duck with precision.

Dying sends you back to the beginning of the level. Thank God for the unlimited continues and the Password system. (Pausing the game gives you a code that you can input when you boot up the game to take you to the level you left off at.)



The levels are short, but fierce. It feels rewarding to complete a series of levels and see a cut-scene. If you can overlook that this isn't *really* a Batman game, and just a guy who looks like Batman fighting Mega Man look-a-like villains, you'd probably enjoy this. The short, challenging levels make this perfect as a time-waster while you're waiting for a phone call or whatever. (To be totally honest, if this wasn't a Batman-themed game, I would've quit after Level 4.)


-Justin


I couldn't have completed this article (especially all that cool stuff about Sunsoft's FME-7 chip) without Rob Strangman's wonderful book, Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman. If you're into the history of gaming, I'd recommend you check it out.

2 comments:

  1. I almost forgot about the Squid in Batman #357. He reminded me of a cross between Elmer Fudd and Kim Jong IL for some reason.

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  2. Awesome article Justin. Makes me wish I played this game back in the day also. Another fun one was BATMAN: The Video Game. Loosely based on the 1989 film. It had KgBeast, Killer Moth & Firebug ( Awesome line up ). Still vexing me to this day about said game tho is why was Batman Purple? lol

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