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Friday, December 30, 2016

Reviewing the 1988 Hawk & Dove mini-series

The mini-series (aka 'limited series') was an excellent method for DC comics to test if there was enough interest in a character/team before deciding to commit to a monthly ongoing series. In an attempt to re-introduce an older title to a modern audience, DC published the five-issue Hawk & Dove mini-series in 1988. Hawk and Dove wasn't a totally new concept — most Teen Titans readers would've been familiar with Hawk as he had appeared in several Teen Titans stories in the last few years [New Teen Titans v2 #19 - #21, #24 and Teen Titans Spotlight #7 - #8] as a solo act.

Karl Kesel and Barbara Kesel wrote this mini-series, while Mike Carlin edited (and Renee Witterstaetter was the assistant editor).

As one of DC's more recognized inkers since he started in 1984's New Talent Showcase, this mini-series was Karl Kesel's first credited work for DC comics as a writer (I say 'credited' because I know that he was giving creative input to 1987's Suicide Squad while he inked the series). Among other things, Barbara Kesel (né Randall) had written several Batgirl and Superman stories (as well as most of the copy for the Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes limited series) prior to this mini-series.

Karl and Barbara had gotten married shortly before the publication of this mini-series (between the inking of issues #1 and #2) — just in case you were wondering why they both had the Kesel surname. Along with this mini-series, Mike Carlin was also editing The Shadow, Power of the Atom, Superman, Adventures of Superman, Doc Savage and The Cosmic Odyssey limited series. My best guess is that Witterstaetter was assisting Carlin with whatever projects he was overseeing. According to Barbara, the idea of the new Hawk & Dove was originally pitched with the intent of being used as a feature in a new anthology series being developed, but Carlin saw the potential in the duo and decided to give it the mini-series treatment instead.

House ad for Hawk & Dove mini-series

First, a little background on the head-lining characters:

Hawk & Dove first debuted in DC's Showcase #75 (1968). Created by Steve Ditko and Steve Skeates, Hawk (Hank Hall) & Dove (Don Hall) were two teen-aged brothers who, when they spoke the magic word ["Hawk" or "Dove", respectively], transformed into super-heroes. Hawk was the brash aggressive one, and Dove was the passive, thinking man's hero. If you want to get political about it, Hawk is the 'take no prisoners' macho conservative and Dove is the extreme-left bleeding heart liberal — and you should get political about it, because that's what inspired these characters. As then-editor Dick Giordano explained in the letter-column of Showcase #75:


The creation of these characters was pretty relevant and timely, as the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War caused an uproar of protests (especially among college students) during the mid-to-late 1960s. Don't discount how much of a hot-button issue the Vietnam War was to Americans in the late 60s/early 70s — according to A People's History of the United Stated by Howard Zinn, "In August of 1965, 61 percent of the population thought the American involvement in Vietnam was not wrong. By May 1971 it was exactly reversed; 61 percent thought our involvement was wrong." DC was striking where the iron was hot, and there was no hotter topic than the Vietnam War.

Shortly after their Showcase debut, Hawk & Dove had their own 1968 ongoing series that lasted six issues. I've always liked the idea of Hawk & Dove (maybe it was their colorful costumes or the duality of their powers) — but the execution of their ongoing series was really poor. Being a book from the late 60s, the pacing was slow as molasses and, while Hawk was an interesting character, Dove (Don Hall) really got on my nerves as I just saw him as dead-weight to a potentially interesting crime-fighting unit. A lot of their 6 issue series were spent arguing among themselves about how to deal with criminals: Dove trying to push forward with his pacifist agenda and prove a point to Hawk, while Hawk preached the virtues of violence and force. The story typically ended with no clear resolution on which solution was more effective (aggression or pacifism), so you never really learned anything important from these stories.

panels from Hawk and Dove v1 #2 (1968) illustrated by Steve Ditko

The teen-aged Hawk & Dove guest-starred in Teen Titans v1 several times during the 70s and even became members of Titans West — these stories were quite good (mainly because there was less bickering between Hank and Don since they worked as a team unit). Following that, they kind of meandered around the DCU until Dove (Don Hall) was killed off in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis On Infinite Earths #12 (1986) - illustrated by George Perez and Jerry Ordway
After Dove's death, Hawk appeared occasionally in the DCU. There was a bit of a sub-plot brewing in New Teen Titans (written by Marv Wolfman) in which Hawk goes off the deep-end and becomes 'unhinged' due to the death of his brother. Following his appearance in NTT, Hawk was becoming a warmonger and could be found charging into the confrontation du jour yelling about 'commies' and 'pinkos' while exhibiting extreme prejudice. In hindsight, Hawk exemplified Reagan-era Cold War values (ex: 'down with the Soviets', 'American technology and values is superior to all else') mixed with a militant machismo attitude. This set the scene for interesting interactions with other super-heroes.

panels from New Teen Titans v2 #20
And now you're all caught up...

Among other things, the new Hawk & Dove mini-series was a chance to update the original duo for a more contemporary audience. This was nothing to be concerned about... quite a few DC characters were being 'redefined' post-CrisisAquaman became a magical-based character in his 1986 mini-series, the mantle of Doctor Fate was passed to a new character in his 1987 mini-series, Power Girl was revealed to actually be Atlantean in her 1988 mini-series, the Martian Manhunter had multiple alterations made to his origin in his 1988 mini-series, and Hawkman and Hawk Woman would experience a major shake-up in 1989's Hawkworld (just to name a few).

If I had to sum up this mini-series in as few sentences as possible, I'd tell you that: a new Dove appears in Hawk's life, they team up to battle a new threat, and ultimately discover that they are agents of Chaos and Order. I realize that this is a very blunt summary, but the writing and pacing of this mini-series is top notch and there are many elements at play here that make this a very interesting and entertaining read.

The first issue opens with the introduction of a new villain, Kestrel, who is hunting down Hawk (Hank Hall). Contrary to popular suspicion, 'Kestrel' is not actually the combination of Barbara's married and maiden names ('Kesel' and 'Randall'), but a species of falcon. (Hey, how about that?) The bird motif runs strong in Hawk & Dove, so best to get used to it early.  Barbara mentions in her Forward to the Hawk & Dove TPB that "Kestrel’s name was an inside joke: my friend Ron had used the name (it’s a bird, look it up) as a gaming character- the most peaceful and loving character in the history of role-playing-so we used the name for our vicious mass murderer".

Hawk & Dove v2 #3 - Kestrel
We are then thrust into Hank Hall's life as he attempts to re-enroll in college and get his life back together since the death of his brother (all while playing self-proclaimed protector to Washington, D.C.). As far as character development goes, the Kesels do a fantastic job of getting the reader to sympathize with Hawk as we learn that he's kind of a screw-up and blames himself for Don Hall's demise. The Kesels are careful to include references to Hawk's most recent adventures in Nicaragua [Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad Special #1 (1988)] and his being kicked out of the Teen Titans - which demonstrates that this mini-series is occurring within continuity and is all part of the unified DCU. Since most of Hawk's non-costumed adventures take place in a campus setting with other college students, a strong supporting cast is quickly built up within the first issue - hence providing a chance for some interesting interpersonal relationships to develop.

As quoted from Barbara Kesel's Forward in the Hawk & Dove TPB:
Karl’s sister and my brother were the original models for the characters of Dawn and Hank (but only the good parts!); our parents became their parents; our friends became their friends. [...] Ren started out as my best friend, but just wouldn’t stay her. As writers, we’re always cannibalizing from our own lives in order to create true false reality, and there is, therefore, a lot of us in the mix.

The secret identity of the new female Dove is a mystery that runs throughout the first several issues of the mini-series (the reader is only introduced to her by the end of the first issue) — the Kesels added a few red herrings to the story to keep the reader guessing who Dove's real identity was (most readers were able to successfully guess it by the end of the second issue).

Hawk & Dove v2 #1 - the NEW Dove
As previously mentioned, this mini-series reveals that Hawk and Dove are, in fact, agents of Chaos and Order (respectively). I'm having a bit of difficulty pin-pointing where the Lords of Chaos/Lords of Order idea started in the DCU, but I think it was during Paul Kupperberg's 1987 Phantom Stranger mini-series. Regardless, this was actually a much appreciated addition to the Hawk & Dove mythos. Previously, the Hall brothers mainly spent their time battling petty crooks and combating urban crime, but redefining them as agents of Chaos and Order now gave them more opportunities to battle occult and supernatural forces (which everybody knows makes for more interesting story-telling), and to have a greater connection to the mystical characters of the DCU (i.e. Doctor Fate, Phantom Stranger, Arion, etc)

Along with the idea that Hawk and Dove are agents of Chaos and Order comes a bit of retconning in terms of their origins. We learn that 'the Voice' that gave them their powers were actually 'Voices' (plural). This ties in nicely with the Lords of Chaos and Order reveal — because they're a group of entities who work in unison - and also eliminates the confusion that the Voice that gave the original Hawk & Dove their powers wasn't the same Voice [of God] that gave The Spectre his powers. The mini-series ends with a hint that the Agents of Order may not be the benevolent force they appear to be, as the new Dove deduces that Don Hall's Dove powers were taken away from him and given to her minutes before he was killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths (effectively making him an easy target for a Shadow Demon).

Another nice thing about this mini-series is that it clearly defines Hawk & Dove's powers. Whereas the original origin was kind of vague and open to interpretation...

Showcase #75 (1968)

...the Kesel's mini-series clarified this with a recap of the duo's powers (or at least the new Dove's):


This re-explanation was greatly needed, as I always felt like the original series left Hawk and Dove's powers too ambiguous. As far as I could tell, Hawk had the power of being really angry and attacking recklessly without thinking, while Dove had the power of trying to slow down his brother and getting punched in the face a lot. Truth be told, I still can't tell if Hawk and Dove's powers of accelerated healing was a power they originally started with back in Showcase or if it was a power the Kesels managed to slide in during this mini-series.

All things considered, the new Dove was far more interesting than the original. Unlike Don Hall, who was either trying to 'prove himself' or refusing to resort to violence (and mainly used evasive and defensive maneuvers), the new Dove was a confident and competent character who used martial arts (with an emphasis on turning the opponents weaknesses on themselves) to deal with her foes.

Let's also not forget that she was a woman with no (apparent) family relation to Hank Hall, which left the door open for potential romantic development between the two. Hawk suddenly acquiring a female Dove was quite the surprise among DC fans. If you check the then-current DC comics landscape back in 1988, there weren't too many strong female characters with a prominent lead role in a title. Sure, there was Wonder Woman (in her own title), Negative Woman in Doom Patrol v2,  Wonder Girl and Starfire in New Teen Titans v2, and Black Canary appearing in both Action Comics Weekly and Green Arrow v2 — but out of 50 books being published monthly, that's not an incredibly strong showing. In short, the time was right for a new head-lining female superhero.

In an interview with Jennifer M. Contino for Sequential Tart from 2000, Barbara Kesel revealed that she found a sketch of a female version of Dove while flipping through one of Karl Kesel's sketch books:
"Who's this?" I asked. "Oh," he said, "I always thought Dove should have been a girl character." We chatted, I wrote up the proposal, and poor Carlin got badgered into the series."



One of the most notable things about this mini-series was that it was some of Rob Liefeld's first* published work for DC comics. Actually, it was some of Liefeld's first work for the 'big two' after being scouted by DC comics Executive Editor Dick Giordano at Wonder Con 1987. Liefeld pencilled all five issues and Karl Kesel inked over Liefeld's pencils. Looking back over this mini-series, you begin to notice many Liefeld-isms that would recur in his later work: splash pages filled with energetic and dynamic action poses, characters being loaded up with excessive firearms, careful detail paid to facial expressions and character reactions, and extreme close-ups of large toothy triangular grins. In short, Liefeld brought a fantastic energy to the pages that kept the reader enthralled with visual detail.



* In 1988, a 21 year-old Rob Liefeld had work appear in DC's Secret Origins v2 #28Warlord #131 and Hawk & Dove v2 #1 - all within several months of each other. Your guess is as good as mine as to which was considered Liefeld's 'first' work for DC.

Readers were quick to pick up on Liefeld's talents and lauded DC for the amazing find (ensuring to mention Karl Kesel's inks which embellished Liefeld's work). One reader even went so far as to suggest that Liefeld might be the next Todd McFarlane (ha! if only they knew).

There's an interesting editorial note from Mike Carlin in the last issue of the series thanking Karl Kessel, inker Keith Williams and inker Bob Lewis for 'sundry assistance during the worst of it' and a reference to Liefeld introducing 'entirely new situations to an Editor who'd thought he'd seen it all'.


Carlin is referring to the fact that Liefeld submitted some of his final pencilled pages for Hawk & Dove v2 #5 in a 'landscape' style [as opposed to the 'portrait' style you see when you read a comic upright]. This led to Karl Kesel and Mike Carlin needing to xerox and lightbox Liefeld's finished panels into an upright position in order to get the book ready for print. I'm assuming Liefeld's submitted work past it's deadline by this point - just to add that extra element of pressure. You can read Karl Kesel's account of this event at Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed #36.

Issue #1 of this mini-series was the first appearance of the new Dove as well as the new agent of Chaos, Kestrel. Liefeld played a major hand in designing the new Dove's costume. I've always appreciated the attention to detail in which the new Dove's costume is modeled so closely to Don Hall's costume — preserving a sense of legacy. In an interview with Jennifer M. Contino at Comicon.com, Liefeld revealed that he has a small sense of ownership to the new Dove:
“I designed the character in the late ’80s and originally her costume would reveal no hair at all if I didn’t throw down with the Kesel’s over it. We finally compromised on the ponytail-do, but you have no idea the effort that took.”
...and from the same interview:
"When I co-created Kestrel with Barbara and Karl Kesel way back in the mini-series, he was very predator-like, very much a hostile force of evil working on behalf of the agents of Chaos to disrupt the balance of good and evil, tilting it towards evil."
Karl Kesel's Forward from the Hawk & Dove trade paperback confirms that 1) Rob insisted that they modify the new Dove's costume to let her hair show, and that 2) Barbara created Kestrel, Rob Liefeld designed his costume, and Mike Carlin decided it would be purple.

Kestrel appeared a few more times in the DCU after this mini-series was concluded - once in a 2005 Teen Titans story arc (illustrated by Liefeld) and as a villain in the 2009 Superman/Batman Public Enemies animated movie.

Kestrel as he appears in the 1992 Impel DC Cosmic Cards trading card set


Rob Liefeld illustrating Hawk & Dove (who could both essentially be considered Teen Titans spin-off characters by association) would be a major coup for the artist — he'd been a fan of the Teen Titans longer than he'd been a fan of Marvel's X-Men or Avengers. Liefeld disclosed to Matt Brady in a 2005 Newsarama interview:
"I was a major, big time fan of the Teen Titans as a kid. I loved the comic in the mid 70’s incarnation prior to Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s ’80s re-launch. I loved the Aquaman cartoon because it had the Teen Titan feature on it, the one where Kid Flash’s costume colors were reversed to red on top and yellow legs... I love the Titans, yes."

"A little known fact is that I was an early member of the ’80s Teen Titans fan club, Titan Talk along with my early Youngblood collaborator and current Wildstorm exec Hank Kanalz. And even more little known is that I’m on the guest book in Teen Titans #50, the Wedding of Donna Troy. George [Perez] had my name added to the guest list. If I’d been on time with my photo, George would have drawn me in the book. See, I’ve always been late, deadline challenged... even as a kid."
Panel from Tales of the Teen Titans v1 #50 (1985). Property of DC comics.
Liefeld's name in the Donna Troy/Terry Long guest list. Just above Dick Giordano's.


From the same Newsarama interview, Brady asked about other Teen Titans plans Liefeld may have had with DC following the Hawk & Dove mini-series:
"I proposed a new Titans book in 1991, Team Titans was the proposal, Jon Peterson who edited the book approved it, Marv Wolfman signed on to co-write it and then I couldn’t make the deal with Dick Giordano. God bless him, we just couldn’t make the numbers work. So I took my proposal and merged it with an existing indie project I had called Youngblood. Next thing you know, POOF... Image comics was born."

"Shaft was intended to be Speedy. Vogue was a new Harlequin design, Combat was a Kh’undian warrior circa the Legion of Super Heroes, ditto for Photon and Die Hard was a Star Labs android. I forgot who Chapel was supposed to be. So there you have it, the secret origin of Youngblood."
This kind of makes you see Youngblood in a whole new light, doesn't it?



Overwhelmingly positive reader response to this mini-series [apparently it sold really REALLY well] led to a 1989 Hawk & Dove v3 ongoing series that was also written by Karl and Barbara Kesel. Liefeld was NOT the penciller for the new ongoing series (he would begin a regular stint at Marvel comics about 6 months after this mini-series saw print). Liefeld would illustrate Hawk and Dove again in 2011's Hawk & Dove v5 for DC's New 52.

This mini-series had all of the hallmarks of a great book — excellent writing and pacing, fantastic art, interesting characters and support cast, progressive character development, a bit of humor, the introduction of new characters while paying respect to the legacy (lots of Crisis references in here), the creation of bigger over-arching mysteries, a feeling that it was tied to the 'bigger picture' of the DCU — so I'm not surprised it got the green light for an ongoing series.

Barbara Randall Kesel has gone on the record to say that this mini-series was about love and "the way it can invade and change your life without any respect for the way things had been, or perhaps should have been... Our love, and the feeling that a complementary partner is important to our own completion. Love for others, and what it will let you give up or give of yourself...". I totally missed this the first time. Next time I re-read this, I will look more carefully for this.

I would recommend this series to everyone — especially Rob Liefeld fans who want to see some of his early work. This mini-series was last reprinted in 2012's Hawk & Dove: Ghost and Demons TPB — catch it if you can.





-Justin

Special thanks to Titanstower.com for preserving those Rob Liefeld interviews we quoted in this article and those snippets of Forward written by the Kesels as found in the 1993 Hawk & Dove TPB.

Big thanks to Jennifer M. Contino and Matt Brady for having the gumption to interview Barabara Randal and Rob Liefeld about this mini-series over a decade ago — without your interviews, this article would've mainly consisted of educated guesses and speculation on my part.



Read more:

You can read more about the original 1968 Hawk & Dove at Dial "B" for Blog's The Secret Origins of Hawk and Dove.

An entry from Fraser Sherman's blog reveals that writer Steve Skeates had different ideas for the original 1968 Hawk & Dove duo, but was discouraged by DC editorial.


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.