Batman Returns: It Sounds a Lot Better Than It Is

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I still remember the moment I first learned of the existence of Batman Returns for the PC.  I was standing in an Electronics Boutique in 1992 paging through an EGM magazine when a preview for an upcoming game nearly stopped my heart.  In front of me was a screenshot of Batman standing in the Batcave next to a giant computer.  Remember, up to that point, Batman games had been traditional combat-heavy sidescrollers.  Not bad games, per say, but there had yet to be a game that truly captured the feeling of being Batman.  Now that was all going to change.  Batman Returns, I thought, was going to let players actually be Batman:  Manage his equipment, drive the Batmobile through Gotham, collect and analyze evidence, and interrogate NPCs; it was going to be a game about solving crimes, not punching criminals.

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Anything might be possible!

I never got to play the game back then when it was new, and I always regretted it.  As was often the case in childhood, games I glimpsed once but never played grew more and more epic in my imagination as time went by.  I imagined Batman Returns capable of incredible wonders, features not even possible today.  Maybe Batman Returns wasn’t just a Batman game.  Maybe it also included Wayne Manor and let players navigate Bruce Wayne’s social life.  There was probably a full recreation of Gotham City from the movie.  Certainly the game would go beyond the simple plot of the film and bring in other Batman characters and storylines.  It wasn’t a game at all.  It was a Batman simulator!

I was right about one thing.  Batman Returns barely qualifies as a game.

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In 1992 this picture represented everything I wanted from a Batman game.  “See!  He’s not good at sports!  He spends all day in a cave on a computer!”

That’s not to say this game doesn’t do some things right.  The basic shell of the game is compelling, maybe even ahead of its time.  Batman Returns begins in the hub of Batman’s universe, the Batcave, and gives players access to a variety of options right from the start.  Batman can check the Gotham news, investigate a thorough biographical database of Gotham City’s movers and shakers (although all the characters are generic nobodies with 80s porn star faces who have no connection to the Batman universe, at least they’re there!), watch videos, input evidence, and select which weapons to bring with him for his night out.  There’s never been a Batman game that gives players the pleasure of watching a breaking news story about a crime-in-progress and then hopping in the Batmobile to drive into town and investigate, and it does give the player the feeling of genuinely being Batman.  At least for a while.

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All your favorite characters are here!

Once out of the Batcave, gameplay involves traveling to various locations and either “fighting” the Penguin’s thugs or searching the environment for clues.  Once Batman finds a new piece of evidence, he can return to the Batcave to analyze it, which will lead to new locations on the map, where Batman will find new thugs to fight or new items to find.  For example, in the first chunk of the game, Batman watches a news broadcast detailing an assault on Gotham plaza, drives to the scene of the crime, and overcomes some thugs.  After interrogating them, he discovers a rare kind of fish, which he takes back to the Batcave to analyze.  This gives him information about a fish market in Gotham where he can travel for his next lead.  In theory it’s the formula for a pretty good Batman adventure game, one that combines free-roaming exploration with puzzle-solving and detective elements.

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After this first section, however, the game’s flaws quickly become apparent.  The biggest is probably the “day” system.  For some reason the adventure is divided into nine days that the player can end at any point by returning to Wayne Manor.  The problem is the game gives no indication that you’ve done all you need to do on a given day, and it’s easily possible to get into an unwinnable situation by advancing time too soon.  More troubling, there’s no rhyme or reason to why things happen certain days.  For instance, if Batman visits the mayor’s office on Day 1, he’ll find a videotape.  On Day 2 the office will be empty, and on Day 3 there will be new items to find.  There are only about five locations to visit in total, and they all get new items as the days pass for no discernible reason.  Each location also has a very limited number of spots where new items can appear, so what initially seems like a large, open game is actually depressingly tiny.

Very soon, gameplay devolves into traveling to each location, checking the item spots, taking any new items back to the Batcave, and then advancing to the next day.  Many days there is only one new item to find and analyze, but you’ll still have to slog through each of the locations to make sure nothing is missed.  There’s no story, no particular challenge, and no sense of accomplishment.

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Search, leave, come back, repeat.

While the adventure elements quickly become repetitive, where the game really refuses to shine is in its “combat.”  In 1992 the PC was generally a platform for more thoughtful, slow-paced games, while consoles were for more arcade-like experiences that relied on quick button presses and manual dexterity.  However, since punching is a major part of Batman’s MO, the developers apparently felt that the game needed some action elements.  When Batman enters combat with one of three goons (there are only three repeating enemies in the entire game, not including the Penguin and Catwoman), players can choose whether to use a “fast, normal, or fierce” combat style and select weapons from Batman’s utility belt.  That’s it for interaction.

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Looking at this screenshot is as fun as actually playing the game.

Players then watch Batman hop around while engaging in (sometimes literally!) endless fisticuffs.  Using the right bat-weapon will often end the fight immediately, but should you get stuck in combat without a weapon you’ll be forced to sit and watch Batman punch his way to victory.  The different combat stances don’t seem to make a huge amount of difference, and sometimes even on the fierce setting combat never ends:  Batman and his adversary will just keep jumping past each other (with fairly decent animations, at least).  Mercifully, it’s always possible to retreat to the Batmobile in the middle of a fight, but an area won’t become “interactive” unless you’ve taken care of the enemies, so eventually you’ll have to win the fight.  It’s never challenging, just irritating.  As far as I’ve been able to tell it’s impossible to actually lose, even if your batsuit has a defense rating of “0%”, unless getting the game stuck in an endless combat loop counts as losing.

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Technically you can improve your combat abilities by putting on a fresh batsuit.  It’s a cool idea in theory, but since the game keeps going to matter what there’s no strong reason to change.

By the final few days, the game basically abandons any pretense of interactivity, instead becoming a series of Sega Genesis-quality stills from the movie.  Once Batman gets a news report that the Ice Princess has been kidnapped, the game is basically over.  He just has to travel to a few final locations and watch some cut scenes.  There’s one big moment of interaction, where Batman transmits the Penguin’s insults over the air, but if you’ve seen the movie it’s not a puzzle at all, and if you haven’t there’s no clear solution.  It feels like the developers just completely gave up.  The entire game probably takes less than an hour, and that’s only because Batman takes forever to walk from the Batcave to his car and because fights are so tedious.

Fortunately, no matter how much you might screw up, the game doesn’t last forever.  In a guillotine-like act of humanity, if you get through Day 6 without having completed all the essential tasks, the game just ends in a fail state, finally granting players the mercy of a conclusion.  There are actually a few ways to lose, and all of them are accompanied by a cut scene.  Sometimes it’s even clever.  At one point Batman finds a videotape of the mayor taking a bribe.  If he happens to be dumb enough to broadcast the tape to the city, the Penguin wins the election and the game ends.  It’s always nice to see a game that anticipates a player action and responds accordingly, even in a game where so few player actions are possible.

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Are those shadows in the background the specters of Batman’s parents looking on with angry disapproval?  Sure, why not.

Another potentially cool feature is Batman’s scanner, which he can use to scan in evidence without removing it from a location.  This is incredibly useful, because in certain situations removing items from a location insures that no items will appear there again.  I think the idea behind this is that the owner of the location stops leaving evidence out once they discover it’s been stolen, which is again a clever consequence, but the game never gives you any kind of feedback that this is what’s going on.  Instead you can play through the whole game oblivious to the fact that you’re missing out.  Some of this evidence eventually gets Batman access to Selena Kyle’s apartment and opens up the “better” of the two possible endings.  If the game just gave you a little more feedback, this kind of thing would be an ahead-of-its time feature instead of an annoying flaw.  Replayability is great, but players need to know there’s a reason to play again.

Likewise, the game boasts two endings that are directly tied to your actions during the game, which in theory should be great.  The first ending is more or less the ending of the movie, but the second attempts to give Batman and Catwoman some romantic closure.  One of the conditions for this “good” ending is gathering enough evidence to get Max Shreck arrested before Catwoman can murder him.  This involves a thorough playthrough of the game, making sure to visit each location without losing any evidence.  It’s tricky, but it makes sense.

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Heh, “approach.”

However, to guarantee the Batman/Catwoman romantic ending, Batman must also make sure to never encounter Catwoman in the game.  That’s right, the only way Batman can ride off into the sunset with Selena is to avoid any and all interaction with her.  This means when Batman learns that the Gotham City Ice Princess is in danger, he has to just ignore it.  Again, I think the idea here is that by finding information that links Catwoman to the Ice Princess earlier, Batman will spot a trap and avoid rushing in.  If you never show up to try to rescue the Ice Princess, you never get the news report saying she was killed, so, presumably, she isn’t.  However, the game gives absolutely no certain indication that you’ve saved her, and you can still avoid the encounter without ever finding the evidence.  Batman Returns so often comes so close to implementing genuine choices and consequences, only to botch the landing.

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Another potentially good idea:  Unless Batman remembers to put his grappling hook in his utility belt, he can’t get up here.  However, since there are plenty of utility belt spots for every item you could possibly need, there’s no strategy involved at all.

Graphics are great for the time.  Batman is big and well-animated, and the painted backdrops of Gotham city do a great job of evoking the dreary environments from the movie.  Everything is bathed in the same blue and black Christmas-gone-wrong tone of the film.  Even better, the midi-version of the Danny Elfman theme Batman theme is one of my favorite pieces of game music from the whole era.  The original music for the game is pretty forgettable, but the dark, slow version of the Batman theme is a pitch perfect fit for the game’s gloomy tone.

Overall the game is a failed experiment.  Batman Returns truly had the ingredients to be a creative Batman adventure game.  I would even argue it still has the best framework of any Batman game I’ve played, including the Arkham series, but the developers just forgot to add in the game.  As it exists it’s probably the worst of the many, many Batman Returns games, and that’s saying something.  What could have been an original experience quickly crumbles into just another half-assed movie tie-in.

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Even today, a game that took this outline, included some actual combat and a genuinely compelling mystery for Batman to solve could work.   Batman games still spend too much time making Batman into a punch-happy brute instead of a clever detective improvising his way through situations.  Telltale’s latest Batman offering is in many ways the game I hoped Batman Returns would be.  It focuses on Batman’s day to day life, both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, and actual detective work becomes part of the equation.  Unfortunately, like all Telltale games it’s also completely on rails, an interactive story more than a traditional game.  What Batman Returns promised and failed to deliver was the genuine freedom to live the life of the Batman, the chance for players to take the initiative in both finding and then solving mysteries.  Over two decades later I’m still waiting for somebody to make the game Batman Returns could’ve been.

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Cthulhu Addendum: The Lovecraft Museum

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Before leaving the world of Infogrames Lovecraft adventures, it’s worth visiting one final oddity.  Tucked away on the Shadow of the Comet CD, The Lovecraft Museum is an interactive journey through some Lovecraft-themed VGA artwork.  It’s less a game than a special feature, an excuse to stuff even more Lovecraft references into the already reference-heavy world of Shadow of the Comet.  Though slight, the Museum represents an early attempt to use interactive entertainment for something other than murdering players.

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More Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice

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Taking a bit of inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Infogrames’ second Lovecraftian adventure game, Prisoner of Ice, opens with an aerial attack on an Antarctic base in 1937.  After the Shadow of the Comet’s crumbling graveyards and haunted forests, the World War 2 era battle immediately sets Prisoner apart as a very different game.  While Lovecraft was certainly influenced by earlier writers such as a Poe and Arthur Machen, his work also firmly belongs in the era of the early 20th century pulp adventure.  Shadow of the Comet emphasized the gothic side of Lovecraft; Prisoner of Ice goes in the other direction.  It’s a pulpy, globe-trotting adventure that feels more like a second-tier Indiana Jones story than a horror game.  In the course of a very short adventure players will find themselves everywhere from a sinking British sub to the distant future as the game’s plot grows more and more ludicrous.  It’s no masterpiece and for the most part plays as a cut-rate Fate of Atlantis knock off, but by simplifying Shadow of the Comet’s interface and puzzles and ramping up the pace, Prisoner of Ice makes for a few quality hours of goofy adventure game nonsense.

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Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet

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Early adventure games and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction have a great deal in common.  They both suggest a world unbound by basic human decency, rationality, and logic.  Death lurks around every corner, and when it comes it is neither deserved nor explainable, merely the result of inhabiting a universe that is utterly indifferent to the plight of man.  It should come as no surprise then that developer Infogrames saw in Lovecraft’s work the ideal inspiration for an early 90s adventure game (as well as the much more well known Alone in the Dark.)  Call of Cthulhu:  Shadow of the Comet is an exercise in masochism and frustration, where logic goes out the window in favor of obtuse puzzles and an aggressively unfriendly interface, where even the simple act of talking to an NPC becomes a baffling ordeal, where almost every action can result in death.  So essentially it’s like dozens of other games from that era, but with the added justification of a Lovecraftian theme.

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Syberia: How Kate Walker Got Her Groove Back and Then Decided Her Life Revolved Around a Man

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By 2002 adventure games were already considered a “dead” genre.  Every once in a while the gaming press would point to games like Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey as a triumphant resurrection, but the late 80s/early 90s heyday of adventure gaming was long past.  One of the final inspirations for those “maybe adventure games aren’t dead after all!” articles was Syberia, a game created by Belgian cartoonist Benoit Sokal and developed by French company Microids.  At times more interactive fiction than classic adventure game, Syberia is a bizarre mix of wholly original steam-punk imagery, themes of loss, death, and identity, and terrible 90s romantic comedy clichés.

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The Little Mermaid: An 8-bit Heroine Throws Fish at the Patriarchy

Little Mermaid, The (USA)-0Even 26 (!) years later, The Little Mermaid holds up as a great Disney movie. The songs are exciting, the animation is beautiful, and Ariel’s wistful hope for a better life somewhere on land continues to strike a chord with anyone with a soul.  Looking back now, however, the movie is also kind of sexist.  Kind of really sexist.  In seeking to remove potentially alienating Christian and downright depressing themes from the original story, Disney writers changed the message of the story from “Life is brutal and disappointing but in suffering one might earn a soul” to “Complain to your rich father over and over until you get what you want.”  More critically, Ariel morphs from a headstrong young woman to a silent, passive protagonist whose main purpose is to secure the love of a rather bland man.  She “wins” the movie by successfully abandoning her entire previous identity to be with Prince Eric.  Ditching daddy for marriage is a pretty classic fairy tale theme (although decidedly not the theme of the 1837 story) so Disney doesn’t get all the blame for this, but sticking these tropes into a 1989 movie is still pretty sloppy.

Fortunately for Ariel, Nintendo games of the era were simply unable to tell a complicated story.  Inadvertently, by ditching most of the movie’s plot for gameplay purposes, Capcom’s The Little Mermaid turns Ariel from a whiney, passive protagonist to a selfless dispenser of maritime justice.  Though female stars were and remain a relative rarity in games, the nature of the medium means that when they do exist they generally posses much more power and agency than in films and other popular media.

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Mega Man Fights for Peace, Defines Sequels

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In the early days of the NES, there was some confusion over what, exactly, a video game sequel should be. Unlike films, games did not have a clear storyline or marketable actors that demanded a second helping. The question of what gamers were responding to in the original title was an open one, and one developers attempted to answer in several different ways. In Japan, the second Mario Brothers game was just a more challenging continuation of the first, while in the United States Super Mario Brothers 2 was a completely different kind of game with the same characters. Similarly, the Legend of Zelda and Castlevania series both went with side scrolling quasi-RPGs for their second installments, drastically altering the gameplay and focus from the original game. Sequels were an open question. Would players be willing to pay for what was more or less the same game? Would they want something completely different?

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IGN calls Zelda II “playable.”

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