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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.