The Batman then, eh? That’s a film that exists, and that some of you might have gone out there to watch and enjoy. Or hate. But there are other Batman-shaped things to enjoy in life, and the Dark Knight has an extended history across video gaming – with titles ranging from the good, to the life-changingly excellent… all the way down to pure garbage.
Hot Bat-action fresh in mind, it seemed an apt time to take a look back at Batman’s history in the gaming sphere: the good, bad, and weird of a comic book, TV, and movie icon. It’s not every game to feature the Caped Crusader – there are more out there, largely of the mediocre bent – and there are other great games featuring Bats as a non-main attraction (*cough* Injustice 2), so don’t look at this as comprehensive per se. But do look on it as an exercise in continuing your Bat-ddiction that has been suitably tickled by R-Patz punching baddies while wearing a grimy suit.
Jon Ritman / Bernie Drummond
ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Amstrad PCW
The first Bat-tie-in was absolutely nothing like any of the games that would follow over the decades that followed, with the Jon Ritman/Bernie Drummond double act creating an isometric exploration/puzzler for Batman’s gaming debut. It’s easy to look at it and be both surprised while dismissing it these days, but this is a game that holds up well: the theme is simple enough, it’s not too confusing, and – if you let it wash over you – it’s still a fair bit of fun. Just a shame you can’t punch any goons in the noggin.
Batman: The Video Game
It might have had little to do with Tim Burton’s movie – and it might have been difficult enough to introduce many of us to our first case of Pad-Smash Rage – but Batman on the NES has gone down in history as one of the all-time greats of the licensed tie-in subgenre. Helpfully it still holds up – in the most part – to this day, and though Barry von Bat doesn’t have access to a grappling hook as he did elsewhere in 1989, he still carried off some fun platforming action throughout the game.
Batman: The Movie
Amiga, Amstrad CPC, PC, Atari ST, C64, ZX Spectrum, MSX
This is an awkward one, because it’s hard to separate the actual quality of the game from the fact it was absolutely ubiquitous at the turn of the 90s. Anyone with an Amiga – the hot games machine in Europe in that era – had Batman: The Movie, so we all played it back then. And, really, it was great – nailing the atmosphere of the film and mixing it with some solid platforming (and grappling hook-ing) action. It might not hold up to modern scrutiny, but it would feel cruel to put this on anything other than the Good list.
Scrolling beat-’em-ups in the early 90s were ten-a-penny, but that doesn’t mean they were bad. Especially not when they were made by a thoroughly on-form Konami and absolutely nailed the presentation behind Burton’s Bat-shaped sequel. Decking clowns on motorbikes was always going to be satisfying, of course, but adding in sections like pulling the wall down from behind a baddie and smashing up the Penguin’s duckmobile. Not sure if that second bit happened in the film, but it probably should have.
Would you believe it, it’s a Batman series by Telltale Games. What are, indeed, the odds. But hey – obvious title aside, Telltale’s take on Bruce’s Wacky Adventures in Serious Mental Health Issues was a solid entry from the studio best known for its work on the excellent Walking Dead series (and the truly awful Jurassic Park episodes). It was bettered by follow-up series The Enemy Within, but it’d be daft to recommend one without the other… so consider that done here.
The Adventures Of Batman And Robin
Where the Mega Drive got a technically proficient but ultimately banal Battery simulator, Konami’s effort on the SNES was great both on a technical level and in what you actually did in the thing. Honestly, it was like playing the Batman animated series from the 90s – that’s surely made a few ears prick up – with a sublime mix of cartoon style, challenging puzzles, and fun combat. Younger viewers might wonder why anybody gives a hoot about Konami at all, given the company’s recent output – but we have to remember it used to actually do good shit, like this.
Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes
PC, PS3, X360, Wii, Wii U
Taking the excellent Lego formula and applying it to Batman was one of the many strokes of genius to come out of Traveller’s Tales this past decade-plus. Adding in a bunch of other DC characters alongside Big Boy Batty and his Boy Wonder? A phenomenal touch. Lego Batman 2 took what was great about the first game – the character, the simple-yet-satisfying action-platformer fun, the sense of humour – and ramped it up significantly, in no small part thanks to the inclusion of an open world to explore. It’s fair to give a nod to the handheld versions of the game, too, but they’re not quite on the level of the home games.
What’s the point in separating them? They have their ups and downs across each individual title, but collectively the Batman Arkham games are absolutely superb. Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins, and Arkham Knight all brought a fresh flavour to the adventures of our favourite screeching mammal – from tightly constructed linear adventures to city-spanning epics, every one of the games was great and is still worth playing today. Yes, even oft-forgotten Arkham Origins. In fact, Arkham Asylum is one of those games where there’s a clearly defined pre-and-post era for gaming, with titles arriving in the wake of Rocksteady’s first Batdude game… let’s go with ‘riffing’ on plenty of the mechanics from the game – especially the wonderful combat, which single-handedly reinvented the fun and flow of being thwacked around the head by nine burly dudes at once. A truly magnificent series, and a watershed moment for all of gaming.
Batman of the Future: Return of the Joker
A slow-paced, technical-hitch-ridden descent into sheer badness, Batman of the Future (Batman Beyond outside of Europe) somehow made it so the return of the Joker was an event nobody in their right mind would want to be involved in. Scrolling beat-’em-ups were already old news in 2000, and this one did absolutely nothing to help rehabilitate the genre. If anything, it actively harmed it.
Batman: Dark Tomorrow
Initially planned as an open-world Bat-’em-up akin to the then-recent Spider-Man 2, Batman: Dark Tomorrow’s four-year development span brought with it little more than cutbacks, technical failings, and nonsensical mechanics that would frustrate even the hardest of the core players. The released game was a linear, stealth-focused adventure that managed to do little more than insult fans of the Batty one. Two for two with Kemco, there.
But wait, how can we have Batman Returns in both the good and bad pile? Well that comes via the miracle of multiplatform releases in the past sometimes being entirely different games. While the SNES version was a Konami great, the Amiga version was a clunky and cumbersome beat-’em-up, riddled with bugs and other issues and a complete slap in the face to all those who loved the previous Bat-movie game of just a few years prior.
SNES, Mega Drive
And so it was said, probably in a boardroom somewhere: ‘what if Batman, but Mortal Kombat?’. Lo, Batman Forever was born, and the world was a worse-off place because of it. A scrolling beat-’em-up with dark, edgy (grimy, ugly) digitised graphics and an attempt at MK-alike combos, it ended up as one of the worst things to come out with the Batman Forever branding on it.
Batman & Robin
Less adventurous than the wonderful SNES game (as well as being an entirely separate release), Batman & Robin on PlayStation was a mix of two terrible things: a relatively early 3D action game, and a licensed tie-in. It didn’t stand a chance, being as fair as you can be. See! how that amazing Bat-human jogs awkwardly around extremely square-edged corridors. Feel! The epic thud of genuinely awful combat. Enjoy! The thrill of turning it off, and throwing the disc out of the nearest window.
Batman: Gotham City Racer
Batty Baby really didn’t have a good time of things on the PS1, did he? Gotham City Racer took the ethos of Batman & Robin – that being ‘let’s make a piece of shit game’ – and applied it to a racing-focused title. Who could have predicted driving around a dank, pop-up riddled, empty Gotham wouldn’t be a good time? In fact, it was awful to the point that the UK’s Play magazine awarded GCR a whopping nine (9) per cent on the game’s release.
PS2, GameCube, Xbox
It’s hard to argue with the effort that went into this licensed fare, with everyone from the Nolan-made movie taking on their role in game form (except Gary Oldman, who was probably off inventing a new bizarre accent to use for his next film). And it did at least rip off Burnout 3 for its Batmobile sequences, which was a lark. But the game in the most part was rarely anything more than dull; a huge missed opportunity, but one we should be grateful for – because it led to a rethink of how Bats games were made and the Arkham series that followed.
The other formats got their platformer versions, but the PC Engine/Turbografx/whatever you want to call it ended up with whatever this bizarre thing was. While there was combat – Baterangs and battering in no small supply – the crux of the game was… well, it was like Pac-man. Top-down view, mazes to navigate, baddies to avoid, and items to collect before you could move on to the next level. It wasn’t all that bad, either, just distinctly weird.
Batman: Partners in Peril
Weird seems a harsh label for this one – ‘a flight of fancy’, maybe, or ‘one of those many mid-90s attempts to make multimedia content something normal people would give a crud about’, perhaps. Anyway, Partners in Peril wasn’t much of a game and instead went down the path of interactive comic-ness. A bit cheap in its presentation and held back by CD-ROM tech of the era, it was nevertheless… unique. Yeah, that works.
Batman: Justice Unbalanced
The Learning Company, Inc
There were other edutainment titles starring Batty McBatBat – like Toxic Chill – and they all followed the same path. That being: you weren’t battering goons, you were trying to figure out the whys and hows behind the baddies doing something naughty – in the case of Justice Unbalanced they were stealing some eggs. Obviously. It actually makes sense for a Batman game to involve a bit of research or analytical thinking, so these educational games did actually get that right. They were still a bit crap, mind.
Batman: Arkham VR
It could easily go in the Good section, but here it lives for now – Batman: Arkham VR is officially ‘weird’. One of the early tranche of VR titles arriving around the launch of the PlayStation VR hardware, Rocksteady’s goggle-requiring spin-off put you right there inside the head of the Dark Knight and seemed to understand the various limitations of the medium at the time. Meaning: no dynamic, fast-paced combat. More: looking in a mirror and at your hands because you *are* Batman. At least for the brief amount of time this experience lasted.
Batman Forever: The Arcade Game
Arcade, PC, PS1, Saturn
The home ports were easy to ignore, but it was in the arcade – the home of this game, you might be surprised to learn – where it stood out as something… very much from the 90s. Huge, chunky characters littered the screen in a scrolling beat-’em-up where you’d be smacking henchmen in the face, lobbing super-Batarangs in their face, and watching them get hit by environmental hazards like wrecking balls… in the face. It had real potential to be a genuinely good game, but was let down by daft difficulty spikes, often confusing combat, and a general air of dullness setting in after not too long. Still: 150-hit combos!
Haven’t caught Robert Pattinson’s shot at Batman just yet? Read our four-star review of The Batman here.