SSPA – Batman Returns

Tim Burton’s Batman is one of my favorite superhero movies. True, it is Burton’s least stylized film, but it had a great atmosphere, fantastic score from Danny Elfman, and great acting from Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It really kicked off modern superhero movies (for better or worse) in the 90s, and is a much-loved movie. The sequel on the other hand was a little more controversial.

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Batman Returns has a lot more of Burton’s very distinct style. It’s a thematically darker film that actually manages to be much more over the top than the previous movie about a clown themed gangster. This time around the villain was the Penguin, portrayed by Danny DeVito. This characterization was a far cry from Burgess Meredith’s goofy antics. DeVito’s Penguin was a disfigured serial killer whose plan involved sending an army of mind-controlled penguins into Gotham to kill children. This depiction was a lot grosser than usual, but it left an impact on later versions of the character.

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This movie also upped the game by including Catwoman as a secondary antagonist, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. This was another departure from the likes of Eartha Kitt and the comics. In this version, Selina Kyle is murdered by her boss Max Shreck, played by Christopher Walken. She is then mysteriously revived by a hoard of alley cats and seeks revenge, ultimately teaming up with the Penguin to devastate the city. This odd new backstory is the kind of thing one would expect from Tim Burton, but I always felt it made the character a little too crazy. Pfeiffer gives a pretty striking performance, and that too influenced the future of the character in other media.

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Personally I didn’t care for this film as much as the first. Although I still liked Keaton’s Batman, and Walken was a great secondary villain, Burton’s style is something I was never really able to get behind. I can respect it for trying something different but there are some things that just bug me about it, like the lazy way Kim Basinger’s character, Vicki Vale, was written out. Overall the film didn’t do as well as the first, but it was still successful and many people really do enjoy the over the top spectacle of the movie.

Batman has been pretty well treated in most video games, and the SunSoft adaptation of the first Burton film is no exception. Across all platforms, Batman was a stellar video game with high quality graphics for the time and great music and gameplay. However, this didn’t carryover to Batman Returns. Unlike the first film, the sequel was adapted by multiple game companies for different platforms. Konami produced the games on the NES and SNES, while Sega produced their games in-house for the Genesis, Game Gear, and Sega CD. The Konami games were okay beat-‘em-ups in the style of Double Dragon on NES and Final Fight on SNES, but the Sega versions were variations on the same general game.

When looking for games to flesh out my Sega CD collection, this game came rather highly recommended, so I tracked down a copy.

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Story:

The Red Triangle Circus gang is terrorizing Gotham city. The gang’s leader, a deranged madman known as The Penguin, plans to kidnap and murder the first-born children of every family in the city. On top of this, a mysterious thief, calling herself Catwoman, has been wreaking havoc in the city, destroying property and businesses owned by the mogul who tried to kill her. Gotham’s protector, Batman, has been fighting the chaos unleashed upon the city, but just as he confronts the Penguin, the killer frames Batman for the murder of a local celebrity. Now, Batman must escape the police, chase down the Penguin, and stop Catwoman before their murderous schemes come to fruition.

This is another action game with little emphasis on story. There are no cutscenes besides an opening and ending screen. This is a small change between the Genesis and Sega CD version. When you beat the game on the CD, you get a small clip of Batman on a precipice looking over Gotham. On the Genesis, you get a final fight with Catwoman while the credits roll. If you win, she falls and is taken away by a crowd of cats, and if you lose, Batman falls and is taken away by the Bat mobile.

The game doesn’t suffer from the lack of story since the focus is on the action.

Gameplay:

On the Sega CD, Batman Returns is broken into two gameplay styles: the new 3D driving stages, and the original Genesis 2D platformer stages. Right from the start, you have the option to choose between playing only 2D or only 3D stages, or one long game with the 3D stages bookending the 2D ones.

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Normally on the CD version you start with a new 3D stage. These levels put you in the Batmobile racing through the streets of Gotham, taking out gangsters in other vehicles, culminating in a boss fight against a larger enemy. These levels are broken up into sections, each with a time limit. You must take out all the enemies within the time limit or else you lose a life, lose all your lives and you will have to start the whole level over.

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There’s a great sense of action and tension in these levels. You’ll really enjoy speeding through the winding streets and taking out the bad guys at high speeds, and this energy will last until you make it to a boss, or one of the later levels. The bosses in these stages have to be handled in specific ways to make them vulnerable to attack. You’ll spend a ton of time trying to figure out the right method, which will result in death, forcing you to restart the whole stage over and over again. This isn’t so bad in the first stage as continues are unlimited, but in later stages the enemy difficulty ramps up hard. Harder enemies mean you have to be more careful, but the more cautious you are, the more time you lose and it can be really frustrating to die because of the timer as opposed to the enemies.

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That said, the 3D stages are an impressive show of the Sega CD’s power. The 2D stages on the other hand are not. As I said before, these levels are exactly the same as the Genesis version. In these levels you play as Batman going through Gotham on foot to the Penguin’s lair. These levels are a real chore to get through. The platforming is okay, but the size of your character makes platforming a little imprecise. Many times you will have to use your grappling hook to climb higher or swing to other buildings. This is fine in theory, but more often than not, you will not be able to see where it is you have to jump to, leading you to take a leap of faith, hoping that there is a platform just off screen or under you.

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The combat is very unpleasant. Your hitbox is huge, which results in you taking a ton of damage that is very hard to avoid, but the enemies usually have to be hit dead on or your attack won’t connect. You do get a series of gadgets to help fight, bit none of them are very effective. Some do more damage and others temporarily freeze enemies, but in the time it takes to equip the right one, you’ll end up taking a hit.

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Both gameplay styles have their ups and downs. This is why the choice to play the way you like is much appreciated. If you can’t really get behind the 3D levels, just play the 2D. If the 2D is too drab for you, just play the 3D.

Presentation:

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The new features of the Sega CD version make good use of the system. The game uses the systems scaling and limited 3D to great effect in the driving stages and the brief clips. There’s a lot of vibrant color and virtually no slowdown, even when things are really busy on screen.

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With that in mind, it is a bit of a shame that the 2D stages are just ripped right from the genesis version with no improvements. Things are very dark and hard to make out, and the game doesn’t use the system’s color pallet to the fullest extent, making it very hard to distinguish what is safe to jump on and what is just part of the background.

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I understand that they were trying to capture the dark and moody feel of the Burton film, and to the game’s credit, there is a ton of great detail and some fantastic pixel art on display in some levels, but it has a tendency to bleed together and makes the game harder to play.

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The best advantage of the CD version is the sound. The genesis version had a lot of loud buzzing and clicking sound effects, which is characteristic of the system, but it made for a pretty annoying experience. The sounds in the Sega CD are quieter and more subdued, but can be bombastic during the 3D stages to great effect.

The music got a complete overhaul on the Sega CD. This new music was composed by Spencer Nilsen, and to my mind, it’s some of his best work. The music for the 3D stages is fast paced and action packed, while the 2D stages get quieter and more moody pieces. It’s definitely one of the better videogame soundtracks.

Conclusion:

Batman Returns is a nice display of what the Sega CD is capable of. Unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. All the new additions to this version are great. The music is awesome and the driving stages are impressive, but these improvements are built around a less than stellar game. If they had done more to improve the Genesis levels, this version may have been even better.

I still think it a shame that SunSoft was not given the go ahead to make the Batman Returns video game. They did such a solid job with the first film and even games like Return of the Joker and Batman on Gameboy were still impressive despite their flaws. The variety of options out there are interesting, and if they had done more to improve the Genesis levels the Sega CD version may have been the definitive one, but as it stands, it’s a nifty showcase of what the console could do, but not the best Batman sequel.

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