80 Years Of The Bat-Pixelated Shadows: A History Of Batman Video Games Pt. 2
by Ben Martin
80 Years of The Bat is a column created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the most beloved characters ever created, Batman. Since his creation in 1939, Batman has managed to transcend his native medium of comic books. Eight decades later, the character has a presence in every area of entertainment. Over that time, Batman has garnered generations of fans; thus, always remaining relevant. Throughout the remainder of 2019, 80 Years of The Bat will examine decades worth of Batman material from every medium. For the next few installments of the column, we’ll delve into the history of Batman in video games. In this follow-up installment, Pixelated Shadows: A History of Batman Video Games Pt. 2, I’ll cover the first era of Bat games pressed on a disc!
[PLEASE NOTE: Pixelated Shadows will cover THE MAJORITY of Batman video games, but not every single one of them. If it did, that would take longer than one season of Batman ‘66!]
Batman & Robin
- Developers: Akklaim, Probe Entertainment, WB Interactive, Tiger
- Consoles: PlayStation (PSX), Tiger Handheld
- Ah, Batman & Robin (1997), one of the most misguided, underwhelming blockbusters of the 90s. (If not one of the biggest Bat bombs ever.) All these years later, though, I feel that the film has its place within the cinematic lore of The Dark Knight. Even so, everything about the movie feels like a pale imitation of its predecessor. Such a lackluster quality extends the marketing, tie-ins, and merchandise spawned from Batman & Robin, which of course, included a video game.
While this video game adaptation may have had ambition in that it’s the first Batman video game to utilize a semi-open world sandbox type design, this game, frankly fails in every way. The plot is loosely connected to its filmic source material. You can play as Batman, Robin, or Batgirl as you traverse from one location to another throughout Gotham City as you thwart Mr. Freeze’s diamond heists. No matter which character you play, you’ll be racing against the clock during each level. Despite its semi-open world environment, the gameplay of Batman & Robin quickly becomes mind-numbingly repetitive as the film’s score by Elliot Goldenthal and loud sound effects provide a raucous soundtrack.
Worst of all, this game is a total eyesore; and not in the garishly charming window dressing by Joel Schumacher either. The graphics on this game are unrefined, even by early disc-based console gaming standards. Furthermore, unlike the Bat video game adaptations that preceded it, Batman & Robin only half-heartedly attempts to capture the look and vibe of the film on which it is based. Instead, it is incredibly underlit and visually dull. For me, Batman & Robin is the worst Bat game we’ve covered thus far. I mean, they couldn’t even make a logical decision for the game’s cover art!
Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker
- Developers: Ubi Soft, Kemco
- Consoles: PlayStation, Nintendo 64 (N64), Game Boy Color
- As the new millennium approached, a 21st-century spin was brought to Batman with Batman Beyond (1999-2001). This animated series found a young man named Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle) taking over the cowl as Future Batman, while an aged Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) served as The New Dark Knight’s mentor. For me, the show is nothing more than decent. However, it proved successful enough during its first season to receive a direct-to-video spin-off movie, Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker (2000). In the film, both Batmen must face-off against The Original Caped Crusader’s archenemy, The Joker (Mark Hamill), who has achieved an apparent resurrection.
To coincide with the film’s release, a video game based upon it hit shelves simultaneously. The video game is a beat ‘em up style adventure that follows the filmic plot to a tee. You play as Future Batman punching your way through each level. But, if you get tired of keeping things old-fashioned, you can also fight your enemies with futuristic weapons. Much like The Adventures of Batman & Robin video game before it, Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker beautifully captures the atmosphere and style of its source material. Alas, as with most beat ‘em style games, this one quickly becomes tiresome, thanks to being redundant. Even when the game progresses by inserting clips from the movie, the steam seems to run out on Beyond fast.
Batman: Gotham City Racer
- Developers: Ubi Soft, Sinister Games
- Console: PlayStation
- Believe it or not, it took until 2001 to get a racing game set in the world of Batman. Even more unbelievably, I didn’t play Batman: Gotham City Racer until researching this article. What can I say, I was on a real Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998) kick back in the day. As you’d imagine, Gotham City Racer finds Batman blasting through the city in the Batmobile in a race against time. You see, there’s been a mass breakout from Arkham Asylum. Now, The Dark Knight must get to various locations across Gotham to dash several dastardly plots.
I was delighted to see that this game revolves around a bit of a plot as the majority of games in this genre generally don’t bother to have one. Beyond that, the game’s design is quite impressive as it is done in the same style as The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999). Oddly enough though, many of the inserted cut scenes in the game are taken directly from Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). The gameplay itself is fun for a while. However, as is the case with the racing game genre, the driving and track layouts become repetitive after a couple of hours. Ultimately, I wouldn’t say Gotham City Racer is anything special. But again, it holds an essential place in Bat game history as it’s still the only racing game in the Bat’s video game canon.
- Developer: Ubi Soft
- Consoles: PlayStation 2 (PS2), Xbox, Windows, Nintendo GameCube, Game Boy Advance
- Dropping mere months after the previous game, Ubi Soft put out Batman: Vengeance in Fall 2001. Once again, this game was produced in the style of The New Batman Adventures. Interestingly enough, though, the game takes place after the events of Batman: The Animated Series, but before those of The New Batman Adventures. Vengeance is set-up as a mystery as Batman (Kevin Conroy), along with the help of Batgirl (Tara Strong), investigates the dubious death of The Joker (Mark Hamill), and the subsequent disappearance of Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). However, as the dastardly plot thickens, Batman finds that there may be a more sinister agenda involving Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) and Poison Ivy (Diana Pershing).
I’m going to go ahead and put this out there, folks. Batman: Vengeance is, without a doubt, one of the most important games in the pixelated history of The Dark Knight. You see, this is the first Bat game which is genuinely story-driven as it unfolds over six chapters, with each one showcasing the game’s antagonists. This story is satisfying, as is its equally impressive gameplay. There’s plenty of fighting, of course, and a bit of detective work. Frankly, I don’t know why this game wasn’t more warmly received upon its release.
Alas, as impressive as Batman: Vengeance is, I cannot say the same of its sequel, Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu (2003). Everything about this follow-up is Ill-conceived and lackluster. Unlike its predecessor, Rise of Sin Tzu is an arcade-style beat ‘em up, which rapidly becomes overbearing. The game comments on all your combat skills by flashing critiques of your performance on the screen. If I felt like having incessant comments, I’d spend more time on social media.
Batman: Dark Tomorrow
- Developers: HotGen, Kemco
- Consoles: Xbox, Nintendo GameCube
- If you don’t remember this title, you’re not alone. Dark Tomorrow is ultimately a blip on the Bat game radar. However, I chose to note this game for one reason: it is the only modern(esque) video game to apply Batman’s comic book aesthetic. Alas, that’s the one highlight of this video game. Otherwise, both the story — Ra’s al-Ghul’s attempts to dominate and dampen the world — and the gameplay itself are dull. Primarily a stealth game, I feel that Dark Tomorrow is a genuine missed opportunity. No game that can capture the comic book look of Bats should be this uninspired.
- Consoles: PlayStation2, Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, Game Boy Advance
- Developers: EA Games, Eurocom, Warner Bros. Interactive, Vicious Visions
- History, like everything else, tends to be cyclical. Thus, I’ll close this installment the same way I opened it, with a video game adapted from a film. Thankfully though, Batman Begins is not only a much better movie but a much better game than Batman & Robin. However, much like Dark Tomorrow, the Batman Begins video game is a little-remembered one. Although, I think that has more to do with Christopher Nolan’s Bat films and the approach to their incendiary markets, or lack thereof. As good as Nolan’s Batman trilogy is, I feel the flicks are basically somber cop dramas with a guy who happens to dress up like a bat. Hence, a lack of toys and only one console video game.
Luckily, the single shot that video games took at Nolan’s source material was solid. Batman Begins manages to capture the look of Nolan’s first Bat foray completely. Granted, that does mean you have to squint at the screen on occasion due to the darkness. Batman Begins mixes stealth and fighting; though it’s much more Splinter Cell (2002) than it is a beat ‘em up. This video game is divided into four distinct sections, which serve as extended levels: Bruce’s training, the Narrows/the docks, Arkham Asylum, and the climax in Wayne Manor. In other words, the game is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the movie’s plot. It’s also quite fun, especially in making fear itself key to the gameplay. Unlike many, I enjoyed this game and was sad to see that a video game adaptation of The Dark Knight (2008) never took flight.
Next up, Part 3, the final installment of Pixelated Shadows! In which I’ll delve into the Darker side of the Knight in the modern console era. Keep your browser tuned, same Bat site, same Bat column!