This game. I’ve been waiting a llllloooonnng time to get my hands on this game.
I remember seeing ads with screenshots in them for this game in issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly around the time it was coming out. I desperately wanted to play it and checked my local video store and gas stations to see if they ever got a copy in, but alas they didn’t. My long drought of not playing this game finally came to an over two decade end this week when it arrived in the mail. The question was asked while I was sitting down playing it by my friend and site designer: Was your white whale worth it?
My answer: Hell yes it was! To put it short, this game is amazing.
Batman: Return of the Joker on the NES is a pseudo-sequel to Batman: The Video Game, also from Sunsoft. Whereas Batman: The Video Game was positioned as a tie-in to the Tim Burton film, this game is of the few that takes inspiration from the pages of the Batman comics as the Batman Returns games were being worked on by Sega and Konami. Between levels however, images of the Batmobile and Batwing do come up (though you’ll never pilot them) and they do resemble the designs from Batman ’89. Similar to Sunsoft’s first Batman outing, this game very much feels like a game that just happens to have Batman in it (you can tell by the Japanese title DYNAMITE BATMAN,) as they didn’t even try to add any other characters from the property other than Batman and the Joker. The bosses this time around are robots and contraptions you’d think Doctor Wily invented, even the Joker shows up in a giant robot in the end.
This game as mentioned above is a sequel, hence the “Return of the Joker” title, but it couldn’t be anymore different from its predecessor gameplay wise. Batman trades in his Castlevania/Ninja Gaiden fisticuffs and wall jumps for Contra style shooting only with a life bar. Starting off you have a basic arm mounted cannon but you can pick up various upgrades (marked with a “C” and “S” among others, also like Contra.) The power ups can be charged as well as shot and change-up the game quite a bit. The “C” weapon for example fires a missile that explodes upwards and downwards, one of most useful as well as valuable weapons in the game, while others fire a spread shot and can be charged to create a shield around Batman.
One of the other power-ups that caused me to giddily smile is when you collect enough spare items to fill up a meter below your life bar. You transform into what I can best describe as “Golden Armor Batman” where you are both invulnerable to damage and shoot out a constant stream of projectiles for a temporary amount of time. To break up the run and gun action, there’s also a few levels that transform the game into a horizontal shooter with Batman donning a jet pack, and yes, that is as awesome as it sounds.
The sprite of Batman is much bigger this time around but not so much that it negatively affects gameplay. The features on the character have much more detail, including the additional color in the chest emblem, and the transition from the cowl to the armor is easier to distinguish. The cape, something I loved in Batman: The Video Game, continues to be great looking. The Joker spends most of his time in a Bowser like flying copter and a giant mech, so his details suffer a little compared to the protagonist.
The environments in Batman: The Video Game were keeping with the gothic industrial look of the Burton film, but they tended to look very similar to one another. Return of the Joker, while seemingly removing Batman out of home turf of Gotham City, take the Caped Crusader on a much more interesting tour of levels. You’ll visit interior stages like a castle and a warehouse, but also venture into a frozen tundra as well as a tropical island.
I do appreciate the change in venue, but the levels themselves are not as well constructed as in Batman: The Video Game. What made that game so special was how enemies were placed in such a way that was a challenge to your skill. Here things just randomly show up out of nowhere with no warning, starting at around level three, and it makes it more important to memorize when something is going to be as opposed to skillfully working around an obstacle. Thankfully the unlimited continues carry over from the first game, as well as a password system that is only four short characters. Boss design also feels a little uneven, and you’ll find that the encounters tend to crest up and down with difficulty instead of increasing in challenge over the game. The second to last fight with the Joker presents way more of a heart pounding experience than the fairly easy last boss.
An area that didn’t really need that much of an upgrade but received one anyway is the games outstanding soundtrack. It’s such a joy to the ears in the levels, and the additional boss theme helps alleviate some of the tension in the punishing but fair challenges. An area that did need an upgrade is the game’s length. It does feature seven levels contrasted to Batman: The Video Game’s five, but I managed to get through six of them, and then eventually the seventh after a short play break, in a matter of hours. In the end, I just simply wished this great game could go on even longer.
Like its predecessor on the NES, I have only great things to say about Batman: Return of the Joker. It doesn’t build upon the foundation of Batman: The Video Game, but makes its own identity with its different game structure to offer two unique Batman experiences on the NES. The soundtrack once again is stellar, but you’ll be wishing by the end there was more game to sink your teeth into. Do not let this game pass you by as long as it did me.