As you may or may not recall from my review of Batman: Return of the Joker on the NES, I liked it quite a bit. It was a complete package of great controls, graphics, and music that made it a little slice of classic NES heaven. Reason stood to believe then that a version of the game from Sunsoft on the Game Boy that arrived several months after the console game would offer a similar experience, but on an understandably smaller scale. Boy, was I wrong.
Return of the Joker has more in common with Batman: The Video Game than “Dynamite Batman” on the NES and feels more like a true sequel to that game. Gone is the Contra-esque endless bullet bat-gun, returning are wall jumps, punches, batarangs with an ammo counter, supplemented with a new grappling hook movie triggered by pushing the “Up” button. Plat-forming controls feel great and are the best parts of ROTJ on Game Boy. The wall jumping feels as tight and comfortable as it did in Batman, and with a little practice the grappling hook feels the same way as well. Mastering the new swinging mechanic is imperative to your success here, as without it you’ll miss some life extending power-ups as early as Level One. I will say that although this was designed to be played on a Game Boy, I found it much more difficult to get a hang of the swinging when playing on my Game Boy Advance SP than when playing on my Super Game Boy with a controller. I know not everyone has this option, but if you do, I greatly recommended playing on a Super Game Boy or Game Boy player device. With the aid of a controller, (the SNES one in my case,) I found swinging as natural as Bionic Commando.
If jumping and swinging was the entire package, ROTJ would be a pretty stellar game, but unfortunately you have to attack things and it’s here where everything falls apart. To hit an enemy you have to extremely close to them, to the point where avoiding confrontation is the best option for survival, especially in the third stage when you have giant charging football player enemies that mow you down when you try to fight back with your fists.
The batarang makes a return here, but for something that’s meant to be a power-up, it’s more of a power down. When you get the batarang weapon, you can’t switch back to your fist like you could in Batman: The Video game. But Blair, you say, why would you want to turn off your ranged weapon after saying you had to be breathing down an enemies neck to punch them? Well, I’ll tell you: most of the enemies, including half of the bosses are COMPLETELY impervious to the batarang. In Level Two for example, the enemies are all ninjas that reflect your batarang attack back at you, even the boss. Sure, you could avoid getting the projectile weapon, but between the first and second half is a rather large tank that will cost you a lot of health, if not all your lives, if you try to take on it with your fists. Sunsoft, you made a Batman game where you could cycle through your weapons with a button, and the Game Boy had the same amount of buttons as the NES, why the omission?!! It baffles the mind.
Speaking of omissions, another one that’s sorely missed are spare lives. You get four continues to finish the game and that’s it; Run out and it’s back to the start. The game only has four stages mind you, three that you can select from to do in any order you want and the fourth and final level where you fight the Joker, but this game is really tough. It takes a while to learn the nuances of jumping, swinging, as well as dealing with enemy types and it gets pretty frustrating easily. You can ratchet the difficulty back to easy, and it helps a little as enemy attacks do less damage and the bosses lose one of their attacks, but that doesn’t help when you make a blind swing or incorrect wall jump into a pit.
Sunsoft’s other Batman games had some odd choices for bosses outside of the Joker, but here they’re just bizarre. You fight the likes of Dark Claw, no not that Dark Claw.
A Shogun Warrior, and my favorite Batman villain of all, Foul Ball, the Dark knight’s most feared foe that attacks with baseball slides and swinging his bat around.
One bright spot you can always count on in any Sunsoft game, good or bad, is the music and at least that’s stellar here as well. Outside of ripping off the character select screen in MegaMan 2, the level themes are catchy even when pumped out of TV speakers when you play on a device like the Super Game Boy. Batman’s sprite also looks great, and even with the lack of color his figure is clearly defined.
Both Batman and Batman: Return of the Joker have become two of my favorite NES games of all time, but with Batman: Return of the Joker on the Game Boy, Sunsoft inexplicably changed things that didn’t need to be fixed. The new mobility addition in the grappling hook feels satisfying and once again the soundtrack is a cut above the rest, but the game stumbles in every other area. These flaws are compounding knowing that Sunsoft has developed much better Batman games that were exponentially more fun and fair by having things like continues, better combat and the ability to cycle weapons. Stick with the NES game and avoid this one.