Batman Returns aptly demonstrates what happens when you chuck a Batcave load of moolah at a movie licence and then completely miss the duck boat by releasing the accompanying Amiga game long after the Penguin has burst out of the Christmas present and been dowsed in terminal toxic sewer sludge. Oops, spoiler alert. $15m was spent on marketing alone so to say Konami/Gametek dropped the ball is a bit of an understatement.
SNES! Bless you, Mr Cobblepot.
“Batman Returns lacks excitement and atmosphere and it seems the money was spent to acquire the official licence rather than on the game itself.
Graphically, it’s poor and even though around a tenner less than most games, it’s still a tremendous disappointment. Batman himself is small and extremely tough to control, and by jove, the in-game music is appalling. Very sad.”
Amiga Format (48%, March 1994)
Commissioned by publishers, Konami, Striker developers, Rage Software, were to be the creative team behind the adaptation. However, following protracted contract negotiations and the realisation that their hands were already tied with other projects (probably behind their backs strapped to a chair, as is the comic book tradition) they were forced to bow out. Denton Designs stepped into the breach to pick up where Rage barely seems to have got started.
CU Amiga and The One printed the first previews of Batman Returns in December 1992, six months after the movie’s US cinema debut. Missing the already belated October 1993 ETA, it wouldn’t be published and ready for review until February 1994, the same year in which Batman Forever began filming.
The Penguin: (while being bombarded by food) Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?
Whilst Batman Returns the movie was largely well-received, earning $266.8m worldwide at the box office from a budget of $80m, the game was universally panned. Amiga magazine critics were utterly dismayed at the ‘slapdash’ workmanship displayed by the talented team comprised of former Imagine staff, awarding pitiful to mediocre scores in the 15-55% range. As always Amiga Power’s Stuart Campbell was amongst the most vociferous…
“This reeks of damage limitation. It looks like they bought the licence, started the game, realised they’d never get it out in time to catch the publicity wave, finished it off as quickly as possible and stuck it out quietly with the minimum of fuss and effort in the hope that it wouldn’t lose too much money.”
“Okay, nobody’s being exactly conned – Gametek have spotted the state of things at an early stage and stuck it out at 15 quid, but frankly that’s still two or three times what it’s worth.”
“I’d like to go on, but I’ve only got a page, so I’ll stop. Don’t even think about buying this. It’s pathetic.”
“The bottom line: Shoddy half-baked rubbish. Get it out of my sight. Now.
Uppers: Nice, appropriate music. It’ll take a while to finish, on account of your brains will melt.
Downers: Your kid sister’s My Little Pony could write a better Batman game than this with a badly bugged version of Shoot-‘Em-Up Construction Kit. With a better difficulty structure. And the pony probably wouldn’t forget to put ‘Game Over’ on the screen when you died, either.”
Amiga Power (15%, April 1994)
I was curious to find out how Roy felt about all the negative press so posed the question.
“From my viewpoint, I didn’t really care about the reviews. I think we knew the game wasn’t great. Sometimes you just have to admit that, although you tried your best, circumstances meant the finished product wasn’t great.”
On the surface, it’s a visually elegant game featuring backdrops proficiently digitised from the movie, with a sprite set seemingly taking inspiration from Sensible Software’s acclaimed miniature marvels approach. Where it all goes Penguin-shaped is with the controls. With response to joystick instructions often appearing arbitrary there’s a complete disconnect between player and protagonist, leaving you wondering if you’re even part of the process.
Exacerbating the problem for the developers would have been the Amiga’s (typically) one-button joystick configuration, forcing them to fall back on contextual controls to extend the range of options. Because Batman has more up his sleeve than Double Dragon’s Billy and Jimmy we must use directional controls in conjunction with the fire button to activate his various attacks. Thus, even jumping becomes more complicated than we’d like; a diagonal leap requires the player to first push up and then left or right. Whilst awkward and unnatural it’s easy to see how Denton were backed into this particularly uncomfortable corner.
Batman Returns’ other major flaw is that there’s so little to it. It’s a primitive scrolling beat ’em up incorporating multiple trademark weapons neatly stashed on the flying rodent’s utility belt HUD (Batarangs, Batdisks, Sonic Time Bombs or a Batrope)…
…and fighting manoeuvres in the style of Streets of Rage, yet with none of the addictive playability, challenge or nuance.
If we’re not feeling up to putting on a show for the camera it’s perfectly conceivable to defeat the Red Triangle circus gang et al by holding down the fire button, sitting back to watch them run mindlessly into our single strategy attacks. I believe it’s called suicide, popular amongst Samurai warriors. Clowns too apparently.
The Penguin: True. I was their number one son, and they treated me like number two.
The Penguin having been chucked in a stream as a baby by his horrified parents, was raised in a sewer by penguins, later joining a freak show to make the most of his unique ‘gifts’. That’s why Batman’s main antagonists are acrobatics and Pennywise wannabes, whilst he commands his web-footed brethren like a droid army.
The Penguin: Rats with wings do your thing.
Easier still, we can stand on a platform, picking off the enemies one by one as they jump into our flailing limbs. It’s much like a conveyer belt production line where the product is instant death. Artificial intelligence is so poor the baddies never learn to adjust their tactics, hence there’s little inclination to be more adventurous from a practical point of view.
“The result is a beat ’em up with the creative dive of a stale kipper and a stench to match.”
“Batman moves like an arthritic pensioner on a cold day. Presumably, Bruce Wayne was busy and Alfred had to take over the action. The combat moves are simply dreadful, making Jon Pertwee’s Venusian Aikido in Dr Who look like something that would have Bruce Lee running scared. He is limited to one punch and three types of kick although only one, the flying kick, is needed to defeat most foes.”
“For defence, he can roll out of trouble if you pull down and in a direction on the joystick, but most of the time he just slides along the ground looking like an ice skater with back trouble.”
“The biggest crime has to be the character graphics, though. We live in the age of AGA chipsets and 256-colour sprites, yet Batman’s graphics consist of the blockiest, worst animated sprites I’ve seen in a long time.”
“It is almost impossible to fight without taking several hits, and dying is something that comes very easily, as the game occasionally decides to take two lives off you in one go. This is utterly frustrating and is definitely the final, six-inch nail in the gameplay coffin.”
“Whatever way you look at this game, it should have never got off the drawing board. It is without a doubt an oven-ready turkey with all the trimmings, including a melted polly-bag full of giblets inside. It would be easier for me to pull a double-decker bus out of my bottom than it would be to recommend this game. Don’t bother with it.”
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
CU Amiga (19%, February 1994)
It’s all a far cry from the previews and programmer John Heap’s optimistic interview responses. John was previously responsible for coding the Spectrum versions of Shadowfire, Enigma Force, The Great Escape, Where Time Stood Still etc. so was certainly no amateur. Roy Bannon who shared Batman Returns coding duties with John had previously only worked on World Class Rugby for the C64.
When I asked Roy how John and himself split the work he revealed that the Amiga version was mostly a solo coding project despite Roy being credited in the manual.
“Whilst John was initially working on the Amiga version I was largely working on the C64 version. To my recollection, I only went on to the Amiga version when it had reached the desperation stage.
I can’t remember how we divided up the workload but in those days source control was swapping tapes so we would’ve been working on different levels for the large part.”
According to John, Streetfighter II was to be the design model, emphasising Batman Returns’ plethora of unique moves over and above your standard platformer. Perhaps like the SNES interpretation, only on a smaller scale, allowing us to fully appreciate a pixelated replica of the movie’s eerily alluring cinematography.
“I like the idea of taking out street punks, but I wouldn’t do it in no darn tights. But seriously, this is the ultimate Batman with all the moves a fighter could want plus perfect graphics and music. Konami delivers a direct hit.”
GameFan Magazine (90%, SNES, April 1993)
“For starters, it’s undoubtedly the best scrolling beat-’em-up ever. In no other game will you find such huge, well-animated characters – not even in Final Fight – or such an imaginative range of fighting moves. Where else, for example, can you throw baddies through shop windows? Or swoop down on them, cape flapping in the breeze, and punch them soundly on the nose? And the other terrific thing about it is that Konami have got the spirit of the original film completely sewn up. They’ve really gone overboard with the intro sequence, with hundreds of digitised stills from the film and Bat-Signals whizzing in and out. And the actual game itself is even more Batmanny thanks to the skill that’s gone into drawing the sprites and backgrounds. What’s particularly smart is the way Batman himself moves about just as he does in the film, almost as if there’s a miniaturised Michael Keaton tucked away inside your Super Nintendo.”
Super Play (87%, SNES, May 1993)
Ironically for a violent beat ’em up harnessed by a limited number of lives, Warner Bros. imposed a peculiar stipulation; Batman can’t die. This awkward caveat also applied to Batman’s treatment of his enemies; rather than receiving an unsavoury visit from the Grim Reaper, they’re booted off-screen.
This furthermore explains the origins of Denton’s plan to incorporate non-lethal interrogation scenes. These would have entailed our caped crusader making decisions between various lines of questioning, his detective work bringing him closer to nailing the elusive Penguin.
Any evidence gathered through exploring the platforming sections was to be brought back to the Batcave for analysis via Wayne Enterprises’ high-tech gadgetry. Still in the ‘incident room’, news footage and a biographical database of known felons would be studied to further his knowledge of transpiring events, aiding his response to them.
Checking out the seven disk, 3rd person adventure title for DOS may give us a few clues as to what might have been. In 1993 numerous German magazines reviewed this rendition (awarding scores between 31% and 78%) as well as the Hebrew publication ‘Wiz’ (90%), yet no English-speaking outfits cared enough to take a look? Very odd.
“A very disappointing adaptation of the blockbuster movie license, Batman Returns is a hodge-podge of elements from adventure, action, and role-playing genres, the whole of which is much less than the sum of its parts.” – Home of the Underdogs review (DOS version)
“Although you can control Batman as he battles his foes, that control is limited to selecting weapons, and setting the ‘ferocity’ of Batman’s attack. The battles are not very interactive, since batman seems to win easily no matter which weapon he chooses, although they are fun to watch.” – Home of the Underdogs review (DOS version)
Whilst aiming to combine RPG, puzzle-solving and combat elements Denton intended to distance their project from Ocean’s earlier 1989 ‘Batman the movie’ hit tie-in. A decision which ultimately led them to drop all puzzle interludes similar to those found in RoboCop and Terminator 2. Focusing instead on combat they believed would help to improve the flow and pacing of the action.
“In the final analysis, Batman Returns is only an average adventure that could have been so much more, given the powerful license. Is it worth it? Only for dedicated bat-fans, and perhaps those who are new to the adventure genre. The game basically ignores the movie’s plot, sends you on ludicrous object hunts, and lacks all the atmosphere that makes the movie a cult classic.
Be warned: once you have the walkthrough, the game takes less than an hour to complete. Without a walkthrough, it takes only a little longer.” – Home of the Underdogs review (DOS version)
In fact, judging by how late the project was running (and inside knowledge shared in a 1Go YouTube video by a then 15-year-old playtester), most of the envisaged design was slashed to its barebones with the remainder hurriedly rushed to market to cut their losses. To compensate for the diluted ‘finished’ product, the game’s retail price was reduced to £15, designating it as a sort of oxymoronic premium budget title.
Roy confirmed the predicament the team faced when I queried this madcap race to the finish line.
“Coming up to the do or die deadline neither John or I could recall who had the most recent version of the code as we were well into pulling a 70-hour shift.”
Providing further evidence of corner-cutting, no AGA upgrade was made available, and even the standard edition lacks an opening menu and game over screen.
A work in progress Commodore 64 port was scrapped altogether owing to its deemed financial infeasibility. With the Amiga on the brink of expiration, the 8-bit systems stood no chance. Commodore Force monitored the progress of the game via a developer diary series spread across several months. Its final entry in October 1993 consisted of a rundown of Roy’s recent holiday seeing as progress on Batman Returns had stalled indefinitely by this stage.
Despite all the disappointing concessions, Batman Returns evinces optional music and sound effects, albeit not a rendition of Danny Elfman’s movie soundtrack as the licence didn’t extend to its inclusion.
Again contradicting its frugal constitution Batman himself comprises almost 200 frames of animation, suggesting that the graphics were at a more advanced stage of development than other elements when the order to wrap up the project was issued.
Plenty of effort was similarly expended on drawing and animating Batman’s opponents. It’s nice to see Catwoman’s Miss Whiplash impersonation, high-rise building crawling and cartwheels were incorporated.
Batman gets in the Christmas spirit by reenacting his favourite scene from ‘The Snowman’. “We’re walking in the air, we’re floating in the moonlit sky…”
“A Gothic, visual treat with a distinctive graphic style that suffers at the hands of frustrating gameplay!” – Mean Machines (77%, Mega Drive, December 1992)
Not a dog person? Why not kick a cute, waddling, rocket-packing penguin modelling a party hat into the middle of next week? There are plenty to practice on in the sewer level!
Some of the beautifully rendered film-noir backdrops and narrative stills are captivatingly atmospheric. You have to admire the effective depth perception trickery. Highly relevant too – even Felix the Cat is included (Shreck’s company mascot). I also appreciated the pretty, twinkling, enormous Christmas tree, then in the following level seeing its riot-scarred, incinerated substitution.
I really don’t understand all the negativity levelled at the visuals. Of course, they’re a bit blocky viewed via a modern LCD monitor! Apply an anti-aliasing filter to recreate its original aesthetic and you may change your tune.
Count yourself lucky, this is what you could have received for Christmas; the NES version.
“I am disappointed with the quality of this cart.” – Electronic Gaming Monthly (60%, December 1992) …sounds more like ‘Comic Book Guy’ from The Simpsons to me.
“It’s a shame that Batman Return’s gameplay falters as it does. The fighting action is tame from the start and never manages to gain any traction. You face off against the same goons in every stage, armed with the same predictable attacks.” – The Video Game Critic (25%, December 2005)
There’s certainly no mistaking Batman Returns is a DC Comics endorsed title thanks to artist Ally Noble’s meticulously transcribed presentation. It’s the game’s saving grace, if you only intend to watch it. Previously responsible for crafting the visuals for popular titles such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Great Escape, and Where Time Stood Still, the artwork was in safe hands.
In terms of mirroring the plot of the movie, it does as much as a button-mashing 16-bit brawler can. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t as Denton had access to a top-secret copy of the script prior to release. They signed a nondisclosure agreement to confirm they wouldn’t leak any of its contents. Despite what some of the previews reported, Roy informed me, “We did have a draft of the screenplay but no video of the movie.”
Vincent Schiavelli serves as Penguin’s right-hand ‘Organ Grinder’. He also drives the kiddy-catcher choo-choo, channelling a certain character from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Both will make your skin crawl!
One vehicle that you won’t find in the Amiga Batman Returns game; the Batmobile.
Although, there’s always ‘Batman: the movie’… erm, the game, if that’s your preference.
…or the DOS-based Batman Returns adventure game developed by Spirit of Discovery, published by Konami in 1992.
Meanwhile, back on the Amiga, split into five segments, each of the levels represents a key location from the silver screen incarnation as summarised in the quickie version of the manual…
“Just as in the film The Penguin is trying to take over Gotham City. Batman is Gotham’s only hope.
Through five levels, from pavement to rooftop, you must use your skill and Batweapons to disarm all of The Penguin’s evil helpers. They are all here; The red Triangle Circus Gang, Stilt-walkers, Catwoman and finally, in a rooftop battle the destructive Penguin himself.
As Batman works his way around the city he will find a number of things to help him. They can be collected by jumping over the symbol that represents the object.”
Commodore was always a step ahead; this is the Bluetooth-enhanced lever console owners could only dream of.
“The bottom line is while Sega did a decent job bringing the movie to their black box, it could have been a whole lot better if they toned down the difficulty and added some variety. If you really want to play Batman Returns on a Sega system, you might want to pop in the Sega CD version instead.” – Sega-16.com (70%, Mega Drive, December 2005)
Batman recreates the Werther’s Original advert over in Mega Drive land.
“Arcade-minded gamers will probably prefer the eye candy and simpler gameplay of the SNES version, but if you’re up for the challenge, Batman Returns is a satisfying romp.” – The Video Game Critic (67%, Mega Drive, November 2005)
What the manual doesn’t mention is that the Penguin teams up with shady capitalist, Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) who intends to subjugate Gotham by syphoning off its excess power whilst pretending to generate it. It’s a stupid, boring subplot so I can see why it would be dropped.
Penguin blackmails Max into running his mayoral campaign and somehow the citizens of Gotham are initially on board with the idea. That’s despite him looking like the freshly dug up corpse of a kiddie snatcher, incessantly drooling green slobber and munching on raw fish.
Volunteer Bimbo: You are the coolest role-model a young person could have!
The Penguin: And you’re the hottest young person a role-model could have.
The Penguin: I could really get into this mayor stuff. It’s not about power, it’s about reaching out to people – touching people – groping people!
The Penguin: You gotta admit I played this stinkin’ city like a harp from hell.
The Penguin: Just relax. I’ll take care of the squealing, wretched, pinhead puppets of Gotham!
When exposed as a fraud, feathers ruffled, Penguin flies off the rails vowing to kidnap and execute all the city’s firstborn boys (later deciding it was rash to limit his targets). Again, somehow, this is expected to avenge his own treatment at the merciless hands of his parents.
Fat Clown: Penguin… I mean, killing sleeping children. Isn’t it that a little, uh…
(Penguin grabs an umbrella and shoots Henchman dead)
The Penguin: No! It’s a lot “uh”!
(Kicks Henchman into the water)
The Penguin: My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold! It’s okay to be scared; many of you won’t be coming back. Thanks to Batman, the time has come to punish all God’s children! 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th-born! Why be biased? Male and female! Hell, the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high! Forward march! The liberation of Gotham has begun!
Selina Kyle: Okay, go ahead. Intimidate me, bully me if it makes you feel big. I mean it’s not like you can just kill me.
Maximillian ‘Max’ Shreck: Actually, it’s a lot like that.
Catwoman has her own agenda as alluded to in the movie’s synopsis. Having been pushed out of the window of a skyscraper by her boss, Max, the former secretary is nibbled and licked by a feral feline army, resurrecting her as a sort of supercat zombie with nine lives.
Catwoman: I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.
No, I don’t understand how that works either! Are they super-powered mutant cats? As far as the movie explains it, Selina Kyle/Catwoman has an affinity for her moggies before being murdered so naturally she’s transformed into one upon death. Of course.
I suppose it neatly mirrors Oswald Cobblepot’s origin story. He’s born slightly resembling a Penguin and so totally coincidentally it transpires that he’s nurtured by his ‘kin’ in a sewer, the ideal habitat of the species. Growing up surrounded by penguins, obviously, he becomes one.
The Penguin: (shouting) My name is not Oswald! It’s Penguin! I am not a human being. I am an animal! Cold-blooded!
It’s an odd entry in the Batman movie back-catalogue in that the main man/Chiroptera is reduced to a peripheral character, only included to prop up the villains. Danny DeVito’s revolting raw-fish-chomping Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s vacuum-sealed Catwoman are the real stars of the show.
Batman doesn’t even get an origin story on this occasion. It’s perhaps for the best that he’s side-lined; Michael Keaton was never that convincing as a one-man crime-fighting cavalry.
Had Annette Bening not fallen pregnant she would have been first choice to play Catwoman and cost Warner Bros. $2m less than superstar Michelle Pfeiffer. How does one ‘fall’ pregnant anyway? It sounds improbable to me. Never mind. Other actresses to be considered for the role included…
Lorraine Bracco, Cher, Geena Davis, Bridget Fonda, Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Madonna, Demi Moore, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Raquel Welch.
Not so similarly (given the anatomical differences between men and women), Dustin Hoffman was first in line for the role of the Penguin, though rejected the offer. Everyone male with a heartbeat was subsequently considered for the part ultimately accepted by Danny DeVito…
Dudley Moore, Marlon Brando, John Candy, Bob Hoskins, Ralph Waite, Dean Martin, Alan Rickman, Phil Collins, Charles Grodin, Ben Kingsley, John Goodman, Christopher Lee, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Rocco and Christopher Lloyd.
As luck, fate or whatever would have it, I think the final casting decisions were perfect even if the movie is far from it.
Batman Forever directed by Joel Schumacher is the movie commonly attributed with making a laughing stock of the already dubious, camp superhero with no super-powers. People forget, however, that Batman Returns set it on the road to pantomime and cheesy one-liners three years earlier.
Regardless, maybe this outcry misses the point entirely; the original TV series starring Adam West wasn’t exactly a grittily realistic drama what with its toned-down comic-book, violence and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Running with the theme can hardly be considered counterculture, can it?
- Catwoman: You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.
- The Penguin: (to Catwoman) Just the pussy I’ve been lookin’ for!
- The Penguin: I’d like to fill her void.
Equally cringy is all the lewd, tacky sexual innuendo that resulted in a backlash of complaints from parents, and for McDonald’s to withdraw their promotional Happy Meal campaign. Penguin has spent 33 years living in a sewer with no human contact so when he encounters the BDSM fetishist’s dream in a skin-tight PVC bodysuit his reflexive response is as creepy as an unsupervised Jimmy Saville in a creche.
Catwoman: I want in. The thought of busting Batman makes me feel all… dirty. Maybe I’ll just give myself a bath right here.
(licks herself in a cat-like manner)
Catwoman: We need to talk. You see, you and I have something in common.
The Penguin: Sounds familiar. Appetite for destruction? Contempt for the czars of fashion? Wait, don’t tell me…
(begins to crawl onto the bed she’s sitting on)
The Penguin: naked sexual charisma.
Catwoman: Batman. The thorn in both our sides. The fly in our ointment.
The Penguin: Ointment!
(jumps up and picks up two bottles)
The Penguin: Scented or unscented?
Catwoman: I’ll come back later.
Catwoman nonchalantly deflects his leering advances, giving as good as she gets in her liaisons with Bruce Wayne, setting women’s liberation back by about fifty years. Steamier scenes may well have ensued – when Pfeiffer’s catsuits cost $1000 apiece (all 60 of them!) you can’t afford to allow the cast to paw them any more than absolutely necessary.
It’s incredible really that Batman Returns is so well regarded given how far it deviates from the first movie’s deadpan-serious overtones and convincing super-villain. I’d appreciate the wonderfully dark, sinister elements had they not been impoverished by misjudged comedy.
Catwoman: Somebody say fish? I haven’t been fed all day!
Batman: Eat floor.
(throws Catwoman down)
Batman: High fibre.
Nonetheless, Tim Burton seems to have earned a pass courtesy of his exceptional first effort combined with the fallout from Schumacher’s atrocious Batman Forever with its memorably awful one-liners, throwaway plot and hammy acting.
Rotten Tomatoes adjudicates Batman Returns worthy of a 78% approval rating, whilst CinemaScore informs us that public audiences concur, awarding Keaton’s second and final Batman movie an aggregated ‘B’.
In contrast, the game is derided as one of the worst movie-game conversions ever. Consensus being, it’s a terrible beat ’em up, worse platformer, and Robin isn’t even in it to take the blame! As fantastic on paper as were the comics, yet tragically losing its way on route to the small screen.
Robin fans wouldn’t have to wait Forever… about three years if you owned a SNES, Genesis or DOS-based PC.