Over the last couple weeks, fellow Planet Arbitrarian, Joe, and myself, have taken a couple video game adventures to some game stores in the Chicago-land area. Check out this weeks Retro Game Review Podcast to hear all the flamboyant and scary details of the trips. On the scarier adventure, one of the games I picked up was Batman: Return of the Joker for the NES. I remember seeing this game as a kid because one of the most sinister looking pictures of the Joker ever created graces the cover of this cartridge. The first time I saw the picture it was instantly tattooed in my mind forever. Well, after being haunted for years by that picture, I finally sat down to play the game.
Batman: Return of the Joker, was released back in 1991 for the NES and was the sequel to the first Batman game on the console. It was developed by Sunsoft which is the same studio that created the first game. The first Batman game by Sunsoft was based on the 1989 Batman movie directed by Tim Burton. For the Sequel, Batman is more based on the traditional comic book version of Batman, though the game does borrow elements from the ’89 movie like the Batmobile and the Batwing. So, it’s kind of a mix of Batman worlds going on in the game which isn’t bad but it can be a little confusing at first for die-hard Batfans. During the game, I even had moments where I was yelling out “What Bat world is this taking place in?!” Funny thing about this game, it’s original Japanese title is Dynamite Batman, which after playing the game, seems to suite it better than Return of the Joker.
Return of the Joker is a 2-D side scrolling platformer that spans 7 stages with traditional boss fights at the end of each stage. When I first started playing the game and I saw how platformer heavy it is, I thought “Well, this should be cool since I’ll have the Batclaw and grappling hook to help me along, similar to Bionic Commando.” You have no idea how disappointed I was when I saw that the Batclaw is not in this game. This only added to the confusion of what Batman world this game is taking place in. “What Batman doesn’t have the Batclaw?!” Even Adam Fucking West had a grappling hook, how could they leave this crucial Batman tool out of the game?
Batman: Return of the Joker Game Play
Even though having the Batclaw would have been helpful in this game, it’s not necessary. Every hard to reach area can be reached with basic jumping abilities with some jumps being a little more difficult to pull off than others. There’s also some gravity defying platforms that float in mid-air but slowly sink to the ground when you stand on them that can make tough jumps even more frustrating. The key to overcoming those is to jump quickly. It may take one or two attempts though to get the timing right. To kill enemies, Batman shoots Bat-a-rangs out of some kind of gun on his wrist. The Bat-a-rangs look more like bullets though as it looks like Batman is running through this game just shooting people. The gun or “Bat-a-rang” can be upgraded by collecting power-ups in each level. The upgrades are pretty cool and even enable your gun to be charged up for larger one-off attacks.
As cool as the upgrades are though, I do have one problem with one particular upgrade. After collecting a couple power-ups, your gun can fire two criss-crossing streams of Bat-a-rangs. The problem is that the figure-eight spray pattern the projectiles follow leave big gaps where enemies can sit and all of the Bat-a-rangs go around them leaving them unscathed. You either have to back up or move forward in order to close those gaps to kill enemies. It’s not a huge problem though as power-ups are plentiful in some levels which means you won’t have to use this upgrade long.
Another small problem I have with the combat in this game is that there is none, it’s all gun violence. This is why Dynamite Batman is a better title for this game. There’s even a point where Batman has a jet-pack on and the game turns into a 2-D space shooter, it’s bizarre. It’s almost as if this was meant to be a different game that never got finished so they swapped out the original characters and copied and pasted in Batman characters ala Mario Brothers 2. Even the Joker only makes one appearance in the game and that’s during the opening cinematic at the title screen. He’s the end-boss of the entire game and when he finally appears he doesn’t look anything like the Joker we saw at the beginning of the game. Instead, Joker takes the form of a large mechanical robot in the final boss fight, what the hell?!
Lastly, there’s the difficulty. This game follows in the footsteps of so many super hero games with an insane level of difficulty at times. This game is a big fan of surprise attacks and hidden enemies. Even right at the beginning of the game there’s a section where large spiked maces fall from a ceiling as you approach them. The first one you can see as it’s out in the open but after you successfully avoid being hit by it and you’re walking with some confidence, a completely hidden one falls out of nowhere and hits you. There’s no way to know it’s there unless you die at some point and you have to go back through this part of the game, it’s a cheap shot. Things like this continue to happen through-out the game. The game does have unlimited continues and a password save feature which leads me to believe that the developers knew they were making a difficult game.
The graphics are the saving grace of this game. It doesn’t even matter that this a confusing and difficult game, it looks great. Granted, some of the stages and backgrounds look a little rough but they’re not terrible as the game sports some fairly detailed and bright graphics. Even more impressive is the character animations. For an 8-bit NES game, Return of the Joker features pretty smooth and detailed character animations like the flowing motions of Batman’s cape as he moves or the detailed movements Batman’s body makes when he looks up while stationary. These smooth animations are a nice touch and makes everything this game does wrong forgivable.
The game sounds and music aren’t bad as this game features an almost catchy soundtrack. Of course, there’s the traditional 8-bit pops and hisses from time to time but overall, the music is listenable. As for the game sounds, they’re traditional 8 bit action sounds, they’re not bad but they’re not as ear catching as the music. This is definitely a game you can leave the volume up on instead of putting on some background music of your own.
Return of the Joker is easily one of the better retro Batman games out there despite it’s confusing setting and appearance. Again, the graphics save this game entirely which says a lot since this is a Batman game with no Hand-to-Hand combat and no actual in-game appearance by the games main villain, The Joker. I think fellow contributor, Joe, put it best when he saw this game “What is this? Contra?” Not a bad comparison. Happy Gaming
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