I didn't become aware of Batman Returns until about four months ago, when I was browsing through Gamefaqs' Sega Master System games list in search of interesting-sounding selections for Retro Gaming Live's "All Day Raffles," which I'd been attending on a regular basis. It seemed logical to think that it was a port of the NES original, but after viewing the accompanying screenshots, I couldn't be sure. And, really, that's what made it such an appealing option. "Wouldn't it be great," I thought, "to learn of Batman Return's true nature via a live 15-minute sampling?!"
And that, I decided, was the way that Batman Returns and I would be formally introduced. I made up my mind that I wouldn't seek out any additional information about the game until such a scenario had played out.
Sadly, though, I wasn't having much luck with the raffle drawings. Week after week I'd come up empty. Eventually I ran out of patience; after failing for the fifth week in a row, I said "Screw it" and decided that I might as well test out the game for myself. "Why drag this out any longer?" I thought. "Why engage in all this buildup for a game that may very well turn out to be cheap, generically designed movie-licensed dreck?"
Oh, but it wasn't. Rather, Batman Returns immediately showed itself to be ambitious in spirit and thoughtful in design. Right from the outset, it was determined to dispel any notion that it was a cheaply made cash-in and loudly communicate to first-time players that they were about to experience a finely polished, well-realized action game.
It was dripping with quality, which I was delighted to see, but what really got me stirring was how it went about conveying this feeling. There was something very familiar about this game--something very familiar about its controls, its aesthetic, its musical instrumentation, and moreover its whole vibe. It didn't become clear to me until I listened closely to its enemy-damaging sound effect, whose markedly reminiscent ringing had me asking myself, "Now where have I heard this sound effect before?"
Suddenly it hit me: "Why, it's from The G.G. Shinobi!" And from there I could only wonder: "Could it be that these two games were made by the same developer? It's obvious that they share the same sound designer, but what if the connections run deeper?"
So I looked it up and discovered that Batman Returns and The G.G. Shinobi were indeed developed by the same company: Aspect Co., a Japanese-based developer that had a close working relationship with Sega (it's listed a "contracted studio"). "What an amazing coincidence!" I said. I felt so fortunate to have stumbled upon this--one of the company's lost works.
So it's no surprise that Batman Returns has turned out to be a hidden gem. It's really got me hooked; I've been playing it regularly for the past three months. Though, it didn't need that long to convince me to write about it; no--I've been meaning to do that since our first meeting. So let's get started with this long-overdue piece. Let's talk about Batman Returns!
The game's title tells us all we need to know about its story, which is of course based on the Tim Burton movie's though somewhat loosely: The power-hungry Penguin, as portrayed by Danny Devito, has staked a claim in Gotham (whereas in the film he was driven underground following the implosion of his mayoral campaign), and now it's up to Batman to rid the city of the waddling wretch and his circus goons. This overarching narrative drives the game's progression but doesn't shackle it; instead, it allows the ongoing plot to express itself in a rather unique way. That is, each stage presents a self-contained scenario--an individually developed chapter in which a particular group or character carries out a personal agenda. I'll hit upon each one as we go (and I'll be relying chiefly on the game's manual for the all-important details, which aren't communicated in-game).
I can best describe Batman Returns as "Shinobi meets Bionic Commando." Though, that's a surface-level description. In reality, it never fully encroaches upon either; rather, it combines elements of both and spins them in such a way that Batman Returns comes out feeling like something fresh and new--something far from derivative. Really, Aspect's Batman isn't like any other you've played.
Right from the outset, Batman Returns aims to differentiate itself from all of those other 8-bit Batman games. You'll sense as much when you play around with the action button and learn that Batman's repertoire is absent of hand-to-hand fighting moves. Instead, his main source of offense is the ranged Batarang--a boomerang-like weapon that travels at a quarter-of-the-screen length. Also, you'll find that the game's mode of level design calls for heavy use of a grappling mechanic whose successful utilization demands a certain amount of skill. More on this in a moment.
The rest of Batman's platforming maneuvers are crafted along conventional lines. He executes jumps that are both floaty and fully controllable, his hang time such that there's plenty of time to improvise--to adeptly draw closer to active targets or weave around incoming attacks. However, he can't switch directions while airborne, which hampers his ability to deal with enemies that suddenly rush in from behind. You can otherwise control the height of his jumps by pressing the button with variable levels of influence. His other basic maneuvers include crouching and dropping through narrow platforms.
Much less called upon but nevertheless super-cool is his ability to draw open his cape and float down to the ground. You can trigger this move by continuing to hold the jump button after Batman has jumped or dropped down; though, it won't activate until Batman's fall-distance exceeds that of the height reached during his highest jump, which is to say that it can't be used if the platform to which he's leaping is either higher up or level. While descending in this manner, he is able to change direction at will.
And then there's the grappling system, upon which the game's platforming and stage-navigation elements are greatly dependent. It's not as meticulously developed or as refined as Bionic Commando's system, no, but it's still fairly intricate. The main difference is there's no button dedicated to the grappling hook; rather, its use is mapped to the jump button, which means that Batman is only capable of firing it while airborne. By default, the grappling hook travels diagonally at about a three-tile length, though you can alter its direction to straight vertical by holding up as the button is pressed.
Once the hook has latched onto a solid surface, Batman will hang down beneath it. From there you can adjust his hanging distance and thereafter swing back and forth to gain momentum; you can even adjust the hanging distance while swinging, of which our pal Nathan Spencer was never capable! The process requires your active participation, because Batman doesn't swing automatically; rather, you have to guide his swinging motion and do so with a certain rhythm; otherwise his movement will stall or he'll remain idle (rapidly tapping back and forth, for instance, will work to no effect).
Once you've settled upon a desired hanging distance and momentum-level, you can swing away and at any time propel yourself by pressing the jump button. For some extra boost, Batman performs a jump upon release--ordinarily at a fixed height; though, if you press the button at the peak of a swing, Batman's jump will gain additional height and thus a greater amount of hang time.
While grappling from them, he's able to propel himself up through narrow platforms. The thicker surfaces are solid; you can neither jump or drop through them. Though, highly skilled players will find that it is possible to curl around and up to the edges of these solid platforms if you position yourself correctly and release your grip at a swing's very peak (we're talkin' about the type of pixel-perfect maneuvering that only experts will be able to execute consistently).
If you hope to finish Batman Returns, you will have to become proficient at grappling. And that'll be quite a challenge, since that the learning curve for grappling is pretty steep. It may take a long while to get acclimated to it; and until such a time, the entire process will continue to feel harrowing. Though, once you're able to make sense of it, you'll start finding great reward in being able to deftly swing about and maneuver around even the most daunting of obstacles. It's a well-implemented system.
You can otherwise use the grappling hook to strike overhead-positioned enemies (its strength is about equal to the Batarang's) and the power-up-providing item markers.
The item markers, which take the form of hovering bats, are strewn about all across the game's five stages. They drop three different items: Yellow Batman icons, which boost Batman's walking speed by one level. Gray Batman icons, which increase the speed and distance of his Batarang up to two levels. And Red Batman icons, which award him extra lives; though, I'd more correctly term them "extra hits," since that's basically how the game treats extra lives. As they're available in abundance, losing one isn't a serious matter, so they instead come to function as a unique form of health. The only consequence of dying is the loss of your upgrades, which, really, you're likely to promptly reacquire. And there's no real loss of progress, either; if you succumb to an enemy attack or fall into a pit, the game will simply respawn you on the last platform on which you established solid footing.
There are no continues. If at any point you deplete your entire stock, the game will end, and you'll have to restart from Stage 1.
The game's most innovative feature is its route-selecting system: Available for each stage are two separate routes--two uniquely designed stage settings--either of which culminates with the same boss battle. And you can choose to travel one or the other--mix it up as you please. The best part is that we're not talking about a slight shade of variance between the two routes; rather the second routes are distinct in that they feature an expert difficulty. This makes them entirely uninviting to newcomers, yes, but it offers seasoned players a chance to really test their skills. It also affords Batman Returns a desirable does of replay value, because, I say, any excuse to return to this game is a good one.
It's a simple idea, yes, yet it's so brilliant. Really, it's a shame that other games from the era didn't copy it. Hopefully a modern game designer or two will unearth Batman Returns and take such influence from it.
Scenario: Gotham's citizens are being terrorized by the Red Triangle Circus Gang, a horde of grievous goons.
Batman Returns is an attractive game, though more so stylistically than graphically. That is, much of its visual charm is derived from how it presents itself. It does so with such expression. You'll realize as much as you observe Batman's sprite-animations, which are filled with character: When idle, he enters a fighting stance and begins bouncing up and down with his fists outstretched. He walks forward with an imposing full-profile posture. And whenever he's descending or swinging forward, his cape begins to flow in the wind. (And he's colored purple, because that's just tradition.)
The game's art direction and mode of visual rendering do well to produce the scene as described in the manual: "Ancient, decrepit buildings are held up with street girders, massive water pipes embedded in old brick walls rust away, and dingy yellow streetlights illuminate the streets with a pale light." This is well-communicated in Stage 1: Buildings' textures are granular to reflect their deteriorated nature, and the walls and surfaces display muted highlights that speak of the city's dreary state of luminance. These environments function to tell us a story. They're helped by the small-but-nevertheless-important details like the Christmas decorations and the Penguin posters, which provide further context.
Stage 1's is your typical high-energy, pulse-raising opening theme. It's an uptempo piece whose rapidly occurring, mesmerizingly complex strains absorb your attention and pull you into the action. I can't help but point out that the music's style is directly in vein of The G.G. Shinobi's (as is the game's sound design in general); it certainly works to the same effect, which is to say that it keeps me focused and engaged. Don't expect to hear any 8-bit renditions of the sweeping compositions as heard in the Tim Burton films. No--the music here is not at all indicative of what you heard in the game's big-screen counterpart; rather, it's a product of and belongs purely to the Master System, which makes Batman Returns its own (in the same way the NES made 1989's Batman its own). That, my friends, is the power of 8-bit music.
As is standard, Route 1 is broken up into two sections. The first is straightforward, all horizontal. You can traverse it via the street or the buildings' ledges, whose surrounding spaces house a greater selection of valuable items (extra lives, mainly). Garnering a quick understanding of the grappling system will be key if you intend to access these ledges; it also helps to know that you can grapple up to and stand atop the street lamps--a position from which you can then leap to solid ledges.
Before you can proceed to the second section, you have to destroy the Penguin's campaign bus. It's natural to want to jump atop it or pass through it, as though it were a background object, but this will prove to be a mistake, since it represents a physical danger despite there being no outward signs that it is (I learned the hard way that making contact with it is instant death). What you have to do, instead, is keep your distance and attack it with the Batarang. Four hits will do the job.
In the second section, the scene expands vertically. Your job now is to snake around series of ledges in order to negotiate your way over stacks of crates.
A number of Red Triangle goons will attempt to halt your progress. There's the lanky clown--a boxer who moves to within proximity before throwing a lightning-quick jab. The acrobatic thug, who continues to leap toward you. The fat clown, who curls into a ball and quickly rolls toward you when you move to within a certain distance. The bomb-throwing vixen, who throws three bombs in succession from far to near. The gun-toting clown, who slowly inches forward before firing a single shot. The bomb-dropping clown, who at regular intervals drops bombs directly down to the level below; as he possesses no periphery attacks, he's helpless if you approach him from the side. And the exploding clown, who blows himself up when you move to within a two-tile radius; if you're a level below an exploding clown, he'll drop down onto you before exploding. Every minor enemy can be taken out with a single hit.
Route 2 is structurally similar to Route 1 (two sections--the first straightforward, the second expanded vertically), but far more difficult to traverse. The biggest difference is that the area lay in ruin and long sections of the street are missing; in place of solid ground are long expanses over which you'll have to skillfully grapple. You can otherwise access the ledges above and engage in some high-pressure pixel-perfect platforming, with any miscalculated maneuver landing you in a bottomless pit. It's all very perilous. And if you hope to survive long, you'll have to quickly sharpen you grappling skills. There's no easing your way in, since the level design is brutal from the start.
You'll encounter a couple of unique enemies here. There's the stationary flame-thrower goon, who releases a short stream of fire every three seconds. A second type of exploding clown; this one attempts to bait you in by challenging you to draw near. The armored trickster, who uses a jackhammer-like device to thrust a long, retractable blade down toward the level below; like the bomb-dropping clown, he lacks periphery attacks and is vulnerable from the sides. And the rocket-launching goon, who fires a rocket from his launcher every two seconds.
I can't speak highly enough of the game's level design, which was obviously thoughtfully considered. Batman Returns makes great use of its spaces. It knows when to offer you a level of freedom and when to carefully manage your advancement. It doesn't allow you the cheap option of flying over or uninterruptedly grappling across whole stage sections; rather, it forces you to work around its structures and use your abilities to locate a viable path; and from there you can then branch off--meticulously explore the surrounding area and its not-immediately-visible fringes in search of valuable goodies. Or you can play it safe and stick to the most direct, stress-free path. It's how you choose to go about exploring the game's stages that differentiates each experience.
The grappling system, while also well-realized, lacks some polish. The biggest issue is collision-detection: The grappling hook latches onto a platform's underside only if it hits squarely; if it passes through a platform, which is likely to happen if you're trying to connect with it while approaching from the side, the shot won't connect, and you'll fall helplessly. Also, the length at which the grappling hook is seen to travel isn't indicative of its true range, which is actually a bit shorter than what you observe, the disparity such that it can become difficult to correctly time your shots; there will be plenty of instances where you'll feel as though the grappling hook should have made contact when the game says that it didn't. Finding consistency will be your challenge here.
Waiting for us at the end of either route is the boss--the Tattooed Strongman. This burly, pot-bellied brute takes swigs of alcohol, which he uses as fuel for his three flame-spewing attacks. He cycles between them in the following order: short-range flame breath, an arcing fireball chain, and a trailing wave of flame. The big guy is susceptible to damage only when he's in his drinking animation. Six shots will do him in.
Scenario: Batman follows the hoodlums into a Shreck's department store.
The atmosphere in Max Shreck's commercial establishment appears to be relaxed, yet the aural and visual indicators suggest otherwise. That is, neutral color shades and a soft, mysterious-sounding tune combine to create an air of unease--implant in your mind that unseen dangers are lurking in the shadows. And they certainly are. That's the theme of this stage: The biggest threats are those that aren't immediately visible. It's all very unsettling--and delightfully so, I might add! My favorite visual touch is a repeated background detail: hallways that stretch into the background and speak of the store's considerable depth and scale. They function not just to provide some interesting imagery but to also get your imagination stirring--make you wonder about what's going on back there, in those adjacent wings, and create the sense that the evil forces might emerge from any angle.
The first section of Route 1 expands several screens along both axes, and it features a labyrinthine design. Successfully advancing through the store's interior is a matter of locating the narrow surfaces through which you can jump after grappling up to them. Solving the riddle entails discerning which supporting pillars are solid and which are unobstructive foreground elements.
The background, you'll notice, is populated with numerous double doors, all of which are active level-design elements. Whenever you move to within range of one, it pops open, revealing a concealed danger (enemies I've already discussed) or, less frequently, a helpful item; as you traverse through the stage, you have to remember to keep an eye out for these doors, lest you'll continue to fall victim to surprise attacks. Also, you have to be careful not to grapple up through a platform that rests directly beneath a door, as doing so will lead to an unavoidable death. The key is to pay attention to your surroundings.
Navigation also entails the traversal of moving walkways, a couple of which are placed right at the stage's starting point. These conveyors provide opportunities for convenient speed boosts, yes, but their true purpose is to obscure the nearby enemies and promptly deliver you to an unexpected trigger point--to limit your reaction time and stunt your ability to adequately respond to a suddenly-detected enemy attack.
The trickiest bit of platforming is found in section's lower-right corner, where falling chandeliers set the ground ablaze. You'll have no choice but grapple your way over these fiery gaps, touching which leads to instant death. Once you move beyond them, you'll gain entrance to the stage's second section, which is more straightforward. Though, it features a particularly troubling sequence wherein you have to grapple over a fiery gap under cramped conditions and via a fractured ceiling structure. If you've yet to gain a firm grasp on the grappling system, you could potentially dump all of your lives here. You could always tank your way through the flames, sure, but then you'd probably be in a position where your stock is severely depleted.
Stage 2 introduces only one new minor enemy: an aggressive slide-kicking clown.
Route 2 is absolutely fraught with danger. It features areas that are comprised entirely of fiery gaps, around which you'll have to gingerly maneuver. There are no two ways about it: You're gonna have to possess a full understanding of the grappling mechanics and how to correctly time your shots if you hope to endure these sequences.
Though, I've discovered a tactic that helps to keep you suspended and reduce the amount of risky grapple attempts: After successfully latching onto a ceiling, pull yourself up toward it. Thereafter, hold forward and rapidly tap the jump button; this will allow you to skitter across the ceiling and more reliably maneuver over gaps. You can thank me later.
Most everything else is familiar except for what you find near the section's end portion: a cool sequence wherein you have to use Batman's flight ability to glide down and snake around inflamed surfaces, finding openings wherever they may be. Sadly, there are only a tiny number of these sequences throughout the game, which is too bad, since they're a lot of fun.
Both routes carry us up to the store's rooftop, where we encounter the delectable-but-deadly Catwoman. Hers is a two-step pattern: First she dashes her way toward you before executing one of two attacks: a whip-swing or a vaulting flip. And then she begins diving back and forth between the two surrounding buildings--a number of times as she ascends and then descends. The first step is designed to keep you guessing; you can't be sure which attack she'll unleash, so all you can do is anticipate. The best all-purpose strategy is to hop backwards--far enough to evade a whip-strike but not so far that you'll collide with Catwoman on the back end of her vault.
Also, you can interrupt her building-diving by striking her with the grappling hook, doing which causes her to fall to the ground and reset the pattern. After you land a fifth hit, she'll flee the battle, living to fight another day.
Scenario: High above the streets of Gotham, Batman fights his way along the rooftops while the criminal element attempts to make his life difficult.
The stage's musical theme carries the load in terms of conveying the tenor of this building-top setting. Its busy, frenetic-sounding composition creates an air of instability and makes even basic platforming feel all the more precarious. It's just what the scenario called for. I mean, "unsteady" is exactly what you would feel if you were attempting to traverse along uneven rooftops while people in clown suits were trying to murder you (and don't you just hate it when that happens?).
Route 1's separate sections are similarly designed; both consist of wide-open spaces whose traversal entails working around and across buildings via their ledges and rooftops. Also, you'll have to negotiate your way around series of exposed girders and in some cases the deteriorated, crumbling surfaces that rest between them. Since most of the buildings are spaced apart, there's always the danger of falling into a gap, to your death; you should remain cognizant of this fact whenever you're jumping or dropping down to a level below--especially if you're not overly familiar with the stage's layout.
Here, too, there's no visual indication as to whether a pillar or girder is a solid object or merely a foreground element. You should never assume the former and instead hug every wall in sight, checking to see if it's passable. It's worth the effort to do so because the designers like to hide valuable items beyond such seeming barriers.
I was instantly enamored with Stage 3's setting because it reminded me so much of The G.G. Shinobi's city stage, for which I have a fondness. Really, it's a more-fleshed-out version of it. Also, it has the same type of charm to it: The scattered cityscapes seen far in the distance help to create such a wonderful sense of remoteness and separation, as if ours is a battle being waged somewhere where no eyes can see. And the encompassing, darkly hued night sky works to provide us an extra layer of cover; it helps to complete what is to me a great flavor of 8-bit setting.
Route 2 is thematically similar, though it's mostly devoid of a base level. Thus, there are many instances where you have no choice but to rely solely on your grappling skills. There's no avoiding peril here: Route 2 features a number of sequences in which you're required to grapple your way across entire areas--sometimes using nothing more than single blocks from an alternating arrangement. And all the while, you'll surely be troubled by the thought of the instant death that's waiting for you below.
It's dangerous to explore around the buildings' lower levels, but it makes sense to do so. That's where the designers have hidden the most valuable items. It's just that you're going to have to be precise about it.
Stage 3 introduces two new enemies: There's a second type of rocket-launching goon; this one fires rockets diagonally upward, its trajectory such that it's able to catch you unexpectedly as you drop or glide down. And an acrobatic woman who flies in from out of nowhere and temporarily plants herself before vaulting off the screen.
Our boss is the Fighting Golem. This blue menace commences the fight by rushing in and surprising you with fierce punch. Thereafter, he leaps back to the screen's right edge and begins channeling a rotating quartet of stony projectiles. Once the stones are fully formed, he commands them to dart toward you in a semicircular formation. If you hope to dodge them, you have to find an opening between them and thread it with a particularly precise jump. Squeezing through them isn't as easy as you'd figure because Batman Returns is another game in which the hero's hitbox is 1.5-times the size of the character; your calculation has to take this disparity into consideration.
From there, the Golem repeats this two-step pattern. Six hits will reduce him to rubble.
There are two separate strategies you can employ when fighting these bosses: (1) You can play it tactically--memorize the patterns and react accordingly. Maintain a high life-stock just to be safe. Or (2) you can tank them--throw caution to the wind; get right up in their faces and unrelentingly spam Batarangs. Treat your accumulated lives as disposable. Trust in the game's proclivity to supply you a whole new set of them in the next stage. Do what works for you.
Scenario: Batman continues his pursuit of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, whose members have retreated to their underground hideout. He descends into Gotham's dismal sewer system, which rests well below the city.
Gotham's sewer system isn't quite as gloomy and as distressing as the description implies, but still its environments induce feelings of trepidation. It's just that they convey an air of danger in a unexpected way--in a way that's atypical of a described "dark, dank" underground setting: Their textures instead have a fluorescent quality to them, which creates the sense that they're radioactive to the touch; they make you feel as though your simply being here is a hazard to your health. The stage's musical theme works to add a layer of foreboding; its slow tempo, eerie strains, and hauntingly reverberant bass notes fill you with a persistent feeling of concern--make you feel anxious as you wonder about what might be waiting for you in the surrounding spaces.
In Route 1, navigable environments are comprised mostly of sinuous pipes whose geometry is such that it's fairly difficult to maneuver around. The resulting level design demands consistent use of the grappling hook. There are a few instances when there's no obvious way to advance--when making meaningful progression becomes a matter of grappling along series of irregular ceiling structures and seeking out available pathways.
The stage's second section introduces rushing tides that carry you forward. If afforded such control, they'll ultimately deposit you into bottomless pits. These waters emerge from demonic-looking conduits--stone faces whose mouths continuously eject the liquid. The stone conduits also obstruct your path, and they're large enough to where you're forced to navigate around them via the platforms and structures seen overhead.
The sewers are home to the game's most annoying minor enemy: missile-equipped penguin commandos. These mind-controlled spheniscidae suddenly emerge onto the scene, fire off heat-seeking missiles, and then quickly flee. Any such missile will ceaselessly track you; it'll continue on your trail--orbiting around you in a roundabout fashion as it seeks an opening--until it makes contact or until you destroy it by striking it with one of your weapons.
And don't bother trying to scroll these missiles off the screen; they'll follow you wherever you go, no matter how far back you retreat. And since missiles are small in size, and it's difficult to draw a bead on them, a process of targeting or evading them proves to be burdensome if not maddening.
Stupid penguins. Get out of my video games.
Route 2 is filled with watery chasms over which you'll have to expertly grapple. You'll do so mainly by latching onto stone conduits--a second type that ejects water spouts at timed intervals. It's required that you grapple your way below series of them using their undersides at the attach points; also, you'll have to run some mental calculations and execute carefully timed grapples and swings, since the grouped conduits release their spouts asynchronously (though in an easily observed pattern). If you make contact with any of these spouts, your grip will break and you'll fall helplessly, any further input prohibited until Batman hits the ground. The between spaces are comprised of unforgiving, harrowing platforming sequences.
The second section is largely similar, though its end portion features something distinctive: another one of those cool gliding sequences. This time, you have to fly down and snake around a series of spike-lined surfaces.
Our boss is Catwoman, who's back for round 2. Her pattern remains the same, though this time she drops a number of daggers as she dives back and forth between the stone walls. The daggers drop slowly, and they're easy to evade, so in reality this version of the fight features almost none in the way of added difficulty. So no change of strategy is needed.
When you're done extinguishing the second of her nine lives, she'll once again flee. Though, she won't be returning for a third encounter, nor will she be playing any further role in the story. Maybe she wants to save some for the sequel. You know--the video-game adaptation of the next Burton film!
Scenario: The maze of sewers continues as Batman relentlessly pursues the elusive penguin.
In terms of graphical presentation, Stage 5 is more or less an extension of Stage 4. Though, there's a bit of an aesthetic difference: The environment's textures are choppier and more granular, which suggests that the current system has found itself in a state of neglect; these visual touches convey to you that we're traversing upon forgotten ground. There's no better place to hide if you're a hideous penguin-man.
Also, the music moves in an alternate direction. It's similarly eerie-sounding, yes, but it's brisker in tempo and more urgent in tone; its message is that you should steel yourself, for the most dangerous challenges lie ahead.
Though, the most significant difference is that there are no alternate routes; the path to the end is now strictly linear. So Stage 5 is forced to carry the full load, and consequently it becomes the game's longest, most difficult stage. It measures in at four sections, each of which features some of the game's most challenging platforming sequences.
In section one, you have to choose what's most convenient for you: Do you travel the item-packed upper path, whose platforms are spaced so far apart that you'll have to execute the most precise grapples and the lengthiest grapple-jumps if you hope to navigate onto them and reap their rewards, or do you wade into the tide below--advance at a much faster pace but forfeit your ability to collect items and risk dumping stock as you deal with creeping enemies?
Section two features a particularly rough vertical sequence wherein you have to ascend upward by grappling onto and platforming across distantly-spaced platforms and the sequenced barrels that are being carried down by the waterfall that comprises the area's entire backdrop. If you haven't yet mastered the grappling system, forget it--you ain't advancing past this section. You might not even get to see much of it, because the trickiest, most-deadly part is encountered right at the start, where you have to make headway by grappling about while being menaced by an inconveniently positioned rocket-launching goon, whose obstructive fire always seems to be perfectly timed. There's a good chance that you'll dump all of your stock as you desperately attempt to find workable angles.
I have to say, though: Aspect's designers had such a great flair for rendering waterfall backdrops. Those in Batman Returns (and The G.G. Shinobi, for that matter) glow so luminously and feature such rich animation. I've never seen better in an 8-bit game.
Section three slopes upward, its gradation such that the entire area is one big obstacle. Surmounting it requires heavy use of those aforementioned precise grapples and lengthy grapple-jumps. If at any point during the ascent you screw up and fall down to the base level--into the tide below--you'll have to backtrack a fair distance and try again.
The final section features a combination of tricky barrel-jumping sequences and stretches where you have to grapple across extended chasms via series of single blocks.
Along the way, we'll encounter two new minor enemies: First are the submerged hunchbacks, who suddenly pop out from the water and attempt to deal physical damage when they sense that you're invading their space. There's no secret as to where a hunchback is lurking; you'll see his head floating back and forth over a specified area. Hunchbacks are only vulnerable when their full bodies are in view, so if you want to eliminate one of them, you'll have to first bait him out of the water. Later on, you'll be accosted by a second type of acrobatic woman who continuously leaps over Batman's head--back and forth, from left to right--and targets her subjacent prey with a three-directional dagger attack.
Stage 5 represents a significant jump in difficulty and may very well overwhelm those who have grown accustomed to the relatively mild challenge experienced in the Route-1 stages. But that's no reason to be discouraged: If you like the game but lack the skill to clear it in one go, sequentially, you can always turn to the game's hidden stage-select option, which you can access by holding 1, 2 and Up when the title screen comes into view.
Once we've reached the sewer's darkest depths, we'll have located the Penguin. This will initiate the final battle, which occurs in three phases. In phase 1, the Penguin uses his flight-capable umbrella to fly about overhead--back and forth, with two swoops executed in the periods separating his single and two-step end-to-end flights--and shower the area with mines. In theory, you're supposed to carefully seek out openings and craftily strike the airborne Penguin; though, you can just as well trivialize this entire phase by safely camping at either screen edge, where the Penguin can't travel, and attacking him when he flies to within range. Four hits will prompt him to launch the next phase.
Phase 2 is basically a Dr. Wily-capsule fight. The Penguin descends onto the battlefield and conjures three bladed umbrellas, all of which spin in place for two seconds before darting at you. During each cycle, he'll hover at a variable height. When he's higher-positioned, it becomes tougher to successfully land strikes and dodge the umbrellas, which fly in at ever-more-difficult angles. Three hits will cause him to enter last-resort mode.
In the final phase, the Penguin takes command of his springy Duck Car. The vehicle's is a two-step pattern: (1) It charges forward, in an attempt to run you down, and then retreats back to the screen's edge. (2) And then it fires off two missiles, the second of which arcs upward. You can leap over the second missile if you're close to the vehicle; though, if you're instead at a distance, you'll have to crouch. The Duck Car's weak point is its head, which you'll have to strike six times. However, the conditions inevitably change: After the vehicle absorbs a fourth hit, it adds a third missile to its step-two attack; during this cycle, both the first and third missile arc upward.
The destruction of the Duck Car seals the Penguin's fate. His reign of terror is over. The ending sequence explains as much: After the Penguin's is defeated, peace returns to the city. We're assured that if any others like him ever threaten the good citizens of Gotham, Batman will again fight for the cause of justice. The people can rest easy knowing that the Caped Crusader is standing guard. All such text is interspersed between animated scenes wherein the triumphant Batman can be seen standing atop Gotham's tallest buildings, watching over the city. We then cut to the credits.
Batman Returns really took me by surprise. I was expecting it to be a typical run-of-the-mill movie-licensed game--an average-at-best platformer that I'd quickly abandon once curiosity was no longer a factor--but instead it turned out to be one of the best games I've unearthed since starting this blog. Now I regard it as another one of those "Where have you been all of my life?" games. I don't know what else to say except that I've been having great fun with it these last couple of months.
Aspect really outdid itself here. This company, I've been finding, had such an amazing ability to take any subject-matter and derive from it a great product. I can honestly say that Aspect's are some of the most well-constructed, most satisfying, and most replayable 8-bit games I've ever played. That's certainly true of Batman Returns, which I regard Master System standout. In fact, I'd say that it's one of the best Batman games in existence!
"Now, does your stating as much mean that you think it's a better game than Batman for the NES, to which it's sort of an analog?" you ask.
Well, reader, that's a tough one. Really, I'd say that it's too early to make that judgment. I'll feel more comfortable providing a definitive answer to that question after a few years have passed--when I'm able to see how Batman Returns ultimately resonates. If I were being pressed, I could certainly come up with a few reasons for why it's more fun than its NES counterpart, but I feel that such thoughts would be better expressed in a more appropriate space, like in a future comparison piece. For now, let's just say that they're both fantastic 8-bit Batman games. They're fun in very distinct ways, and for that reason they complement each other well.
Really, it's absolutely criminal that a game of this caliber is essentially lost to time. Batman Returns should be available on digital shops everywhere--on platforms where it would be rightfully celebrated by all those who love classic games. But you know how it goes with these licensed properties; for publishers, the process of bringing them back to market is often painstaking and not worth the financial risk. And--sadly, it seems--corporations are going to hold the majority of them hostage until the end of time.
But there are still plenty of ways to get a hold of Batman Returns, finding which is certainly worth the effort. So if you're a fan of Batman games or the Sega Master System (or the Game Gear, for which this game is also available), do yourself a favor and track down a copy. You won't regret it. (Note, though, that the Master System release was Europe-only, so physical copies will be hard to come by in non-PAL regions).
So hats off to Aspect, whose games have continued to impress me. I've been having nothing but great fun with Batman Returns, The G.G. Shinobi, Tails Adventure and the company's Disney games (Legend of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Deep Duck Trouble Starring Donald Duck). And I'm eager to discover and play the rest of its creations.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go search the Internet and find out what else these guys have made!