Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #39


As I've stated several times before, the younger version of me struggled to see the appeal of movie-based video games. Where other kids excitedly ruminated about the apparent potential in complementary crossovers, I could barely keep myself from drowning in apathy whenever confronted with the idea of the two incompatible mediums colliding. I just didn't believe that you could derive a compelling enough interactive experience from the subject-matter of a motion picture whose dependence on ultra-tight scripting and an audience's willing submission was paramount to telling the intentioned story.

Take 1989's Batman, for instance: I was as big a fan as any of Tim Burton's strikingly stylistic Batman revival, but news that an NES adaptation was in the works failed to register with me in the slightest; in fact, I was so cold on the idea that I couldn't even be inspired to read a preview or check out more than a single screenshot. Part of it was that the industry's sordid track record with licensed material conditioned me to be dismissive of games born from Hollywood collaborations while I was otherwise certain that it wasn't possible for the movie's necessary cinematic qualities (mainly the ninja-like Batman's stealthy brand of intimidation, the animated Joker's twisted pranks, and the interactions defined by the clashing of their contrasting personalities) to be faithfully translated into reminiscent 8-bit gameplay.

"So how are they going to make a game out of this?" I questioned, cynically, while considering the developers' available options. "Is Batman going to run around punching out stray dogs while fending off birds?"

History told me where the game's production was likely headed, and I couldn't have been less interested in sticking around to see how it turned out.

Fortunately, there was an antidote to my willing ignorance: My brother, James, who was always eager to give a game a fair chance absent of preconceived notions. What usually resulted was the following scene: James would emerge from the basement and rush his way over to our den holding an obscure or disregarded game; he'd then enthusiastically spring it on me as if hoping to inspire an equally exuberant reaction. On that random day in early 1990, he cheerfully presented me with the unmistakable packaging for SunSoft's Batman, the sight of which evoked from me little more than a feigned grin.

I had no particular desire to play it, but I didn't want to hurt my brother's feelings, so I reluctantly agreed to head upstairs to my room, where the NES was stationed, and try it out. 

Batman immediately reminded me of Ninja Gaiden in how it prefaced its stages with short cinematic sequences that worked to establish a setting while advancing the storyline, which I thought was an intriguing approach; I feared that the designers would try to sloppily replicate actual scenes from the movie, embellishing them with obligatory 8-bit clichés like convoluted mazes and armies of purple midgets, but they instead came up with the fine solution of keeping the condensed film elements wholly separate--positioning them as merely backdrop to action phases that were purely a creation of the game. Also, Batman could pull off a nifty wall-jump similar to Ryu Hayabusa's, though it lacked the former's adhesive property and had to be applied more tactically; it looked really cool regardless of how it functioned.

Betraying my expectations, Batman had an instantly perceivable air of quality to it, which I might have anticipated had I been more familiar with developer SunSoft's previous works (I somehow avoided Blaster Master and didn't get a chance to play it until the middle of the decade). It looked terrific (I didn't mind a purple Batman), had a much greater depth of gameplay than I could have imagined, and boasted some pretty thoughtful level design. And yet the best part of the package was most definitely the music, which I found to be incredible--better than a movie-based game's soundtrack had any right to be. Its excellent opening-stage theme, Streets of Desolation, performed what I thought was an important job, its opening notes working to invigorate me before handing me over to the proceeding verses whose melancholic tones suddenly flipped the table, subverting my emotions and informing that this world belonged to creators whose vision expanded beyond "standard action game."

The equally powerful (though nameless) Stage 2 theme, which augmented the deadly chemical factory, was more upbeat in comparison--certainly rockin' all throughout--but nonetheless featured an underlying tone that told the same story of a pensive melancholia that permeated every part of this world. All of Batman's music worked to the same effect, really, but these two particular pieces were unmatched in their emotional conveyance; hell--I'd sometimes pop Batman into the NES only for the purpose of listening to them.

What I loved most about the soundtrack was that it didn't seek to capture the atmosphere of the movie or recall memories of its decor's Burtonesque surreality. No, it was content to be a quintessential NES creation--to celebrate the console's unforgettable aesthetic values and signify to the player that this Batman was married specifically to that little gray box and the legacy it'd leave behind.

I liked everything about those first two stages, but that's just about where my enjoyment of Batman ended. That's because SunSoft was also determined to cling tightly to another recurring NES value: Extreme difficulty (not surprising considering it was a relatively short game). By Stage 3, that is, the level design had begun to turn so cruel that Batman no longer seemed like the capable hero he previously appeared to be. The latter stages' tightly woven design only served to highlight that he wasn't nearly as dexterous as the comparable Ryu Hyabusa; mainly, he couldn't control the trajectory of his wall-jumps, which made it difficult to adjust on the fly and led to prolonged sequences of rebounding back and forth until I was able to locate the launching point necessary to propel me safely up to or over an obstacle. 

The slight stall on Batman's punches was forgivable early on when the action was mostly grounded but not so much when I was repeatedly tasked with executing series of do-or-die wall-jumps onto narrow platforms guarded by flame-throwing enemies whose weapons had little downtime. Instead, I was forced to rely on Batman's three admittedly cool secondary weapons (a batarang, a speargun and a three-direction dirk), though they had their limitations and I always seemed to be short on ammunition regardless of how generous the game was in doling out the stock-boosting item pellets.

It's not like I wasn't a skilled player. By this point in my life, I could handle the toughest action games around, but here I was struggling to make it through Batman's third stage! That was mostly due to the game's ever-increasing emphasis on wall-jumping, which I could never master; and I desperately needed to do so because the wall-jumping challenges grew absolutely ridiculous, sometimes requiring this crazy wraparound motion that entailed dropping off a platform's edge, quickly turning inward, and reacting in time with the button-press needed to safely propel yourself over a considerably long expanse. This was tough enough under normal conditions but exponentially so when the surrounding structures were lined with spikes, electrical currents, and deadly rotary devices. The designer's favorite trick was to line low-hanging ceiling structures with spikes, which made it almost impossible for me to angle my way up to the adjacent platform without crashing my head every time, even when I felt I wasn't close to touching the spikes (among Batman's shortfallings was spotty hit-detection).

The stages dragged on forever and were filled with these types of tribulations. Oh, the game was nice enough to let me continue from the area in which I died, but that didn't mean much when clearing the area in question required that I negotiate around a gauntlet of ten-twenty super-precise wall-jumps, some of which featured a margin of error so small that I wasn't even sure an actual margin of error existed; all I could do was tank the damage and hope that my energy meter would hold out. Though, this almost assured that I'd be no match for the stage's boss, who would no doubt overwhelm me with its supercharged projectiles and berserk dash attacks.

But you know what? I could deal with the bosses. What I couldn't handle were those goddamned giant hoppy guys that started appearing early on in the third stage. These orange hell beasts were the bane of my existence; they were like Big Eye from Mega Man except three-times quicker and completely unassailable. I could devise no strategy that wasn't immediately thwarted by their rapidly executed pouncing attacks; I couldn't make solid contact with them no matter the weapon I was using, nor could I outrun them, since they'd follow me to the area's end if the level design allowed for it. And while I'd flail away helplessly, hoping to land even a single blow while my health quickly evaporated, all I could wonder about was the mental condition of the idiot who decided to put this in the game. I'd like to thank him for his contribution.

I kept at it, struggling yet ultimately progressing past the wall-jump-heavy portions of the game's latter stages, but I could only make it as far as the torrid gear tower in the final area of the game. The jumps here required the type of super-precision that was far beyond what I was consistently capable of reproducing, and I was almost driven mad by the redundancy of it--by my constantly bumping Batman's head into the gears, my repeatedly mistimed jumps, and my endless failures. By some miracle, I made it to the final boss one time but was promptly destroyed, the demoralizing defeat forcing me to seriously question whether or not I had what it took to somehow endure the gear section and have enough health left over to survive this monstrous foe (taking into account that I also had to fight the Joker immediately after).

I don't recall how many times I attempted to finish the game in the weeks and months ahead, but I know that the gear section was the reason I called it quits and almost never looked back. That final stretch of Stage 5 became an object of fear, and I had no desire to ever subject myself to it again. Frankly, I was so scarred by the experience that I completely closed my mind to the idea of buying its sequel, Batman: Return of the Joker, or, well, any other Batman game in existence.

If I returned to Batman in following, it was only because I wanted to immerse myself in the game's first two stages, whose music and level design I greatly enjoyed. And if I'm revisiting Batman 25 years later, it's strictly for that same reason.

All of that said, I still appreciate what SunSoft was able to do here. The company's developers could have mailed it in and made some easy money by pumping out a shoddily produced recreation of Tim Burton's blockbuster film--a generic action game with a Batman logo pasted over it--but they instead sought to deliver NES owners something truly special--a game that could escape from the bondage of its licensed classification and stand tall among the console's best. Now, I wouldn't rank Batman quite that high, but it says a lot that it's even in the conversation.

That's how I like to remember it--not as the game that forever scared me away from Batman's digital adventures but as the game imbued with 8-bit spirit. 

It didn't want to settle for being a second-rate companion piece. 

It respected the movie's content but strove to find its own identity. 

But most importantly, it succeeded in becoming a creature of its own design, an NES original through and through.

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