Batman: Return of the Joker
by Polly

Sunsoft is a company where I have to look back and ask, "Well, what the fuck happened?" During the NES days, these guys were kings and had a huge number of hits to back up that title that were fucking amazing gameplay wise and featured some of the best presentation the NES had ever seen. We all knew and enjoyed games like Blaster Master, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Journey to Silius (least around my parts we did), and it was as if Sunsoft could do no wrong. As the face of gaming began to change and the shift to the 16-bit era of consoles crept up on us young unsuspecting gamers, Sunsoft was believed to be one of the companies to watch for moving into the next generation.

Unfortunately, that kinda never happened. Well, it did, but 16-bit era Sunsoft lacked almost all the polish, character, and technical prowess of everything that the Sunsoft that came before it had, and simply hasn't released anything of note since. Sunsoft rode it out on the NES for as long as they could, releasing cult titles such as Mr. Gimmick, Ufouria: The Saga, and Super Spy Hunter, and all that followed were disappointing games and a couple of terrible bankruptcies. It always amazes me when I look back and see one of the brightest stars on the NES never quite making it out of there, but the more I delve into their later titles of the "golden years" the more I see where things probably started going wrong.

Some may remember that waaaaaaay back in 2006 when the second annual NES Week happened (and the site broke full-speed ahead into full-time guest contributation) I reviewed the original Batman: The Game by Sunsoft. It was a game that I received as a kid and never expected to enjoy, but was then fully blown away by. Two years later, Sunsoft unleashed this sequel, and I remember being pretty damn excited to rent it the first time. Throwing it into my console for the first time, would young Polly be blown away, yet again?

You bet your Batarang chucking ass I was. I mean, HOLY SHIT just look at those graphics! I know I've said it a lot and about a lot of NES games over the years, but the more I dive back into my library the more I find candidates for the title of "may very well be the best-looking NES game out there." Sunsoft was always about high-quality and cutting edge visuals, and Batman: Return of the Joker may stand as their finest achievement. If you didn't know any better, it may be hard to even believe that it's an NES that's churning out these visuals.

This game's got it all in a graphical package: Big bright sprites with lots of animation, amazing backgrounds packed with copious amounts of detail, and visual effects that were usually only reserved for the 16-bit consoles at the time, such as parallax scrolling and some weather effects. The visual style is less dark and gritty like the first game and feels more like the art is representitive of the comic books from which the Caped Crusader spawned, which is probably a lot more in tune with Batman as a whole rather than that blue/purple guy with a cape we controlled in the first game. If anything, Batman: Return of the Joker makes quite a striking first impression.

Equally, if not more impressive is the game's audio. The first Batman game had some of the best NES tunes ever composed, and the sequel continues that tradition, with every track being brilliantly composed with great and memorable melodies clashing with pounding sampled DPCM bass guitars and punchy as all hell percussion. All the tracks bounce between grooving and rocking out, and simply ooze style and technique that goes far beyond your typical NES tunes. There's not a dud in the bunch, so if you're a fan of chiptune music, you'd be doing yourself a big favor in checking out this game's tunes at the very least.

Like I said, Batman: Return of the Joker makes one hell of an awesome first impression. It's hard not to get excited about playing a game when it introduces itself with production values like these. On top of that, it's essentially the same type of game as the original, so in my head, I'd already made this game out to be just as much of the same great platforming action if not more.

Then I actually started playing it... and here is where I realized that something terrible had happened to NES Sunsoft, or was at the very least least beginning to happen.

Without a doubt, Batman: Return of the Joker is one of the most disappointing great-looking and sounding games I've played on the NES. It doesn't even seem like it should be that way, either. I mean it's coming from fucking Sunsoft! Only two years prior, they put out one of the best licensed games on the NES, and this one seemed poised to be even greater. Unfortunately, a lot of technical issues end up holding it back, making it a far less enjoyable experience than its predecessor.

So, where does it all go wrong? Well, unfortunately it's the biggest problem you don't want to have with a game: Controls. They're shit. They're shit on a shitty shit that's shit its last shit, and that shit was so much shit that it shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit! SHIT! Trying to control Batman in this game is a god damn chore. Movement feels incredibly sluggish, which is an instant no-no in a game that you know is going to require pixel-perfect platforming. Not only that, but Batman seems to slide for a bit after you've told him to stop moving. Again, another no-no in a game like this. Making matters even more difficult is jumping. Batman jumps as if he's got the entire weight of the world on his cowled shoulders and it can be damn-near impossible to gauge the jumps this game wants you to make sometimes. There's a very odd arc to his jump that's so damn hard to adjust to and the speed of both his ascent and descent feels all wrong. Once you've committed to a jump, there's no turning back. Sink or swim, buddy. The bottom line is that simple platforming should in no way be as difficult and frustrating as it can sometimes be in this game, and some polishing up on the controls could have gone a long, long way toward making this game a lot more enjoyable.

I guess about the only thing done right about controlling Batman is that he has an entire arsenal of new weapons to play around with, and they're all fairly useful. The weapons seem to operate more like guns from Contra and Mega Man's Mega Buster than anything I'd imagine in Batman's actual arsenal, but hey, it's an NES game. You got a spread gun, a charge shot, and a wave beam, all chargeable with a secondary attack, and power-ups for them (which you have to shoot to change to your desired pick up) are scattered liberally throughout every stage, so you'll never find yourself aching too much for a weapon to use. In addition, if you collect 8 special icons Batman will inexplicably turn gold and invincible (except for pits) and fire a beam of death that makes short work of anything in his path. This set up sorta gives the game more of a run 'n gun feel than the previous game, meaning it's much faster paced and more demanding. Oh my fucking GOD is it ever more demanding. More on that in just a bit.

Though it plays like a fairly straightforward run 'n gunner, Batman: Return of the Joker seems to have a bit of the ol' gaming ADD. Stages tend to be no longer than a minute or two, and the good thing about this is that the stages themselves are quite varied. Sometimes you'll just be running straight for the exit, sometimes it's an auto-scroller with enemies and background obstacles to be mindful of, and sometimes it goes off on an entirely different tangent, turning into a pretty sucky shmup. These stages in particular are truly laughable and feel unfinished, as they're about 40 seconds long and feature very few enemies. Boss encounters are also handled entirely different in that they feel more like a one-on-one fighting game. It still retains the same controls as the platforming, but both parties have WAAAAY more health (80,000+), but in the end these parts of the game end up devolving into back and forth slugfests due to wonky hit detection and essentially unavoidable attacks, which I'll touch on next. The variety of stages is nice, and I can appreciate the effort that went into keeping the game changing and challenging at all times, but unfortunately the frustrating, and sometimes flat-out unfair difficulty, can actually make the game feel more monotonous despite all the varied themes.

Yeah, it's a Sunsoft game and it's fuckin' tough, but it's tough for a lot of the wrong god damn reasons. The big problem, which I've criticized other games for in the past, is that big sprites, while pretty, present the issues that come with a larger than nomral hit box, and this game takes full advantage of that by having almost no attacks that you can duck under and most you can barely jump over. This becomes extremely troublesome during those boss fights and is largely why they degenerate into back and forth bitchslap fights that are in no way entertaining. Another huge, huge problem is environmental hazards that can attack you from off screen. There's absolutely no way to see some of this shit coming and react quick enough. The whole tactic to doing well in most of the game is inching forward, shooting, and praying you don't get hit and are able to take the enemy out before they get you. Bombs will rain from above, mages fire wind blasts from offscreen that are almost impossible to dodge even when you know they're coming, and fireballs will scream down at you from the top right side of the screen and there's nary a damn thing you can do about it other than remembering where they are next time. Another huge problem is that the game will hide shit that can kill you behind objects in the background that you have NO way of seeing at all. This can be seen as early as 5 seconds into the first damn stage where a spiked ball will wreck your face with absolutely no indication that it's there (not the first one, the second one).

Everything else difficulty-wise comes down to the shitty controls that don't feel right or do what you want when you want. There's so much shit going on on-screen at all times that it's easy to keep track of what's coming with practice, but keeping up with it, thanks to Batman's sluggish controls, can prove more than frustrating at times and an excercise in pain if you get particularly stuck. Enemies and hazards are set up PERFECTLY to fuck you up in every stage. It's so deliberate that you can almost see a maniacal level designer sitting at his desk quietly laughing to himself as he counts exactly how many pixels the enemy needs to be from the edge of the platform you're jumping to in order to fuck you over. Pixel-perfect jumps, enemies that'll knock you back just far enough to fall into pits, and shit you can't even see coming. I'll concede that a lot of this game is Ninja Gaiden'esque in that you simply need to learn what's where and how to react the same way every time, but there's no shortage of bullshit hits and deaths either, so you have been warned.

Batman: Return of the Joker is a technical marvel on the NES to both look at and listen to, and unfortunately it seems that that's where all the effort went. There's a great bit of variety and there are fun moments, but the lack of polish on the controls and sometimes unfair hit detection and level designs really are a big rain cloud hanging over poor Batman's parade.

On an interesting note, this game was also released on the Genesis and actually ended up looking, sounding, and playing WORSE than this version. That's kinda sad, but I think it speaks to just how good this version of the game looks and sounds (and plays, I suppose). There was also an SNES version planned and was nearly complete, but never released. That version of the game is pretty awful too. The GameBoy version is a different game entirely. So, if you're looking to get more of a Batman fix in 8 Easy Bits, Return of the Joker isn't as great as the original, but it's also not total crappy crap. It's severely flawed and will require a lot of adjusting and patience to truly enjoy.

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