The release of Batman Returns was perfectly timed at the peak of Konami's SNES development and during a high point in Batman movie history. The festive feel of the game was slightly out of sync with its Spring '93 release date, but it was completely fitting in regard to the source material. Konami had already mastered a variety of video game genres on Nintendo's 16-bit magic machine, it was apt that they should try their hand at their first SNES side-scrolling beat ‘em up next, as it one of the most popular genres of the day. However, it was also a genre made infamous for having kinks in its armour, namely repetitive and unvaried gameplay. Could dressing this brawler up in a caped Batsuit and utility belt enabled move set, iron out any possible brawler gameplay niggles?
Before the awesome Christopher Nolan movies and abysmal mid '90s films, Tim Burton released two wonderful Batman movies: 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns. The second film sprinkled Gotham in snowflakes, whilst illuminating its shadowy streets with Christmas lights and it is this film that Konami brought to life on the SNES. The plot is told through still, digitised cut-scenes and follows seven scenes of the movie's story through Selina Kyle's transformation into Catwoman, Bat-brawls against The Red Triangle Circus Gang and finally the ultimate mission to thwart The Penguin and his vengeful plan to kidnap all of the first-born sons in Gotham City.
Batman Returns is most commonly compared to the SNES conversion of Final Fight, which is understandable considering that both brawler titles share a hankering towards large chunky sprites, character avatars and energy bars at the top of the screen, as well as a cape swinging special move option activated by pressing the jump and attack buttons simultaneously. Unfortunately, both titles were also hindered by limitations brought about by a purely single-player game. The two titles similarities came full circle with the SNES release of Final Fight 2, shortly after Batman Returns, as both games featured a battle across the top of a circus train, with the round four English setting of Capcom’s game visually appearing as though it was set in Gotham.
However, Konami were on fire during this period of SNES development, alongside Squaresoft, Capcom and possibly Hudson Soft, they were amongst the elite of SNES Japanese programming teams. Prior to Batman Returns they had already released Axelay, Contra III, Super Castlevania IV and The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, so any new title, regardless of genre, was hotly anticipated. Their games were praised for their exuberance and Konami also instilled this brash game style into Batman Returns, in three separate ways.
First of all they included a fun and varied move-set. Technōs also achieved this successfully with SNES Super Double Dragon, but that game was let down by its slow pace and repetitive gameplay. Even without a Mega Drive Streets of Rage 3 style 'double-tap to run' move, Batman Returns is still brilliantly paced. It is completely appropriate that the Dark Knight is handy with his fists and Batman unleashes a fast flurry of standard punches, leading to a high kick with a basic Y button attack. He can also block by holding down either of the two shoulder buttons. Stored into his utility belt is the option to fire batarangs at distant foes, or swing and kick out by utilizing his grappling hook. Most satisfying of all is the assortment of grab maneuvers, in which he brutally crushes opponents into the floor and even takes hold of two Red Triangle Circus punks at once, to slam both of their heads together. Finally he has an explosive white, test tube move, which is the best use of a brawling game smart bomb, since the Streets of Rage crew called on the help of the arcade E-SWAT police car and its fiery rocket launcher.
Secondly, to take into account the repetitive nature of the side-scrolling beat ‘em up genre, Konami consciously diversified the gameplay by shifting its viewpoint between two perspectives. As well as the Final Fight view, in which there is a depth to the fighting area where you can move in and out of the background, they also included a number of sections in the game which were viewed as a single, fixed plane. This altered the dynamics of the gameplay, as firing batarangs now takes precedence over close quarters fisticuffs. An example of this is throughout all of Scene 3, titled 'On The Prowl', in which platform leaps between rickety rope elevators, and large grappling hook swinging sections across metal girders, provide a departure to the more conventional brawling.
It is interesting that many Batman games which preceded the SNES title, were also presented from this viewpoint. The implementation of Batman's novel batarangs and his grappling hook are well represented by the single plane perspective, therefore this view was also incorporated into Ocean's 1989 Amiga game, Atari's 1990 arcade title and Sunsoft's 1991 Mega Drive Batman game during the early 16-bit era, all of which were based upon Tim Burton’s first movie. Even Sunsoft's 1989 NES Batman game was viewed in this manner and whilst the sprites in Batman Returns are larger than the games mentioned, the mix between the different viewpoints still works to its advantage. The varied gameplay approach is assisted further by the inclusion of a Batmobile chase scene in level five, in which you climb aboard Batman’s powerhouse motor to chase down Bikers and clowns hanging out of trucks.
The third way in which Konami brought their razzmatazz to Batman Returns was through its audio and visual presentation. The attention to detail is packed with references to the film, displayed in Scene 2's 'Battle In The Streets of Gotham City', with the 'Oswald Copperpot For Mayor' posters and colossal, gothic statues which scroll across the level's foreground. The game is furnished with pleasing graphical touches throughout, during Scene 2 there is a set-piece in which the screen shakes and warps, as it is engulfed in flames and in Scene 4, titled 'The Penguin’s Trap', the visuals play with light and dark, as Batman steps between the shadows and beaming lights projected upon the brick walls. As in the movie, the stark contrast between the gothic brooding blacks, blanket white snow and festive glitter is wonderfully effective. During the final, seventh 'The Penguin's Lair' scene, the snow covers the entire zoo floor as mischievous penguins fire torpedoes at Batman, exploding on the snow.
The graphics add to the playability, through the use of interactive backgrounds. The huge Gotham Plaza Christmas tree setting for the first level's "Stungun.C" boss battle is merrily atmospheric, with its intermittent flashing bulbs, and the brickwork can be used to your advantage, for fans who want to replicate a scene from the movie. The grab manoeuvre grows to become even more fun, when you realise upon passing festive windows adorned with miniature trees and wrapped presents, that you can smash clowns through the glass, or shatter wooden fences and benches by slamming enemies into them. Sprite design in the main is well detailed, particularly for the leading characters; enemies like the bloated skull head Biker are well designed, although the "Knife.T", Fire Clowns and "Sword.S" sprites are blurrily low res, with weak shuffling animations, even if the sword swallowing animation does add humour.
The impact of the audio to supplement the dynamic brawling is impressive, the clunk and clang sound of launching an enemies head into a background metal sign will always raise a smile, and crunching heads together sounds suitably pounding. It is in the implementation of Danny Elfman's excellent Batman film score that impresses the most, Konami have mixed it with their own audio talent to great effect, an example of which is during Scene 6's 'Circus Train' in which the Batman theme is successfully interwoven into the circus music. Movie score fans who appreciate satisfying 16-bit renditions of classic tunes, like in Super Star Wars, will love this one.
The average play length of the game is approximately forty five minutes and there is plenty of challenge to be found in Batman Returns. With five different difficulty settings, any gaming masochists who thrived off battling Rolento in arcade Final Fight, will be pleased to encounter imposing villains during the Catwoman and Penguin boss fights, particularly if they play through the game on Mania difficulty to earn the "You are the true Dark Knight" end message. Unfortunately, the lack of co-op would have provided a way for gamers to team up to face this challenge and it does impact upon the replayability of the title. However, without the dynamic duo being represented in the movie, the inclusion of Robin, or the option of playing as two differently coloured Batman characters, would have detracted from the game’s adherence to its movie license source material.
Konami followed a string of hits in 1993, with their own seven scene take on the side-scrolling beat’em up genre. They battled their way against potential repetitiveness by including two different side-scrolling perspectives, a Batmobile section, as well as a fun, fast-paced and intricate brawling move set. By combining the developer's flair for creative graphics, with a movie license which inspired a mixture of gothic and festive visuals, they created a SNES game which was sprinkled with a touch of Christmas magic. The Danny Elfman based movie soundtrack and solid sound effects round off its atmospheric package nicely. The game almost ticked off all the boxes to be a SNES great, the confines of the movie license hindered it slightly, by negating the possibility of co-op multiplayer and limiting the entourage of Batman villains to two classic characters, Catwoman and The Penguin. Gamers would have to wait another year to fight the likes of The Joker, Poison Ivy, Two Face and The Riddler on the SNES, when Batman Return's director and planner, Yoichi Yoshimoto, would take the exact same role in the development of Konami's The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Regardless of this, the two main villains still provided plenty of challenge, anyone who plays Batman Returns will recall the repeated Catwoman scraps and conclude that she turns out to be one tough kitty!