Written by Joe Pranevich


Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batman! I hope you got your score votes in because it’s time to play Batman Returns. Given how excited Bill Kunkel was to create a Batman game, I am secretly rooting for this one to be better than its reputation, even if he was ultimately dissatisfied with the result. By the time the rating comes, I am certain that I can grade it without bias.

The game opens at twilight on a December night in Gotham City. The skyline is oddly muted; the incandescent bulbs in the towering offices are barely able to pierce the gloom. Danny Elfman’s iconic Batman score rises up through our computer speakers. Suddenly, the Bat-Signal appears in the clouds. Once again, the Gotham City Police has called upon the aid of their secret benefactor-in-the-shadows, Batman. We zoom in to the Batcave where the Caped Crusader is dressed and ready for action. The bat-cursor appears. What should we do first?

You have to admit that this is a pretty nice workspace.

I’m going to start by using my amazing powers of deduction to turn on Batman’s TV and listen to the local newscast. We learn that “hooligans” dressed like clowns are attacking the tree-lighting ceremony downtown. I have no objection to Batman learning about stuff by watching TV, but a mob of attacking clowns might have been something he should have been aware of. Even the 1960s series had a Bat-Phone so Commissioner Gordon could explain to him what the problem of the week was; this version of Batman just sees the signal and tries to figure it out by watching TV.

I can mouse over different panels in the Bat-Computer to use other aspects of the system. The evidence computer and the video player appear important, but I can’t use them as I have found neither evidence nor videos. It seems that my only choice is to head to the armoury to stock up on gadgets or head out in the Batmobile. I’ll start with the former since I’d hate to arrive unarmed to a riot.

Questions about whether or not Batman is “in the closet” have been around since the 1950s.

The armory or “Bat-Closet” consists of two other suits and a utility belt computer. Those suits are both at 100% offensive and defensive capabilities and I assume the one I am wearing is as well. I suppose that as we get into scrapes throughout the game, we’ll have to keep tabs on this. I’d hate to have to start over if I get into a battle at the end that I cannot win for lack of available healthy suits.

The computer on the right allows me to load up my utility belt. We start out with eight slots, all empty. Annoyingly, there are nine separate gadgets, plus I can take more than one of each, so I have to choose carefully. Will I need two batarangs? Two smoke bombs? That seems possible. I hope that I will not have to restore frequently to replay sections with the correct gadgets. Since I have no idea, I add one of everything except the sonic batarang. Each of the devices has a nice illustration and a different little icon on the belt. Some of the icons are easier to discern than others, but there’s a guide in the manual. It’s not the worst icon interface we’ve seen.

A “scanner” is a portable document scanner. These days, he probably uses his Bat-iPhone.

The items themselves fall into one of three categories:
  • The grapple, gauntlet, rope, and lock pick are presumably used to get around Gotham City, to reach high or locked places. The manual says that these items are not consumed as we use them.
  • The batarang, bolo batarang, sonic batarang, smoke bombs, and knockout gas are all offensive weapons. I expect they will only be useful in combat, but I could be wrong. The manual says that each one is single-use. I have no idea what the real differences are.
  • The scanner is used to take pictures of evidence that we find along the way.

Once I am loaded up, I head to the Batmobile garage. Let’s go and see what these “hoodlums” are up to!

Nice animated sequence of Batman jumping in.

Chicks dig the car?

Map of Gotham city with three “hot spots”.

There’s a brief animated scene of Batman jumping into the Batmobile before we get a view of him behind the wheel. The car is a mini-command center of its own with a TV monitor playing the news as well as a map of the city. There’s an ejector seat button there that likely will get used during some sequence down the road. The GPS screen and city map is prescient; while we don’t quite have self-driving cars that are as smart as the Batmobile yet, we do have plenty of cars with map-screens that look just like that one. The map is basic and a few of the buildings look like they could have been cribbed from SimCity (1989), but they can be forgiven for stealing from a classic.

The map shows four areas highlighted in red: Wayne Manor, Gotham Plaza, the mayor’s office, and downtown. The game probably wants us to start with the rioting at Gotham Plaza so let’s not get too creative yet.

This is a very nicely composed scene.

The scene changes to Batman on a rooftop ledge overlooking a plaza and Shreck’s department store. This at least is in character; he’s not the type of superhero to just waltz into a situation, rather he’ll want to take the lay of the land first. We can see the Christmas tree on the left and a panicked crowd below, although I was certain they were ice skaters at first and was very confused why they were having fun while the plaza was under attack. The department store in the movie is central to Catwoman’s story as it is owned by Max Shreck, the business mogul who she worked for until she discovered his fiendish scheme and tried to kill her. She’ll blow it up later in the film (and the game?) as part of her revenge plot.

This is the first screen where we can see how the game actually plays and it’s not that deep. We have no verbs so all we can do is move the mouse around the screen to places where the cursor changes, indicating that we can do an action. That action is almost always “go” and there’s no way to examine anything closer, use any items, or even move around. We’ve seen this style before in games like Willy Beamish: the transition animations are fantastic (look at the Batman’s boots in the snow!), but we have no free movement. Unfortunately, I do not realize all of this at first and click on the people running around below which causes Batman to jump off the ledge, slowing his descent using his cape. I guess we’re going to be in the thick of it!

Oh crap. An 80-pound acrobat against an armored crime fighter.

Landing in the plaza, an acrobat attacks immediately. This changes the interface into “combat” mode and Batman automatically starts to battle his assailant, although she flips and tumbles around the screen and dodges him pretty easily. The bat-suit in these first several films did not permit Bruce to do much agile fighting; he was visualized more like a tank than a ninja and this game seems true to that depiction. The animation here is good-- almost too good. Batman and the acrobat each have a variety of attacks which they perform automatically and each are well animated. There are punches, kicks, blocks, flips, and overall a pretty well-done system. The AI is good for both also, as both characters sometimes advance and sometimes retreat. The acrobat seems (surprisingly!) to have the upper hand. It feels like we should be able to control the fight, maybe even that this battle-mode was partly finished, but I have no evidence of that. I should capture some videos of combat before I reach the end of the game.

My control options are limited: I can select how hard to fight (“easy”, “normal”, or “fierce”), but I don’t see any immediate differences. My guess is that it will adjust how much damage Batman deals out or receives with “fierce” potentially meaning that he takes more risks to score bigger rewards. I can also use some weapons, but before I do the acrobat just walks away. Did I win? Or did I lose? Draw? I have no idea.

The devil you know?

I cannot explore the plaza yet because I have another bad guy to defeat: a devil-man that wields a pitchfork and breathes fire. Also, I should note: not a clown. I want to experiment with my items so I toss a smoke grenade at him, but he dissipates it with his fire breath. With this guy, I can see some semblance of strategy forming. Unlike the gymnast who moved in and out quickly, landing a few blows then retreating, the devil-guy is slower but with a distance weapon. I can never get close enough to hit him and he roasts me over and over again. Since I cannot get close, I toss the bolo batarang at him. That snares his legs and gives me the option of interrogating him.

Where did you get that mustache?

Name? Job?

No thanks. Bats only eat insects.

The interrogation is simple with only three options: “explanation”, “leader”, and “identification”. The manual says that there will be other options later. The text is sparse and I wish they had gone with something like “What are you doing?”, “Who do you work for?”, and “Who are you?” I select “explanation” and he gives me a nothing answer, just a joke about cooking some fish with his fire-breath. Ha, ha. Worse, I can’t ask him anything else because he either gets loose or Batman frees him after one question. If I want to be comprehensive, I’ll have to reload and fight each guy at least three times.

Finally, a clown!

That’s why I blog about video games.

After he gets away, I am greeted by yet another attacker and he is-- finally!-- a clown. How many of these will I need to do? There is no pause in between battles, although Batman apparently had a moment to pick up his bolo after the interrogation because I have it back in my inventory. I use it again and the clown goes down right away. His answer isn’t any more helpful than the previous, although I do like the art. I didn’t even fight him long enough to see his combat style.

After that, the acrobat comes back and I try the bolo again but she dodges it easily. She also dodges my regular batarang and is unfazed by the smoke bomb. The fight drags on and on. She hits, she runs, I hit her, but she kicks me. I should have run away at some point, but Batman is a superhero. Before long, my utility belt blinks and I am whisked back to the Batcave, too injured to proceed. It is my first “Game Over”!

Yeah. That gymnast (and her fire-breathing friend) did a lot of damage!

Insert coin to continue.

I theorize that each of the foes has some gadget that they are weakest against. I will need to be careful to find the item that can defeat each attacker and load my utility belt in advance with the right stuff to win. I am also not sure whether I will always be given the option to interrogate, or if that is just the side-effect of using the bolo. Do other weapons have side-effects I need to discover? On my next run through, I’ll ask different questions and see what happens.

I play again, this time taking fewer support items and more weapons. I defeat both acrobats with knockout gas, although that does not let me interrogate them. Anything else I try is either dodged or ignored. I bolo both the clown and the devil-guy for an interrogation round. I grill them about their leader but they are no more helpful than before. Once I defeat them, I can explore but it is a fruitless effort. There is nothing to do here except to cross the plaza and fight some more.

Same thugs, different view.

I’m surprised so far by just how non-interactive these scenes are. With no verbs and no hotspots, we have Batman standing around blank spaces. We cannot open the door, look at anything, walk to that interesting looking statue, or anything else. It’s just… empty. I did not notice at the time that I could have pressed the “grapple gun” icon or the “roof” button to scale the department store and emerge on the roof, but since there’s nothing up there either I did not miss much.

I return to the Batmobile to discover a new news report to watch. The newscaster reveals that rioting has spread downtown. I drive there to discover absolutely nothing. No combat. No rioting. Do I need to wait? Did I spend too much time exploring? At this point, I’m frustrated and take a break for the evening. I start over the next day with a new playthrough.

Nice Batgirl reference, two movies too soon.

On my third attempt, I discover that I missed the person database in the Batcave. This is the first thing that I am truly impressed about with this game. The database has a large selection of city officials, random criminals, and “persons of interest” that you can browse through. Each entry has a biography and some of them are illustrated by stills from the movie, while others appear to be photographs of production staff. I searched to see if Bill Kunkel is there somewhere, but I did not see him. The text is well-written and makes Gotham feel more like a real place, even though I doubt I needed to search through them all on the first day. While I had hoped there would be comic references in there, I only spotted one: Barbara Gordon. She is mentioned in the database but never appeared (or was mentioned) in the movie itself. We know that she became Batgirl in the comics and the fourth movie, but I can find no other non-movie references. This strikes me as a lost opportunity for some fannish fun, but I respect the desire to keep the game focused on the film.

Nicely animated scene of Batman walking across a beam between two buildings. He’ll only cross the street from up here.

The other important thing I realize on this next pass is how important the support gear is. You really need to take the rope, grapple, gauntlet, and (presumably) lockpick around with you at all times. Without those, you can’t explore many areas of the game. Those areas are pretty empty as well, but what I thought was a single boring screen downtown turned out to be six boring screens once I could maneuver around. Batman will nearly never go from place to place on the ground. If you want to so much as cross the street, he needs to jump up to the roof, grapple over to the next building, and then climb down. He needs to be mysterious.

Downtown consists of:
  • A jewelry store and the roof above. The roof has a tight beam that Batman can walk across to get to another rooftop.
  • That rooftop is equally boring although we can climb down to discover the outside of a bank.
  • From that roof, we can use the batarang and rope to swing over to a third rooftop. This one has some nifty windows, but the only thing we can do is jump down to the liquor store.

That makes six total screens downtown, plus four at Gotham Plaza where I was earlier that I can explore with the correct grapple guns. None of these locations have any clues or anything to click on at all. I probably should map which screens require which bat-gadget to access them, but with so few screens there doesn’t seem to be a reason to bother.

Time for some knockout gas!

On this third attempt, I ask for “identification” from everyone I can interrogate. For whatever reason, there are enemies downtown this time when I am notified of the riot moving there, but they are the same ones as before and I defeat them as before. Once we know what gadgets to use on each, the combats pass quickly. I’ll spend more time experimenting with combat for a better write-up later.

Were those enemies the “riot” or did I miss something? I am not sure. Eventually, I give up and explore the final section on our map: the mayor’s office.

Snooping around and having a good time.

What kind of tape is that? It doesn't look like VHS.

Finally… finally… I have some sleuthing to do! Inside the mayor’s office, we find a tape of some sort on a side table. We also get a “hot spot” that zooms in on the mayor’s desk, but there’s nothing there right now. I have no idea what is on the tape or why I want it, but I grab it anyway. It might be evidence! Or it might just be Batman robbing an elected official. Isn’t he a great role model?

We cannot play the video in the car, but we can take it back to the Batcave with us. I am momentarily confused because we have to check it in as evidence (in the evidence computer) before we can view it. Once it is there, it shows up on the list of videos. We can either “play” or “transmit”, but let’s just see what it is for now.

That’s nice!

The “video” (presented as a sequence of still images) is an awards ceremony for Commissioner Gordon. He received a commendation from the mayor for his great work. The video does not appear to be related to our case at all.

I search the city again, every nook and cranny in every room, but that’s all I can find. I do stumble on a few more thugs and have a few more brief fights, but nothing else new. With nothing else to do, that is the end of Day 1. I send Batman to bed by returning to Wayne Manor. I’m sure Alfred will tuck him in and read him a bedtime story. As for me, I’m going to hold my tongue for now. Exploring is fun, but the game feels empty and the combat pointless. I may feel differently after I get a bit farther in and understand the game more. Then again, maybe not.

Time played: 1 hr 50 min