Batman Returns – Final Rating

From The Adventure Gamer

Written by Joe Pranevich

Christmas in July August!

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they need to put away their toys and provide a numerical rating for a tie-in adventure game written in 1992. More than once, in my case. But before we get into the all-important rating, let’s recap:

Batman Returns is the final game by Bill Kunkel’s Subway Software. Unlike the majority of the games that we play, we have Mr. Kunkel’s on words on the development process in a series of editorials as the “Game Doctor”. We can appreciate his joy at being able to work with the Batman mythos followed by his horror as he realized he was not making the game that he dreamed of. Instead of producing a Batman game that he could be proud of, he had to shoehorn in an adventure game on top of a movie that he did not like, with studio interference telling him what he could and could not include, with a development house that seemed ill-equipped to build the game that he designed. It is perhaps no wonder that this was his final game with Subway, although that may have been as much due to his changing fortunes in the magazine world as frustration with the game design one. Reading his words, I could not help but to root for the game to be better than its reputation. It also saddens me to no end that Mr. Kunkel is no longer with us; he feels approachable and would have been an amazing person to interview. I failed to mention it earlier, but we have also lost Joyce Katz (née Worley), the third member of the Kunkel/Katz/Worley trifecta. Of the three original developers and business partners, only Arnie Katz appears to still be with us, but I have been unable to locate him in time for this post.

Rather than dwell on that, let’s consider what we have: the first ever Batman adventure game and the first game to focus on his abilities as a detective. We successfully pieced the clues together to locate Penguin’s lair and prevent him from becoming mayor of Gotham. We stopped an army of marching penguins with rocket launchers. While we failed to bring Catwoman into the light, I’m going to imagine that there’s a world in the DC multiverse where Burton’s Batman and Catwoman managed to eventually get together and find a good therapist. They both could use one. Batman drove off into a snowy sunset and we can at least be thankful that no one thought to create a game based on Batman Forever.

A clue that wasn’t there yesterday and that has no reason for being there today!

Puzzles and Solvability

Batman Returns tried to do something different. It does not have standard adventure game-style puzzles where you use inventory items on foreground objects until something interesting happens. Instead, we have a game that rewards patient searching; Batman is detective first and a muscle-bound crime fighter second. This works better than you might think and my interest held for a while, but eventually the dearth of different locations led to a feeling of monotony rather than exploration. Objects are always placed in obvious places but usually only for a single day and the game expresses little desire to make the search process interesting or difficult.

With no inventory puzzles, we might surmise that the main “puzzle” of the game is the mystery. That works for a couple of days while we collected evidence to tie Shreck and Penguin together, but it is not enough to sustain the pace of the game. Instead, we might say that the key goal of the game is to find Penguin’s extortion tape, requiring us to discover his headquarters and find a way in. While this seems like a decent puzzle, we don’t have any real control over the resolution. We find clues in the order that the game gives them to us and (if we find the fish on the first day), we eventually get the tape. Within this constraint, there are some good moments– Tony the Fishmonger is my favorite– but we have little control over the pace and direction of the investigation. Combat is a mini-puzzle itself, but once we learn which bat-tools defeat the various villains, it becomes simple. Objects reset when you interrogate someone so a winning strategy is to make good use of the bolo-batarangs to trigger interrogation scenes to refresh our stuff. It is not rocket science and I sorely wish there was more to this game. It shows promise, but the execution is lacking.

My score: 3.

The utility belt is a non-traditional inventory.

Interface and Inventory

This game uses a verbless interface, something we’re going to see a lot more of in the next few years; on that score alone it is quite progressive! Almost everything can be done with a single click and there are often two ways to do things. Want to climb to a roof? You can either click the top of the screen if you have an object that will get you there or click on the object itself in your inventory. Although Batman moves too slowly, I never felt that the interface was a problem. There are some strange quirks here and there like how you can normally go to a system menu by pressing the ESC key, except during combat when you have to press a button on the toolbar labeled “ESC” instead. My guess is a bugfix thrown in at the last minute.

We also do not have traditional “inventory” puzzles. Batman never has to use a ball of yarn that he found in Catwoman’s apartment to fly a kite to attract lightning to fry an electronic lock on Penguin’s lair. Batman is a millionaire. Since he can buy anything he might need, limiting the inventory to evidence and bat-gadgets makes sense. The fact that he has more gadgets than slots in his belt isn’t surprising and works overall. In a stranger choice, we cannot see what evidence we are carrying except when we deposit it in the computer. I like that there is a good rhyme and reason to using gadgets in combat, something I didn’t cover very much in the narrative itself. Some gadgets are good for long-range attacks, while others allow Batman to close the distance and attack with his fists. While the combat is shallow, it is often better than my summaries implied. You can tell that they worked hard on that part of the engine, perhaps to the detriment of the plot-facing parts.

My score: 4

Much of the story is told through the nightly news.

Story and Setting

I am conflicted on this score because there is a lot to like. The designers did remarkably well with a slow build of tension over the first few days as we gradually uncovered the connections between the characters. They transformed a straight-forward action movie that into a mystery that Batman had to solve. The background stories in the computer, and the way some of these details shifted as you played the game, helped to make the setting come alive. Bill Kunkel complained that his team was prevented from deviating from the film and decision alone probably did irreparable damage to the game. We can see glimpses of what he was thinking thanks to some encounters and database items that don’t quite connect, but it doesn’t feel like a finished product.

For all that, the game falls apart at the end as the designers realized that they had to tell the rest of the film’s story all in a rush. This led to too many disconnected cut-scenes, dropped plot-lines, and things happening in the game because they happened in the movie. Alfred shows up! Rocket-launcher penguins show up! There is some foreshadowing to Commissioner Gordon showing up, but the latter third of the game becomes a poor retelling of the movie rather than its own thing. Although I didn’t experience both sides of the fork, the choice as to whether or not we give our evidence to Commissioner Gordon was great. It was a real role-playing moment with an impact on the ending, ensuring that Shreck is arrested rather than killed and Catwoman doesn’t have blood on her paws. That deserves special recognition.

My Score: 4

The rooftop scenes are surprisingly well animated.

Sound and Graphics

The game cuts corners by not giving Batman free movement, but the graphics and sound may be the best part of the game. The snow effects are exceptionally well done for 1992 and I wonder how much of it was animated versus motion capture. The combat engine supports far more somersaults and moves than you expect, making the fights kinetic if not exactly interesting to watch. I love the hand-painted backgrounds, many of which were based on Tim Burton’s set design but some of which are unique to the game. From Kunkel’s blog, we know that the designers visited the movie’s rooftop set during production and I cannot help but feel that they learned a lot about the film’s design aesthetic which they put to good use.

The game also has a secret weapon: Danny Elfman’s iconic Batman score. Those beautiful notes are forever burned into the nostalgia-center of my brain thanks their use in Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. Even a couple of hooks from that score were enough to elevate otherwise boring “Batman running to the Batmobile” scenes. You can hardly credit the game designers for using a three-year old score, but I am doing it anyway.

My score: 6.

Batman can only arrive at this screen from the roof.

Environment and Atmosphere

Although I liked the graphics, not everything hung together. The city felt claustrophobic rather than expansive and seeing the same hand-painted Gothic architecture over and over again eventually made it mundane. Tim Burton’s designs bleed through into the art and that is quite nice, but it’s not enough to build a cohesive atmosphere. Although a quibble, I still dislike that Batman cannot travel through the city on foot. Even when he just needs to cross the street, he has to grapple up to the roof and cross. I’m all for subtle, but it gets in the way of the city feeling real.

My score: 4.

The bat-computer gives us many details about Gotham’s citizens.

Dialog and Acting

There are two sets of dialogs in this game: that which was written for the game and that which was written for the film, but they do not hang together well. That said, the bat-computer was exceptionally well done with descriptions of major and minor (or even unseen background) characters that would update as the game progressed. It’s a strange bright spot in a weirdly uneven game.

As far as “acting” is concerned, we get some faux-video in the game which consists of characters talking to each other with one of two frames of lip-flap animation. It’s not terrible and may have been based on filming done for the movie, albeit hyper-compressed to fit on a 8-floppy game. I wonder if there had not been plans to make this into a CD-ROM game at one point, abandoned by the time or limitations in the format.

My score: 4

Final Tally

Let’s add up our scores: (3+4+4+6+4+4)/.6 = 42 points! I am going to take one away for having the fish at the beginning of the game be such a “bite the newbie” moment. That gives us a final score of 41 points. Not terrible!

With that, Reiko is our winner this time out with an on-the-money guess at the score! Alas, Mayhaym just missed it thanks to my subtracting a point because of that pesky fish. By what I assure you is a complete coincidence, this is exactly the same score as Ballyhoo, the other game I just played about criminal clowns. We’re in The Black Cauldron and Codename: Iceman territory now which makes sense. These are deeply flawed but playable games and that’s more or less how I feel about Batman Returns. The average guess was 37 so the majority of you thought I would hate it a bit more than I did.

I am very happy that I played this game, not because it was fantastic on its own but because I was able to spend so much time researching Bill Kunkle and his Subway Software. I love discovering stories like his, told by storytellers like him. I am still reading and enjoying his autobiographical tales and Borrowed Time was a nice treat even if it didn’t score all that well. This is the kind of thing that I was looking for when I volunteered to be a writer on The Adventure Gamer and I am glad to have been able to share the experience with you. Don’t be surprised if I look for some excuse to play Mr. Kunkel’s other two adventure games at some point down the road.

This game is a huge milestone for my contributions to this blog, even if I am a bit embarrassed about it: I have now passed up Trickster as writer with the most games played, even if in my case they have mostly been Missed Classics. When I volunteered to play Operation: Stealth, I had no idea that I would enjoy writing with you as much as I have come to. Thanks for being an appreciative audience.

Next up for me is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, Volume II, by another one of my favorite developers.

CAP Distribution

200 CAPs to Joe Pranevich

  • Blogger Award – 100 CAPs – for finally finishing the game after so long, thanks to the fish.
  • Classic Blogger Award – 50 CAPs – for playing on Borrowed Time
  • Classic Blogger Award – 50 CAPs – for playing through Ballyhoo
Will Moczarski – 80 CAPs

  • Classic Blogger Award – 50 CAPs – for blogging through Reality Ends for everyone’s enjoyment
  • Intermission Award – 20 CAPs – for blogging about all the other programs Med Systems put out in the 80s.
  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – for being the closest guesser of the final score of The Archers.

25 CAPs to ShaddamVIth

  • Ultra-Efficient Panel Beating Award – 5 CAPs – for noticing that we’re driving in a car that was recently wrecked in the ending
  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – for correctly guessing the final rating of Ballyhoo
  • Sex Ed Award – 5 CAPs – for reminding me that male lions have manes. Duh. 
  • A Farm Upstate Award – 5 CAPs – for trying to work out what the Archers’ pig-cow-cabbage-dog graphics are

25 CAPs to Lisa H

  • Pennywise Award – 5 CAPs – for reminding us that not all clowns wear white makeup
  • Helpful Hinting Award – 5 CAPs – for helpful hinting.
  • Are You High? Award – 5 CAPs – for catching my “high wire” typos 
  • Comparing the Incomparable – 5 CAPs – for funny bits from the hint book 
  • A Farm Upstate Award – 5 CAPs – for trying to work out what the Archers’ pig-cow-cabbage-dog graphics are

25 CAPs to TBD

  • Clueless Award – 5 CAPs – for knowing that Movie Batgirl wasn’t Barbara Gordon.
  • A Setting Somewhere Award – 5 CAPs – for giving advice on emulating Amiga games
  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – for figuring out Will’s Final Rating MO, thus guessing closest to Reality Ends’ rating
  • A Farm Upstate Award – 5 CAPs – for trying to work out what the Archers’ pig-cow-cabbage-dog graphics are
20 CAPs to Vetinari
  • What’s Your Story Award – 20 CAPs – for submitting What’s Your Story answers
15 CAPs to Biscuit

  • Appreciating Your Appreciation Award – 5 CAPs – for making me feel like the research I do is appreciated
  • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – for correctly guessing the final rating of Borrowed Time
10 CAPs to Laukku
  • Emulation Award – 5 CAPs – for letting us know that Dosbox has just been updated, helping out those of us who play old games.
  • A Farm Upstate Award – 5 CAPs – for trying to work out what the Archers’ pig-cow-cabbage-dog graphics are

10 CAPs to Michael

  • Fettucini Brothers Award – 5 CAPs – for lists of adventure games with circuses

    10 CAPs to Reiko

    • Psychic Prediction Award – 10 CAPs – for correctly guessing the final rating of Batman Returns

    5 CAPs to ATMachine

    • Arrested Development Award – 5 CAPs – for telling me about the alternate ending if you arrest Shreck

    5 CAPs to Rowan Lipivitz

    • Deep Blue Sea Award – 5 CAPs – for making a “red herring” joke about the fish

    5 CAPs to Voltgloss

    • No Couch Potato Award – 5 CAPs – for consulting a walkthrough and showing that I did tons of optional stuff

    5 CAPs to Mayhaym

    • Willem Dafoe Award – 5 CAPs – for connecting Max Shreck to the movie Nosferatu

    5 CAPs to MorpheusKitami

    • Gone Fishing Award – 5 CAPs – for hinting that I missed the fish when I missed the fish

    5 CAPs to Ududy

    • The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence Award – 5 CAPs – for pointing out that bats aren’t birds

    5 CAPs to Alex Romanov

    • Dehydration Award – 5 CAPs – for pointing out that bat-shark-repellent was used in the 1960s film, not the series

    5 CAPs to Laertes

    • Touch of Death Award – 5 CAPs – for providing some info about the first Batman game for the MSX

    5 CAPs to Torch

    • Golden Ratio Award – 5 CAPs for trying to help figure out Amiga graphics aspect ratios…

    5 CAPs to Kirinn

    • Adventure Game Studio Award – 5 CAPs – for providing another circus adventure game

    5 CAPs to Anonymous

    • Nine Princes Award – 5 CAPs – for pointing out a similarity between Reality Ends and a fantasy novel series.

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