From The Adventure Gamer
Written by Joe Pranevich
I grew up loving comic books. My parents wouldn’t let me buy them, but I still had a tiny little suitcase of issues that I had managed to snag at flea markets with my own money. Looking back on it now, it’s adorable just how much I loved the idea of comics even as I barely owned any and didn’t even understand the difference between Marvel and DC. My big break came in high school when I bought boxes and boxes of them off of one of my mother’s boyfriends, no doubt getting a huge discount as he both tried to look mature enough to date my mother while also trying to be nice to me. Contained within the boxes– most of which still sit in my basement twenty-five years later– were a treasure trove of 70s and 80s heroes, especially Doctor Strange and a nearly-complete run of the original Defenders. Even more important than the books were the times that he and I spent together; I grilled him for hours about the histories of major characters and he was always kind enough to humor me. He even took me to my first comic book store. I kept in touch with him long after he and my mother split up. He was an adult geek, the first I had ever known, and that was amazing.
One of the characters that he helped me to love was Batman. I remember how shocked I was to learn that the Robin I knew from TV reruns wasn’t even Robin anymore and that there had been two more since then. In large part because of his collection, I was more a Marvel kid than a DC one, but Batman and his rotating team of whiz-kids was someone I could get into. Bruce Timm and his series sealed the deal and I’ve been a Bat-fan ever sense. Twenty-five years later, I am excited to look at Subway Software & Spirit of Discovery’s Batman Returns (1992), the first ever adventure game featuring the Dark Knight. As this is also the 80th anniversary of the character, I can’t imagine a more fitting time to delve into the history of Batman and Batman-related games, before plunging into our topic at hand. It’s a huge story, but I’ll be brief.
|Sixty-four pages of action, only seven of which featured Batman.|
You don’t need to be told that Batman is one of the most popular comic book characters in the world, one of the “trinity” of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman that underlies the DC comics universe. Batman (or the “Bat-Man” as he was initially called) was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for the #27 (May 1939) issue of Detective Comics, an anthology magazine featuring mystery stories solved by recurring and non-recurring detective characters. (DC’s name came from this comic, although the reason has more to do with business spin-offs and acquisitions than it does a desire to place Batman above his Action Comics counterpart, Superman.) Kane and Finger borrowed generously from their pulp predecessors when designing Batman, drawing inspiration from the Shadow, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and other crime fighters of the period. Like them, Batman had a secret identity: Bruce Wayne, a socialite and millionaire driven to protect the weak. It is difficult for us today to know what the industry practices and expectations were around plagiarism in the 1930s, but it is unfortunate in retrospect that Batman’s debut story is essentially an uncredited seven-page retelling of “The Partners of Peril”, a short story by Theodore Tinsley featuring “The Shadow” from three years earlier. It’s an ignoble start to an amazing character, but new stories would quickly be written that set Batman apart from other pulp heroes of the era.
|Batman from his initial appearance in May 1939.|
|Robin first appeared in April 1940.|
The biggest change to the status quo came a year after publication, in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940): the introduction of Robin, his youthful side-kick. This “dynamic duo” would remain central to the character in almost all incarnations to the present day, barring a few swaps of who exactly was wearing the cowl and domino masks. In subsequent years, more characters were added to the family including Ace the Bat-Hound (in 1955), Batwoman (1956), Batgirl (1961), and many others. Just diagraming all of the Robins and their alternate identities would take all day; we’re on our fifth or sixth now depending on how you count. We even have a Bat-Cow, introduced in 2009!
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. The backdrop for Batman’s introduction is what is today referred to as the “golden age” of comics. From 1938 to the end of the 1940s, superhero comics thrived. This period saw tremendous innovation in the types of stories that could be told as well as the types of characters they could feature. Many of the most popular DC characters today got their start during this golden age, including Superman, Shazam, Green Lantern, Flash, and the Green Arrow. (In contrast, nearly all of the popular Marvel characters originate in the 1960s “silver age”. Of the gigantic cast of Avengers: Endgame, only Captain America and Bucky were created as early.) After World War II, superhero sales declined and one-by-one comics were shuttered or repurposed for Westerns or war stories. Only Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman managed to (barely) hold onto their titles during the lean times.
Depending on whether you are a Marvel or DC fan, the start of the rebirth came either with the publication of DC’s Showcase #4 (introducing Barry Allen as the Flash) in October 1956 or Marvel’s Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961. For DC, this period saw a gradual relaunch of many golden age titles with new science fiction spins, such as Green Lantern’s ring being powered by extra-terrestrial science rather than magic. Batman and Superman were largely unaffected by this change except that many of their previous adventures were retconned as happening in a different universe, called “Earth-2”. At Marvel, the silver age meant a deconstruction of the super-hero formula with more focus placed on the social lives and problems of their heroes, made most famous by Spider-man and his inability to juggle his great responsibility with his social life. Bruce Wayne never had those kinds of problems!
|Cliffhangers were more to Batman’s taste.|
Although Batman had starred in two movie serials (in 1943 and 1949), his real pop-culture moment came in 1966 with the launch of a Batman series on ABC. This series starred Adam West (as Batman) and Burt Ward (as Robin) and featured a campy, humorous take on the characters. Despite its camp, it was true to the source material with fantastic depictions of key Batman antagonists such as the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler. (Frank Gorshin will always be “my” Riddler.) The series was successful enough that it spawned a theatrical film (shot after the first season), plus two more seasons for a total of 120 episodes. For better or worse, this depiction of the character was lodged in the public imagination for decades. This Batman was right at home joking with Ed McMahon, living it up with his “Super Friends”, and solving mysteries with the Scooby-Doo gang.
|Yes, this happened. More than once.|
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Batman comics began to focus on the darker aspects of the Bat-mythos. This was also a period where status quo-defying events became surprisingly commonplace, as if to underscore the break between the “now” and what came before. The original Robin, Dick Grayson, quit in 1984. The new Robin, Jason Todd, was killed by the Joker (and a reader poll) in 1988. Batgirl was shot in the back and paralyzed. This darker turn on the character was epitomized in 1986 by the amazing The Dark Knight Returns miniseries by Frank Miller, depicting an older and worn down Batman who faces off against an authoritarian Superman in a Reaganesque hellscape. A few brief words are insufficient to describe this book and its impact, but the world was ready for a serious Batman again. Enter Tim Burton and his 1989 Batman film.
|You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?|
Featuring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson at Batman and the Joker respectively, the film brought a mature Batman to the public consciousness for the first time. It was far from perfect, but it brought to the fore aspects that I consider essential: Gotham City’s 1930s/Art Deco aesthetic, the Danny Elfman score, and Batman as a detective first and a fighter second. He was no ninja; Keaton could barely move in the Batsuit! Nicholson’s Joker is fun (and receives top billing over the hero), but his scheme doesn’t make a ton of sense and his death at the end (spoiler!) robs the nascent series of the potential for an ongoing antagonist. Plot threads started in this film, such as Billy Dee Williams’s pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent character, were abandoned before the sequel. Nonetheless, the movie was one of the cultural events of 1989, bringing comics and cinema fans their first look at what a “serious” Batman could be. It was exciting! With a massive box office haul, a sequel was inevitable. Burton and Keaton would be on board again, but the series needed new villains: Penguin and Catwoman.
|Keaton got top billing this time!|
For all that the first film was Tim Burton doing a Batman movie, the second is Batman occasionally appearing in a Tim Burton film. Everything feels dialed-up to eleven, with less of the gangland realism that pervaded the first film, replaced with a surreal dreamland. Batman barely appears, giving Burton more time to focus on Selina Kyle’s transformation into Catwoman, and the delicate dance that the Penguide does between eliciting sympathy and demonstrating animalistic cruelty. It’s only when you get to mind-controlled penguins wielding rocket launchers that you realize how completely bananas everything became when you weren’t looking. Adam West would have been right at home against that sort of threat! In the end, Batman saves the city, Catwoman survives to purr another day, and we will never see what kind of third movie Burton would have brought us. I’m okay with that.
Incidentally, the only character that does not “Return” in this movie is Batman. Penguin returns from being abandoned to the sewers. Catwoman returns from the dead for vengeance against the man who killed her. Batman spent the time between films fighting crime and brooding over the loss of his girlfriend.
|Batman’s first game.|
Batman in Video Games
The history of Batman video games starts in 1986 with a pair of games from Ocean Software, a UK firm that specialized in licensed games, usually action-platformers. These two games, Batman (1986) and Batman: The Caped Crusader (1988) were each experimental in their own ways. The 1986 Batman game is almost an adventure and features the protagonist exploring a house and battling foes in an isometric perspective. The second became the template for most of the side-scrolling beat-em-up style of Batman games to come, although it at least used unique framing to resemble comic book art.
The 1989 movie saw an explosion of game tie-ins to the film. Ocean Software wrote a third one, but Sunsoft alone released five different but similar games, plus there was an arcade exclusive, and even a Pac-Man clone. This pattern of allowing many developers to all produce different games for the same tie-in “event” was common during this period and we’ve seen it before with Hook, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, and others. As a man who sees games as art, I find these practices distasteful. Every one of those games deserves individual recognition or scorn, but since much of the point was to drum up excitement and sales for the films they represented, the common branding makes sense. In 1991, Sunsoft produced a sequel to their movie tie-ins, Batman: Return of the Joker. None of these games highlighted the “detective” portion of the World’s Greatest Detective, a gap that we’ll get to shortly.
|I had Batman Returns for the NES when I was a kid.|
And that leads us to the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. Eight separate games were commissioned by Konami for the occasion, nearly all picked up by separate development firms. None of them offer much originality or plot: Batman travels through a level, beats up bad guys, throws Batarangs, eventually defeats a boss, then repeat. Having not played any of them recently, I can’t say whether any of them rose above their limited mechanics, but I’m going to guess not. You already know because you are reading this post that the one “different” game in the set was the adventure game that we will be covering in the next few posts.
Developing Batman Returns
The development of Batman Returns was an emotional rollercoaster for Bill Kunkel, one that he described in a pair of columns in the “Kunkel Report” for Digital Press. (If you haven’t read my introduction to him and his work, I recommend you jump over to do so now.) In many ways, this was the perfect project for his background: he had written comic books, tackled a Superman game, plus he had four good adventures under his belt. When news broke that Konami was shopping out developers for games based on the Batman sequel, Kunkel played his contacts and discovered that the gig for the DOS version of the game had been given to a development house that he had connections to, Park Place. He pitched himself and his firm to design the game, a pitch that he landed based on his excellent resume for the job. Bill sums up his elation best:
And now I was getting my shot at Batman! At THE Batman! The rest of the process was a marvelous blur, full of contract signings, fat checks, and even a trip to the Hollywood studio where the film was being made. It was during my visit to the vast soundstage that I got to walk across the wintry rooftops of Tim Burton’s ultra-noir Gotham City. Of course, this being Hollywood, the rooftops were constructed about a foot-and-a-half off the ground, but still, it just… looked… great! […] My long-time prayer was being answered – I was going to design the greatest Batman game the world had ever seen! We would take an entirely different approach, let the player become the Caped Crusader as never before!
Kunkel’s trip to the sets to see the movie being made was followed by being given a copy of the script. That is when, he claims, his love for this project ceased. He called the script a “disgrace” and claims that he “wept openly” by the end, seeing his vision of his childhood hero shattered. I’m not sure that I buy that hyperbole as the Batman comics of his youth were not Shakespeare either, although he likely was reading an earlier draft of the screenplay than what made it to the screen. (Several working drafts have been leaked over the years, but I could not identify which of them Kunkel would have seen.)
Now that he was designing a game that he wasn’t thrilled about, the stress started to affect his health. Worse, the developers, Park Place (and their “Spirit of Discovery” imprint) were having financial trouble. The final nail in the coffin, in his view, was that Warner Brothers started making design requests, locking the plot of the game into the narrow confines of the movie and away from the celebration of Batman that Kunkel hoped for. And yet, Kunkel completed his design, Park Place completed their game, and the movie did well enough to land three sequels (two Batman films and a Catwoman). So angered by the process, Kunkel never even played the game that he had designed. This is, as far as I can tell, the last game his “Subway Software” ever worked on. Was it the stress of producing what he felt was a “bad” game that turned him away from the industry? Was it the promise of a new life for his Electronic Games magazine? Both? I have no idea. I’ll briefly recap the rest of Kunkel’s projects when we get to the final rating.
Despite everything he wrote, I’m still looking forward to this game. Even if it wasn’t what he imagined, the best art shines through adversity. Will his vision shine through? Or am I about to wade through several weeks of Batman-themed garbage?
|My copy of the manual is black, but otherwise similar to the above.|
Before we can play the game, there is one final detail to cover: the manual. I was unable to locate any copies online and eventually resorted to buying the game from a second-hand store for more than I care to admit. I am glad I bought it because the game appears complicated. I’ll go over it briefly now and explain it better as I understand the mechanics. The key point to the interface (as explained by the manual) is that we do not control Batman directly. If he gets into a fight, we can provide recommendations, but he’ll fight the criminal on his own. All we have is a single mouse cursor and single mouse button to direct Batman where to go and what to do.
It may be easiest to explain the rest as bullet points:
- The goal is to prevent Penguin from becoming mayor or destroying the city. This is done over nine timed nights where Batman can operate from 6 PM to 6 AM.
- Batman’s base is the Batcave where he can swap suits that are damaged and select what to put in his utility belt. There’s also a computer that we can use to analyze evidence, watch the news, and search a database of Gotham citizens.
- The utility belt is the closest we get to an icon interface for this game. We can select what tools go in our belt before we leave the Batcave. Tools include multiple types of Batarangs, grappling guns, and even a portable document scanner. As a fan of the 1960s series, I am saddened by the lack of Bat-shark repellent.
- There are also two sets of interfaces while Batman is out and about: a “searching” interface that allows him to look for clues, and a “combat” interface where Batman fights his enemies. Batman does all the fighting himself, but we can specify how hard we want him to battle (“Easy”, “Normal” or “Fierce”). Both modes let us use items from his utility belt.
That all sounds pretty reasonable, but we’ll see how it all works out in practice soon.
|The Bat-signal goes out!|
|And it is time to play the game!|
Don’t forget that this is an introductory post and so you can bet on the score. My only help is that Borrowed Time, Kunkel’s first game, scored a respectable 38. That was six years ago, plus you read Kunkel’s feelings on the game above. Do you want to gamble that it sucks? Or maybe he was too harsh? I’m looking forward to your guesses and to find out for myself.
This week, I want to shout out to Keith Decando and his “4-Color to 35-Milimeter” series over on Tor.com. He has a great write-up on the first two Batman movies in his rewatch, but his column is one that I look forward to reading every Friday.
Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There’s a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it’s an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won’t be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 20 CAPs in return. It’s also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.