If you're reading this, the chances of you not knowing who Batman is are roughly zero percent and therefore I'll skip the introductions. Batman's probably more famous now than he's ever been, but he's been appearing in videogames of wildly-varying quality since the mid-eighties, so the chances are you've played a Batman title at some point.
Batman Returns is specifically based on the Tim Burton-directed movie of the same name. Not the one with the Joker, the other one. Michael Keaton plays Batman (superpowers: vast wealth, emotional trauma, good at fighting) as he battles against the Penguin (superpowers: caustic fish breath, nose biting) and Catwoman (superpowers: sex appeal, handy with a whip). Oh, and there's an evil businessman called Max Shreck (superpowers: being Christopher Walken) pulling the strings.
Not pictured: Christopher Walken. Disappointing, I know.
As this is a 16-bit game based on a comic book franchise, the Laws of Gaming dictate that it must be either an action platformer or a side-scrolling beat-em-up. So which did Konami decide would better suit their unique vision of a large man in tights punching people? Actually, they sort of went with both.
Batman Returns starts off as a standard Final Fight clone. Despite his mastery of hundreds of martial arts ranging from karate to full-contact pillow fighting, Batman comes equipped with the usual array of beat-em-up attacks. Pressing the attack button will execute a punch combo. You can perform jumping attacks, as well as grabbing enemies and either hitting them or throwing them into the scenery. Pressing attack and jump together will unleash the standard health-draining special attack - in this case, Batman twirls his cape around like a catwalk model, causing enemies to become so overwhelmed by his grace and panache that they take damage. Bafflingly, it also hurts Batman himself. He should have used his detective skills to detect himself a cape light enough to swing around without causing severe neck and shoulder damage.
Batman's also known for his gadgets, and while he neglected to bring his Clown-Repellant Bat-Spray he can at least throw batarangs at the bad guys, stunning them momentarily. There's also a grappling hook that lets you performs a swinging kick, but more on that later.
Once you've reached Batman's clown-punching quota, a skull-headed harlequin rides a motorcycle out of a giant Christmas present and suddenly you're playing a different game.
The gameplay is now restricted to a single plane, and pressing attack makes the Dark Knight throw a batarang. Yes, we've swapped genres and Batman Returns is now an action-platformer. If you've read VGJUNK before you'll probably know how much I love belt-scrolling beat-em-ups, so this sudden change of tack is rather aggravating. It's not just my preference for beat-em-ups, either: these rigidly two-dimensional sections simply aren't as much fun
Very festive, in a gothic sort of way, but less fun. For a soaring avenger of the night, Batman is slow and cumbersome - not really a problem in the brawling sections, but it rapidly becomes an issue here. Combine this with the large size of the sprites and it becomes far more difficult to avoid enemies and traps than it should be and you start wishing you were controlling someone more manoeuvrable, like Alfred or even the bloody Oracle.
A clown holds a woman at gunpoint, to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Between rampaging gangs of circus folk and weekly Joker attacks, the people of Gotham City must see clowns the same way we'd view an invading force of Nazi paedophiles.
This particular jester is the first boss, and if I hadn't figured out that you can block by holding the shoulder buttons he'd have been a much sterner test than he eventually turned out to be. I know it's pointless attempting to decipher the mysterious mind of an evil clown but I can't help but wonder what made him think that the best way - perhaps the only way - to defeat Batman was to curl into a ball and roll at him. I can see it now: the Riddler watching the fight unfold on the evening news and thinking "Fuck! Why didn't I think of that!?", Bane incorporating rhythmic gymnastic into his training regimen. Beautiful.
And that's the first stage over. Two gameplay styles, one more fun than the other due to Batman's inappropriately stodgy movements. Get used to it, because that's the pattern for (most of) the rest of the game.
Between stages, you do get some nice little cutscenes recounting the plot of the film, although I have to take issue with them describing Max Shreck as "the most powerful businessman in Gotham City". What's Bruce Wayne, chopped liver? I like Christopher Walken and all but he doesn't have a life-size Tyrannosaurus model in a cave under his house, and if that's not the best way to judge a man's power then I don't know what is.
Stage two is more of the same - clowns need hurting, and Batman is just the man for the job. Batman Returns fits nicely with my previously-discussed idea that the names of the enemies are what the player character names them when he lays eyes on them for the first time - Batman gives them all very utilitarian titles like "Thin Clown" and "Fat Clown". He's not the most imaginative crimefighter ever, but at least he's not calling them "Pretty Boy".
There's a short platforming section through a burning building, notably mostly because you need to use the grappling hook to swing over obstacles, and then it's back to the usual fighting for the boss. It's Karnov! Oh alright, it's actually just a generic strongman. A strongman that needs to start being honest about his weight and buying clothes in the appropriate size: that jacket has been pushed beyond breaking point. Karnov here is a much more enjoyable (and much easier) battle than the first boss, simply because you can move around with more freedom.
Right, time for stage three. What's next?
There's a lift scene. Of course there is, there's always a lift scene. This one has clowns.
For the rest of the stage, Batman travels across some rooftops. This is his natural habitat, so he should be alright here. There are more clowns. This game is a coulrophobe's nightmare, although it should perhaps be studied as a way to help people overcome their fear of clowns. They're a lot less scary when you're Batman and you can kick them off tall buildings.
The boss of the stage is Catwoman, and she does double duty as both a part of the game's story and as the beat-em-up's almost mandatory dominatrix enemy. PVC-clad women with whips are second only to eighties street punks in the vast sea of beat-em-up enemies, although fat guys who roll around and breath fire aren't far behind.
The sexual tension between the Cat and the Bat that is so prevalent in the Batman comics and movies is completely done away with here, which is sort of a shame because I'd have like to have seen how Konami would have approached it. Maybe after every punch combo, they could both stop for a second and give each other a meaningful glance while an animated heart-sprite pulses above their heads. Or perhaps there could be a "sexual tension" meter that fills faster the closer you stand to Catwoman. Once it's full Batman becomes momentarily paralysed, because there's not much room inside the bat-suit's codpiece for unexpected mid-battle tumescence.
Stage four begins, and the first thing to notice is this rather lovely lighting effect. The character sprites get lighter and darker as they move in and out of the shafts of light pouring into the level, and it's such a well-handled and extremely Batman-y effect that I wish they'd used it more.
In fact, I'd say that the presentation is Batman Returns' strongest feature. The graphics are excellent, particularly Batman's sprite and the stage backgrounds - Konami managed to capture the atmosphere of the movie rather well. The muted colour palette, not normally something you'd associate with Konami, is very effective at making the stages feel like Gotham City.
Also of note is the music, which consists of expanded, SNES-ified versions of Danny Elfman's movie score. Here's a personal favourite from Stage 2-2:
Catwoman returns for another boss battle, but we're fighting in the dark now - my Bat-Sonar should make this an easy fight. It's not like cats can see in the dark or anything.
The person tied up in the background is not, as I thought on first seeing her, some kind of terrifying Island of Dr. Moreau-style hybrid with the body of a woman and the head of lion. That's just what hair looked like in the early nineties. She's actually the Ice Princess, and if you've seen the film then you'll know things don't exactly end well for her.
At the end of the stage, Batman finally catches up to the Penguin. Driven mad by the pressure of her royal title, the Ice Princess has moved from her comfy chair to take up a precarious position on a snow-covered ledge. It's another 2D-style boss fight, and the Penguin has the advantage because he can use his umbrella to fly about the place like a deranged Mary Poppins. A fistful of batarangs makes the Penguin go down, in the least delightful way. Then the Ice Princess falls to her death, and Batman takes the blame. Whoops. Oh well, time to go and punch some more clowns, I guess.
Yup, there's an OutRun-style driving section, although unlike Sega's classic arcade racer you can shoot what look like metal dog bowls from the front of your car. If Batman Returns is the Neapolitan ice cream of SNES games, then the driving stage is the vanilla bit. It's not bad, and the sprite scaling and parallax backgrounds look nice, but it feels a little clunky and tacked on.
The next stage is back to the standard punching antics, and there's not much to say about it, really. You're on top of a circus train for a while, and then you have to fight an Organ Grinder.
Played in the movie by the late Vincent Schiavelli, the Organ Grinder is... oh, who am I kidding? All I care about here is that little monkey in the background. Hello, little monkey! As you can see, Batman has adopted a prone position to get closer to this magical dancing chimp. Even the Dark Knight can't resist the strange allure of a monkey in human clothes.
The final stage takes place in the Penguin's icy lair, and you're treated to another nice graphical effect in the form of a watchful penguin army that fires rockets at you. Those rockets don't discriminate between caped champions of the night and psychotic clowns, so you can use them to your advantage - but still take all the credit. Nothing's going to tarnish your superhero reputation faster than admiting that it wasn't actually you that took out that warehouse full of goon, it was a flock of missile-toting aquatic birds.
Deeper into the lair we go, and there's a giant rubber duck waiting for us. I'm not surprised. On the list of "weird shit Batman has fought", an oversized bath toy is quite some distance from the peak. I mean, Batman sometimes fights a woman who turns into a killer whale, so the Penguin really needs to step up his game if he wants to make Batman rethink his life choices.
After the duck, it's time for the Penguin! He's the final boss, and yet again it's another videogame where the final boss is Danny DeVito. For God's sake, how many times must I battle the star of such classic movies Junior and Twins at the end of a videogame? His near-omnipresence as the villain of almost every 16-bit videogame is beginning to get tiresome.
I'm kidding, of course. The only other games I can think of with Danny DeVito in are Chrono Trigger (where he famously played Ozzie) and possibly NBA Jam.
Once the Penguin is defeated, Gotham City is safe and its citizens can once again enjoy the foggy gloom and gothic ambience of this great city with fear of being attacked by a fat man with flippers for hands.
Batman Returns - a licensed tie-in game from the nineties that isn't complete dreck! As shocking as any of Batman's tales, but true. It's actually a pretty good game which sadly suffers from spreading itself too thin. The Final Fight-style stages are by far the best - they control well, Batman has a nice selection of moves and everything feels satisfyingly meaty - and if they'd stuck with them for the whole game, that would have been great.
While the "2D" stages aren't terrible, they're just not as much fun to play. Still, Batman Returns has a lot going for it: the graphics and music are great, and overall it certainly feels like a Batman game. All in all, I'd say you should give it a go, particularly if you're a Bat-fan. I certainly don't regret playing it.
And remember, a vote for Oswald Cobblepot is a vote for an oily fish in every pot and a giant rubber duck in every garage.