Jiggeh’s definitive ranking of BATMAN video games, part 4 of 5

We’ve arrived at part four of five in our Batman video game rankings, and with that we’re starting to get to some actual quality stuff! I’m gonna need less and less qualifiers for calling these games interesting (or even good), which is fun, but I reckon we’re also starting to get to the games that people actually care about and have opinions on! You know what that means – we’re definitely entering Hot Take City. Very excited for people to yell at me about how wrong I am!

But I digress. Part four of my definitive Batman video game rankings, which will take us from #23 to #13, begins here. Let’s go!

23. THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN: ACTIVITY CENTER (Windows, 1996)

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We’ve seen a few pieces of kid-oriented, (somewhat) educational Batman software, but of all of them THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN: ACTIVITY CENTER is my favourite. The premise is simple; a dozen or so villains have escaped Arkham Asylum, and they must each be recaptured by completing various themed puzzles and mini-games.

In addition to the villains’ missions, there are also – as the title implies – various activities to do around the Batcave and Wayne Manor, such as colouring lineart with various characters and scenes (which is where I was able to create the masterpiece you can see above).

The game is very much focused on presenting you the various activities without much filler in-between, and I think it’s in its favour that the core of the game isn’t diluted by half-baked adventure sections like in TOXIC CHILL and JUSTICE UNBALANCED. The activities themselves are also more varied, and at least a little bit more engaging. At the end of the day it’s still a kids’ game without a ton of depth, but it’s really polished, and any game that lets me mess around making art is going to be a good time in my book.

22. BATMAN RETURNS (NES, 1992)

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Considering how much love the original BATMAN on NES gets, it always surprises me how overlooked BATMAN RETURNS seems to be. It’s a Konami game from a period when their output was consistently excellent, it’s based on a massively popular license, yet I barely ever seem to hear anybody talk about it. Admittedly, this isn’t Konami’s absolute finest hour on the NES, but it is pretty good – and has more than enough noteworthy features to deserve being talked about more than it is.

BATMAN RETURNS is an 8-bit beat ’em up, which is always a little bit of a dicey proposition. Konami themselves did make some good ones, but I don’t think this game quite reaches the height of stuff like the NES TMNT games. Collision detection is a bit rough, and the game is weirdly difficult – except if you abuse an invincible slide, in which case it ends up a little bit on the easy side instead. It’s far from a bad game, just a little disappointing based on the high bar Konami themselves set.

Although BATMAN RETURNS isn’t perhaps the strongest beat ’em up game, even for an NES game, as mentioned it does have some great things going for it. The presentation is truly top notch, as you’d expect from a late-era NES game from Konami – graphics look fantastic across the board, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. My favourite feature though are the cutscenes between levels, which feature really impressive recreations of scenes from the movie that make great creative use of the NES’s limited colour palette.

21. BATMAN (Amstrad CPC, 1986)

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Ah, where it all began – the very first Batman game. Jon Ritman’s BATMAN is considered a bona fide classic, and for good reason. It’s a little funny to look at after a few decades of Batman games; Batman himself looks pretty dopey, and not much in the game feels particularly recognisable from any previous incarnation of Batman or his universe. It bears mentioning of course that this game predates the 1989 Batman film, and the resurgence of the character that came along with it. In 1986 licensed games weren’t a huge thing, certainly not as far as the expected faithfulness to the source material goes – and even then the closest point of reference would have been the 1960’s TV show – and with that in mind the game doesn’t feel so odd as it otherwise might.

Faithfulness to the source material aside however, as a game BATMAN undoubtedly delivers. It may be unpalatable to modern audiences, but get into the game’s groove, and it’s a lot of fun. The game is centered around exploring the Batcave to collect every part necessary to assemble the Batmobile (so that Batman can go on a rescue mission to save Robin – never depicted in the actual game), and along the way you’ll collect various items and gadgets which give you new abilities and let you explore previously inaccessible areas. It’s pretty much the quintessential isometric platformer – controls, AI and obstacles can be finicky at times, but at its core the level design is great and the puzzles are fun.

I wasn’t quite hardcore enough to complete this game entirely blind and unassisted – but even with a trainer giving me infinite lives, and a map to follow along, I greatly enjoyed just traversing the Batcave and solving all the platforming puzzles.

20. BATMAN (NES, 1989)

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What can really be said about Sunsoft’s BATMAN for the NES that hasn’t already been said? Well, as its placing on the list might have tipped you off to, I’m not quite as big a fan of this game as most people seem to be. Sure, I loved this game as much as anyone back when it was new, but coming back to it I find that some aspects of the game don’t hold up super well.

My biggest issue is with the jumping, which is pretty significant in a game where you spend a lot of your time doing just that. There’s a considerable delay at the start of your jump, and combining that with the fact that Batman gets stuck in place for like a second whenever you take damage, some of the trickier platforming sections can get really frustrating. I’m also not in love with managing the slew of different projectile weapons; flipping through the weapon selection to find the weapon you want is a hassle at the best of times, but since the number of button presses needed to get the right weapon will change depending on how many weapons you have ammo for, it can get needlessly finicky.

It’s a shame those things drag the experience down, because other than that it is in many ways an excellent game. I may have issues with some of the mechanics, but it definitely doesn’t mean the game plays poorly, I just think there’s obvious room for improvement. Additionally, even if it doesn’t look or sound much like the film it’s ostensibly based on, BATMAN is absolutely gorgeous. It makes remarkably great use of the NES’s capabilities, and for a 1989 game it really feels several years ahead of its time. The soundtrack is of course famously great too – although it’s far from my personal favourite Sunsoft Batman soundtrack.

19. BATMAN: RETURN OF THE JOKER (NES, 1991)

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Sunsoft followed up their numerous 1989 BATMAN games with BATMAN: RETURN OF THE JOKER, a game that was kind of marketed as a sequel, but isn’t really connected to the previous NES game narratively or mechanically. This time around, there’s less platforming, and a lot more shooting. My two main grievances with the 1989 BATMAN have been addressed; jumping feels great, and while there is a degree of weapon management, there’s no longer any finicky real-time switching while enemies swarm you (and no limited ammunition, for that matter).

It’s a bit of an apple and oranges situation though, because as mentioned the games aren’t really that similar – RETURN OF THE JOKER is much more of a shooter, with some platforming elements. It’s not quite a full-on CONTRA-type deal though – although Batman is maneuverable enough, enemies are less numerable, and often placed in very specific (and often kind of dickish) spots. It makes the game difficult, and it definitely requires a good amount of trial & error – but relatively generous checkpoints and infinite continues means it doesn’t get too bad.

The major reason I place this game above the original NES BATMAN however, is the presentation. As impressive as the previous game was, RETURN OF THE JOKER somehow manages to up the ante significantly, with bigger characters, tons of animation and just lots of stuff going on at any given time. From a technical standpoint it’s definitely one of the more impressive NES games, but it’s an aesthetic powerhouse too.

18. THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN (SEGA Mega Drive, 1995)

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RETURN OF THE JOKER could arguably be called a showpiece for what was possible on the NES – without doubt, THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN holds that status for the Mega Drive. An absolute tour de force of intense action and countless impressive visual effects like sprite rotation and various types of 3D, all at a blistering 60FPS with very little if any slowdown. The game truly is one of the most technically impressive games ever made relative to the hardware it’s on, and it’s genuinely hard to believe it runs on stock 16-bit hardware.

So how does it stack up beyond the technical achievements? Frankly, it’s a bit hit and miss. Aesthetically, it doesn’t really try to emulate the style of the TV show as closely as most other adaptations, so it’s got kind of its own style – it’s not ugly to look at by any means, but your mileage may vary. Same with the music – the game has a very distinct heavy-duty soundtrack courtesy of Jesper Kyd that I personally quite like, but it’s definitely not going to be up everyone’s alley (nor does it even remotely evoke the sound of the show).

As far as the game mechanics go, unlike RETURN OF THE JOKER this game is essentially a CONTRA-style run & gun game, and for the most part a very competent one. Movement feels good, stage layouts and enemy patterns are pretty varied and fun, and there’s a bunch of cool gimmick set pieces and boss fights.

Unfortunately, there’s a few notable flaws that keep this game from reaching complete masterpiece status. The game is very difficult, which isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself, but it’s difficult for some pretty silly reasons. First is the weapon power-up system; weapons need to be powered up several times before enemies stop being very bullet spongy, and the way pickups work it’s quite easy to accidentally switch to a worse weapon when you wanted to power up your current weapon. You can easily find yourself underpowered, quickly dying – which levels down your weapon even further.

The other issue that has to be mentioned is the pacing. Stages go on far, far too long (further exacerbating issues of difficulty), with the worst offender being the infamous shoot ’em up stage that goes on for a good 20+ minutes with the same looping background and repeated enemies. It’s amazing to look at, but gets old long before it’s over. THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN AND ROBIN is kind of a frustrating game, in that it really feels like it’s only a handful of small tweaks – overhaul the weapon system, put melee attacks on its own button, cut stage length in half – away from being a full-on 10/10 action game. As it stands though, it’s still a highly remarkable game that is very much worth a look.

17. BATMAN (Game Boy, 1989)

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BATMAN for the Game Boy is a pretty unassuming little game, but it’s very very charming. It’s often noted for the novelty of featuring Batman toting a handgun, but it is absolutely worth appreciating for its qualities as a game. In particular, it’s worth noting how much it gets right considering it’s a very early Game Boy game. The intensity of the action, the size of the characters, the design of the backgrounds, and even the length and pacing of the game – it’s all very well suited to to the Game Boy’s limitations.

Batman is tiny and cute, but easily recognisable. The environments are detailed and distinct, yet easily readable; you’re never really going to be confused about where you can go or not. These may sound like simple things, but they add up to a first-generation portable game that’s still very much playable – and fun! – in 2020. The game is very short, with four levels based on scenes from the film, but it’s a fun, breezy playthrough… until the final level, where the difficulty suddenly ramps up dramatically. But frankly, the challenge provides a nice change of pace, and makes completing the game a satisfying achievement.

Between fun platforming and shooting mechanics, nice visuals, and an awesome Sunsoft soundtrack, I definitely consider BATMAN for the Game Boy an underappreciated gem that more people probably should check out.

 

16. BATMAN: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2017-2018)

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BATMAN: THE ENEMY WITHIN was the second Telltale adventure series starring Batman, building off the world created in the first series but telling a new, largely unrelated story. Mechanically and aesthetically it’s kind of what you’d expect from Telltale; interactivity is mostly limited to making the occasional choice which may or may not impact the plot (or appear to, at any rate), and the meat and potatoes of the game is dialogue scenes with a vaguely comic booky style.

Given that THE ENEMY WITHIN ranks in at #16, and THE TELLTALE SERIES is yet to show up, it’s simple enough to conclude that I like these games. I appreciate that it presents its own version of Batman’s universe, and generally speaking I like both the tone and visuals. Telltale’s reinterpretations of various heroes, villains, and other characters are a little hit and miss – but I still enjoy seeing new and occasionally quite different takes. All of the above is largely the same between the two seasons – so what sets them apart in terms of ranking?

Well, it all comes down to the writing – which really is the most central aspect of a narrative-driven game like these. Without spoiling any of the story, I’ll say that while the writing in THE ENEMY WITHIN wasn’t bad, it definitely took things in kind of an edgier direction that I wasn’t hugely fond of compared to THE TELLTALE SERIES. The larger cast of characters means fewer of them really get to shine, and I also felt there were fewer memorable and emotionally resonant scenes than in the first season.

The second season never quite reached the same heights to me (though admittedly that could partially be because I went in with higher expectations), but I still really enjoyed spending time in Telltale’s Batman universe. THE ENEMY WITHIN didn’t end on the most satisfying of notes to me – but I’d still definitely be excited to check out a hypothetical third season.

15. BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT (2015)

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BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT is the fourth game in the ARKHAM “trilogy” (labeled as such due to Rocksteady and WB’s refusal to acknowledge ARKHAM ORIGINS), and for my money, clearly the weakest. Production values are higher than ever, there are lots of small quality of life improvements, and the level of polish is through the roof. Controlling Batman is as fun as ever, and there’s a few changes to the formula that I really appreciate (the integration of GCPD in the game’s structure and narrative is done super well and fixes a lot of the issues I had with the “open world” aspects of ARKHAM CITY) – but the reason I rank this game below its predecessors largely boil down to two things.

The first, and most obvious issue is the Batmobile. Aspects of it are well done; it handles well, driving feels good, and I actually quite enjoyed how the Batmobile was integrated in some of the puzzle solving. The core of the issue however, is that the entire concept of adding the Batmobile to the ARKHAM formula really strikes me as attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Traversal by way of grappling hook and gliding was super fun, and the scale of the previous games was well suited to it – by introducing the Batmobile, Rocksteady forced themselves to rejigger a lot of things, and little if any of it was for the better. Still, The biggest elephant in the room is the Batmobile-based combat – it’s not awful in and of itself, but it gets repetitive if not tedious very quickly, and there is just far too much of it in the game. Not only is there too much of it in general, bafflingly several of the key late-game boss fights are Batmobile-based, and none of them are very good.

The second major issue I have with the game is just general bloat. As modern AAA games are wont to do, ARKHAM KNIGHT attempts to outdo its predecessors by just doing more of everything, but I really think it ends up being to the game’s detriment. There’s a billion collectibles, side missions, Riddler trophies and other kinds of busywork, and the game even demands that you do an arbitrary amount of it before you can beat the game (and most egregiously, all of it if you want the “true” ending). The amount of gadgets and abilities you can use in combat reach the point of being overwhelming, and the same applies to the stealth encounters. Areas are much larger, making it much harder to keep track of what’s going on, and there are lots of new gimmick enemy types who require specific methods to defeat them. By giving you so many options and so many things to keep track of, the game ends up doing a worse job than its predecessors of its core conceit – making you feel like you’re Batman – since you never really feel as in control of the situation.

To make a long story short, I guess you could say that ARKHAM KNIGHT in some manner reaches both the highest highs and lowest lows of the series. Some of the small character interactions are really great, there’s a couple of super cool side missions, and I LOVE pretty much everything about the GCPD. Yet, at the end of the day, the lows overshadow the highs simply on account of being so ever-present. There’s no getting away from the Batmobile, and the increased scope and scale of everything means that even a lot of the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t quite as fun as in the previous games. I could also go on at length about how the game bungles what’s supposed to be this series’ grand finale with poor writing (including but not limited to the incredibly inept handling of the Arkham Knight’s identity and other “shocking” reveals, and a generally terrible final act), but suffice it to say, ARKHAM KNIGHT sees the series go out on a middling note.

14. BATMAN RETURNS (SEGA Game Gear, 1992)

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SEGA’s ace 8-bit development team BITS are responsible for this largely unappreciated portable Batman gem. BATMAN RETURNS on the Game Gear is a really solid action platformer with some cool features that make it stand out. The thing that instantly grabbed me was the grappling hook mechanic – obviously this is far from the only implementations of the gadget in a Batman game, but it’s one of the better ones. There’s not really that much to it, it works like you’d expect – but it’s smooth, feels good, and the level designs do a good job supporting it.

Another cool feature is the option to select one of two “routes” for each level – essentially there are two unique versions of each level, with different layouts, and you get to choose which one you play. One might argue that it’s a bit of a pointless feature, but I dig it. They could’ve easily forced you to play through both routes consecutively, but letting you choose which half to play keeps the game from going on too long – a welcome feature in a portable game made for shorter play sessions.

Like pretty much all BATMAN RETURNS video games, the Game Gear version leans heavily on the aesthetics of the movie, and represents it well. Locations, villains and even  minor thugs are all recognisable, and they all look great. Alongside a hot soundtrack by Motohiro Kawashima, the presentation feels quite polished. Add that to the fun grappling hook platforming action, and you get a terrific total package.

13. BATMAN: RETURN OF THE JOKER (Game Boy, 1992)

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BATMAN RETURNS was not the only great portable Bat-game to come out in 1992 – on the Nintendo side of the aisle, Sunsoft put out BATMAN: RETURN OF THE JOKER. Although it shares a title with the previously mentioned NES game, the Game Boy edition is a completely different game – in place of the console version’s frantic shooting action, this game is a more traditional action platformer closer to Sunsoft’s first BATMAN on the NES.

Again, I find my biggest issues with that game addressed well. The irksome weapon management is gone; Batman primarily attacks using punches, but getting Batarang upgrades augments the punches with projectiles, with no need to worry about ammo or weapon switching. Jumping also feels more responsive, albeit with a bit of a caveat – Batman in RETURN OF THE JOKER feels pretty heavy. It takes a second to build up momentum, and switching directions suddenly introduces a bit of slipperiness. Building and maintaining momentum when running, jumping, walljumping and grapple hook swinging isn’t immediately intuitive, but it feels really good once you get the hang of it.

Batman’s heavy feel is also reinforced by his appearance – he’s got a very chunky, Frank Miller-esque look that’s pretty unusual in Batman games, but he still looks quite nimble and agile for his size. Beyond just Batman himself, the characters look really great, and with the use of some cool visual effects and a high amount of action on screen, the game ends up being a real showpiece for what can be achieved graphically on the Game Boy. Much like BATMAN RETURNS, this game also supports its impressive graphics with an equally great soundtrack, this time by Manami Matsumae. All in all, RETURN OF THE JOKER is a really great game, and definitely one of my favourite Batman games in this style.


And with that, we’re almost at the finish line. Stay tuned till the next time for the fifth and final part – the definitive top 12 Batman video games! 🦇

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