The Penguin and the Joker Are at It Again

Batman: The Caped Crusader

Ocean had the license to make BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. games, and they sure went for it hard in the mid 1980s. With the license at least for two games related to Batman '66, the company managed to crank out (through its sub-contractors) two different takes on a basic Bat adventure. I wouldn't say either of them have aged all that well in the following years, but you have to at least credit the company (and their developers) for managing to make Batman games that almost nearly work. They were good for the era, at least there's that.

Batman: The Caped Crusader

This second attempt at a Batman game does at least eschew closer to what you'd expect from a traditional superhero experience. There's exploration, yes, but also fighting. A greater emphasis is put on action this time around, making for a game that feels, in some ways, far more complete. It does still have its flaws, though, with a lot of bad game design decisions that absolutely hinder the overall experience. In some ways this game feels like one step forward, one step back over Batman '86, and while I can appreciate what the game is going for, it's not a title I'd want to go back and play again.

The basics of the game are simple enough: Batman finds out about a villain on the lose, planning some kind of chaos. As the player, you have a choice of two missions: the Penguin or JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled.. Each has their own evil plan afoot, with Penguin spreading his penguin bots around the city while Joker has hidden bombs all over Gotham. As Batman you have to go through the section of town available to you (each mission takes place in its own slice of Gotham), finding the items you need to progress, all until you make it into the villain's HQ and foil their dastardly plan.

The controls of the game are basic but functional. Batman can walk around, of course, and he can punch, perform sweeping low kicks, and throw his batarang. There is also a large inventory Batman can use, with slots that can be populated by items needed for the mission along with food that can be consumed to heal Batman. The hero's health meter is also stored within the inventory, depicted by Batman's own face, which will slowly go from masked head to skull as he takes damage. Managing your inventory, and your health, will be required to make it through each of the two missions.

Now, while the plot is simple and the controls are functional enough, the game is anything but easy. To start, the screens of the game are absolutely packed, at times, with enemies. Each mission will have its own unique set of enemies, with Penguin's mission featuring penguin bots, armed goons, and flying drones, while Joker's side of the game has armed clowns and rats. You'll have to manage the screen, taking out the smaller enemies with kicks while punching the crap out of the bigger goons. And you will have to fight considering everything will damage you if they touch you. Your health will bleed off fast and the only way to heal is to get health drops from the goons. There's enough health from goons that you can stay alive, but there will be some stretches where all you can do is soak damage and run, and at that point you better hope you have enough health snacks for the road.

While the game is action oriented, at its core it's still and adventure game. Each mission has its own set of unique items, from keys and crowbars to wire snippers, gas masks, and sneakers. You'll need to find and manage these items as you go along, figuring out not only where they're stored but also when they should be used to get through the game. The adventures provide no hints, so there will be a lot of guessing and checking until you managed to find your paths through the missions and make it to the end of each.

Actually getting there is probably the hardest part. While neither mission is long, lasting only about 25 minutes each once you know where you're going and what items you need to collect, actually figuring out that path and making note of everything you need to do can be far more time consuming. Expect to spend hours mapping out the intricate maze of rooms for each mission while also noting what items are where and deciding where they should be used. It's a lot, and with the game providing absolutely no hints as you play it, you're left to suss out all the obtuse information on your own.

I could see players of the era enjoying this kind of game play. This was the same decade when Sierra was making their various "Quest" titles, and those were obtuse and obnoxious experiences. Fun in their own way, sure, but still quite arduous to get through. But that was the kind of adventure experience players expected, and this game delivers that same kind of trial and error and die game play. You have to experiment to figure it all out, and most of the "fun" came from the journey, not the destination.

With that said, I do wonder if modern players would enjoy this kind of obtuse game play. As with Batman '86, Caped Crusader feels like a game pitched to its era, not meant for future sensibilities. As games matured and the experiences players looked for evolved, games like this, where the programmers forced the player to search hither and yon just to get that one item in that one room that would be used clear across the map, really start to feel archaic. Punishing even, and not in an enjoyable way.

For those players that can get into it, the game does have its charms. The combat is rudimentary, sure, but there's a kind of brainless fun to be had from it. While the graphics still feel a little clunky, the presentation of the rooms, each one done as a single comic book panel, gives the game a unique look. This feels like a title that came off a comic book page. Players new to the title will find something interesting to play for at least a little while, one that can be absorbing for few minutes at least.

Just, turn off the audio. The game has exactly one track, and remixed and rearranged version of the Batman '66 theme, and it plays throughout the whole title. Both missions, no less. it's about a minute long, and considering you'll spend at least an hour playing through the whole game, you'll hear the loop a lot. Over and over. You'll desperately want something, anything else to listen to instead of that song by the end of it.

I can see why this game was lauded when it came out, much like the previous title from Ocean. It works well as a PC title from the 1980s, and it isn't entirely unplayable even now. But does feel old, and it's certainly outclassed by the NES title to come. It's a curiosity, just like its predecessor, but it's absolutely made obsolete by the game that was soon to be unleashed...