Like Pac-Man But Worse

Batman (1990 PC Engine Game)

I am of two minds about the fleet of games Sunsoft released in the wake of Tim Burton's Batman. On the one hand, credit should be given to the company or creating a different game for every console they published on. They could have just released four different, warmed-over versions of the fabulous NES game, and honestly I doubt anyone would have thought twice about it. That would have been the easy solution, but instead the company decided to create a new experience on each console, and that certainly an achievement.


At the same time, only the NES game was actually any good. The other consoles received less than stellar games that couldn't hold a candle to that instant classic. The Game Boy game was a weak platform shooter, the Genesis game a lame brawler, and now, with the PC Engine (aka, the TurboGraphix-16) we have what can only be described as a Pac-Man clone. It's an interesting idea in concept, marred by repetitive game play and, well, the sense that just about any hero could have starred in this so it didn't really need to be a 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. game. It's like the company already had a concept in development and decided to convert it into a Batman title. That's how tacked on this license feels for the PCE Batman.

The basics of the game are simple. Batman will have to travel to different zones of Gotham City to clean up the streets... quite literally. In each zone there are things he has to do, from collecting vials of Joker gas to cleaning the art in the city Museum, to destroying the gas-filled blimps in the dark alleys. Each zone is broken up into twelve stages, and Batman will have to completely clear the streets to end the specific stage. To aid Batman, there's a counter in the bottom right of the screen that will show him how many more of whatever item he has to find / clean / plant / destroy. Once complete, the stage ends and Bats moves on to the next section.

Note, though, that the streets are filled with Joker's goons. These range from clowns to grunts, fake cops to, well, more clowns. Batman can knock them out and send them packing, hitting them first with his batarangs before touching them. This, however, is only a temporary solution as they will eventually reappear. It's best, then to clear through the stages as quickly as possible, finishing the tasks Batman has been assigned, all so that progress can maintained.

Playing the game, I couldn't shake the feeling that someone heard about Batman and took his mission just a little too literally. "Batman is here to clean up the streets" seems to be the motto because that's what he's doing: picking up trash and clearing graffiti. I's probably the least action-oriented game play mechanic they could have chosen, and it leads to a game play loop that goes from interesting to repetitive very quickly. By the fifth stage of the main Streets of Gotham, I already felt like I'd see all the game had to offer. Unfortunately there were another 43 stages I had to play through, and the mechanics and layouts of the game's mazes didn't get more interesting over the time I spent on Batman.

Calling the game a Pac-Man clone is apt. Each stage of the game is a big, overhead maze. Batman will wander around, picking up power-ups (mostly for points) as well as the various items he has to collect of clean or whatever. There are a set number scattered around the maze and Batman has to get them all before he can move on to the next maze. Those mazes are packed with enemies too, which Bats can take out but it's only a temporary measure. They're like the Pac-Man ghosts, able to kill you in a single hit but constantly coming back whenever you deal with them.

Finding actual details on this game is hard. Supposedly the game was supposed to be an action platformer, like the other titles released for the 1989 movie (starting with the NES adventure), but for some reason that play was scrapped for he PC Engine version. There's no documented reason for this, not details on why the development team pivoted to an action platformer. Best guess is they had the engine lying around and decided to simple swap to it to get the game out quickly. Considering Sunsoft published the loose Blaster MasterThe heartwarming tale of a boy, his frog, a tank, and the mutants that have to be killed to reunite pet and owner. / Bomberman spin-off, Blaster Master Boy, it's entirely possible the company had been planning to publish a Bomberman game of some kind for the PC Engine and then just took its parts for this. Whatever the case, it does seem odd.

Consider the fact that Batman doesn't really do the things you'd expect from Batman. He doesn't deliver any kind of street justice on the thugs he faces. You expect some kind of real action from Batman, even if its just kicking and punching dudes, but that's lacking here. His goal, too, is odd; sometimes the things he's collecting or breaking make sense in the context of the film's story, but other times it's just odd. You don't imagine Batman going around with a wash rag, clearing graffiti from paintings in a museum. He's not the kind of vigilante to go around a chemical storage building, planting bombs. And yet those are things Batman does here because... reasons. The license absolutely feels tacked onto this game for no reason other than they had Batman and had to use him.

And that would have been fine, I guess, if the game were more varied and interesting. You can't argue with the length of the adventure as, at 48 main stages plus a final boss level, the title will provide over an hour of game play. And yet, at the same time, it's not very interesting. You have mazes, you explore them, collecting (or whatever) to complete the goal. There are some spots where you can grapple up to a different section of the stages, although these areas are fixed. And very infrequently there are environmental hazards to avoid, such as trucks that cross a busy street in the early Gotham stages. But, by and large, everything you need to know about the game will be established early and the game will just riff on the same material over and over again without much in the way of variety.

Not helping matters is the fact that the enemies come in limited varieties. There's a basic goon, who will walk around slowly; a faster goon, who is like the basic goon but faster; and then a goon that will stand around and shoot at you. Each stage will have it's only re-skin of the enemies, but they're all the same throughout the game. No variety at all aside from how the look. So, again, once you've gone through one set of stages you know all you need to about the enemies you'll be facing.

This only changes in the last stage, the boss stage. This one, however, feels really weird because there were absolutely no bosses in the entire game up to this point. Thus, on the 49th stage, you're suddenly thrust into a set of three boss fights when there was nothing like this in the game before. It's pretty clear the engine wasn't built for this kind of combat because the bosses are pretty terrible. One will float for a second and then dash-kick at you and that's it. Another will come at you, swinging a morning star, but he can easily be pushed into a pit and killed. And then there's the Joker who will move around and shoot pellets and joke teeth at you. This was the only boss fight that felt interesting, but even then the patterns from Joker were pretty basic and it was hard to call this engagement "fun". If there had been more bosses, and more ways to vary the combat, I think these final encounters might have felt fair and interesting.

I really wish this game could have spent any time fleshing out Batman's combat mechanics. If he could have had punches to go along with his Batarangs that could have helped. Imagine a version of the game where Batman could use his batarangs but the noise would alert other enemies, so sometimes he'd want to sneak up and punch a guy quietly. Stealth would have been key so he could navigate the mazes safely. Pairing that with the enemies getting permanently knocked out and suddenly you have a game where you have to plot and plan and navigate for safety. That sounds far more interesting and fun without having to completely reinvent the game. Plus, you know, it sounds like a Batman adventure.

Sadly, instead we got this weird, basic, Pac-Man clone. It's not unplayable, but it's not really interesting either. Frankly, for most players, I wouldn't be surprised if they turned this off after ten minutes (or less). It's simple pleasures are far too simple to sustain the game play loop.