Have You Ever Been Bored by the Devil in the Pale Moonlight

Batman (1990 Arcade)

There is no denying that Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. The movie was a massive hit, making hundreds of millions for Warn Bros., and you couldn't go anywhere in 1989 (and 1990) without seeing the Bat symbol. Ever company wanted to capitalize on it any way they could. That led to Ocean's 1989 PC game, Sunsoft's fleet of console video games (starting with the best of them, the NES title), and the 1990 Atari arcade game. That's six different video games based on one movie across countless different platforms. And, note, only one of them was any good.


The thing that the NES game understood, that none of the other games released in that span could grasp, was the underlying cool of Batman. It wasn't just that he was a dude in tights that punched, kicked, and threw things at bad guys. He was a shape, a creature of the night, and presence that had his own means of scaling buildings and striking fear into the hearts of men. When you played the NES title you felt like you were playing Batman. All the other games felt like you were playing a dude in tights. The comparisons were night and day.

Now, I'm not going to rag on the Atari arcade game because it was released by Atari. That company was already well into it's downward slide, and the entity with the name in 1990 was already barely related to what had been the heights of the company back in the easy 1980s. That former version was the one that created the fantastic Star Wars arcade game. But they also made the middling, at best, Return of the Jedi, and that's the kind of game that Atari cranked out for Batman. For good, and ill, this is a traditional Atari arcade game from whatever was left of that once historic company.

Batman for arcades was a mediocre experience. Nominally it's a beat-em-up but not a very good one. Batman glides along on a flat, 2D plane, killing enemies from the left and right. there will be varied levels to jump up and down along, and lots of enemies to kill, but it's hard to call these stages more than a dull, repetitive experience. A lot of this is down to the fact that the enemies, for the most part, brainless fodder that are easily taken down in a hit, leading to very little variance, or strategy, in combat.

Consider that the TMNT arcade game came out the year prior, Double Dragon three years prior, Renegade all the way back with four years before this title. All of those games did more for the beat-em-up genre than Batman does. Those games featured varied combat, interesting enemies, some amount of strategy. Batman is just a flat rails fighter. It's bad.

Atari did try to break up the action with flying stages. These are reminiscent of the shooting sections from their Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. arcade titles, just with raster graphics instead of vectors. These are probably the best sections of the game, but even they are short and simple. They thankfully don't linger for very long, but they also don't really develop deep mechanics tho challenge the player. Like the combat, the vehicles sections are brainless.

And, look, it's not like beat-em-ups have to be super deep in their combat. You could do a lot with simple mechanics if they were done well. The first TMNT arcade game didn't feature throws or special moves or anything. Jump, kick, slash was what you got and it worked because of how it was done. The Turtles felt like they had heft and weight and precision controls. Batman, by comparison, is weirdly slow and floaty. He doesn't work right not only as Batman but even as an on screen superhero.

Now, some might argue that the chunkier graphics of the game meant things had to be toned to fit the new tech. That seems like a false argument when you consider that Final Fight came out the previous year and it featured big, detailed dudes battling it out with basic attacks, combos, and throws. The fighting in that game feels meaty, like the heroes have real force and the enemies have substance. If Capcom could do it, and that cabinet was sitting right next to Batman in 1990, then Atari needed to as well.

The sad part of this game isn't the experience. itself, although it does suck, but what it prevented us from actually having. Konami had been in talks to make their own Batman arcade game and considering the quality of games Konami was making at that time (like TMNT) there's little doubt that a Batman title from them would have been awesome. But some "other company" got in the way, as per reports, and that likely meant Atari snatched the full rights to the film for arcades and refused to share with or sell them to Konami.

So what we had was this very mild and mediocre experience from Atari. They did try to do some stuff with the game, yes. The big, chunky graphics are nice enough (even if Batman doesn't move as smoothly as you'd like). The music is okay and the sound samples taken from the movie are nice. It's an okay experience when you take it on its own, without looking askance at any other games that were out at the time or could be out soon there after... And yet, that's an impossible feat to accomplish. When you could have gone into an arcade and seen Batman next to TMNT and Final Fight and many other games all in the beat-em-up genre, why would you play this title?

Well, of course, because it had the Batman name and made cool sounds from the movie. That would certainly lure in plenty of fans to throw a few quarters into the experience. Whether or not they would enjoy the 15 minutes or so of game play they'd get out of it is another matter, but they could say they played Batman. Is that soulless and cash grabby? It absolutely is, but that's the only reason I can come up with as to why the game was released in this state when they had to know there were so many other, better games in arcades that people would rather play.

Batman is slight, and tedious, and not great. But it's Batman and for at least a little while, that was probably enough.

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