A Thoroughly Uninteresting Trip Through Gotham
Batman Returns (1992 Atari Lynx)
As we get down into the weeds of video game adaptations of Batman Returns, we really start to find that strange rarities of the franchise. The odd games that came, and went, and no one remembers them. Those odd titles that showed up on lesser systems that few played and even fewer wanted, such as the Atari Lynx. Yes, Atari's handheld system had its own version of Batman Returns, developed in-house by Atari themselves, and it's a game that (despite a quite lengthy Wikipedia article all to itself) few cared about at all.
The fact that there is a lengthy article about the Lynx version of Batman Returns isn't hugely surprising in and of itself. While Wikipedia lumps all the other games for this movie on a single article, the Lynx version received a lengthy run down all to itself. Likely it was first started by a fan of the console, desperately trying to make the Lynx seem like it was more relevant than it was. That's not me saying that the Lynx was a bad system but... well, okay, it wasn't great. It had its vocal fans, though, and a devoted fan is going to preach to the high heavens for something they love (I say, running a long and lengthy website dedicated to all things Castlevania).
When a system has only a few games, those games are going to have outsized relevance to its fans. Bear in mind that the Lynx, which technically was available for six years (1989-1995), only had 71 games in its official library. By comparison, the NES had 1,395 during its lifespan, and the Game Boy had 1,043. Yes, both of those systems were alive for much longer, but even taking a sliver of their time comparable to the Lynx, you're still looking at a library of games for Atari's handheld that was dwarfed by the competition. The system getting its own version of Batman Returns, a exclusive version all its own for fans to care about and love, was huge. The game itself... not so much.
The Lynx version of Batman Returns is a beat-em-up, much as you would expect. We've already seen a few beat-em-ups based on Batman Returns -- Master System, Sega CD, NES, and SNES -- but the Lynx version is, by far, the least interesting take on that material. It's short, it's tedious, and it has little flair to its action, such that by the time you've cleared the first level you feel like you've seen all that this game has to offer.
A big part of the issue is that the action in the game has very little going on. Batman can punch, throw batarangs, and throw exploding vials. His ammunition is limited, so you'll mostly just punch the enemies. It's a beat-em-up, so you'd expect that, but the thing is the computer A.I. for the enemies is not very bright. Nine times out of ten, all you have to do to defeat enemies is to duck and wait for them to come to you, and the punch them in the legs until they die. Those few times where an enemy is smart enough to duck to attack, you can either jump over them, avoid them entirely, or throw a weapon to get rid of them before they get near you. Most stages are just Batman walking, ducking, punching, and then doing it all over against for five minutes.
The action on its own wouldn't be so bad if there was anything interesting going on in the levels. The problem for the Lynx game is that it's basically just a boring belt scroller without deviation. You walk right and punch, over and over. Sure, one stage has you on the streets, and you can jump up onto short walls to continue walking. Another stage is on the rooftops of Gotham and you have to jump pits while walking right. But there's no real variety. No traps, no tricks, no weird platforming sections to break up the space and make you do anything other than walk and punch. There's nothing to the action of this game.
Not helping matters is the fact that it's both incredibly slight and still somehow manages to go on forever. Because there's nothing to break up the stages at all, every stage feels overly long. You walk right until, at some point, the game decides you've walked enough and the stage ends. It's doesn't build to anything, and there's no sense of a growing crescendo. You walk until you can't anymore. That feels long, but then it all just abruptly ends after four stages and (a casual) twenty minutes. That easily makes this one of the shortest games based on Tim Burton's sequel.
When it was released, the gaming press wasn't exactly impressed by the game, and you can see why when you play it. They did credit the game for its presentation at the time, but I have issues with that, too. I wouldn't say this game is ugly, per se, but it's only good looking when you compare it to other Lynx fare. It's very basic, very simple, and not very detailed. All the sprites are large and easy to see, which you would need on a system with a screen size of 160px by 102px, but they aren't really attractive. Catwoman certainly fares the worst, looking nothing like her on screen counterpart, but most of the enemies are chunky, basic and dull.
The music, though, is worse. For three of the four stages you get the same simple riff playing over and over again. It's a fine track, but by the end of the first stage you're looking forward to a different song... and then it starts up again. By the end of the third stage you're desperate for something new, something that isn't the same chunky guitar track played ad nauseam. But then the game plays a cruel trick: the four stage has its own song, but it's plinky and grating and far worse than the previous track. It's just awful. I've never been so annoyed by a game soundtrack.
This game isn't great, by any measure. While I struggle to call it outright bad, it's certainly not good. By the standards of Batman Returns games, it sits at the bottom of the list, maybe right above the Dos point-and-click adventure, but by the same measure at this that game tried something different. This is just a generic feeling belt scrolling beat-em-up without any style or flair. It exists, and it gave Lynx users a beat-em-up and a Batman game, but that's really about all it could do.
Why, then, does the Lynx version of Batman Returns had a following behind? Well, while this was a bad Batman game, the Lynx version of Batman Returns was still one of the best games in the Lynx library. When most of what you have for your system are scaled down ports and poorly designed puzzle games, anything that had even a modicum of flair to it would rise to the top. Most of what the Lynx had was little better than anything on offer for the Game Boy. In color, yes, and arguably prettier, but not much better. Fans didn't exactly flock to the little portable, so those that were converted by Atari's little wild cat had to enjoy what scraps they got. Batman Returns was one of the best scraps on offer.
Again, this is not me shitting on the Lynx. It wasn't a bad system for what it did, nor was it somehow inferior to the Game Boy or Sega's Game Gear. It just came from a company that was behind the major publishers in sales and clout, and it had to desperately try to sell itself to audiences that were already embracing alternatives. If Batman Returns was meant to sell handhelds and bring clout to the console, it failed. It's not a great game, and only the truly devoted would try and say otherwise.