If you’ve been paying attention to past entries of my weekly article on superhero games of yore, you may have noticed a growing trend. Save for a couple anomalies (Spawn, Dinosaurs for Hire), I have been focusing quite a bit of my energy on personalities from the Marvel universe. You may have been thinking, what about the other page-turner powerhouse, DC Comics?
Well, you’re right. Forgive me. As a kid, Spider-Man’s malicious villains just appealed to me on a different level than anything DC had to offer, and so my loyalty remained with Marvel for the bulk of my comic book reading years. Superman bored me, and early Batman games were usually ugly, utterly drab efforts that never managed to capture the mysterious feel of the Caped Crusader. This translated to lot of Marvel gaming.
As punishment for my unforgivable neglect, I’ve decided to turn my attention for the next couple weeks to the handful of Batman titles on the Genesis. Are any of them any good? I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never played most of them, and the ones that I have played have been pretty much wiped from my memory, unfortunate victims of my drug-addled years in the circus. Those were some dark days.
For this week’s entry, I decided to look at Batman: Revenge of the Joker. I chose it for the masochist in me, and this article should appeal to the sadist in you. Enjoy, you sicko.
If you frequent any local comic book shop, it’s almost inevitable that you will, at some time or another, overhear a debate between store clerks about who would win in an all-out brawl between Character A and Character B. Emotionally intense arguments of this nature are a cherished past time amongst comic book fans. Who can blame them? It gives any fan the chance to flaunt their comic book knowledge, while simultaneously feeding his or her fantasies of the greatest battles imaginable.
One of the most common heroes to come up in these debates is Batman. As we all know, he’s probably the most well known character in comic book history, but that doesn’t save him from a handful of haters who remain convinced that his lack of genuine superpowers make him an easy target.
With that in mind, I am now convinced that one of these Batman haters was on the development team for The Joker’s Revenge.
Published by Sunsoft and Ringler Studios in 1991, Revenge of the Joker is actually a remake of an older NES game called Return of the Joker. It’s one of those “The Joker’s at it again!” storylines – Joker gets out of jail, gathers nameless henchmen, then attacks Gotham City. Batman’s gotta find him and blah blah blah. None of this “plot” comes through in the game, either. The only indication you get of any kind of story is an image of The Joker on a sidewalk, followed by an image of Batman staring angrily into the distance, ostensibly at The Joker. Then title. Push start.
With any superhero game, there’s a certain set of assumptions as to what is in the actual gameplay. In a Spider-Man game, there’s got to be some form of web-slinging and wall-crawling. In a Hulk game, some smashing needs to take place. In a Batman game, you might assume that Batarangs, grappling hooks, and hand-to-hand combat would be in even the most basic interpretation of the series. However, after playing through the majority of the levels in Revenge of the Joker, I can safely say that there is just about zero correlation between this game and a single frame, element, or character of the Batman series. Well, except for Batman himself, of course.
First off, there’s the gameplay. Going against all logic, Revenge of the Joker, a Batman game, is a side-scrolling shooter. You don’t use Batarangs, grappling hooks, tranquilizer darts, tazers, or any of Batman’s regular gear. Instead, you blast your enemies with bat-shaped bursts of energy that look like something out of a generic rip-off of Contra or Gunstar Heroes. Hand-to-hand combat is almost nonexistent, but you can kick your enemies if you get close enough. Crates are littered through out the stages, containing weapon powerups that increase the strength and change the type of blast your gun churns out. There’s an absurd amount of them throughout each stage, giving you the option to change your weapon almost too frequently. There’s a little platforming in there as well, but the primary focus of the game is blowing away your enemies before they manage to take you out. Once again, I’ll remind you that this is a Batman shooter.
This outright refusal to adhere to the mythos of Batman is not limited to the gameplay, either. The themes of each level, while standard for your average side-scrolling shooter, are absolutely bizarre when you consider them in the context of the Batman series. I laughed heartily when I found myself shooting giant fat men wearing blue raincoats in the middle of a barren wintery wasteland. I guffawed as I traversed a Mayan temple set in front of a lush jungle. I LMAO’d when I navigated an underground lava pit infested with man-sized spiders. There are even levels that have you using a jetpack to soar through lengthy corridors, shooting at enemies on hover bikes. Again, Batman game. Sure, Batman has done some weird shit in his time, but how does all of this help him get to The Joker, who’s apparently in Gotham City?
I guess it’s obvious that I found these incongruous aesthetics to be unintentionally hilarious, but I was laughing even harder when they actually made an attempt to reference Batman’s classically mysterious demeanor. As an idle animation, Batman leans forward and pulls his cowl up to cover his face, Dracula-style. When the rest of the gameplay has the Dark Knight plainly and slowly strutting along like he’s taking a walk down to Cumby’s to pick up a Slurpy, his suddenly dramatic move looks more akin to a 6-year-old posing for his Mom in the living room before Trick or Treating. The game doesn’t even wait more than a couple seconds to jump right into this pose, which tells me that Sunsoft was pretty eager to show us the one semi-Batman-like thing that they managed to pull off. Since he jumps into the animation so quickly, though, it actually sent me leaning into level hazards as I was waiting for them to pass by. Way to go, Sunsoft. The one thing you almost got right ended up adding to the game’s already frustrating gameplay.
To be fair, I will say that the game does have a couple strong points. The graphics, for example, are surprisingly pretty. Despite the lack of context, of each stage is full of layered backgrounds, varied eye-catching colors, and intricately detailed environments. Little nuances like trees moving in the breeze or meticulously designed machinery in the background weren’t lost on me.
The music was also pretty solid, enhancing the stages with appropriately intense, catchy themes that helped to amp up the drama just a tiny bit. Unfortunately, these positives do little to numb the game’s problems.
The absurdity of the game’s content wouldn’t be so unnerving if the actual gameplay weren’t as frustrating as it is. First off, there are no checkpoints, and even worse, no health powerups at all. This makes for an aggravatingly cheap type of difficulty that will have you shouting at your television within minutes of booting up the first stage. The weapons, while thankfully varied, are horribly unbalanced. A couple of them will blow away an enemy in a single shot, while others are so weak that even the simplest of enemies can shoot you three or four times before you manage to take them out.
This flaw is especially frustrating when facing bosses (which, as you might expect, have no connection to the Batman series). If you get through a stage with a weapon you like, you’ll move on to the boss with that weapon and whatever health you have left (which is probably not much). If you die, you start again with full life, but you are forced to use Batman’s original standard weapon. Without your more powerful gun, your progress becomes null, and your chances at defeating the boss disappear. The bosses are extremely powerful, and the rooms you fight in are woefully small, so maneuvering is not really an option. All you can do is shoot as fast as you can as you watch as your health is whittled away.
When considering all of these errors – the use of hand blasters over actual physical combat, the out-of-place environments and goofy hazards, the cheap difficulty, the generic bosses – I can’t help but think that something fishy went down with Revenge of The Joker’s development. Either A, Sunsoft had a Batman hater on the team who was intent on mocking the character and proving that his lack of super powers leaves him weak and vulnerable, B, Sunsoft just threw a thin Batman skin over a pre-existing generic shooter, C, Sunsoft didn’t know what a “Batman” was, or D, Revenge of the Joker is just another example of why retro gaming is awesome.
Dare I say it? Now that I write this, I think I will choose D. After Dark Knight dominated the theaters and Arkham Asylum was released in all its gritty glory, I find it kind of refreshing to rediscover an old game that isn’t afraid of being flat-out stupid. Treadmills in the middle of a cave? Put it in! Descending spike balls and Gargoyles that spit lightning at you on the rooftops of Gotham City? Sure! Turn Batman into a shooter and occasionally a shmup? Just do it already! That kind of unabashed courage doesn’t exist anymore. While this is by no means a good game, I look back on the experience with a bit of fond appreciation for the sheer retro lunacy that it has to offer. The benefit of writing a review for an old game is that I know that most people won’t get to play it no matter what I say. That’s good since I’m going to recommend it, despite all of its flaws.
This Batman game is fit to wear Joel Schumacher’s nipple suit, but that’s it.