Batman: The Animated Series
(NA November, 1993; JP December, 1993)
As I’ve already discussed to some extent, the curse of the Game Boy was to slowly be flooded with unending amounts of poorly made, licensed games. Why bother to design these games well when it’s not the quality of your product that’s making it sell, but rather the name? This cynicism ruled the design ethics of this time period, and one need look no further than another Batman game on the Game Boy, Batman Forever, to see how hatefully awful these games could be and still get away with making significant profit.
Developed by Konami long before their decline and while they were still champions of classic game design, Batman: The Animated Series was released roughly one year into the beloved cartoon’s much extolled run, and was the only game to be made for it prior to its title changing to The New Batman & Robin Adventures. The development team shared a good portion of staff from Cave Noire and Gradius: The Interstellar Assault before it, and if that wasn’t indication enough, this title rose far above the standard set by other licensed games – enough so that I would genuinely consider it the team’s magnum opus.
To see a well-made licensed title in this era (or perhaps any era) was rare, and this tends to have an obvious effect on the discussion and appreciation surrounding them. The standards by which we tend to judge their quality are lowered to the bar set by other licensed titles, and our love of the brand becomes priority above all else. I could sit here and tell you why I believe this is the finest game to bear the “Batman” title, but what would this mean to you – or anyone – when put on the same plane as the other excellent titles on this list?
The fact of the matter, here, is that I chose to talk about Batman: TAS not because it is “a good Batman game,” but because it is one of the most shining examples of excellence available for the Game Boy, relevance to a cartoon that I do admittedly love be damned. It features what I consider to be the most consistently gorgeous visual quality of any game on the console, as well incredibly moody, atmospheric music and some really underappreciated, nuanced mechanics. This isn’t to say that the game’s quality is not partially owed to its property, however, but unlike a typical licensed game, it builds on the player’s relationship with it rather than depending on it like a crutch.
Set early on in the series, Batman: TAS tries to wedge itself somewhere within the story of the cartoon by ambiguously placing its events shortly after some key characters are introduced, but before any of their character arcs move too wildly into a certain direction. The team’s love of the source material feels almost palpable right down to the game’s structuring, which begins with an imitation of the cartoon’s opening sequence and continues with referring to its first level as “Episode 1: The Joke’s on You.”
This structuring tries to imitate the cartoon’s format as faithfully as it can, and it lends itself surprisingly well to being a video game. Levels begin with a brief bit of storytelling using detailed portraits of the characters and bits of dialogue to help establish the tone, and then flow with typically little interruption in a linear structure before reaching boss fights that either conclude the level or move it into its second segment (structured roughly identically to the first). Every boss used is a popular villian from the cartoon, and their personalities are wonderfully captured via the portraits, in-game sprites, and themed levels.
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Where Batman: TAS shines brightest is in its absolutely superb visual work. Limited to only 4 shades, mastering the visual capability of the Game Boy is locked within requiring a deep understanding of how to manipulate contrast. Most games – even many of the best looking – resort to taking easy routes that avoid using particular shades in recurring instances. Certain shades will almost never be used in the background, and background art, in general, is often left deliberately scarce as to maintain visual readability for the player.
Compare my screenshots for this to literally any other game on the list, and observe how incredibly masterful the game is in using each of the 4 shades all over every individual screen of the game. It puts other games to near embarrassment, and makes their backgrounds seem boring or incredibly vacant. Visual detail, here, is what I would consider to be genuinely unsurpassed on the console. The cartoon was well known for its dark and brooding visuals, and this is a perfect translation of that to the Game Boy’s visual language.
Levels are large and well-illustrated, and the brilliant use of contrast is fascinatingly used to really dig into illustrating the perpetual night that the game takes place in. The frosted window panes in Mr. Freeze’s level, for example, stare out into an eery pitch black. The Gotham City skyline stands imposingly in the distance as you traverse the harbor, lightning occasionally striking to briefly light up the moody, night sky. The cavernous sewers leading up to the Joker’s hideout are lit by the occasional fluorescent light piercing the otherwise total darkness.
You will frequently be introduced to complex background art in levels and then immediately see the same elements repeatedly, but now shaded much differently. This helps in maintaining the ability to read what is going on without sacrificing any attention to detail, and also makes it so that even the briefest areas feel distinct thanks to the attempts at imitating lighting. The foreground will also commonly contain portions that Batman travels behind (i.e. fences, gates), which help to thematically illustrate Batman’s stealthy nature to the player, and to show off the capability of the designers.
Animated elements are frequently introduced into the environmental art, as well. Shortly after meeting Catwoman, you’re indulged with light snowfall amidst a flowing fountain and christmas trees blinking their festive lights. Moments like these are abundant within the game, and several lack enemies to further seek to emphasize the heavy aesthetic. Nothing is spared when it comes to the level design, and detail is crammed into every little corner. Water flows, candles flicker, stray cats patrol abandoned houses, warning lights flash, et cetera. Please keep in mind when looking at screenshots that due to all the many complexities that go into the design of these environments, it’s hard to grasp how alive they become without actually traversing them, yourself.
Character sprites are also incredibly detailed given their small size, and the artist shows a commanding understanding of how to use as little as possible to say as much as possible. Boss villains are particularly well animated, with much attention going into their design. The Joker, for example, characteristically shrugs his shoulders and will often disappear behind a revolving door before you can strike him. Given enough space between the two of you, he’ll even point and laugh, with an illustrated “HA! HA! HA!” appearing above his head. These animations ooze character and help to display a surprisingly intimate understanding and appreciation of the source material.
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In terms of play, Batman: TAS is something that’s very easy to quickly and dismissively judge as an unfairly difficult game, especially when considering how few licensed games deserve a better look than a cursory glance. Batman’s punch is short ranged, his health allows him to make few mistakes, enemies are dangerous and bosses are much more potently so, and you’re only given three lives before your progress is put to a permanent end and you’re asked to restart the entire game.
While this may seem like cruel and spiteful padding to keep you from reaching the end of the game too quickly, the truth of the matter is that the design is actually incredibly careful and deliberate. This is perhaps best shown through the game’s enemy design and placement, which goes above and beyond what you might have been expecting. Each enemy type in the game is given a unique behavior, and understanding how these work (and how to place yourself in the environment) is key to working your way through to victory.
The Joker’s goons, for example, act like you might expect them to – like buffoons. They mindlessly patrol back and forth, stopping to attack you with their fists if you’re in their way. By observing their route, easy to get the drop on them and avoid harm. The Scarecrow’s goons are a bit smarter, however. They patrol as the Joker’s do, but will now turn to attack with their pistols if they detect you close enough behind them. Their patrol routes also end with panicked turning, showing their fear and thematically tying them to their boss. Each stage has different goons with different behaviors, and the game reveals itself to be about very much about calculated learning to overcome its strict requirements for beating it.
Play the game like you would another action-platformer, and you’re almost certainly damning yourself to never enjoying the experience. Because of enemy’s strict patterns, verticality proves to be Batman’s biggest advantage, and your grappling hook and wall jump frequently become key to victory. Enemies can’t attack what they can’t see, and operating above or below their field of view or while they’re turned allows you to consistently get the drop on them. Bosses also work on fixed patterns, but are much more dangerous and consistently aware of Batman’s position. With every encounter, mindlessly rushing headfirst into things and expecting to come out on top just because of honed reflexes is going to rush you to the game over screen.
The game requires patience and then quick, flawless execution – as you would hopefully come to expect from a game where you play as Batman. In almost all interations of the classic hero, his key element of dispatching villains is stealth followed by very deliberate action, and despite being a modest Game Boy game, Batman: TAS captures that incredibly well. I would even go as far to argue that it understands the character significantly better than modern games, where your control over what Batman is doing is far more automated and focused on constantly gratifying the player with overt power fantasy.
The music, much like the game’s mechanics and visuals, is heavily focused on atmosphere. Each track (barring the incredibly well covered opening and ending themes, which are direct imitations) is heavily inspired by the themes in the cartoon, and borrow from Shirley Walker’s incredible style to help further establish the game as an aesthetic powerhouse. Rather than focus on a more classic, video gamey sound, Batman: TAS’s music is much more moody, ambient, and paced-out. It’s nothing you’ll particularly want to listen to outside of the game, but it serves its purpose of drawing you into the world as well as it possibly could.
The game is thoughtfully paced to accomodate for pure mechanical, visual, and auditory engrossment. Thematically, the strength present in the game’s design can’t be beaten. Catwoman’s stage features not a single enemy and is possibly my favorite of the lot in showing this, as it plays out like a game of cat and mouse, with her toying with you and gauging your ability up until you engage with her in a deadly encounter. Bells are placed on the walls that jingle as you walk past them, acting as further aesthetic decadence there only to deepen the game’s atmosphere and illustrate how she’s staying one step ahead of you.
Batman: The Animated Series is one of the starkest examples of a hidden gem in plain sight. It stands out as an obvious title in the library because of its license, yet talk about it is rare beyond the evaluation that it either does or doesn’t do the brand justice. It deserves much more than simply being relegated to that, however, as its craft is far beyond that of its peers. Whether or not you like the Batman cartoon certainly helps to strengthen one’s appreciation, but it is far from required – this game can be experienced well on its own, and its excellence is truly something beyond what could have possibly been expected.