I remember Batman Returns distinctly as it was one of two games I picked up when I purchased the Sega CD. Title selection was still short, cheap cardboard packaging was still being used, and the console still retained its initial wonderment – i.e. its reputation hadn’t yet been sullied by FMV and lack of support. I didn’t get the game because I liked Batman (though I did; Batman Returns the movie, not so much), I got it because I was curious about what the console could do.
And what the console could do were arcade driving levels. Batman Returns for the Sega CD takes the exact platform levels from the Genesis cart and intersperses them with new driving sections where you power the Batmobile through the streets of Gotham and run clown bikers off the road. These satisfying new levels are almost worth the price of admission themselves, (and the style later would become its own game in Adventures of Batman and Robin). Along with remixed CD audio for the platform stages, these additions allow this title to barely avoid the shameful label of shovelware.
You can elect to play only the new driving levels, only the old platform levels, or the “full game” where you switch between the two modes in order. If you go with the full game, your first stage is wisely the first driving mission. No time is wasted in showing off this neat new effect, and far from being a gimmick, it’s arguably the most fun of the show. You’re driving the Batmobile down a linear track defined by Gotham’s roads. 2D building and decoration sprites roar by, while occasional curves in the road require you to regulate your speed – think Outrun in the arcades, but perfectly replicated on a home console with a Batman twist.
Enemy vehicles will appear in groups as you progress, with a red meter tracking the total number of enemies you must destroy per section. Each section is timed, forcing you to lay on the accelerator. You can either shoot enemies ahead of you with the Batmobile’s guns, launch homing rockets from a limited supply, or punch in the afterburners and sideswipe cars into the roadside buildings for instant kills. My only complaint is that it’s a little awkward to try and shoot by tapping the A button while having to hold down the B button to accelerate, but you can at least maintain your speed by holding Up – very helpful in keeping a safe distance while pounding bosses.
This sprite scaling/scrolling technique is among the most advanced examples seen up to this point. Textures get used, scrolling “strips” of road aren’t obvious, elevation can change and send the Batmobile flying, and the sense of speed and smoothness is impressive. It’s also just damn fun to play. Explosions from thrown molotovs or fired rockets light up the area around your vehicle, you’ll crash through and splinter barriers, enemy cars catch fire and weave out of control, and fairly inventive boss vehicles show up and require a clever strategy for each. Later in the game you’ll gain control of the Bat-jet-boat and rocket through the sewers in pursuit of the Penguin. These levels bring some classic high-speed dodging challenges as you leap off ramps, weave between pipes, and shoot open sewer locks.
As you might have already guessed, the platforming levels are weak in comparison. This is unfortunate, since they still represent the bulk the of game. You’ll fight through environments based on the film, roughly in the order of the film, but get strictly average platforming action in return. The circus motif of the movie’s criminal gang gets used here as a license to explain away supernatural pattern-based enemies. The variants of clowns I can understand, but you lost me on the living gargoyles, the fire juggler who shrinks inside his own hat and passes under you, the lanky clowns that appear through mirrors, and parachuting penguins that explode on contact.
The largest barriers to defeating these levels easily are Batman’s plodding overall speed and surprising combat ineptitude. He cannot run, which becomes a big problem when the Penguin sends a giant steel ball rolling after you. He punches a short distance when standing still, and kicks out when forward is pressed in tandem. Meanwhile, enemies have fantastic reaches with poles and assorted weapons, easily whapping you when your kick comes up short. Or, they’ll simply turn invincible and flip back and forth over your head – see the acrobat or any mini-boss fight with Catwoman.
Foes like the gun-shooting clown or fire-breathing devils can easily be defeated by crouching under their attacks and kicking while ducking, except that, again, Batman can’t run. He can’t quickly close the distance to duck under the attack and counter. He can’t dodge beyond ducking, and he can’t block either (which would be a lifesaver against the flipping enemies), so instead must frequently accept whatever punishment comes his way and offer minimal resistance in return. I can sum it up in one word: frustrating.
This is where the Bat-gadgets come in handy. There are five in total, selectable by hitting start to bring up the utility belt, and arrowing through to pick the appropriate tool. Standard Batarangs fly out in a straight line to hit approaching or shooting foes. Thrown smoke bombs freeze enemies in place. A swarm of bats homes in and does the same. A grappling gun shoots a deadly arrow, and the computerized Batarang flies around on its own and attacks whatever’s nearby. Naturally, all of these powerups are limited in supply. The standard Batarangs are the most plentiful, but also the weakest, requiring multiple throws to drop anyone and negating any stockpiling you might have been attempting.
If you had more gadgets you could easily beat the game and probably have a more enjoyable time of it. Trouble is, you don’t. You’ll have to rely on your weaker, inaccurate, and cumbersome kicks for general enemies, and save the weapons for the elaborate boss fights. It’s no fun taking on a flying Penguin sporting a buzzsaw umbrella with nothing in your stash but a couple of limp punches and kicks.
Levels are moderately varied, though almost all involve some kind of vertical platforming. Sewers, cathedrals, outdoor buildings, giant department stores, all take advantage of height and traveling either up or down. Batman has his grappling hook to assist here, triggered by the jump button. It can shoot upward to climb, or be deployed in the middle of a jump to latch ahead and allow for some limited swinging if you’re lucky enough to have it catch. Certain pits or downward drops can be overcome with a glide ability, where Batman spreads his cape and floats gently to his next landing. For some reason this ability is limited, with a pickup offering more “glide power.”
All of the platform levels look incredibly dull and subdued, but this is probably in an attempt to match the dark tone of the film. There are no vibrant colors in the game anywhere, not even on the circus gang’s costumes. Violet is unquestionably the new black here, as everything dark is rendered with shades of purple to facilitate easy visibility. It gives certain edges and railings a subtle, moonlit look, and while Batman and Catwoman both look somewhat foolish this way, you can at least see them clearly. Sewer levels are deathly boring, and most details in the outdoor levels are lost behind their own shadows. The nicest elements are the snowy park and the circus tents, where the muted look works well to create a sinister nighttime feel. And I did enjoy battling The Penguin atop his gigantic, yellow duck.
Driving stages are brighter and better than their platform counterparts. The winter level with overhanging trees is almost beautiful, and the sewer levels particularly fast and challenging. However, it’s worth noting that the connections between the two game types in the “full” mode feel rushed. You’ll be driving toward a circus, and end up at a department store. You’ll drive toward Wayne Manor, and end up at a circus.
The new CD tracks are appropriately moody, and certainly one of the first times players heard real pianos and guitars in a console game. The tracks are few in number though, so they get reused across the levels, or pieces of them are swiped for the menu screens. Sound effects have not been updated. They’re limited in their use anyway, and sound scratchy and generic on the platform levels. Driving levels are a little richer, with rumbling explosions, squealing tires, and the revving of motors at high speeds.
Batman Returns is two games in one, but the problem is that they are two very different games in one. The driving levels are excellent, but too short and few to make a worthy home game. The platform levels are underwhelming and frustrating, made doubly so by the lack of a password system. Or to look at it another way, when I originally purchased the game I played the driving levels exclusively and never bothered to go past the first two platform stages. This is definitely the version to check out if you haven’t played the game already, and the driving game is good fun for a short time, but there’s not many reasons to trudge through the rest. The best parts bring it up over the Genesis original, but the worst parts drag it right back down.
The driving levels. Impressive arcade graphics and speed at home, and a blast to play. New CD music isn’t bad either.
The platform levels. They’re rehashed from the Genesis and executed poorly. Might be fun (or at least tolerable) to play through them if you had passwords. You don’t, so you’ll be seeing far too much of the first few levels from endless restarting.