Konami already had something of a history with beat ’em ups by the time 1993 rolled around and they had released Batman Returns for the Super Nintendo System and the NES. Yes, that NES. Even in the midst of a 16-bit war, the 8-bit NES was still very much breathing thanks to a huge audience.
The movie license hit a number of platforms like the Game Gear, Atari’s Lynx handheld, both Sega’s Genesis and its CD add-on, and even Sega’s Master System. All had very different interpretations of the kind of action-focused formula that would tie into the film often often due to hardware limitations and in having different developers focusing on each platform. One developer also couldn’t simply copy someone else’s design. They may be working on the same license, but there were still limits.
The computer version for IBM compatible PCs (which usually meant that they ran MS-DOS) was set up as an adventure game instead of a full-blown action title. Players could explore the Batcave, prepare Batman’s arsenal, hit the streets using his gadgets to defeat enemies (sometimes interrogating them for info), and explore the city as a big ol’ point ‘n click adventure. It was a great interpretation of the film that seemed to bring the feeling of being the World’s Greatest Detective much closer to players by allowing them to do things such as analyze evidence and following clues using the Batcave’s database crammed with important information.
The Amiga version, however, did stick to action as a side-scrolling title only to be bogged down by a host of bugs. The Genesis version was primarily a platformer which transferred over to the CD version boasting far better music including Pole Position-like driving levels with an armed Batmobile blowing up bad guys. Both the Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear versions were set up like side-scrolling action games. The Master System’s was also set up like a side scrolling action title with Batman’s batarang as the primary weapon though you could also use his cape to glide down from heights and his grappler to swing up to platforms overhead.
Konami, on the other hand, stuck closely to the beat ’em up formula for both the SNES and the NES version. Both utilized scene depth for eight way movement, multiple enemies to be punched and kicked, health bars for both the hero and the bad guys, and bosses a number of which most of the ports had in common. such as both Catwoman and the Penguin. The NES version, however, had infinite continues (which started you at the beginning of each stage) and a password system to pick up where you left off.
The SNES version, however, was something like a Batman mod for Final Fight and just as fun. Not only did it look great compared to its peers like the Genesis, but Konami had also added a dash of variety to his moves. Chaining hits unleashes a small cyclone of animated punches and kicks. Grabbing an enemy and then grabbing another one smashes them together. Enemies can also be tossed into the background against walls or windows, shattering glass. They can even accidentally blast each other with rocket launchers if you’re fast enough to lure the poor saps into the line of fire.
It also had what none of the others did — a fantastic set of themes that borrowed directly from Danny Elfman’s original score for the film. The PC version had a few cues from it, but the SNES version went all out with tracks seemingly lifted straight from the movie along with the digitized faces of its actors used during the cut scenes. Only the PC version had more faces along with a number of new ones because of its adventure gaming conventions.
That’s also not to say the music for the other versions sucked. The Sega CD version and even the NES tracks were great, too. But the SNES version seemed to have been scored by Elfman himself thanks to Jun Funahashi and his team.
The SNES version was seven stages long, each stage based off of locales in the movie from the fight in the heart of downtown Gotham to the Penguin’s icy lair in the abandoned zoo. Players could set how many lives they had (they would respawn where they had died) and a fixed number of continues added an additional challenge over that set by the player themselves. Default difficulty was normal, but you could always set it back to Easy — or go full Mania. It also had, like many console titles at the time did, a sound test which allowed players to hear all of the music.
It also had a racing portion, similar to the one done for the Sega CD, where you race through the streets blasting bad buys with the Batmobile. Unlike Final Fight, there wasn’t a large variety of pickups. Most were to restock Batman’s batarang count, health, or explosive vials used as a ‘super’ attack hitting everything onscreen.
Batman Returns on the SNES was also an uncomfortable contribution to another trend in the 90s — the decline of arcades. This was a great, console-based beat ’em up easily holding its own against dedicated cabinets. Between games like this (of which there would be many more such as the SNES-only Final Fight 2) and the hardware arms race turning PCs into 3D war zones, arcades would continue feeling the squeeze.
This was also one of those instances where a movie tie-in was actually great as opposed to being a steaming pile of horror…at least on the SNES as opposed to the buggy Amiga release. As a beat ’em up, it was also great fun in beating down enemies as ‘the Bat’ with Konami’s expertise delivering a solidly entertaining melee adventure that’s worth picking up if you have an old SNES lying around and an itch for a little old school action.