You Can't Get Rid of Me, Batman!
Batman: Return of the Joker (1991 NES)
As I've noted before, Sunsoft hit absolute gold with the first NES Batman. It had the right blend of dark and Gothic graphics alongside interesting game play mechanics, all leading to the feeling that you were properly playing as BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen.. It was lightning in a bottle, but impossible for Sunsoft to apparently duplicate, as evidenced by all their other Batman released during that same period (Game Boy, Genesis, PC Engine). If Sunsoft were to ever make a sequel, would they be able to find the right Bat-magic again.
The answer, sadly, is no, but only because the next NES game released by the company isn't really a sequel at all to the NES original. Although the game does share two designers in common with the previous entry, Yoshiaki Iwata and Tadashi Kojima, the game plays very differently. Where that previous title gave you a Batman that could scale and climb anywhere, working his way through intricate platforming challenges, Batman: Return of the Joker (released two years later in 1991) is a run-and-gun shooter. That's an odd fit for Batman (as I've said before), but in the context of the game it does work. It's not as successful as the previous NES entry, but there are charms that make this second title on Nintendo's grey box worth playing.
In the game, the evil JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled. has returned (just, in a general sense, unless you really want this game to be a sequel), and Batman has to travel across the city of Gotham, and the outlying countryside, to find the villain and bring him to justice. This requires the hero to go from stage to stage, collecting power-ups for their gun as they blast their way through various enemies. Get to the end of the zone and you'll either face off against a boss or (in two stages) a flying area with Batman riding along with a Bat-jetpack.
As I feel is generally the case with shooting games in the Batman franchise, the hero is a poor fit for this kind of game play. For starters, shooting a bunch of enemies doesn't exactly feel very super-heroic, especially when your hero is known for his prowess in martial arts. A Batman game really should have the hero kicking and punching his way through goons while, only occasionally, using his "wonderful toys" to dispatch traps and other incidentals. Plus, of course, Batman famously watched his parents get murdered by a gunman, creating a formative point in his life. He doesn't use guns for that very reason, so putting him in a shooting game feels wrong.
The bigger issue with this particular shooting game, though, is that it just doesn't feel like Batman is actually necessary in the context. The game nails a similar Gothic look to the first NES title, even with the sprites being chunkier and more detailed, but while playing the game there's very little about it that truly feels like a "Batman" game. His guns aren't standard Batarangs or grappling guns. He doesn't kick or punch. None of his normal rogues (outside of Joker at the end of the game) appear. This is a Batman game in name only; anyone other rando could have been slapped into this title and it wouldn't have played any differently.
If you can get past all that (and that may be a big if for many Batman fans) then the game is actually a decent little shooter. Many sources Online describe it as a mix of elements from ContraStarted by Konami in 1988 the run-n-gun platform series Contra was, for a time, one of the flagship franchises for the company. and Mega ManIn 1987, Capcom released Mega Man on the NES, a game featuring a blue robot that fought other robots and took their powers (so that he could then fight other robots with those powers, and on, and on). The series went on to release over 50 games in 30 years and become one of the most famous gaming franchises in the world. and, for the most part, I'd agree with that. It certainly leans quite heavily on the Contra side of the equation, with short stages relying more on shooting than platforming, along with a variety of guns. The goons are all faceless, and while the bosses are varied they're hardly memorable. It does feel a lot like a title Sunsoft made to compete with Contra, and then they slapped the Batman license on it.
The Mega Man aspect comes in more near the end. When you face off against the Joker the first time he rides around in a pod that is very reminiscent of the Wily Capsule fights from the Mega Man series. And then, in his second boss fight, Joker sits in a giant robot, shooting projectiles at the hero. What does any of this have to do with Joker? Not a squat, but it does make for an active boss experience. Who knows what Sunsoft was thinking here but, again, in the context it works.
The thing I appreciated most was that, unlike a Contra game, Batman: Return of the Joker wasn't too difficult. The game gives you a healthy life bar for Batman and taking hits from enemies only notches it down by one each time. You also get a refill before the bosses as the health bar changes to a numbered meter. The game switches you to a numbered health meter (with thousands of points) and you very quickly start taking huge chunks off the boss's own big meter, creating a delightfully over the top fight experience. This actually reminded me of Gunstar Heroes, a game I love. It was dumb, but amusing.
I do think that the platforming in the game could have been more varied. The first stage features horizontal and vertical sections for a lot of nice early action. But most of the following stages were horizontal in nature, meaning it's a lot of "hold right and shoot". As the game went on the variety became less and less prominent, leading me to wonder if all the creativity for the game was used up early, and then they just let the programmers crank out the rest as quickly as possible.
The inclusion of a couple of jetpack flying stages was nice, but these really needed to be longer. They're both over in less than two minutes, and the variety of enemies during the shooting is lacking. I could have seen whole large stages built out of the shooting, giving more variety and more intriguing aerial combat for the Bat to perform. Instead, these feel like tacked on sections just to give a talking point on the back of the box. They're fine sections, but insubstantial in the greater course of the game.
The thing that hurts the game most of all, though, is that Batman license. Not only does the game not really feel like a proper Batman game, but it also invites unfavorable comparison to the previous NES title. That game was great, while this not-sequel is average at best. Had it been released under a different name, with some other rando in the lead role, just maybe it could have been a good title. But Sunsoft likely saw the sequel film, Batman Returns coming down the pike and they decided to crank this game out to make a quick buck on Batman fever.
Batman: Return of the Joker is a fine game. Hell, it's better than most of what Sunsoft cranked out other than that first, sublime NES title. But with that game sitting there, saying, "hey, aren't I so much better?" it's hard to play this game and feel satisfied. You might like this second NES effort while playing it but, more than likely, once you've gone through and defeated the Joker here, you going to go back to the NES original for some truly inspired game play.
Two additional releases for this game were published after the NES version. A Genesis edition, titled Batman: Revenge of the Joker, came out with (arguably) better music and sound came out soon after; it was a level-for-level port of the NES game. The Game Boy edition released a year later, though, was a very different game under the same title (and we'll cover separately later). Meanwhile, an SNES edition was planned but, for some reason, shelved after the port was finished. A rom eventually leaked out of the game, but no official copies were ever made.