Gotham Will Fear My Reign, Batman!
Batman: Return of the Joker (1992 Game Boy)
Sunsoft really hit pay dirt with the 1989 NES Batman game. That title, a marvel of NES platforming, set the tone for how 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. should play in a video game. It was a hit for Sunsoft, and then went about making all kinds of other games featuring the hero... none of which were nearly as good. Two years later, wanting to try and reignite the magic of the NES original, the company put out a (not really) sequel, Batman: Return of the Joker for the NES, Genesis, and (unreleased) SNES. It was an okay game, although it hardly felt like a proper Batman title by any stretch.
Curiously, although they ported that NES title to other systems, maintaining the same play mechanics and level design, the Game Boy iteration was a completely different game. Released one year later, in 1992, the Game Boy version of Batman: Return of the Joker, feels like someone in the company really didn't want to make another port of the NES game and, instead, wanted a proper sequel to the 1989 NES original. So that's what they made: a game where Batman punches and wall climbs and swings around on his grappling hook. It feels like a proper Batman title. If only it were any good.
Like the NES game, in the Game Boy title the Joker has returned (it is right there in the name of the game). Batman has to go through four stages of action, battling against lesser goons as well as three other mid-level menaces -- Dark Claw, Shogun Warrior, and Foul Ball -- before finally coming up against Joker for a one-on-one match against the Clown Prince of Crime on his terms. Batman is out manned and out gunned, so he has to rely on his wits, his training, and his wonderful toys to get through to the Joker and save the city of Gotham once more.
The Game Boy Return of the Joker is a short title. At only four stages, with four total bosses, it's a game you can clear in about twenty minutes or less if you know what you're doing. That's hardly a rip-roaring adventure, although most Game Boy titles were on the shorter side, time wise, simply because they were designed to be completed in a car ride while the kid was on the go. I can't necessarily knock the game for being short, although at twenty minutes it does feel this side of paltry.
Graphically the game is pretty nice. Due to the limitations of the system, of course, this is a very well light and brightly designed Batman adventure. The Game Boy could only do four colors (white, light grey, dark grey, and black, all of them muddy) so to have a dark figure like Batman show up on screen, all the backgrounds are white with some details. That's to be expected, but it does keep the game from feeling like it has a proper Gothic ambiance. You expect darker adventures for the Dark Knight, not him wandering through brightly lit halls and caves.
Batman himself is animated well, though. He's a big sprite, with detailed movement actions and a lot of animation frames. It's fun to see him jump and pounce, his cape waving behind him. It's clear that, despite the limitations of the hardware, the team did try to make everything look good. They succeed with Batman (and, honestly, with the bosses he fights) even if there was only so much they could do to work around the Game Boy itself.
With that said, while Batman looks good he controls for shit. He needs a beat to get up to speed, making it hard to get up and keep momentum. He also slides when you stop or change directions, making all of his controls feel slippy. His jump is underwhelming, hardly able to clear even small obstacles. And that goes for his wall kick, which is back here, but also feels unresponsive and slippy. I appreciate that they brought the wall kick back, I just wish they'd made it more fun to use.
The one ability that is introduced here, and works really well, is the grapple hook. When used, Bats shoots it out at an angle. When it connects on a ceiling, he'll automatically swing, back and forth, with easy. You can even disconnect and reconnects in the air, traveling forward high above the dangers of the levels. I honestly wish this mechanic had been put to better use, for more than just finding out of the way power-ups, because it's legitimately fun and a great way to feel like you're flying like Batman.
You will want to avoid most of the dangers, though, because Batman is really weak in this game. His punches don't have much travel to them and the hit box for them is pathetically small. You can be right in front of an enemy and not touch them at all. Not that hitting them helps much as your punches do little damage and everything in the game is a damage sponge. You may have to kill the occasional enemy to get through a section of the game, but more often than not you're better off just avoiding everything dangerous.
That, of course, feeds into the biggest issue with the game: it's stupidly hard. Your movement is bad, your attacks are weak, and the enemies are plentiful. You only get five bars of health (eventually six if you find one power-up that extends it) and every attack will do at least on bar of damage. Couple that with unfair enemy placement, and death pits littered everywhere, and it leads to a game you likely won't complete on your first, second, or third attempt. Despite it's brevity, many games probably had to play the game for hours, suffering through frustration, just to make any progress.
Despite all these flaws, I don't think this is the worst Batman game Sunsoft released. It's not great, for sure, but there's an intent here, a desire to honor the legacy of the original NES game, that I appreciate. It has a lot of things I wish had been fixed just to improve the overall experience, but there's a core idea here I want to like. Had the team spent a little more time on the polish, making the game more fun and more playable, this could have been a real winner, both for the Game Boy and for the Batman franchise. Instead it's a sad bit of wasted potential with a glimmer of what could have been.