A Gothic Platforming Adventure
Batman Returns (1992 Sega Master System)
Konami played to their strengths with their two versions of Batman Returns (the NES and SNES editions), taking the plot of the movie and translating it into street level beat-em-ups. Sega, though, got the jump on Nintendo's consoles, releasing a fleet of games before Konami did, and they went in a decidedly different direction. Sega, of course, had some experience making platforming games and so, for their rendition of Burton's sequel, they went with platforming adventures. As much as I expected to be a fan solely of the Konami games, I have to say, Sega did a solid job, too.
As noted, Konami took their experience making their Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. games, translating 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. into a brawling adventure. Sega saw the Gothic style of Burton's films and, despite their own experience making fast-paced platformers (i.e., Sonic), they made something slower paced, more contemplative. They made, in a way, their own take on a Castlevania game, or their answer to Sunsoft's sublime Batman on the NES. In short, they made a game very different from the direction Konami would go only a few short months later. If you were a kid lucky enough to have both Nintendo and Sega consoles at the time, you had a number of great Batman Returns games to choose from.
Ostensibly the Sega Master System version of Batman Returns follows the story of the movie. Gotham is being menaced by the Penguin, CatwomanOnce a thief (but a pretty damn good one) and rogue of the Bat-man, Catwoman went from villain to anti-hero as she found love with the man that once pursued her., and their clown goons, and there's only one person that can stop them: the Batman. I say ostensibly, though, because there's absolutely no in-game plot to speak of for the title. Batman just goes charging in and you get to explore various stages (in a kind of "choose your path" style adventure) until you reach the final fight with the Penguin. If you didn't know the plot of the movie you probably wouldn't know what was going on here beyond, "Batman fights goons in Gotham." Really, though, do you need to know more for a good Batman adventure?
Batman here is not a fast-moving guy. He's slow, like a Belmont in a Castlevania game. Not plodding, mind you, just moving at a steady, no nonsense pace. He can throw batarangs, or use his grappling hook, both of which can do damage. For platforming, beyond basic walking and jumping, his grappling hook also comes in handy, allowing him to attach, and swing, off the underside of any surface he can reach. Plus, he can glide with his cape, slowly falling in a controlled manner. It actually allows for a diverse set of abilities that makes Batman feel quite lithe and agile despite his slower pace.
The stages, wisely, are built with this set of moves in mind. Most stages have multiple paths of exploration, with vertical and horizontal sections and a lot of freedom to roam. You can follow whatever path you like, take your time or rush ahead, and the game basically lets you do as you like to get from point A to point B. Stay on the ground, or swing over everything with some speed. The designers clearly knew that swinging and scaling was fun so they made sure to put in plenty of areas to let you have fun, all without forcing you to do too much exploration if you just wanted to get moving.
Exploring does have its benefits, though. Batman doesn't start out very strong, with batarangs that can only cover short distances, and very few lives to his name. There's no health meter here, so every time Batman gets hit he loses a life. Thankfully, upgrades, and extra lives, are plentiful, letting Batman become something of a roaming tank by game's end (assuming you last that long). All of these power-ups are held by hovering bats scattered around stages. Think of them like candles in a Castlevania game; ;break the bat-pinata open and get a prize out of it. It's function and it works.
Despite the lack of health, the game never feels unfair. Sega wisely knew that players would get frustrated if they burned through their lives due to cheap enemy placement. Enemies are put in smart locations, and they'll wait a second or two before attacking when you're in range, giving you time to react. If you take your time and explore around, you'll have plenty of lives to survive the occasional bad break, and you should be able to progress quickly enough through the Gotham adventure.
With that said, bosses can be a menace. They'll have complex patterns and will take a number of hits before they finally fall down. Their patterns are learnable, though, and consistent as well. Plus, the bosses have generous invincibility frames where, while they're damaged, they won't immediately do damage to you. It makes everything in the game fairly manageable, keeping the action steady and fair such that, after a time or two through the game you should know what you're doing well enough to get through the adventure.
As far as the design of the game, I actually think it's fairly nice to look at. The Master System was on par with the NES in a number of ways -- better at some things, worse than others, but by and large you wouldn't really notice too many differences in their capabilities as a player. The game here looks like a fairly pretty 8-Bit adventure. I think the various NES games released for the Batman franchise looked a little better mostly due to the color palettes available to the NES, but that's also probably a matter of opinion. This game looked good as an 8-bit adventure, nicely conveying the basic Gothic feel of the film in Master System form. Had it been released on the NES, I wouldn't have thought anything of it and just said, "yep, that's a nice looking game for the hardware."
At the same time, though, I don't think the music is quite up to par. The tracks are fine enough, basic loops that aren't offensive in any way. But they also are real bangers. Basic in scope and maybe a little repetitive in their loops. That, coupled with the Master System hardware, which has that distinct Sega tinniness I dislike, causes me to rate the music lower than anything from the franchise on the NES. I think Sega maybe could have done better here.
That's a minor quibble, though, for what is otherwise a fairly solid 8-bit adventure for the Dark Knight. It has solid platforming, plenty to do, and fair balance. If Konami had put this out on the NES, I'd be praising them for taking their knowledge from the Castlevania series and turning that into a great Batman game. It has the hallmarks and trappings I like, in spades. The fact that Sega did this, in house, is more impressive still. It's not the kind of game I expect from them, but it's really great. A solid adventure for the Dark Knight, and yet another winning tie-in game for Batman Returns. Already this movie has more fabulous games for it than Tim Burton's first outing.
Of note, the Sega Game Gear version of Batman Returns is basically the same game (which makes sense as the Game Gear was basically a portable Master System). The screen is smaller, so the platforming experience is tighter (and more difficult by default). If you had to get this version back in the day you probably weren't disappointed, but my guess is any collector will choose the Master System version instead, if they can.