Pocket-Sized Future

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000 GBC Game)

The Game Boy and its iterations were never the most powerful systems on the block. Back when the NES game was king of the consoles the Game Boy did a decent job at approximating it’s big brother’s play styles. You could get NES-like experiences on the Game Boy, even if they had to be done in black-and-white, four-tone graphics. But as the home console market matured and more powerful consoles came along, the Game Boy somehow stuck it out, defeating so many other contenders (Sega Game Gear, TurboGraphix Express, etc.) that when game makers wanted their games in the hands of gamers on the go, they had to find a way to translate their games into the world of the Game Boy.

With Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, we have yet another port of a game that had to be reworked and remade to function on a Game Boy (sure, the Game Boy Color, but that was still a limited system when compared to the PlayStation 2 and GameCube). Its home console version was a 3D brawler that tried to translate the direct-to-video movie into a playable gaming experience. That game was a failure, topping some players’ lists of the worst games ever made (I don’t think it’s that bad, but it is bad), but that also meant the Game Boy Color version could find its own path, work its own magic, be its own thing. Even while following the basic structure of the game and movie it was possible for the Game Boy Color port to be different and interesting.

It wasn’t. Bear in mind that this version is nowhere near as bad as the PlayStation 2 and GameCube version of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. It is, however, an aggressively middle-of-the-road brawler that only feels fun because it’s on the Game Boy Color. It’s a throwback, old-school title that is made better by the comparison to the other version of the game that exists. On its own, though, this title isn’t going to top anyone’s best of lists. Not the worst, just not the best.

The game follows the setup and scenes of the console version of the game. 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. (Terry McGinnis) is sent to a factory to stop a theft by the Jokerz, only to get wrapped up in a much deeper plot involving stolen tech, genetically spliced thugs, and the return of an old foe thought dead years before. Along the way, Batman has to fight his way through multiple stages packed with hazards and foes, collecting items and keys so he can progress, all to get through the bosses and, eventually, fight his way to the man behind it all (which, if you read the title of the game or have seen the movie or the other version of this title, you already know who that is).

In all ways, in comparison to the console version of this title, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is an improved experience on the GBC. For starters, the fighting is much more forgiving. Batman doesn’t have to be perfectly aimed at enemies (because this is a 2D, sprite-based brawler and not a multi-direction, 3D, polygon brawler) so your hits (from the sprite’s hitbox) are far easier to land. This makes controlling Batman far easier, with the combat feeling far more responsive and interesting. Not super interesting, mind you, as Batman doesn’t really have much in the way of combo moves or even basic attacks (punch and jump kicks are about the whole of it), but still, better than the console fighting for this game.

Additionally, the levels are far more varied and stylish. Every stage has a ton of traps, from spiked tiles to laser traps, electric emitters, and fire spitters, forcing you to platform and move around while you’re fighting. The console version was basically a series of connected hallways, over and over, and while there’s some of that in this game, they’re changed up enough to actually make the game feel varied and interesting from one scene to the next. This helps to make the hour-long game far more entertaining (and not just a boring slog).

Finally, the game also removes a bunch of features that did nothing for the experience. While it’s weird to say “removing features made the game better,” in this case the less-is-more approach actually did help. The other version had suits that Terry could switch between for offensive, defensive, and agile postures. Mostly you’d just pick one version and stick to it (unless you had to use the agile suit for platforming) but they didn’t really add much to the experience. In this game, Terry just has the Bat-suit and it can glide when you need it to (by holding down the jump). Otherwise you just fight and you don’t have to worry about switching suits. It was a feature that was under-baked and it’s not missed here.

The game also removes a bunch of the power-ups that were scattered in the console version. Again, these really didn’t add much to the experience, simply forcing you to slow down and find offensive and defensive power-ups so that you could handle the bad guys properly. It dragged out the experience with makework, in effect. Instead of all of that, Terry is just powerful enough in the Bat-suit to handle the bad guys that come at him. It’s simple, effective, and doesn’t force you to scrounge everywhere just to pad out the game. I appreciated that.

For a Game Boy Color game, it’s a handsome and well put together title. The graphics are nice and bright and despite the lead character being basically all-black I never struggled to see them or know what I was doing. Each stage has bopping little tunes that play, and generally the whole experience was clearly crafted with enough care, and competence, that it doesn’t feel like the awkward step-child port of a console title. Yes, it follows the same structure and style as the console versions, so the team working on this game clearly had those design notes. It just does it better.

With all that said, the game isn’t necessarily great. For starters, while I appreciated that the combat was streamlined and far more responsive, the enemies in the game are stupid. Their A.I. is poor, and they really don’t seem to understand how to gang up on the hero and cause him real damage. Terry is also very strong as Batman, able to knock down most enemies with a three-punch combo. The game lacks real difficulty, and the mobs of enemies waste time without adding any kind of fun. Hell, the last couple of bosses can either be tricked into killing themselves, or they can simply be eliminated with a couple of combos. It’s kind of sad.

Also, while there are plenty of traps and tricks in the stages, the game still can’t rise above the feeling that you’re going from one hallway to the next, over and over. Each zone has its own art style, but after a couple of scenes you start to feel like the game is reusing the same ideas over and over again. More variety is stage types, different things Batman had to do, and ideas that could change up the flow of the game and make it feel interesting were absolutely needed. The game feels like it runs out of real steam pretty early on, and then it’s rote going through the basics from there.

Still, I can’t help but go back and look at the home console version, seeing just how bad that game was. In comparison this title is a legendary win. It’s better in every possible way. Of course, for many that’s like saying your game is better than Superman: The New Adventures. I mean, yes. I should certainly hope so. Being better than (as some consider it) one of the worst games ever made should be the minimum bar. This GBC version of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker exceeds that low bar. It doesn’t, however, compare well to the best Batman games up to that point (Batman NES, Batman Returns NES, just to name a couple). If we’re going to compare then we have to compare to everything that was out and, by that measure, this GBC title falls more than a little flat.