['Green and Black Attack' is a new regular column by James Edwards taking a reflective look at Nintendo's original portable workhorse, the Game Boy. This week, we tenderly probe Sunsoft's shrunken take on the caped crusader in 1990's Batman.]
There are three simple rules to "doing" Batman: he wears a cape and cowl, he clads young wards in emerald swimming trunks and he never, ever uses a gun. Ever. The first is vital to preserve his mystique, the second a matter of personal taste. The third was imposed on the character by his real-life owners DC Comics in the forties, part of a campaign to clean up their new golden goose for easier mass-market consumption, and later justified in the text as a psychological aversion to the weapons which forever robbed young Bruce Wayne of his parents and his innocence.
Nobody told this to Sunsoft, because the Game Boy rendition of Batman is strapped from pointy ear to booted toe with some of the very finest 8-bit firearm archetypes the system could muster: he has one that fires straight ahead, the one that oscillates up and down really quickly, the big powerful one and the one that returns like a boomerangl. You'll know what to expect if you've played Contra or any other suitably generic 8-bit platform shooter. This weird little quirk is accentuated by the teeny little six-pixel glock Batman's well-designed sprite totes at all times. Either post-1940 DC Comics are barred from Japan, or nobody at Sunsoft cared about getting the character of Batman right. It doesn't matter.
Batman is a game which transcends its license (specifically Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster) to become one of the choicest picks of the early Game Boy lineup. Sunsoft ignored the movie's (mostly) non-fatal takedowns and gothic stylings in favour of a well-tuned Mario World clone with added guns, killer robots and jetpack-wearing hoodlums. It almost feels like Batman was dropped into a pre-existing game to make a quick buck... almost.
Instead of a bleepy Batdance, players are treated to Sunsoft composer Naoki Kotaka's famous brand of futuristic chiptunage: absolutely nobody could touch Sunsoft for soundtracks on the NES, even Nintendo, and the same holds true on their handheld offspring. Everything is rendered in a lovely clean and minimalist art style which owes more than just a tip of the hat to Gunpei Yoko's early products for the system with Nintendo R+D 1. Rather than bog the GB's processor down with more detail than it could handle (a mistake made by many a later title), Batman sticks to the system's strengths, providing a miniaturized experience that relies more on gameplay than graphic muscle. Some slight "wow" factor is provided by a neat little effect which flips the screen end over end at the start of each level - call me a spud, but it still impresses me today, especially given the limitations of the system.
If you're gonna go, go with a smile
In most stages you'll have to make it through a simple left-to-right obstacle course to the exit, but sometimes you'll be placed in the Batwing for a dose of simple left-to-right SHMUPing (just like world 4-4 of Mario Land) and the penultimate level is a good old-fashioned auto-scroller, which spikes the difficulty. While Sunsoft don't do justice to Batman's... justice, lurking on high is fully represented - each level has an arrangement of destructible blocks across the top which often allow Batman to proceed without fighting Joker's generic minions and androids. Sometimes you'll happen across darker tiles: these can be shot to reveal icons that can either boost Batman or degrade his weapon power, calling for judicious shooting. Every now and again you'll be treated to a cutscene: Joker's birth in a vat of acid has suitably creepy animation.
If I had two criticisms of Batman, they'd be that the game is far too short, and that the difficulty spike right at the end skews the challenge far too unevenly, as Bat-Bat has to deal with crushing after crushing before facing off against the dinky little Joker for a final showdown. Here, the Joker is a bullet-spewing maniac, and your bat-fate rests on as much luck as skill.
While most console lineups look better as coding knowledge progresses, the Game Boy often struggled to keep up during its extended lifespan, seeming shakier, jerkier and more infirm. Thankfully, early titles like Batman are absolute gems of game design that still hold up well today - just be sure to limit your use of the far too generous (unlimited, in fact!) continue feature and gag your inner comics fanboy before you turn the power on - that guy lets you have no fun at all. Now that I have played Batman, I can forgive Sunsoft for Aero the Acrobat.
[James Edwards is an unproven young force in the field of video game writing, brimming with youthful vigor. GameSetWatch is the first stop in growing his legend.]