Do you know what day is today? It’s Batman Day! That’s right. And I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to review a DC Comics licensed game (since I’ve already reviewed Marvel games). And I’m reviewing the first game ever to be released on the PC of my favourite DC superhero: Batman.
Batman: The Caped Crusader is an action-adventure game developed by Special FX and published by Ocean in Europe and Data East in the US. It was originally released in 1988 for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. It was re-released the following year for DOS.
Although this is the first Batman videogame released for the PC, it’s also the second Batman game ever made (the first one being Jon Ritman’s Batman, published in 1986, also by Ocean, but never released for PC). These two games, along with Batman: the Movie, are part of Ocean’s Batman game trilogy.
But, like always, let’s first take a look at the bat-cover:
Not going to lie, the cover art looks great! It really looks like a comic book cover, with Batman fighting the Penguin with laughing Joker cards in the background. It’s probably more action-packed than the game itself (as you’ll see in a minute). And one might think that such cover was made by a comic book artist, seeing that the art style is very close to Neal Adams’ but it was actually made by the late Bob Wakelin, one of the best video game cover artists of the 80s.
But it’s about time to boot this bat-sucker:
The game is divided in two independently bootable sections: A Bird in the Hand, where Batman must stop Penguin’s robot penguin army and A Fete Worse than Death, where Batman must find and disarm the Joker’s bombs and then find and save Robin. In each section, we’re treated to probably the worst title screen I’ve ever seen. When I first saw it, I thought it was a pre-title screen. And I recommend reading the manual before playing as it not only has the backstory but also explains the menu icons and the control scheme.
The action occurs on screens of different sizes, reminiscent of comic panels. And every time you move to another panel, the new panel appears on top of the old one. It’s a novel presentation that would appear on some later comic-inspired games, like Comix Zone. But because a lot of panels are very similar, it’s very easy to get lost. I recommend drawing maps to avoid it. The art style in the game is very reminiscent of the Silver Age Batman with some Bronze Age elements here and there.
Both sections are very similar gameplay-wise. You control Batman and you have to grab items lying around the floor and use said items to solve puzzles to progress through the sections. But your health is constantly depleting and Batman can only carry up to 10 items. I guess Penguin and Joker must have poison Batman and stole his utility belt before the game. To replenish your health, you need to eat food. You can find it lying around or you can defeat enemies, of which some drop food. However, food dropped by the enemies only replenish some health, unlike the other food you’ll find that fully replenishes it.
You use the directional arrows (or pad, if you’re using a joystick) to move Batman and an action button along with the arrows to fight, grab objects and access the menu. In the menu, you can check Batman’s health at the bottom (where it slowly turns into a skull), your progress percentage on top, your inventory on the sides and other options in the middle. Like I said before, I recommend reading the manual to understand the meaning of each menu icon.
One of the first objects you can grab is the batarang, which I highly recommend because it’s the best way to confront the enemies. And talking about the enemies, there isn’t a lot of variety (usually henchmen and smaller enemies, apart from the Joker and Penguin) and every time you defeat one, another one appears when returning to the some panel. Unless you need to get food from enemies, most of the times is just easier to avoid them and concentrate on solving the puzzles.
The puzzles range from easy to hard and personally I found the Penguin section easier than the Joker section. On the top of some of the panels, there’s a short description which not only provides some clues but also helps distinguish similar panels and make for good references. But sometimes the clues aren’t enough to solve the puzzles and because of the limited inventory space, you’ll end up backtracking a lot (especially in the Joker section). And of course the debilitating health makes the game even harder! Is almost like the developers added this last feature to increase the difficulty tenfold.
And of course, if your health reaches zero, it’s back to the start of the section. There isn’t a save option nor checkpoints throughout the game. And I did found a point of no-return near the end of one of the sections. Meaning that if you reach that point and you don’t have the necessary objects to finish said section and enough health left, you might as well restart the entire section. At least, every time you solve a puzzle, you can drop the object used because you won’t need it again.
Graphically wise, the game looks nice, albeit with some small sprites (especially of the objects lying around) that almost blend in the background. They are also quite colourful but I wish there would be more variety with the sprites because, like I said before, most of the panels look very similar to each other. The animation is okay, but I wish there would be more of it during the action to know when we’re being attacked and Batman walks too slowly, which sucks in a game with constant debilitating health.
The title music isn’t bad but because it’s in a continuous loop, it gets old very fast and I don’t blame you for turning it off in the menu screen. The sound effects are almost non-existent, with some sounds when using the objects correctly when solving puzzles and during the action parts.
The best part of the game for me are the controls, of which the keyboard is actually quite responsive, although Batman needs to be in the perfect position to go through doors or climb stairs, but apart from that, I didn’t had any problems controlling Batman. I don’t know how the joystick scheme is because I couldn’t configure my gamepad.
So, in conclusion, Batman: The Caped Crusader is a game that although it had a good success when released (mainly because there was only one other Batman game around), it aged quite poorly. It isn’t very action-focused, with the real focus on the puzzles. Yes, I know that Batman is DCU’s greatest detective, but he’s still a superhero and I think there should be more action in the game (ironically, this wouldn’t be the last Batman game with puzzle elements, and I’m not talking about the Arkham series). And the constant debilitating health is an unnecessary feature. Some of the puzzles are as hard as they are without the need to add more frustration to it.
So if you’re a Batman fan, you might feel some curiosity towards Batman’s beginnings in the videogame realm, but honestly I can’t recommend it. I haven’t played any of the other versions, but the Amiga and the Atari ST versions have better graphics, sound and music and the Commodore 64 version is considered by some the best version out there.
In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman would be released in cinemas worldwide and it had such a success that inspired several games in all platforms (home computers, consoles and arcade) that would overshadow all previous Batman games and begin a slew of action-oriented games (albeit with at least one exception, which we’ll take a look at a later date).
I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and I hope you have a great Batman Day. Until then, prowl the night and keep on playing!