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The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Sega CD)

On September 5, 1992 the now legendary Batman: The Animated Series debuted on the Fox Network in prime time with a special airing of “The Cat and the Claw: Part One.” It’s been 30 years since the premiere and in that time the show has seemingly become only more beloved, more celebrated, and is still held up as one of the finest animated series of all time. For an entire generation, Adam West was synonymous with Batman thanks to the popularity of the live-action Batman television series from the 1960s. For the millennial generation, and even some older Gen Xers, Kevin Conroy is their Batman and with good reason. While West’s take on the character was fun and lighthearted, the Conroy Batman as realized by the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (amongst others) was a brooding type. He was truly the dark knight, a man haunted by his past compelled to dawn cape and cowl each night as a means of seeking redemption for being just a bystander when his parents were murdered.

Batman is a terrific show and countless amounts of words have been dedicated to it in many places, including right here on this blog. To celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary it seemed like an appropriate time to tackle the show’s lost episode. The term lost episode can mean many things. Sometimes it’s an episode that was pulled from circulation for one reason or another. Or perhaps it was an episode that made it far in the writing and storyboard department, but was never actually produced. And sometimes it is literally a lost piece of media, though that is rather rare. And then there’s yet another category, the episode produced for another medium. In this case a video game.

My setup to experience this one. No emulators here.

When the compact disc was adapted for gaming most developers realized one of the biggest strengths of the medium was being able to capture full-motion video and high quality audio. The older cartridge format was expensive to produce and outfit with the sort of memory and storage capacity needed for such things, but with a CD that wasn’t a problem. When PC developers and console ones started exploring the CD, many just spent an inordinate amount of time jamming the games with flashy audio and video. Sometimes this was used to enhance the experience like to give the player a little break and advance the plot of a story-intensive game. Other times it went the complete opposite direction and the game turned into just a bad movie with button prompts that often did nothing but add to the player’s score.

The absence of network censors means glass will break, and lots of it.

Coming in somewhere in the middle is The Adventures of Batman & Robin for the Sega CD. This game, released in 1994, follows in the footsteps of the previously released Batman Returns for the Sega CD only this time it’s enhanced with a new story and brand new animated segments from renowned animators Tokyo Movie Shinsha. TMS worked on some of the very best episodes of Batman. Chances are, if you thought an episode looked incredible (Feat of Clay Part 2), it’s because TMS worked on it. The story segments are written by Paul Dini and the main voice cast reprised their roles as well. How could this go wrong?

If you were hoping to actually play as Batman, well, prepare to be disappointed.

Well, like I said, this one follows in the footsteps of Batman Returns. Chances are, if you’re old enough to have experienced the 8 and 16 bit console days then you probably encountered one of the versions of Batman Returns. Most of them were brawlers with some platforming elements. Unlike Sunsoft’s game based on the first Batman film, none of the Batman Returns offerings were any good. And if you played the Sega CD version, you may have played the worst of them all. That’s because it was a simple driving sim. You, as Batman, drive the Batmobile through rather long and boring stages to chase down the bad guys. Only when you actually get to them, you don’t get to play as Batman outside of his famous wheels.

While the gameplay isn’t terrible, it’s definitely not the main attraction. That’s the cut scenes and they are beautifully animated. The level of violence present is similar to Mask of the Phantasm. Here Batman is hacking up one of Poison Ivy’s monsters with an axe and his “blood” is spraying everywhere.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is very much the same game. At the start of the game, Batman is shown in the Batcave and is alerted to a robbery taking place thanks to his super computer. He hops into the Batmobile, and the game begins. Each level is basically the same with the only difference being a change of scenery and sometimes the soundtrack. As Batman, you drive around in the Batmobile while a timer ticks down. There will be obstacles in your way that will change from level to level. At the outset, the obstacles are pedestrian vehicles and the game will end if you strike too many of them. Later on it will be more physical obstacles and even zoo animals.

As Batman zooms around in his car various checkpoints will be hit. When such occurs, the game will alert you that the next “stage” has begun. If at any point you die or fail to reach a checkpoint in time, a life is lost and you restart at the last checkpoint. Running out of lives means going back to the start of the level. The length of the levels will vary, with some as high as six stages, and they basically all follow the same pattern: chase, battle, chase, battle, etc. At first, Batman will be tackling the goons of one of his famous foils. They’ll just be driving other vehicles and Batman needs to take them out with arms (this Batman is much closer in behavior to his big screen counterpart) until they’re no more. At the end is when the actual bad guy appears, but again, just in some vehicle. At no point does it feel like Batman is actually battling the likes of Joker or Riddler. About the best the game does is given them a themed weapon like the various plant bombs that get thrown by Poison Ivy.

The visuals do get switched up here and there, such as this level where Batman enters Riddler’s virtual world once again.

Being a 28 year old game, the presentation isn’t the best. Where the show is known for its dark deco aesthetic, the video game feels like it’s halfway between that and Batman Forever. There’s a lot of bright, green, font in use and it’s hard to ignore the more futuristic looking Batmobile. The vehicles are still largely old fashioned in design, so this is unmistakably a BTAS game, but the electronic soundtrack is more Batman Beyond than what we’re used to. Shirley Walker did not work on this game so that is perhaps why it doesn’t sound like an episode of the show. The main theme isn’t terrible, but it’s used for too many levels so it gets really old. The visuals can also be dingey at times and obstacles have a tendency to pop-in. The greatest challenge this game has to offer is managing that pop-in and just being able to discern what is and what isn’t an obstacle. I played this game on an old CRT to try and get the optimal experience, but I think it’s the rare, vintage, game that might be better served by a modern TV with a brighter display. It should also be noted, while vintage games are generally believed to be better on vintage televisions, not all CRT sets are created equal. Mine is a puny 13″ Sharp TV and there is undoubtedly better out there.

While driving, there isn’t much for the player to do. Holding “Up” on the directional pad causes the Batmobile to move forward and steering is obviously handled with the left and right buttons. The B button is a turbo which does need to replenish itself, though I tended to just hold it down the whole time. I found when I tried managing it was the only time I failed to hit the checkpoints in time, so just holding it down worked better. The HUD is a mess of green lines and text, but it details the damage done to the Batmobile as well as a boss character, when needed. Batman can acquire a trio of weapons that are just hanging out in the road at various points: guided missiles, smart bombs, and mini rockets. The missiles and bombs are both mapped to the A button and it’s a bit confusing. I tended to just mash the button until they were gone as the mini rockets are infinite and mapped to C. Selling out to grab the missiles or smart bombs is basically a fool’s errand as the mini rockets are fine for every enemy. When I got the chance to attack, I just laid into each enemy until they died. That’s essentially how the game is played.

The only other change of pace really is when Batman trades in his Batmobile for the Batwing.

The game is certainly repetetive given that every level is the same except the final one. That level lets you pilot the Batwing so you have an extra axis to deal with. In that level, Batman flies along an unending bridge and has to maneuver through the scaffolding and deal with enemy vehicles at the same time in pursuit of the game’s final villain (which I won’t spoil). It’s a sorely needed change of pace, but it’s not really much more interesting than driving the Batmobile. If anything it’s more frustrating as maneuvering the Batwing through the various obstacles can be a pain, but the game is very forgiving when it comes to taking damage as it takes a lot to knock the Batwing out of the sky. Make it through this one and victory is yours. The entire game can be completed in less than an hour, and while there is no game save function, there is a level skip code that basically functions in the same manner.

The game is divided into 6 acts and in between each is an animated segment. These bits are the real star of the show, while the plot isn’t of particular interest, the animation is of a high quality and each segment can be enjoyed on its own merits. Because this isn’t intended for television, the violence is also more graphic. Batman gets to break glass and villains bleed. There’s some stuff that comes across as a bit shocking the first time through, though ultimately it is probably on par with what was seen in Mask of the Phantasm. Because it’s Sega CD, the actual visual fidelity isn’t of a high quality which is a real shame because it’s obvious TMS did some terrific work. If this were an actual episode it would be considered among the best from an animation perspective. The voice acting is also great, as expected, and I think most who play this will be happy with the selection of villains.

If you like seeing Batman actually dish out some punishment then you’ll definitely enjoy some of these cut scenes.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin on the Sega CD really is a game only worth playing to experience this “lost episode” of sorts. The plot won’t dazzle, but if we were scoring episodes purely on the quality of the visuals what’s presented here is easily top 5 material for the show, if not top 3. It’s just a shame the game that takes place in between these moments is so bland. It’s not long or difficult enough to feel too arduous a task, but when it’s over it’s one of those games most will be glad to see the credits hit. In hindsight, I’m surprised they didn’t try to insert a Bat Boat level or something to break things up, though I doubt maneuvering the boat would have been terribly entertaining. It may have been a mistake to reserve the Batwing for the final level and not replace an earlier Batmobile level with it, but again, the game would still feel repetitive even with such a change.

Like most Sega CD games, The Adventures of Batman & Robin is not easy, or cheap, to come by these days. Once upon a time many Sega CD titles were a dime a dozen, but not anymore and it hasn’t been that way for more than a decade at this point. The good news is, considering the actual game is so uninteresting most will be content to just experience this one on YouTube. There are numerous playthroughs available to watch. It’s just a shame the visual quality is so poor as this thing really should have been included on the Blu Ray set or something, but maybe the rights are tricky. If you’ve never seen it, definitely give it a look, but mostly I hope you’re able to celebrate this show turning 30 in some way today because it’s definitely a show worth celebrating.


Popful Mail (Sega CD)

popfulmailThe Sega CD was quite possibly Sega’s first real misstep when it came to hardware and add-on peripherals for its products. It’s hard to say if it truly was though, as I don’t know if the Sega CD returned a profit for Sega. The mere fact that the company released three versions of the add-on suggests it at least viewed it as important to the company, but even if it did financially benefit Sega it’s hard to imagine it really helped the company’s image. And that’s because the Sega CD was pretty expensive and also pretty terrible. Sure, there are fans out there for the Sega CD and its library of games, just as there are for the Virtual Boy, but for the most part the software for the Sega CD was mediocre or downright terrible. Fans likely remembered that when Sega tried to introduce another add-on to extend the life of the Genesis/Mega Drive in the form of the 32X, which basically all acknowledge as a true flop. Sega’s hardware sales following this era of game consoles was poor enough to see the company exit the hardware space in 2000 and pivot to a software only company.

When I made a post about the Sega CD in 2011, my intention at the time was to do more. That inaugural post concerned a recent purchase of mine:  the Sega CDX. The CDX was the third iteration of the device following the first two versions released by Sega for the Model 1 and Model 2 Genesis. The CDX was the company’s first, and only, attempt at releasing what is essentially a stand-alone Sega CD as it also functioned as a Genesis. It was expensive, like all things seemingly related to the Sega CD, and retailed for an eye-opening $399 at release. Which is actually a bargain compared with some of the other non-Sega versions of the product. Pioneer actually released the LaserActive which could support Sega CD games, among other things, but the total would run a consumer $1,600! Premium game consoles were obnoxiously priced in the 90s and it’s no wonder they basically all failed.

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If you’re going to play a Sega CD game might as well do it on a CRT television.

I only purchased the CDX because I had forgotten it even existed until stumbling upon some eBay listings at the time and because I was a bachelor with disposable income. I never had a Sega CD growing up, but loved my Genesis, and I had always wanted one. The CDX was quirky and cute and it was much smaller than most consoles and was actually marketed as a portable CD player as well (a task it can do, but not very well) because of its diminutive size. It was pretty cool, and I ended up finding one in great shape that was only missing the original box. I cared little about that though and set myself to playing Sonic CD pretty much right away. The problems came when Sonic CD was finished.

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Popful Mail stars a bounty hunter by the same name who is quite terrible at being a bounty hunter.

I wanted to play more Sega CD games, and had a few others as the CDX came bundled with additional software, but there really wasn’t a lot out there worth playing. Basically all of the truly great Sega CD titles saw release on other consoles. And I’m mostly referring to the Lunar series when I say great. After Lunar, there was a smattering of worthwhile software, the problem though was that most of that software consisted of Genesis ports with enhanced audio and slightly upgraded visuals. After that though is the unique, Sega CD exclusive, software of which most is poor. You have likely heard about Nightrap which became infamous because some felt it was a weird fetish game about peeping on young girls and watching them get murdered. The actual title is far less interesting and it’s terrible. So many Sega CD titles went this route though where it was essentially video with occasional button prompts. And if you have watched video lifted from a CD before then you know it’s rather ugly.

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The game is reasonably nice to look at and it runs smooth with few interruptions for loading.

There was one game though that I wanted to play and I actually secured a copy relatively close to the time I purchased my CDX and that game is Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to get to it, but Popful Mail is a game that caught my eye because it’s a hybrid game. The game is a Platformer/RPG and I arrange the classifications in that order for a reason. It’s definitely more in-line with a traditional platformer, but it does indeed toss in some RPG mechanics. In the game, you play as Mail, a spritely young anime babe with a small outfit and a big personality. You run through the various levels which are all interconnected smiting bad guys and collecting gold. Along the way you’ll be able to spend some of that gold upgrading Mail’s equipment while also meeting non-player characters, some of which will ask for Mail’s help in tracking down an item or defeating an enemy. It’s a bit similar to Link on the NES, though without a robust leveling system. It’s a Falcom game published by Working Designs, so the production values are there and the gameplay is solid making it a relatively safe bet for purchase.

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The golem will likely be the first boss many encounter some difficulty with. Trial and error is the name of the game here.

The game opens with our protagonist, Popful Mail, out attempting to secure a bounty. Mail is an elven bounty hunter who, according to the game’s manual, sucks at her job. When the bounty goes bust, she turns her attention to a new target:  Muttonhead. This absurdly named character is a wizard with a 2 million gold bounty on his head so naturally Mail is pretty interested. The intro is done in anime and for a Sega CD title it looks pretty nice and the voice acting is lively. When the game drops you into play you’ll find yourself in control of Mail. She moves rather fast and has a heavy feel to her when she jumps. It takes some time to get adjusted, but it lends itself well to a speedy style of play. Or it would, if enemies didn’t sometimes take repeated jabs from Mail’s sword to fall. Each enemy encountered will have a health bar displayed in the game’s HUD at the bottom of the screen. Mail’s info is there as well and while she has 100 health she’s not particularly durable. If you just try to barrel ahead you may find yourself dead in short order.

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As you make your way through the game more characters join in Mail’s quest to take down Muttonhead.

In order to navigate this dangerous world, Mail will need to make use of all of her skills, of which there aren’t many. Her sword is her main method of attack and she can attack while standing, crouching, or jumping. When crouching, Mail can pull up her shield which will completely protect her from projectile attacks. It’s important to get used to this as Mail will often be tasked with dispatching one enemy while an enemy behind it shoots at her. One of the barriers for newcomers is learning the quirks of the game. Popful Mail basically requires you to abuse the fact that when enemies are blinking after a hit the player won’t take damage from them. It’s a key to beating the first really tricky boss, the golem, as he slides across the screen and can’t be cleared with a leap. Mail instead needs to just whack him and let him pass by her unscathed. If your timing is off though, the duration of this blinking state won’t be long enough and Mail will take a beating. The biggest hindrance to Mail’s existence is her natural desire to go fast. The game positions Mail approximately two-thirds of the way across the screen so if the player is zooming along there isn’t much chance to react to a new enemy. When enemies are defeated most will drop a small sum of gold while healing items (like various fruits and herbs) are hard to come by. The player is at least free to save their game whenever they wish so the penalty for death isn’t too terrible if the player saves often. When loading a game, the player will typically spawn wherever they entered the screen they were on at death.

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While out and about, the player will also encounter other characters in need of some help.

The game takes place mostly in levels that are long and connected. There is also a brief overheard map to traverse at times that more resembles Super Mario World than Link. Mail will be tasked with exploring the many stages both horizontally and vertically. There are different paths to take some of which lead to treasure and some of which advance the plot. Mail will often encounter NPC’s that need help before the plot can advance, like freeing someone from captivity who will then open a way to continue onward. Sometimes Mail will find little towns where she can spend her gold on upgrades. Mail can upgrade her weapons and armor which in turn improve her underlying stats, though she can’t level-up. These upgrades seem to do little though. If you’re struggling with an area and think the solution is to backtrack and buy better equipment then you’ll probably be disappointed. The solution is often to simply “get good” and take advantage of those saves.

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Gaw is the last to join the fun, but he’s certainly the most unique.

During Mail’s journey, she will eventually find some allies in her quest to stop Muttonhead. Tatto is the first ally Mail will add. He’s a wizard with a score to settle with our antagonist and he becomes available roughly an hour or so into the game. Eventually, Gaw will join the group as well. He’s a monstrous little bat creature that can’t fly, but he can jump higher than anyone else. The characters are largely distinguished in how they move. Mail is the fastest, but her jump is the worst. Gaw is the slowest, but he can jump the highest with Tatto settling somewhere in between. The other characters can also attack from a distance. Mail can as well if you supply her with daggers, but they’re costly. You’ll be able to augment Tatto’s abilities by buying new staves while Gaw can also improve his attacks by buying…a new tail? It’s odd, but it works well enough. Changing characters is done by accessing the menu and switching there. It would have been nice if selecting a character could have just been mapped to a button to cycle through, but it’s possible the game needs a little time to load the new sprite since this is a CD system. Each character also has his or her own health bar so unlocking a new character effectively doubles the available hit points. If one character falls though it’s game over, so you have to remember to switch them or heal if near death.

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If you’ve played a Working Designs game before then you should be familiar with the company’s brand of humor.

The game is not super long. The goal to unlock the best post credits content (basically just voice outtakes) is five hours. Most players will probably need six or seven on their first playthrough not accounting for deaths and reloads. The game is challenging, and it’s also arguably one of those games that starts harder before getting progressively easier as new characters and abilities are unlocked. It’s a mostly fun play, though it’s not going to “wow” most who play it. There’s not a ton of nuance in how to attack and Working Designs’ decision to make the enemies more resilient when localizing this wasn’t a great choice as things can get a bit tedious. Some enemy placements feel a bit cheap too as this is a game less about finesse and more fixated on trial and error. There’s a reason Falcom has continued with the Ys franchise and not the Popful Mail franchise all these years.

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Almost all of the dialogue in this game is voiced and there’s plenty of anime to help push the plot forward.

Being a CD game and one localized by Working Designs, it shouldn’t surprise many to know that what stands out most are the production values. The game is nice to look at, though visually it’s not really any more impressive than most Genesis titles. Character designs are kept simple and some of the boss characters are considerably larger than the player and are fun to take in. The voice acting is about as good as one could hope for in the early 90s as anime and video games didn’t exactly attract the best talent. Melissa Gulden, who voiced Mail, stands out as a bright spot for the game while some other performances can be a bit wooden. According to the manual, roughly 3 hours of voice work had to be compressed to fit onto the CD and it’s certainly noticeable when you hear it. That’s the reality of game development though back before DVD and high capacity media. The anime cut scenes are also compressed significantly, but it still looks all right.

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My own personal copy. I was fortunate to find one in terrific shape that even has this supplemental card and the foam insert.

I would say if you happen to be the owner of a Sega CD then Popful Mail is a worthwhile addition to your collection for the simple fact that it’s actually worth playing. The game was also released on the Super Famicom where it stands out less as that console is practically bursting with quality content. By far though, the biggest hindrance to playing Popful Mail in 2020 is cost. When I purchased this game in 2011 it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it wasn’t where it’s at today either. The Sega CD version for just the game is now routinely listed for hundreds of dollar. There are some sellers trying to get more than $500 for complete versions. Perhaps that makes me foolish for still clinging to my complete version. My copy is missing the mail-in survey card on the back of the manual, but I do have the “Attention!” card the game came with which tells owners how to properly format their console’s system memory for saving. Easily, the most economical way to play the game is to go after the alternate versions. They’re still not exactly cheap, but the Super Famicom version is far less expensive as is the PC Engine version. Even the Mega CD version is a lot cheaper, though it lacks that Working Designs polish (it’s also supposedly easier).

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Considering the game stars a buxom, anime, woman with no pants it probably comes as no surprise to learn there’s plenty of pervy art out there.

If Popful Mail were available to anyone who had a Sega CD and wanted the game then I’d say go for it. Since that isn’t the case though I can’t exactly recommend it. The price point has put this game into the territory of “For serious collectors only.” The Sega CD library is actually trending towards that. When I first purchased my CDX, the Sega CD wasn’t as sought after as it is today. It seems as people get older and get more interested in collecting retro games, everything has gradually gone up. It started with Nintendo games before spanning to the 16-bit games. As the actual good software disappears, collectors turn to other untapped libraries. And the Sega CD is desirable to collectors partly because the library isn’t massive compared with the Genesis or NES. It’s also more harrowing though as Sega CD hardware isn’t as reliable as cartridge-based hardware as those lasers are just ticking time bombs. If the Sega CD version of Popful Mail were to become available overnight on an E-shop it would be worth a look just to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a genre that’s been done much better, but the game is not without its charm.

 


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