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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.