“You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.” -The Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns
The power of licensed retro video games lies in their limitations. Without the modern luxuries of voice acting, comprehensible cut scenes or a third dimension, games from the 16-bit era that are based on TV or film needed to get by on symbols for their storytelling.
In the case of Batman, you might think 16-bit games would be a perfect medium, since the Caped Crusader’s rogues gallery is filled with more symbolism than a tarot deck. You’d be wrong. Or, at least you’d feel wrong if you were presented with the video game adaptation of Batman Returns on Sega Genesis, which has trouble finding the symbolic core of Batman’s most notoriously ill defined foe, Penguin.
In 1992, Penguin – aka Oswald Cobblepot, who is currently the subject of an exciting reimagining on the TV series Gotham – was the main villain and final boss in two wildly different adaptations of Batman Returns. One is a Streets of Rage-esque beat-em-up developed by Konami for the SNES that was named Electronic Gaming Monthly’s Best Licensed Game for 1992. The other – a frustrating and absurd tribute to the darkest shades of blue – was made in house at Sega for the Genesis. Both pose Oswald Cobblepot as the ultimate guy to beat.
Despite the lack of accolades, the Genesis version of Batman Returns is the more accurate depiction of what it must be like to be Batman in pursuit of Penguin. Almost like an early prototype of the much loved Arkham series, Sega’s Batman Returns puts you in Bruce Wayne’s bat-shoes and tasks you with chasing down a murderous Danny DeVito-shaped monster through five acts of escalating gadget-based combat. He’s tough as nails, but it’s difficult to take him seriously.
The first two showdowns with Penguin feature his personal gyro-copter umbrella, from which he swoops at you while throwing giant buzz saws. The third time you fight the low-res DeVito he is inexplicably piloting a train while a clown shovels coal at you (Wha…?). The fourth face-off has him shooting you with some sort of sewage cannon underneath the storm drains of Gotham.
The fifth contest occurs deep in the frozen bowels of of Cobblepot’s subterranean lair, first with you on an ice flow dodging rocket propelled penguins tossed from the villain’s signature (at the time) giant rubber duck mobile. After destroying the vehicle, you chase Cobblepot up the drain to a final boss encounter in which your primary goal is to destroy a giant air conditioning unit before taking down the long underwear clad villain (in the game, it’s unclear why he disrobes before the final fight).
The craziness will not sound so insane to people familiar with other licensed 16-bit games of the era. Bosses needed a semantic pretext to fly around the screen while making you dodge game-ending pixel projectiles. Conveniently, Penguin’s umbrella gadgets and the image-rich Tim Burton source material gave developers quite a bit to work with in that regard.
Yet Burton’s Penguin, however bizarre and freakish, still didn’t give the developers enough symbolic guidelines for the character. In Batman Returns, you have to destroy a giant air conditioner that grants the nearly naked Cobblepot invincibility while he attacks you with freeze rays. He also commands an army of evil circus clowns. Oswald is stealing entire gimmicks from other Batman villains and loses his identity as a result. (Maybe his real power is that his second-in-command is a great copyright lawyer).
In Batman Returns, the boss-power overload happens because no one outside of the comic books has managed to give Penguin enough of a thematic anchor to rival legendary archetypes like the Joker, Riddler, Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy or Scarecrow. Even in Arkham City Rocksteady essentially threw its hands in the air and said, “Well, we’ve got the umbrella and he sucks at fighting. Maybe he has a bottle jammed in his eye?”
Penguin is still a blank slate that could reveal something we don’t know about Batman. It’s an exciting prospect, considering how Oswald Cobblepot is the only really compelling part of Gotham, but it’s also risky business. When a character has the opportunity to be portrayed as anyone he might end up being everyone, and in Batman Returns Penguin is an icon in search of definition.