A couple of months ago, Gametrailers posted its Top 10 list of Batman video games in conjunction with the Caped Crusader’s 75th anniversary. To my chagrin, my absolute favourite pre-Arkham Asylum game wasn’t on the list – although in retrospect, it’s not hard to recognize why.
The Genesis version of The Adventures of Batman and Robin by Clockwork Tortoise Games was a completely bonkers shooter in the vein of Contra, a sharp contrast from the more traditional side scrolling SNES version made by Konami. But even though the SNES version went to great pains to recreate memorable scenes and settings from the acclaimed animated series, the Genesis version is, by far, the more memorable of the two.
The storyline for the Genesis AoBaR is about as perfunctory as you can get. Mr. Freeze has escaped Arkham Asylum and is working on a plan to plunge Gotham City into an eternal ice age. He’s also helped The Joker, Two-Face and The Mad Hatter escape, for the sole purpose of making Batman and Robin’s lives miserable while he works on his master plan.
Ever since 2008’s Arkham Asylum nailed what a good Batman game should be, games writers have argued that the best Batman game is one whose setting and mechanics make you feel like the overpowered, gadget-ridden detective who occasionally pretends he’s a normal person named Bruce Wayne.
AoBaR for the Genesis spits in the face of that premise from the very beginning.
Batman and Robin are walking artillery batteries, throwing out batarangs, fluorescent shurikens and bolos with endless ammo. You upgrade your weapons with items found after beating up goons or destroying city infrastructure, in exactly the same way as arcade shoot-em-ups such as Aero Fighters or Raiden. With enough power ups your batarangs grow in size, are thrown in a Spread Shot-style arc and multiply in damage output. And just like your favourite schmups, if you die your arsenal is kicked back a handful of levels, leaving you hopelessly outgunned.
That’s the biggest feature-slash-complaint about AoBaR for the Genesis: it’s really, really hard. Even with a generous health meter, Clockwork Tortoise emulated both the difficulty as well as the design of the era’s schmups. Your screen will be filled with scores of enemies trying to crash into you for giant damage and/or firing bullets that look like lethal spinning Smarties (the gross American ones, not the objectively superior chocolate products by Nestle).
None of that would be the least bit notable if it weren’t for the presentation. More than anything else, AoBaR is remembered for a visual palette and original soundtrack that is, quite frankly, astonishing for a stock Genesis board at a consistently smooth frame rate.
The sizes and shapes of hazards the game throws at you are staggering, and the designers clearly felt no need to stay true to The Animated Series. The multiple locales you visit throughout the game are loosely inspired by the four villains’ motifs, but beyond that nothing is off limits. In the Joker’s level, you start out beating up clown-faced thugs on a burning nighttime Gotham street, but before long you’re fighting Harley Quinn in a giant circus-themed robot with laser cannon arms and fending off dozens of miniature explosive clown-faced helicopters before finally facing off against the Joker in a giant weaponized hot air balloon whose carriage is a giant chattering Joker smile.
It’s strange that much of what makes AoBaR for the Genesis memorable is its use of the hardware. Usually, when you’re talking about the competitor to the Super Nintendo, you nod your head and admire that Sega ‘did what it could’ with the Genesis’s limited colour palette and older sound chip.
For AoBaR’s soundtrack, however, Clockwork Tortoise ignored the idea of trying to recreate the cartoon’s score, and instead went full-on crazy, creating a thrumming techno-inspired soundtrack. It’s the kind of music you might hear in an arcade shooter like Virtua Cop, with loud beats and a bass-heavy tempo intended to be heard over the noise of dozens of other machines.
The game’s composer, Jesper Kyd, went on to score other memorable video game soundtracks, including Assassin’s Creed II, and his work shines brightest during the boss fight with the Mad Hatter. It builds up as the scene opens, with Batman and Robin standing on a ribbon-like racetrack seemingly in outer space. The Mad Hatter floats down in a gigantic mechanical top hat, throwing explosive Nutcrackers and Rabbits at you. Then the beat drops like dubstep as the racetrack begins to roll beneath you, spewing out of a black hole in the background as deadly obstacles race towards you at a blistering frame rate.
Mr. Freeze’s levels are an unimaginative letdown compared to the fever dream that was Mad Hatter’s world, but the game still has a unique, unabashedly video-game-y take on the Batman mythos. It also does things with the Genesis hardware that are so impressive that none of it looks or sounds like concessions had to be made with regards to its vision.
The Adventures of Batman and Robin for the Sega Genesis wasn’t in any way a reproduction of the acclaimed animated series, but it took the key motifs of its heroes, villains and locations in bizarre, exaggerated directions to create something entirely its own. It’s easily my favourite Batman game from the pre-Arkham era, and one of the coolest games in my 16-bit library.