There is just one goal for Batman video games to accomplish: Let the player be Batman. That should be easy enough.
Turns out, creating a true virtual simulator of the Dark Knight while being fun to play was a herculean a task as the Kobayashi-Maru. Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum, released in 2009, was the combo-breaker in the near endless string of bad to “eh” franchise efforts.
One of those efforts: Batman Forever (1995) for the Sega Genesis.
If you’re already hearing “Kiss From a Rose” in your head, then you remember Joel Schumacher’s first romp through Gotham City. Released in the summer of 1995, Schumacher’s Batman Forever was a major financial success (however critically underwhelming) that naturally spawned a barrage of merchandise; Happy Meals to pajamas to water guns to, of course, video games.
Developed by Acclaim Japan and Probe Entertainment, Batman Forever was released for all major platforms (Super NES, Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Game Boy, and PC) and remains roughly the same in every version with minor, inconsequential changes. Probe established themselves by being the guilty party that ported Mortal Kombat to the Sega Genesis, a monumental title that ignited one of the first console war debates on playgrounds and homeroom periods everywhere. Mortal Kombat haunts Batman Forever, which uses the same engine and also features live-action digital sprites as player avatars and enemies.
It was the Genesis version that my kind mother spoiled me with, perhaps to shut me up when she and my sister shopped for clothes for eternity at the mall, so that’s the one I’m fondly remembering today.
By “fondly remembering” I mean cursing money wasted. Batman Forever wasn’t a bad game, but excessively mediocre. It’s like an alt-rock pop song played ad nauseam on the radio. Technically fine but empty in experience, just like the movie it was based on. By that virtue perhaps Batman Forever should be considered a success.
The game was a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, a genre that lived hard and died softly in the ‘90s like boy bands and laugh track sitcoms. You control Batman or Robin and punch bad guys across the screen until you reach the end. As sprawling, open-world RPGs and intense first-person shooters became technical achievements due to their endless possibilities, you can see why this genre has been left behind.
There are bare-bones mechanics that qualify Batman Forever to be a Batman game. You can roll across the screen to trip foes, glide from above, and perform some aerial acrobatics. You know, Batman stuff! But just barely.
This is what makes Batman Forever sting: It misses the point of Batman entirely. Batman is a force who hides in the shadows. The Arkham games enforce stealth as pretty much the only game plan; just a few bullets and one too many punches will end you, so knock out your enemies as swiftly as you swoop in. Batman Forever, and almost every other Batman game leading up to Arkham Asylum, missed this point. It’s just a guy who can fight in a Batman costume. You could palette swap Batman for Wolverine or a Power Ranger and Batman Forever would have largely remained the same.
The game’s story is a curious misstep as well. Not that Schumacher elevated the superhero movie to soaring heights, but a video game adaptation means the plot is kind of mapped out already. Kids playing the game who expected to relive the film’s set-pieces, like fighting Two-Face at the Grayson circus or that hella awkward rendezvous with Dr. Meridian, were left disappointed just like they would be later in life.
Video games based on movies have long been a peculiar type of entertainment, and it’s worth noting they’ve been all but abandoned in recent years. Where once the attraction to recreate these big movies in a way that lets you participate or even rewrite the story, Batman Forever mysteriously ditched this even though it would have been a key selling point.
It’s unfair to measure Batman Forever against modern fare like Batman: Arkham City or the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight. It was 1995, when you could barely log in to the Internet if your mom was on the phone. The technology to truly capture the nuances of Batman just wasn’t possible.
But that’s what makes it a quaint footnote. All-but-forgotten in the twenty years it has been released, revisit Batman Forever and you’ll find whatever enjoyment you reap different from the experience you may have hoped to gain upon its initial release. Where once we were children who hoped to play a game to recreate the afternoon matinee, we now enjoy from an anthropological perspective: Look how far we’ve come.