Retro Achiever Game #58: The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Genesis)

Getting back to my long overdue Retro Achiever series updates, game number 58 is one I’ve wanted to get on GemuBaka for a long time – the Clockwork Tortoise-developed and SEGA-published The Adventures of Batman & Robin for the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive. It’s a game that released so low-key and was often ignored in 1995, but has risen over the years to achieve a loyal following thanks to its impressive graphical tricks, Jesper Kyd soundtrack and crushing difficulty that satisfies when the player is able to progress.

When The Adventures of Batman & Robin comes into discussion, it’s often in regard to the superb 1994 Konami-developed game for the Super Nintendo that really nails down the signature presentation of Batman: The Animated Series, which later evolved into The Adventures of Batman & Robin. I still need to get to other versions of the game, but Clockwork Tortoise also pushed out a SEGA CD version in 1995, and there was also a Game Gear version developed by Novotrade that same year. Konami had also had a Game Boy effort in 1993 based on the Batman: The Animated Series name.

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Simply put, Batman’s animated adventures were a hot commodity during that time frame, and companies had virtually every video game format covered with the license. The PC even had an “activity center” software built with the Batman & Robin license.

The SEGA Genesis game has built more notoriety over recent years thanks to video game streamers, but up to this point, I’ve found that most people assumed this title was a port of what Konami did for the Super Nintendo. It was common during the 16-bit era for a Genesis and Super Nintendo game of the same name to bring completely different experiences, and this was absolutely true for The Adventures of Batman & Robin – for better, and for worse.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin released on the SEGA Genesis in August 1995, and magazines didn’t go very crazy for it. SEGA splashed magazines with advertising featuring a giant print of the art used for the game’s cover, but you never really saw too many screens that really showed you the graphical prowess of the game.

I remember renting The Adventures of Batman & Robin, as I had enjoyed the Super Nintendo version. I realized by the screenshots I was not getting the same game, but I guess I was expecting something similar in nature. The drastic differences didn’t disappoint me because I was really big on Gunstar Heroes at the time, and the root of this SEGA Genesis Batman game sort of reminded me of Treasure’s hit title.

The game’s first segment trashed me pretty good, sending me back to the beginning, but the graphic effects and music really stood out. Each time I came back to the game, I was a little bit better, and all of the progress I made rewarded me with seeing even more cool graphical tricks and banging music.

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Jesper Kyd cut his teeth in SEGA Genesis music in games like Sub-Terrania and Red Zone, and he really came to play in The Adventures of Batman & Robin, taking advantage of the system’s “dirty” sound to produce a truly unique music list for the time. In the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for people who played video games to feed their sound through a stereo and make mixtapes of video game music captured directly from the game. You bet your boots I had the tracks from this game on a tape.

I rented this game off and on into the summer of 1996, when I finally conquered Mr. Freeze and put the game to rest. My parents sold off my SEGA Genesis and games after I got my PlayStation, but, when I started recollecting Genesis games in 2001, The Adventures of Batman & Robin was one of the first games I sought out – bought for $5 from a record store. Just before our first son was born, I would frequently lay in bed in our apartment and play the game on my Nomad to revisit how much fun I had with it years before.

However, on a general level, this game suddenly arrived and then plummeted into obscurity just as quickly in 1995. Virtually no one I knew had played this version of the game, and, to this day, I’ve never played this game in two-player mode. My general memory of how magazines responded to the game at the time was in reviewers wanting so much to like it, but all of the pros the cartridge had to offer just couldn’t overcome the cons presented by how difficult the game is.

By coincidence, I recently talked about the August 1995 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly in Twitter, and this issue features EGM’s review crew roundup of The Adventures of Batman & Robin. The cart got scores of 7.5, 7.0, 6.5 and 6.5 for an average score of just less than 7. All four capsule reviews can be summed up with the premise of the game featuring great graphics and control, but the game being too difficult to enjoy. Each review in the issue is followed with capsules listing the game’s best feature, worst feature, time to complete and “also try,” with the segment for The Adventures of Batman & Robin respectively filling in “graphics,” “Too hard!,” “eternity” and “an easier game.” The release data for The Adventures of Batman & Robin in EGM August 1995 actually lists it as an “impossible” game.

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GamePro also cataloged a review of the game in its August 1995 issue, but it spends most of its time describing the game’s premise. The review scores are green across the board, giving 3.5 out of 5 to graphics and fun factor and 3.0 to sound and control … the review for some reason indicates the game’s challenge is adjustable.

GamePro’s review focuses on the character designs in knocking down its graphics score, and Scary Larry didn’t vibe with the game’s music and sound at all. It’s said that the boss fights are easy once learned, but the levels themselves are relentless with endlessly-spawning enemies. “The Adventures of Batman and Robin on the Genesis just doesn’t give you the special superhero rush that it should.”

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And then that was that for the SEGA Genesis version of The Adventures of Batman & Robin. I’ve had multiple media creatives tell me that “meh” is the kiss of death for your product. This game got a hearty “mediocre” stamped on it by a few critics and it retired quietly for about 15 years. According to scores archived on the game’s Wikipedia entry online, not many sources in the US bothered reviewing this game, as most of them were likely gearing up for the next generation of games. The Adventures of Batman & Robin released late in the Genesis life cycle, so I think that was the general attitude of many people at the time: consumers were ready for the SEGA Saturn that had already been released and the Sony PlayStation that would arrive one month later.

In my eyes, it wasn’t until “Let’s Plays” circulated online that The Adventures of Batman & Robin started to turn some heads. Filled with pseudo-3D effects and some crafty animations, people started becoming impressed with how the game flexed the system’s presentation muscle. The music stands out as something crafted specifically for the game system at hand instead of being a butchered throwover from something created with the Super Nintendo in mind. And, yes, all of the game’s challenge is still there to entertain people who want to watch their favorite streamers squirm under the crushing heel of its difficulty.

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But even with all of the time I spent with the game, I couldn’t until recently answer the question of “What/who is Clockwork Tortoise?” The game is largely plastered with SEGA’s publishing logo, but the final item in the game’s attract rotation is a mysterious, vividly-colored logo for the actual developer of the title … and then you don’t even get credits for beating the game. Developer credits are tucked onto a page in the game’s manual, citing Bert Schroeder as the producer and the game designers as John O’Brien, James Maxwell and Stephen Thomson.

Thanks to interviews done by SEGA-16, we know Clockwork Tortoise was formed by a group that left Malibu Interactive, which at the time was crafting games that largely never released based on Malibu Comics licenses (I have an old EGM issue that shows previews for Prime, Firearm and The Strangers).

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“All of the technical achievements in Batman and Robin were due to the programming prowess of John O’Brien, the lead programmer at Clockwork,” said artist Chris George in one of the SEGA-16 interviews. “His technical abilities actually drove the game design. He would make some amazing effect, and we would find a way to showcase it in the game. I think half of the bosses in the game were initially his idea, because he would think of some cool effect.”

George said SEGA hired the Japanese animation studio that did episodes of the cartoon series to provide animation frame drawings that were converted into sprites for the game.

The lead programmer for Clockwork Tortoise left the company after a couple of years, and this left a very talented team with only two games to its credit – the Genesis and SEGA CD versions of The Adventures of Batman & Robin. The company was in the early stages of creating an X-Women game that is theorized to have been a candidate for SEGA’s final game on the Genesis, but it never got past a demo concept.

It was said by multiple former staff members that the development of The Adventures of Batman & Robin wasn’t very organized, with Clockwork Tortoise missing multiple development milestones set by SEGA. I swear I read one time that SEGA itself took the project and put the finishing touches on it in order to get the game on shelves by Christmas, but I can’t seem to find that source now.

But that would actually explain one of my biggest complaints about The Adventures of Batman & Robin: So many cool things happen in the first three “episodes” of the game, and then the fourth episode against the main villain Mr. Freeze is just … there. You push your way to the right through a bunch of enemies and then fight Mr. Freeze, who has no real gimmicks. There are no crazy mini-bosses to break up the action or traps/jumps to navigate – it is an entire episode of moving right.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is a fantastic game, but there are elements that push it out of my top 10 favorites of all time. The biggest culprit by far is the game’s pacing – you get some great action in episodes one and three, but then episode two is essentially an autoscroller and I’ve already gone over episode four.

And breaking down episode two, you just can’t ignore the glider section, which is essentially stage 2-2. This has to be the longest shmup stage in history. If you haven’t seen it for yourself, you have to believe me that this segment goes on and on and on and on and on. When you play this stage for the first time, you almost start convincing yourself that the stage actually never ends. I can’t stress how much I am not exaggerating the length of this stage.

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When I watch streamer Cypherin play this game, we have a joke where, when you get to the final segment of 2-2, a new song loudly blares out to wake up players who just spent around 10 minutes flying and fighting the same three to five enemies over a drab cloudy background. And this also considers that you don’t die in this stage and have to restart at one of the few checkpoints after a continue.

It’s such a factor of repetition in this game, that when I think about possibly playing The Adventures of Batman & Robin, the shmup stage comes to my mind and I second-guess whether I actually do want to play this otherwise fantastic game.

The game also released at a time where console games were intentionally made more difficult in the US to combat the rental market. There is a bit of a learning curve in controlling Batman or Robin to continually move right at all times and limit the number of enemies that spawn on the screen. Batman and Robin have a couple of jump kick options that increase their mobility, so, once you get into a groove, playing The Adventures of Batman & Robin feels great.

The one mechanic that can tank even the most experienced player of the game, though, is the powerup cycle where you can find yourself accidentally picking up a weapon you really don’t want. For most anyone I know, this would be the blue weapon. This pickup gives your character electric shurikens, and its strength is supposed to be in how quickly it charges for a max-power shot. However, its overall strength is very lacking, making it largely pointless when the red powerup gives you both moderate power and a spread shot.

Last year I did do a complete blue-only playthrough of The Adventures of Batman & Robin and it was an absolute task compared to using the other weapons. Accidentally grabbing a different weapon at the wrong time can lead to disaster if the player isn’t playing diligently.

The game also suffers from “Gradius syndrome,” where losing your weapon power after dying puts you in situations where your very weak weapon can’t keep up with taking down strong enemies. This is especially dangerous in episode three.

When you consider the game is naturally hard by design, these mechanics kind of dogpile on top of players and I sort of understand the mentality reviewers had toward the game.

But, as I said, sticking with it is rewarding. From the get-go, you get nice background effects with the angled, faux-3D buildings and the impressive flame sprites waving around and producing a lighting effect. Harley Quinn shows up early for fans of the series and you eventually fight her as a Vectorman-style crane swings through the foreground and background. The elevator in episode two has impressive rotational effects, the Gotham City skyline in the shmup stage has an impressive scope to it and the graphics work gets dialed up even more throughout the trippy Mad Hatter episode.

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The presentation of The Adventures of Batman & Robin has impressed current-day gamers so much that it has been the focus of two episodes on the YouTube channel Coding Secrets. In these videos, game designer Jon Burton, founder of Traveller’s Tales, uses his experience with techniques he used in games such as Toy Story and Puggsy to explain how these effects are possible. Jon has an excellent channel all around that shares his insight on the development of other games such as Sonic 3D Blast and Mickey Mania, and I highly recommend giving the channel a follow.

Revisiting The Adventures of Batman & Robin for Retro Achiever was a treat, and getting through the game was just like riding a bike – there were a few stumbles, but I cleared the game and scooped up most of the achievements made available in the game. It only took one more playthrough after that to get a clear playing as Batman. Even though it isn’t an achievement, I also eventually managed to beat the game without dying. When you collect every 1-up item in the game, you end the game with 9 lives, so I have effectively dubbed the “100% playthrough” of the game as a “Catman” playthrough.

The achievements set for this game is incredibly straight-forward, but that may be fitting given the game’s difficulty.

Much like the run and gun games of arcade past, most players will experience a lot of roadblocks in The Adventures of Batman & Robin. But with experience and learning the game these roadblocks can be hurdled over so players get to see more of what the game has to offer.

Being able to coast through The Adventures of Batman & Robin allows me to enjoy what Clockwork Tortoise was able to put into this project, but, it also makes me sad we were never able to see anything beyond their two game releases. What could this team have done with something like the Playstation or Saturn?

I also think about how awesome the X-Women game could have been starring Storm, Jean Grey and Rogue. X-Men was just as hot around this time, but all we have left of X-Women at this point is a magazine preview and a short concept video from the 1996 E3 event. In another time line, a fully-focused Clockwork Tortoise could have brought us some of the most unbelievable comic book games possible in the 1990s.

Want to know more about the emulator that is programmed to offer an achievement system for your favorite retro games? Visit Retro Achievements for more information!

The Twitch archived Retro Achiever clip for The Adventures of Batman & Robin (no continues) can be viewed here.

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Categories: GemuBaka Feature, GemuBaka Retro Achiever

Author:indiesnack

Indie Snack is a video gaming Web site focusing on independent developers and game releases. Indie Snack will also soon have services made available to independent developers to include tools aiding them in public relations and game marketing.

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