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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games


May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 21 of 23 Next
 

Batman
1991
Developed by Team Numega

I don't wish to give the impression that Atari Games could do no wrong. They had a few less interesting games mixed in there. There was a class of arcade game, right before Street Fighter II hit, just as ROM space was getting large enough to hold some slight amount of multimedia, that existed merely to immerse the player in some licensed property, announcing its theme song in attract mode, scattering its indicia through the game's UI, and presenting itself as a playable version of that license.

Konami arguably did this best with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Atari's Batman is an attempt at the same kind of thing, but it was nowhere near as successful.

Not one of Atari's more-fondly remembered titles, this a painfully dated adaptation of Tim Burton's movie, coming at that time when side-scrollers like Double Dragon dominated arcades.

Using an engine very similar to ThunderJaws, itself not one of Atari Games' better products, it's a clunky mish-mash of concepts, with stiff jumping and pointless driving and helicopter sequences. Also, like ThunderJaws, the platform areas take a lot from Namco's Rolling Thunder, right down to enemies emerging suddenly out of background doors.

It's loaded with music taken from the movie, digitized portraits between scenes, and an abundance of character quotes. Playing the game now, it's hard to imagine there was ever a time when hearing Jack Nicholson saying "Didja ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" was cool. Movie stills are used between levels as a player reward in a way that, alas, mirrors the use of video clips in more recent movie-to-game adaptations.

But let's stick to the gameplay here. Of the ill-considered ideas at work here:

  • The player cannot see very far ahead, relative to his size, causing lots of cheap deaths. The gray-suited opponents take the worst advantage of this, possessing both a bomb-throw move that travels in an arc and a gun that shoots at head-level. The proper response to the bomb is to jump, and the response to the gun is to duck.

    In this case, the enemy's distance from Batman is what gives the player opportunity to react, but the screen is just too small to allow for enough of that. Of course the player could just keep trying until he lucks through, but that's not really fair, especially when lives end so quickly and cost 50 cents each.
  • Enemies fire off shots quickly and without many frames of animation for reacting. This, combined with the frequent use of reaction-based dodging, tends to make Joker battles particularly frustrating, seeing as they rely on exactly this kind of react-to-the-attack play.
  • Lots of piddly background details turn out to be lethal. In the second platforming level, there are nozzles on the ceilings and on pipes that look like purely decorative, but turn out to cause damage. The ceiling nozzles are particularly bad, as their bullets are only three pixels wide! Considering that the only notification of damage is Batman flashing white for a split second and a generic digitized grunt, and you could be forgiven for not even noticing you'd just lost a third of your health.

    The final level has both cracks on the ground that are less than half Batman's width yet turn out to be deadly pits, and bells hanging from off-screen overhead that turn out to be instantly deadly when they land on Batman's head.
  • Some enemies, especially the Jack-in-the-Boxes, can end a player's credit from start to finish all by themselves despite being minor enemies. If you get close to a Box and don't kill it instantly, then your life is basically over.
  • Some areas have tremendous vertical scrolling range, but finding the place to jump up to can be difficult, especially since Batman's jumping height magically extends only sometimes when up is held on the joystick.

There is some good to be found here. Strangely for a narrative-based license game, but not for Atari Games, Batman puts high emphasis on score. The scoreboard is per-credit, not one-credit or overall, and large awards are granted in driving and helicopter levels for perfect performance. A couple of the platforming levels actually have what amounts to multiple routes through them, although they're uniformly deadly.

There is a sense with these games that Atari was being forced to compromise their design principles to compete in the market. Often when the company chased demographics, it didn't turn out well. Another example is its predecessor ThunderJaws, an odd game with diving shooter sections and strange attempts at humor.

Its attempts at chasing the teenage boy demographic are painful to watch; rescued women fawn over the player's character at the end of the first level. This isn't really anything different from what we see in other games from those years, but when Atari Games does it, it never seems to be done effectively. (The existence of 720 Degrees may seem to work against my point, but its awesomeness comes from its being not just a skateboarding game.)


Article Start Previous Page 21 of 23 Next

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