Over the weekend, I watched James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and loved it. It was such an inspired and creative adventure that immediately rocketed up my list of all-time favorite DC films. And, as a life-long DC fan, that’s a hallowed reputation to earn. At least, I think it is. The excellence of this movie got me excited to jump into a DC game. However, save for DC Super Hero Girls (which I’m not going to play, sorry Nintendo), there isn’t much new content to enjoy on this front. While I’d love to be playing either Gotham Knights or Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, neither launches until 2022, and I’m skeptical about that date for the latter. So I decided to look back into the vault of old DC games to pass the time.
However, going back in the vault implies going back in the vault far enough to find something that’s actually good. Of course, we’re sitting in the midst of a superhero resurgence at the moment. The Batman Arkham titles were arguably at the forefront of this revival which spans both DC and Marvel. From Injustice to Spider-Man: Miles Morales, some of my favorite games come from this modern trend. Even the LEGO superhero titles are quite good!
the silver age of dc games is slipping away
But, those are all well-worn ground (and too new to be covered here at Retroware), so I wanted to dig deeper. Doing that requires bypassing the era that I grew up in, though. As a 2000s baby, my first console was a PS2, which is home to some notoriously bad DC titles, and a whole ton of licensed shovelware in general, superhero-flavored or otherwise. So I looked past that, wanting to explore another era which has gained somewhat of a parallel reputation to the current superhero movement: the fourth console generation.
The greatest point of comparison here is that in both eras, major talent played a role in the creation of superhero games. Now, I have my doubts about whether the 90s quality is actually commensurate to what we have now. Nonetheless, it is true that the biggest names of the era got in on the licensed scene. Konami was a frequent contributor, working with many beloved properties including Batman, and 90s Konami was definitely bigger than, say, Rocksteady is now. No shade, but Konami was huge! From Batman Returns to TMNT: Turtles in Time, the company contributed across IP. Sure, the latter isn’t a DC property, but Batman and TMNT did cross over, so give me a break!
Unfortunately, all of this discussion comes from secondhand information. The issue is that the lion’s share of these games are totally inaccessible beyond the used market today and so I can’t confirm the quality of this superhero movement myself. While not surprising that these games have faded away, it is disappointing since I would love to try out this era of licensed titles, especially on the DC side of things.
As much as I’d like to circumvent this problem by tracking down the original SNES hardware and DC cartridges myself, it’s not in the cards. I can only afford to collect games for one or two retro systems at a time – currently my very expensive vice is GameCube collecting – so most of my classics are played digitally. Whether we’re talking compilation titles or Virtual Console, my classical education has been enabled by rereleases. For the most part, I have access to everything that I want to play from this era across one modern storefront or another.
returning to the dark knight
These SNES licensed games are a big exception, though. I’d speculatively chalk this up to the same song and dance of copyright issues that have torn many classics asunder already. This is a disappointing reality of multibillion-dollar IP holders having little interest in resolving disputes or allocating the resources necessary to revive random 90s beat ’em ups, even ones starring Superman.
What’s doubly unfortunate is that many of these games aren’t even popular enough to motivate fan campaigns calling for their resurrection akin to the current #FREEMVC2 movement within the fighting game community. However, I still want to try many of these titles even if they aren’t much more than historical curiosities. So, let’s set aside their context and inaccessibility for a moment to highlight a series of DC Comics titles on SNES that I would like to experience myself.
the adventures of batman & robin
At the top of my list is inarguably the best-received game of the bunch: The Adventures of Batman & Robin. It’s a Konami action platformer with beat ’em up combat that adopts the aesthetics and world of Batman: The Animated Series to the 16-bit era. What’s better than that? Batman: TAS is easily my favorite incarnation of Gotham and its Dark Knight. While I grew up with the all-but-forgotten The Batman cartoon, I’ve come to appreciate TAS as I’ve gotten older. It’s such a timeless series both in its visuals and its storytelling. Even today, it’s an engrossing watch.
From what I’ve seen, Konami’s title was able to recapture the same feel of the show in the context of solid 2D action. The pixel art is genuinely evocative of the series also, bringing it to life in a way that no other game has really done. While there were a pair of mediocre Batman adventures on GameCube which also borrowed TAS’ aesthetic, nothing seems as faithful as Konami’s game. I certainly plan on tracking this one down someday, even if it takes a while to do so.
the death and return of superman
On the heels of The Adventures of Batman & Robin is The Death and Return of Superman, which is a fairly standard fourth-gen beat ’em up. As a Streets of Rage fan, this title seems to be right up my alley. It’s fairly well regarded too, managing to even secure a slot on IGN’s top 100 SNES games of all time list, coming in at number 81. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this title is that it was co-developed by Sunsoft and Blizzard Entertainment. As such, The Death and Return of Superman is yet another example of high-profile talent being recruited for a licensed project.
I’m also just compelled by the notion of a comic tie-in game. Film tie-ins are a dime a dozen, and I played my fair share of Star Wars prequel games as a kid on PS2. However, I can’t think of many direct comic tie-ins, as The Death and Return of Superman naturally draws upon the iconic storyline of the same name. While Injustice: Gods Among Us did have a Tom Taylor comic run to accompany it (which was quite good), the events of the game take place after Taylor’s prequel storyline. Superman’s game seems to draw directly upon that book. Now, at the risk of having my DC fan card revoked, I haven’t actually read this run myself. So that would naturally be my first priority before playing this game.
justice league and a bit more batman
Beyond these, there are more DC games that I’d like to try, but I’d likely not actively seek them out. After all, if I encountered Justice League Task Force in a dark alleyway, I wouldn’t be afraid, but I wouldn’t be ecstatic to see the title either. This was an Injustice-like 2D fighter, but nowhere near as good. Apparently the controls were subpar and the entire experience was shaky. That doesn’t make for an especially compelling-sounding romp, however the concept of a 90s Justice League fighter is interesting at least. Outside of Street Fighter II, I haven’t played any fighting games of the era, so it would be a fresh experience. Would it be a great indication of that time which spawned classics like Mortal Kombat? No, but it would at least please the simple part of my brain that likes to see DC characters punch each other.
Now there are two more DC games to discuss, Batman Returns and Batman Forever. The former, as I mentioned earlier, was also a Konami project, and again, it’s a beat ’em up. Justice League Task Force might not be good, but at least it added some genre variety. Oh well. Since I a good beat ’em up, I don’t really mind, but I do appreciate that there is a tad more breadth from a gameplay perspective with superhero fare nowadays. Nonetheless, Batman Returns, on the back of its praise and its wonderful pixel art, seems like a good time. But, I’d rather check out The Adventures of Batman & Robin instead.
However, I haven’t actually seen Batman Returns all the way through. I remember catching parts of it as a child and being horribly scared by Danny DeVito as The Penguin. Nowadays I’m sure the camp would be endearing, and I’m equally sure that Tim Burton’s direction would be engaging. I do enjoy 1989’s Batman, and I have been regrettably roped into a 90s Batman marathon. So I will have seen Returns before too long, although I doubt that I’d need that context to enjoy some good Konami action.
I doubt anything could save Batman Forever’s tie-in though. So, I suppose it’s right in line with the film of the same name. Between its apparently bad controls and its overtly peculiar visual style, this is one DC title that I have little interest in exploring. Still, it deserves a nod simply for existing as part of this SNES time capsule of games that will probably never resurface. Plus, its weirdness and apparently low quality make it stand out, but not necessarily in a good way.
Ultimately, this was an exercise in sadness. I’d love to check out these games, but it just isn’t feasible to track down the hardware and carts required. Luckily, many of these are rather affordable when compared to the more desirable SNES titles, but that doesn’t fix the accessibility issue. There is an outside chance that one or more of these come back, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. I have just the faintest glimmer of hope considering that Super Star Wars saw the light of day on PSN, and the Disney Afternoon Collection is a thing too. However, the examples of old licensed games being pulled forward are few and far between. It’s a shame, but most of these DC titles may just be lost to time.