Batman is one of the most successful superheroes in the world. Not only is he the star of numerous comics, a sequence of extremely lucrative films, multiple TV shows and more merchandise than you can shake a stick, at he’s also single-handedly responsible for keeping DC comics afloat. Whilst anyone with pretensions to a pop culture education can hold forth on the relative merits of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns, the only people who can do the same for Superman stories work in comic book stores. The only people who give a shit about Wonder Woman are the artists drawing her comics (and to a lesser extent the writers). In some countries even knowing who The Flash can get you locked up for medical evaluation and mentioning Green Arrow in mixed company can actually cause your sex organs to attempt to climb up through your torso in the hope of strangling the speech centres of your brain.
Back in 1986, Frank Miller was in the middle of redefining Batman by taking a character who had grown somewhat stale and injecting a massive amount of crazy right-wing paranoia right into the front of his fucking face. What follows seems like a crazy hyper-real flight of dystopian fancy until you read some other Frank Miller comics and realise that this is literally what he thinks the real world is like and everything you thought was satire is actually meant in deadly earnest. While Frank Miller was channeling his weird homoerotic Republican hate fantasies into The Dark Knight Returns, in a sleepy corner of England a programmer called John Ritman was putting together Batman’s first foray into the exciting new world of computer gaming. Simply titled Batman this was to be Ritman’s first attempt at a 3D game for the ZX Spectrum, the most exciting home computer of its era. He would later go on to create the sublime Head Over Heels, one of the greatest video games of all time.
If you’re familiar with Batman in his modern incarnation you might be expecting this game to involve hiding in the shadows, swooping, pummelling and delivering one liners in a voice suggestive of late-stage lung cancer. None of these make an appearance. Instead the thrilling plot involves Batman wandering through his own Batcave trying to find the missing pieces of his Batcraft so he can go and rescue Robin who has been kidnapped because he’s a twelve year old who should never have been allowed near crime. According to the cassette inlay (note for young people, a cassette was like a much better CD that automatically remembered where you had got to in an album) the Joker, helped by the Riddler, is responsible and has filled the Batcave with deadly traps and enemies that Batman will not recognise. Based on the way the game actually plays I believe its actually intended to simulate Batman’s later life battle with drug addiction as he wanders from room to room in Wayne Manor crying because he can’t remember what he’s doing there.
The 1986 Batman is an isometric maze game. These things were the most amazing graphical things in the world in 1986. People would sometimes try and climb through their TV screens in the belief that their ZX Spectrum had created a door to another world. From the lofty perspective of 2012 – where the continued existence of Piers Morgan has robbed the world of the ability to believe in magic – it doesn’t look quite so beguiling, but the graphics still retain a homespun charm. It’s just a pity that Batman has been on a serious pie bender and consequently waddles painfully around like his knees don’t work properly. While sound effects were generally sparse in 1986 for some reason Ritman has elected to make Batman emit a high pitched screaming noise whenever he moves which suggests that he shattered both his kneecaps when he slid down the Batpole into the Batcave.
When you start the game you’ll realise that Batman doesn’t actually have an attack. This is highly disappointing. In fact Batman is completely crippled at the outset, lacking the ability to even jump. In fact the most impressive power you’ll develop as you play the game is the ability to pick up some objects and put them in your Batbag (yes really). Eventually you’ll develop the ability to jump, but you’ll need to find three separate objects before you can jump like a proper person. You’ll still never learn to fight and you’ll still scream like a dying pig with every step you take but at least you’ll feel a little less like the game is taking place in a retirement home.
Batman is actually a pretty neat little game. Once you realise that it’s some kind of drug-fueled nightmare action puzzle game and stop expecting Batman to be good at anything, there’s a plenty of fun to be had. Each screen presents its own unique challenge and there are more than 90 to play through. The maze element means keeping track of places you’ve been is a must but thanks to the simple colour filters and characterful graphics it’s relatively easy to build a map in your head. It’s challenging but not quite as psychotic as many of the games of the era, still more or less beatable by normal humans from the 21st century. If the idea of playing a fat, crippled and strangely pacifist version of Batman appeals to you (and why wouldn’t it?) you’ll be delighted to discovered that the game can be played for free at the excellent World of Spectrum site along with a fine selection of other games of the era. Batman is an interesting historical curiosity, released at the same time as The Dark Knight Returns and only a few years before Tim Burton would bring bring his gothic take on Batman to the big screen it retains a strange species of charm despite being the worst rendition of the character you can possibly imagine.