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DF Retro: Revisiting the notorious Batman Forever on PC

Baffling, infuriating and utterly bizarre.

When we first set-up Digital Foundry Retro, the idea was to revisit some of the most important titles in gaming history, telling their stories and using today's analysis techniques to reveal new insights about the games of yesteryear. However, obviously, not every game is a stone-cold classic and in the process of building a retro gaming library, sometimes I end up picking up some less-than-impressive titles - which can still hold a certain fascination. So it is with Acclaim's Batman Forever, a 1995 title that builds upon developer Probe Software's Mortal Kombat codebase to develop a co-op side-scrolling beat 'em up with some of the most baffling design decisions I've ever seen in a PC game.

In all honesty, it's possibly best to watch the embedded video below to see how this particular experience plays out because to begin with, Batman Forever seems to be a pretty typical example of the era. The neon-infused Val Kilmer incarnation of the Dark(ish) Knight patrols various side-scrolling levels, punching Final Fight-style individually named enemies until they're down. Optionally, the Chris O'Donnell-skinned Robin can join the fray for simultaneous two-player action, where the less dynamic duo seem to spend a lot of the time getting in each other's way. Everything plays out with the kind of digitised sprite work we saw in Mortal Kombat, which looked fairly impressive back in the day. We're hardly looking at cutting-edge fighting game mechanics, but we do get to enjoy a soundtrack from Tim and Geoff Follin and it doesn't look disastrous. Not to begin with anyway.

However, it's in the variation from the basic MK-style mechanics where things start to take a turn for the worst. It begins with the notion of a full-on moves list required for basic traversal and the fact that players need to refer to the manual simply to engage basic Bat-features. Simply using Batman's grapple gun to move between levels turns into quite the ordeal, unless you're blessed with a photographic memory. But even then, precise key strikes are the order of the day to get the job done - and don't think that using a gamepad makes the job that much easier.

DF Retro hands-on with the PC version of Batman Forever. The process of playing it has to be seen to believed.Watch on YouTube

Riddler prompts appear to give some you idea of what the current objective seems to be, but they are perhaps too cryptic when all you really want to know is where you should be going next, or where you should be pointing your grapple gun. Or how about some indication that leaping down a level at a certain point actually requires precisely syncronised button presses from both players in co-op mode, to the point where the only realistic way to pull it off is to have one player man the keyboard to get the job done? You can watch the drama play out above - a process that evolves from fascination to irritation to baffled fury.

In DF Retro, we do like to examine the same game running on multiple platform, where the major variations in the consoles and PCs of the year do actually deliver some meaningful, interesting changes - so the video also includes some console comparisons. And that's ultimately where Batman Forever does claw back some credibility and playability. The title's hardly a classic, but at least the Mega Drive/Genesis version has less reliance on the manual and is reasonably playable...

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