I’m not that into Batman, generally, but I’d broadly agree that Batman: The Animated Series is one of the best animated shows ever made. Visually it was unmistakable, combining bold, simple character designs and restrained use of tone and palette to make a unique noir aesthetic. It was super cool. Which makes The Adventures Of Batman & Robin: Cartoon Maker, B:TAS’ 1995 “educational” spin-off CD-ROM, even more brilliant for how totally busted it was.
TAOB&R:CM, to use an abbreviation that looks like broken HTML, was a farce. As its name suggested, you would use it to create cartoons in the style of B:TAS, slapping down moody backdrops, and then moving characters with looping movement animations across them, before plopping down props, sound effects and text. The game would record the order of all of this, and then play it back on command, like a puppet show with the puppeteer’s hands removed from view. Grand, in theory.
Only, in the version I had at least, there was no way to go back and adjust animations or asset placements once they had been plonked down. And there was no way to remove an asset from a vignette once it was in, or to pick it up and make it move again, short of starting a whole new scene. So once Batman had strode across a room to a telephone, for example, he was stuck there: superglued indelibly to the fabric of reality. If Commissioner Gordon walked onscreen to chat with him, Batman would either have to have the whole conversation with his back turned to the commish, as if sulking, or would have to leave his ghost forever standing by the phone as a new iteration of him strode over to converse with the loaf-chinned cop.
Of course, my mate and I developed a whole suite of bizarre workarounds for this, and TAOB&R:CM’s many other limitations. We engineered our narratives so that whenever a character stopped moving, they would simply explode. Batman would walk to the telephone, Gordon would walk onscreen, and then a massive fireball graphic would be slapped over the top of Batman with a deafening BANG. A fresh batman would swoop out of the explosion on a rope, heel-first into the commissioner’s chest, and they would have their brief dialogue. Then (courtesy of the game’s inbuilt paint function), bright red blood would gush from the point of impact on Gordon’s sternum until it had obscured both of Gotham’s protectors, allowing the Joker to slink in and do his dastardly business without being watched by the statue-like figures of his foes in the background.
In the next scene of course, Gordon and Batman would both be together again, with the police chief calmly accepting of the fact that Batman had kicked his heart open just minutes ago. It lent everything a sort of febrile, dreamlike transience, where everyone was disposable, and extraordinary violence was meted out in a casual, routine fashion, barely worth remarking upon by either perpetrator or victim.
Perhaps the finest creation we ever made was a simple cartoon, 27 seconds long, entitled “Batman’s secret”. In it, Batman walked into a gloomy dungeon, then froze in place, staring bleakly at a wall. In walked Catwoman, perpetually lashing her whip as she strutted along, and proceeded to wallop seven shades of shit out of the caped crusader as he occasionally emitted grunts of dark satisfaction. For eighteen seconds. At last, Commissioner Gordon’s face appeared, aghast, in the foreground. And as he stared, blood began to leak from the corners of his eyes, slowly pooling at the bottom of the screen and rising to eye level. Then both of his eyes, as well as Batman and Catwoman, disappeared beneath fiery detonations. As an epilogue of sorts, a trio of burly crimers appeared at the centre of the shot, from absolutely nowhere, accompanied by the text “The mafia always wins”. It was a masterpiece.