It’s pretty well-established that most plug and play devices will not scratch your video gaming itch in any major way. They take up space, they chew through batteries, and they’re generally things you throw at your younger cousin to shut them up for a little while.
The best quality of any plug ‘n’play device is that they’re usually just slightly off-kilter takes on really popular officially licensed things, like Star Wars. So, if you’re into just-tihs-side-of-busted versions of things, this is where it’s at. And if you feel like manipulating a joystick thrust through the top of Han Solo’s ship of choice just to play a few video games that barely hold up to the worst thing you can find on a console, TV Games has you covered.
DC-based video fames are already at a disadvantage. Superman 64 is known as one of the worst video games ever made, and the Arkham trilogy can only make up for so many terrible years of other disappointing DC games. Aquaman on GameCube? Trash. NES Batman is incredibly difficult. Jakks’ Plug & Play games don’t really change the landscape.
We’ll start with the worst. The Justice League animated series was a pretty great show which continued the earlier adventures of animated Superman and Batman, two shows which were pretty revolutionary at the time. Conversely, the Justice League TV Games joystick is a bizarre collection of borderline shovelware where you never even get to play as Batman. That’s a pretty big licensing sin right there, but the amount of time you have to play as a neutered Hawkgirl just makes the whole collection overly absurd, and everything just feels like something put together by someone who’s never seen the show.
The main portion of the game is ‘Assault on the Watchtower’, a top-down dungeon brawler where you switch between Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl as you fight your way through a long but simple series of maps where you fight endless thugs. You’ll face bosses like The Shade, Copperhead, The Joker, and eventually Lex Luthor and Brainiac in a final fight that’s more of a puzzle than an actual fight. Your heroes are extremely limited in what they can do: Martian Manhunter can throw punches, and Hawkgirl can throw her mace, so there’s really no reason to use the green guy at all, since he doesn’t have projectiles, and he can’t even phase through things. Or maybe he can, and it’s just never explained; at times, Hawkgirl just launches herself into flight, and there’s no explanation as to why this happens. You collect tokens that have some effect that’s also unquantifiable without the instruction manual, which is made available nowhere, so the whole tedious thing is just an unsatisfying trudge through one-hit grunts and obtuse power-ups until it’s unrewardingly over. But it gets even worse with ‘War World Challenge’.
Imagine the classic Pokemon, but without a map. Instead, all you have is the fight screen, where you use a collection of superheroes that slowly level up as they engage in turn-based battles with villains, and where your attacks clearly have different effects on villains, but you’ll never have any clue as to why. Again, despite brief onscreen instructions, the secrets about how to actually play are locked in a manual that was thrown in the trash 15 years ago. To just mash the one button you can mash as meaningless battles play out on screen, and wait quietly for the tender embrace of dreams. Or death. Repeat. Level up. Cry.
Throw in ‘Flight to Oa’, a very basic auto-scrolling shooter where the heroes, Superman and Hawkgirl (again), fly and shoot way too slowly, and die far too easily. Then throw in ‘Apokolips Skies’, a bubble-pop like game where Superman hurls colored boulders at a wall to make matches… except the angles you’re trying to throw things at never actually seem that clear, so it’s just more wasted time.
Finally, there’s a truly bizarre final game, ‘Imperium Crisis’ (based on the Secret Origins pilot movie), where you switch between Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter as you run around an arena, trying to get goons to shoot one another or walk into beams of light. Beat the level by luring a big, black monster into one of these light beams, and proceed to the next level, which is identical but with a few more goons. It’s actually the only game mode which attempts to use superpowers correctly; Wonder Woman deflects bullets, The Flash is fast, and Martian Manhunter can turn intangible. But the game mode is so unusual that it’s kinda just a wash.
As a collector of all things JL, sure – this is a cool little device if you absolutely never put batteries in it and hook it up to your TV.
Jakks didn’t just make joysticks with self-contained games. They also made controllers where portions of the game were locked away until you bought toys-to-life figures to plug into the controller. That’s even more questionable than asking people to buy cartridges to plug into their self-contained game controllers which allow access to additional games—which they did. No, the DC Comics Hero Portal actually locks away portions of the one game you can play unless you buy four additional toys, which feels like a garbage move.
Yes, this was released during the height of amiibos, Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, Disney Infinity, and a variety of other toys-to-life games, but this one is, sadly, almost completely without the substance to warrant the purchase of peripheral items. In those cases, your new heroes have different abilities, and give your game a kind of new life, and a fun new way to play. That is not the case here.
The game itself isn’t terrible; it’s a pretty easy sidescrolling arcade brawler with a little bit of platforming, and the kicks and punches actually feel pretty satisfying—if you’re Batman. If you decide to play as Superman, or Wonder Woman, or any hero that isn’t just a normal guy, it’s not going to feel satisfying to just run around and punch people. You can swap characters at any time to get a new skin on the same basic powers, and to access doors that are locked behind certain figures. These usually lead to minigames where you run through or fly through an obstacle course, or throw things at a shooting gallery of criminals. And after 90 minutes, it’s over. Why can’t you toss people with your Lasso of Truth, or bonk people with green hammers made of willpower and light? It’s a bummer.
You can wander back through the game to try to achieve 100% completion (another really sticky way to try to get you to buy extra packs of figures), or switch to a harder difficulty mode, but after you’ve played through once, the replay value is minimal, and now you’re stuck with a bunch of PVC toys on RFID bases for no good reason.
As a Batman collector who collects all things figural and Batman, Hero Portal had a very specific appeal to me, and that was a single figure I probably could have picked up on eBay for cheap. Instead, I paid $25 for the whole suite : a brand new controller system with figures of Batman and Superman, and four additional sealed figures that were already suffering from plastic rot (but very easy to dust off). As a collector of games, the controller isn’t even aesthetic; it’s a cheap shell with a sticker on it that Jakks repurposed for other games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. If this was shaped like a cool Green Lantern construct, or some kind of comic book artifact, we’d be crossing over into other collectible realms. It would look cool on a shelf. This is only worthwhile if you like mediocre arcade-styled video games you’ll only play once.
Finally, The Batman. There’s not a whole ton to say about this one, because there’s not a whole lot to love or hate. Based on the least popular animated version of the Dark Knight, The Batman alternates between brawling levels, driving levels, and detective levels, where you have to run through a building finding keys or other means of progression through the level, everything with a light side of punching and batarangs. Of the three DC Comics-based games, it’s probably the most well-realized and satisfying. Beat all four supervillains and you’ll unlock one more. It doesn’t get more like a real videogame than this. With a few more levels, this could easily be a SNES game. Of course, it came out 5 years after the SNES was discontinued permanently in the US, and the intent wasn’t really to be retro in 2004, but here in 2020, you can’t even tell the difference, and it feels like a lost SNES game. And that’s actually pretty cool.
Are these worth adding to your pile of stuff? Yes, as museum pieces of video gaming ephemera, or hopeless little cash grabs that are actually kind of charming in retrospect and under $10 (but deeply disappointing at the time and at the original price point), these fit. But it’s unlikely you’ll find a whole lot of satisfaction with the first two games, unless you’re a Batman completist. You’re not going to find these on any Batman video game list, and maybe that’s just enough to make them neat outliers.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.