1989’s Batman movie didn’t just set the box office alight – it helped shift an awful lot of Commodore Amiga computers in the UK as well.
They called the middle of 1989 the summer of Batmania, and Tim Burton’s blockbuster movie Batman was very much to blame. The hype for the film was started by the first trailer shown the previous Christmas. And while the choice of Michael Keaton in the title role may not have been universally liked in the film’s build up, the project paid off handsomely. The dark mood of the film and Jack Nicholson’s Joker would attract huge audiences to the cinema. What’s more, Prince’s phenomenal soundtrack and a whole wave of licensed products resulted in over $750 million of Batman merchandise being sold.
From toys to costumes, tie-in comic books to a best-selling computer game by Ocean Software, Batman was everywhere. Heck, the licensing continues to this day, with LEGO launching a Batwing model based on the 1989 film to mark 2020’s Batman Day.
In the world of 80s computer games meanwhile, a licence to make a Batman game was being eagerly sought. It was Ocean Software, headed up by Gary Bracey, that was keen to seal a deal. The firm had enjoyed huge success with its RoboCop game, and it duly put in a sizable bid for Batman. A successful bid at that, and work promptly got underway on a game across numerous formats. The development team access to the sets at Pinewood Studios and copies of the script.
Rumour has it that Ocean paid $1 million for the rights – at a time when such deals for computer games were very much in their infancy – and then spent a further $1 million developing the game across multiple formats. The eventual game broke the film into five sections, and the end result would be a highly regarded hit.
The game itself broke down easily into segments. The first level saw Batman try to foil a raid on the Axis Chemical Plant, ending in the “fall” that created the Joker. The second level required Batman to race back to the Batcave in the Batmobile, taking sharp turns with the Batrope, before the third section saw him try to figure out which products the Joker had poisoned with Smilex. This was a short logic puzzle, the player putting combinations of the eight products into the slots and being told how many were poisoned. The fourth part saw the Batwing take to the skies, cutting through the tethers of the balloons containing the Joker’s Smilex gas. And finally Batman must climb the Cathedral to confront his enemy.
The 8-bit home computers – C64, Spectrum and Amstrad – had to make do with horizontally-scrolling levels viewed from the side for the Batmobile and Batwing (the later Total Recall game on Amiga and ST would use a similar approach). The Amiga and ST, thanks to their higher resolution graphics and faster processors, were treated to amazing 3D driving and flying sections as the player controlled the Batmobile/Batwing from behind. Making 90-degree turns with the Batrope was particularly exhilarating. Artist Bill Harbison recalls that drawing the Batmobile was especially tricky, until a member of the team went to a local toy shop and found a toy Batmobile for him to work from.
The game would be hyped too, with large advertising spreads teasing its release and later featuring Keaton in his Bat costume. But it was a tie-in with Commodore that really sealed the legacy of the game Batman: The Movie (this alternative title was due to the existence of another recent Ocean game, Batman: The Caped Crusader licensed from DC Comics).
A man called David Pleasance meanwhile had risen through the ranks at computer hardware firm Commodore UK, starting in sales and eventually becoming joint managing director. One of his key ideas was the assembling of a software bundle, putting more value into the box when someone brought a computer. And he wanted a slice of the Batman hype.
Pleasance firstly approached Ocean for exclusive rights to the Batman Commodore Amiga game for two months, but was met with resistance. Still, Pleasance stuck to his guns, and promised Ocean a royalty payment for each pack sold, placing an initial order of 10,000. The infamous ‘Batpack’ was born.
The special Commodore Amiga bundle was heavily backed by a TV advertising campaign, highlighting the 3D visuals of Batman: The Movie and the other software in the pack. This included the excellent arcade conversion of The New Zealand Story, the flight simulator F/A-18 Interceptor from Electronic Arts and art package Deluxe Paint II (famous for the pixel version of Tutankhamen’s death mask on the box’s cover). All for just £399, a price that itself offered a very tempting entry point into the emerging 16-bit computing era.
The end result far exceeded both Ocean and Commodore’s expectations. Over 186,000 units of the Batman Pack were sold during the next year, creating eager new Amiga owners and large profits for Ocean. Pleasance was quoted in the press at the time saying “we don’t sell computers – we sell dreams”, and the variety in the Batman pack certainly helped sell the Amiga dream.
The concept would be repeated for later models of the Amiga, but none had quite the same impact. There was also a Commodore 64 Batman pack but it sold in far fewer numbers.
On the back of the Batman pack, David was promoted and would stay at Commodore UK until its bankruptcy in 1994. He was there for the launch of the ill-fated CD32 console alongside Chris Evans (the radio DJ), and his advertising chutzpah saw him place a CD32 billboard outside Sega’s UK headquarters proclaiming “it will take Sega ages to be this good”.
Pleasance’s recent tell-all memoir Commodore – The Inside Story is a fascinating insight into the 1980s computer business, and just where Commodore went wrong. But he got the deal with Ocean right, and the Batman pack helped sell a lot of Amigas. It remains one of the most impactful crossovers between the movies and home computers to this day…
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