It’s November 18, 1992, the day after “Heart of Steel: Part 2.” This has been a big year for video games, a major topic of today’s episode. At least three major genres and one subgenre have their origins this year: the real-time strategy game (Dune II), the first-person shooter (Wolfenstein 3D), survival horror (Alone in the Dark), and the mascot racer (Super Mario Kart). Other firsts include the first appearances of Kirby (Kirby’s Dream Land), Wario (Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), and Tails (Sonic the Hedgehog 2). And more: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis brings the SCUMM adventure game engine to new heights, paving the way for future classics like Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, and Full Throttle; Mortal Kombat, Art of Fighting, and Virtua Racing receive their first entries; and, obscurely but most importantly, the single greatest video game that ever was or shall ever be, Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters, was bestowed upon an undeserving world.
In Gotham, the hottest game ever is a dungeon-crawler reminiscent of Adventure! for the Atari 2600, with a little bit of the original Legend of Zelda and a strange gimmick of asking the player to solve riddles and answer trivia questions. The most modern (in 1992 terms) thing about it is its sound effects, which are clearly borrowed from Super Mario Bros 3, already three years and an entire console generation old.
But that’s typical of the show’s anachronism. More interesting, perhaps, is the story around that game, Maze of the Minotaur, which seems fairly likely to have been inspired by the case of Alexei Pajitnov, who in 1984 created one of the best-selling and most popular games ever, Tetris. But because he was working for the Soviet government when he created it, he received no royalties as Western corporations fought over the rights (most notably in a 1989 lawsuit between Nintendo and Tengen, resulting in Nintendo having exclusive console rights to the game outside of Japan). Indeed, other than his initial pay, Pajitnov did not receive a dime for any Tetris game made prior to 1996, when he cofounded The Tetris Company.
Pajitnov, by all accounts, is not particularly bitter about the riches others made off his game. Edward Nygma, his Batman the Animated Series parallel, rather is, to the point of becoming the Riddler. Sadly, he pales in comparison to Frank Gorshin’s glorious portrayal of the character in all but one of his appearances in the 1960s Batman TV series, a giggling force of anarchy second only to the Joker, whose absurd riddles were at once childish and grotesque. (“What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?” “A sparrow with a machine gun!”)
But BTAS is clearly uncomfortable with the character in this outing. It takes a perfunctory stab at portraying his backstory, but with nothing like either the sympathy shown Mister Freeze or the brutally honest scorn it directs at the Mad Hatter; it’s simply sketched in a couple of scenes suggesting that he went largely unnoticed and was denied royalties, then skip to the present and supervillainy. His riddles lack the absurdity and panache of the Gorshin version. (“What has yellow skin and writes?” “A ballpoint banana!” Robin answers, pencil in hand.) His scheme–the giant maze full of traps, with a brief time limit to rescue his former employer Mockridge from the titular Minotaur–is convoluted and lacks menace, and in the end he escapes, becoming a figure of terror for Mockridge, but Mockridge still makes millions selling his company to Wayne Enterprises.
But of course BTAS is uncomfortable with this character. Much like the worker/robots in R.U.R. and “Heart of Steel,” he is resisting his place in the order Batman defends. He signed a contract for his labor to be exploited by Mockridge, and so under the rules of capitalism (written, of course, by and for people like Mockridge and, well, Bruce Wayne) deserves nothing further for it. His circumstance is not too dissimilar (especially with the reference to “work for hire” contracts) to the all-too-common case of classic comic book creators who received next to nothing for creating massively popular characters–figures like Siegel and Shuster (Superman), Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck), Alan Moore (Watchmen), and Jack Kirby (Captain America, Fantastic Four, the New Gods, and countless others) were famously denied creative control or royalties by major comic book companies. This very situation led to the departure from Marvel of a group of artists who founded Image Comics, which released its first books in the months prior to this episode–too late to be a direct influence, but the BTAS staff were almost certainly plugged in enough to the goings-on of the comics industry to be aware of the discontent leading up to it.
So on the one hand, there is the natural allegiance to one’s fellow creatives, the sense that what happened to Pajitnov with Tetris or Siegel and Shuster with Superman could just as easily happen to, say, Dini with Harley Quinn. On the other, there is the natural allegiance of Batman to law, order, and the power of wealth: Nygma signed a work-for-hire contract, and has no legal right to royalties or a share of merchandising in his game. He is seeking revenge not for criminal acts by his corrupt employer like Mister Freeze, but because he feels cheated on moral, but not legal or business, grounds.
He is, of course, right. Assuming that it is true that he’s the sole or primary creator of Maze of the Minotaur, a claim which both Nygma and Mockridge seem to accept, there is no good reason, once one sets aside the destructive and corrupt traditions of capitalism, for Mockridge to receive more of the money from the game than Nygma does. But Batman, at least in this stage of his development, cannot separate the moral and the legal. He cannot allow Nygma to destroy Mockridge anymore than he can stop Roland Dagget.
He is bound by too many rules to do what’s right. There will be no help from Batman in resolving the endless dispute between the creators of art and the financial backers. Maybe heroes bound by no rules at all will do better.
(Spoiler: No they won’t.)
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