Let’s face it, Batman: Arkham Asylum was, and still is, one of the most groundbreaking superhero games
When Batman: Arkham Asylum came out ten years ago, it was the first superhero game of its kind. It wasn’t, by any means, the first superhero game. We had seen dozens of hero games for Marvel, DC, and even lesser-known indie publishers come to our consoles through the years. Heck, it was even far, far, far from Batman’s first game (that privilege goes to Batman in 1986). But, until Arkham Asylum, the heroes in games often felt like hollow beat-em-ups. Everything changed with its release.
The early 2000s is a time known for terrible movie games. Every movie needed a game, and every game had to uncomfortably follow the plot — with some weird side missions thrown it. It was a miserable time to be a comic book fan and gamer. I remember avoiding those titles like the plague. It wasn’t worth the money my meager paying teenage job provided. I saved instead for self-contained titles that stood on their own. Usually, those tended to be better (but not always).
The closest we came before the Arkham to a perfect superhero game was Spider-Man 2. It is a movie game — which, as I mentioned, are known to be notoriously bad — but it somehow outdid itself. Spider-Man 2 is an open-world game, though (due to technological limitations) the streets felt barren. The graphics are blocky and the animation a bit awkward by modern standards, but it was groundbreaking at the time. As you roam the city, you can encounter crime which you could pause to fight — or not. While this seems expected now, this used to be a luxury. Unexpected encounters make the world feel so much more alive. Spider-Man 2 changed what we expect from superhero video games. It opened us up to a different kind of experience.
Batman: Arkham Asylum built on this foundation and in doing so, raised our expectations even further.
Story and Acting
Batman has so many amazing adventures that it’s hard to find something new and fresh to experience. Let’s face it — when you’ve been dominating comics since 1939, a lot has already been done. Then there are all the earlier Batman games taking us through countless battles against the rogue’s gallery. But somehow Batman: Arkham Asylum took all this history and made something that feels fresh and new.
Rocksteady games made a rock-solid choice when they teamed up with the legendary Paul Dini, a long-time Batman writer, to create the game. To any fan, it’s obvious that they chose a comic book insider — because the characters feel fully fleshed out and real. See, Dini didn’t want to rehash old plots. He wanted to make something entirely new. He wanted a plot designed to play, not watch or read. These details make Batman: Arkham Asylum feel different than a lot of games before it. This story was something we hadn’t experienced before. We got to experience it for the first time when we entered the doors of Arkham. We didn’t know what to expect.
It also helps they got long-time staples to come back to voice the characters. Hearing the all too familiar voice of Mark Hamill cackle through your speakers as you encounter The Joker in Arkham Asylum for the first time really sets the mood. The entire cast is full of familiar voices, from Kevin Conroy as Batman to Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. It’s so much easier to get into the story when the voices of our favorite characters match the ones we know the best.
One of the milestones of Arkham Asylum is the ability to choose how you play the game. While other games like Assassin’s Creed have allowed players to do this before, in my opinion, Arkham Asylum does it better. A player can spend the entire game creeping from shadow to shadow, or they can take every enemy they met head-on. While this seems small, many games before this offered rather linear solutions to their puzzles. Arkham puts the experience squarely in the player’s hands. This is also the first game to truly embody the fear aspect of the game.
To supplement the incredible gameplay, Arkham Asylum offers a wide array of gadgets, all of which open new options and ways to deal with the situations thrown at you. Most of the gadgets are things we’ve seen Batman use throughout the years, from the Batarang to a grappling gun. You unlock gadgets through experience, and many of them allow you to access areas previously unreachable to the bat. Gradually unlocking the map makes the game feel like you have more choices for your experience — even though the developers are just cleverly keeping you from entering story sections you haven’t gotten to yet.
Games like this have ripples, and it didn’t stop at in the superhero sphere. You can see similar gameplay in titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor or Rise of the Tomb Raider. Arkham Asylum has several sequels. Most of them have been as strong, if not stronger, than the original. Many avid gamers worked their way through the series to its finale — unable to resist the call of the cowl. The Arkham games offered us a way to feel like we are Batman. They sucked you in and immersed you so deeply you couldn’t put them down.
During the early 2000s, almost every superhero game we got was a movie spin-off. They were made on cheap budgets, had janky controls, and mostly felt like a cheap ploy to make a bit of extra money. I said this before, and I’ll say it again: I hated almost every single one of these games (except you, Spider-Man 2). They felt hollow. There is little joy in forcing your way through the exact same plot that you just watched. Batman: Arkham Asylum freed us from the monotony — and created new expectations. The game was critically acclaimed, and it forced creators to recognize that if they produce good, original content — gamers will come. Go figure.
As the years pass, more games are giving players a choice between stealth and combat. Games let the main characters banter openly with enemies. Each step takes us closer to what gamers want — better immersion, and a feeling of control over the game.
Fast forward to a decade after Arkham Asylum’s release, to a different franchise and a different character. Like Spider-Man 2 before it, Arkham Asylum changed how developers make hero games. And when you tie all of these expectations back together — we find ourselves back at everyone’s favorite web-head — Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PS4.
I firmly believe that, if not for Batman: Arkham Asylum, we never would have seen this game come to fruition. The Arkham series provided the groundwork for a new type of hero game — a better type of superhero game. Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) feels like you are playing the comic book character. The plot is fresh, the world immersive. And none of that would have been possible without Arkham Asylum breaking us free from movie-based games.
I really hope that the success of Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) makes the next Batman game even better. Though it’s going to be very hard to top the Arkham series, I think it’s possible. Technology will keep getting better. And who knows, by the time the next Batman game arrives, we might all be in immersive VR worlds. Maybe then Batman can raise the bar again, and the competition for best superhero game between the two most popular heroes can continue.
I can’t wait to see what happens next. There are so many other characters to explore, and so many different stories to tell. If the Arkham series and Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) are examples of what I should be expecting — we’re in for a fantastic ride. And I, for one, can’t wait.
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