The gaming industry has had a long love/hate relationship with the Caped Crusader. His popularity and iconic imagery are ripe for the gaming model. In spite of this appeal, Batman has long struggled to find his place in the pantheon of great game franchises. Unfortunately, most Batman games are notoriously awful. And not in that “doesn’t look good I think I’ll pass” kind of way, but in the “this game is so bad I will write songs about it” way. We are talking E.T. caliber awful.
It’s a shame that there are so many terrible Batman games. The Dark Knight is the perfect character to feature in a game. His Batarangs, grappling guns, and other gear make great weapons and items. His vehicles, like the Batmobile and Batwing, make for great racing and flying levels. Batman’s rogue’s gallery is the most famous of any superhero’s, and who better to have as level bosses (as Batman fights his way to the inevitable confrontation with the Joker) than Riddler, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and so on. It is also important to recognize that Batman is not a one-trick pony. He doesn’t just punch bad guys like the Hulk or shoot them with arrows like Hawkeye. He uses stealth, strength, and gadgets to defeat the villains.
The problem is that Batman games are often made as cheap tie-ins to Batman movies and TV shows. For example, nine games were published with the title Batman Returns for several systems when the film of the same name was released. Are any of the nine good? … Not really. And when a Batman game is released, it is often a blatant rip-off of some other popular game. And not just graphically, as in the case of Batman Forever, which featured the same graphics engine as Mortal Kombat. Down to the play control and interface, most Batman games are total knock-offs.
Ninja Gaiden vs. Batman (NES):
Contra vs. Batman: Revenge of the Joker (SEGA Genesis):
Double Dragon vs. Batman Returns (NES)
Final Fight vs. Batman Returns (SNES)
The Final Fight example is particularly surprising. Like Mike Haggar, Guy, and the the rest of those Capcom combatants, Batman collects food and weapons from trash cans scattered around Gotham City. One would think that with Bruce Wayne’s billions, Batman would not have to rummage through the garbage.
Now I know I shouldn’t be knocking licensed entertainment. I make part of my living as a licensed book writer. The Star Wars Expanded Universe was a gateway drug that led me to original science fiction literature. But my point is, when game designers set out to tell an original story, to do something unique with the game they are designing, the end product is almost always superior.
Which brings us to 2009’s game of the year, Arkham Asylum. This game took an original story, innovative controls, and allowed Batman to be Batman. It is no wonder this game is so popular. The fact that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the stars of Batman: The Animated Series (one of the most beloved incarnations of Batman ever) provided voices for the game didn’t hurt either. Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation pointed out at the time that many of Batman’s moves in this game are stolen from Spider-Man’s traditional arsenal. Batman dangles from the ceiling, snags a bad guy, and strings him upside down. But we won’t fault the creators for that. What makes this game so good is the characters, shining as the best (or worst) they can be. Scarecrow couldn’t be scarier. The Joker couldn’t be funnier. Even Poison Ivy was intriguing (although the epic battle against her giant plants was very similar to some old boss battles from Resident Evil games, and she could afford to put on some pants).
So how is the game industry following up this success? Another innovative new project? Holy sequels, Batman! It’s another Arkham game. That’s right. Arkham City drops later this year.
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who may have been first introduced to Batman through that Ninja Gaiden-esque video game you see above, but he can’t remember. He can claim to have beaten Arkham Asylum in a sitting (a very long sitting) and to have never beaten the first level of Batman on the Game Boy.