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How Rocksteady Saved Batman from a History of Shitty Video Games

Batman might be the world's greatest detective, but before the London studio got its hands on him, his video games were mostly garbage.

There's a reason Warner Bros. released Batman: Return to Arkham, a compilation of previous-console-generation smashes Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, and it's not just because remasters are "in" this season (see also: Modern Warfare, BioShock, Skyrim).

Whether you prefer 2009's Arkham Asylum, with its claustrophobic and threatening corridors, or 2011's Arkham City and its expertly crafted version of Gotham, Rocksteady's take on The Dark Knight has been nothing short of excellent since day one.


Even the recently released Arkham VR—an immersive experience in which the player is convincingly cast in the famous cowl—has been a highlight of Sony's PlayStation VR launch window. The franchise as a whole is of such quality that even Warner Bros. Montréal's Arkham Origins—which is based on the same template, but earned something of a mixed reputation—was, for me, also a triumph.

No matter how you slice it, the first Arkham games look even better when you compare them to what came before: the darkest days of the Dark Knight.

Batman: Return to Arkham Screenshot courtesy of Warner Bros.

It's no secret that developers have struggled to do justice to superhero properties. There was the awful and now infamous Superman 64; the icky Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis; the disappointing X-Men: Destiny and a bunch of other tie-ins that were nothing more than cash grabs. Batman has been guilty of this more often than not.

Whether it was the horrendous Batman & Robin for the PlayStation (and!) or the equally awful Batman Forever for 16-bit consoles and handhelds of the time, Batman has seen some shit, man.

They weren't all a disaster, thankfully. An early highlight came in 1993 when Konami, Sega and Atari all somehow managed to release their own version of Batman Returns on practically every platform. While the approach was illogical to say the least—the Amiga iteration, for example, was riddled with bugs—the version that made its way to the Super Nintendo actually made a lot of sense.


Above: Konami's Batman Returns, for the Super Nintendo

Playing into what was popular at the time, Batman Returns on the SNES was a side-scrolling beat-em-'up akin to Final Fight. Aping the majority of early '90s arcade machines, you would move from screen to screen, smack a few bad guys in the face, and when you'd beaten enough of them you were allowed to progress.While it didn't really play to Batman's strengths—the idea of using fear as a weapon probably never made it into the design document—what it did get right was atmosphere. Tim Burton's decision to dust his second movie in snow was an inspired one, and the simple choice to bring that across to the game worked wonders. (You wonder if the team behind Origins were taking notes, given its frosty midwinter setting.)

This was all supported by a 16-bit adaptation of the soundtrack, similar stylistic choices that were based on those in the film, and a cast of characters that gave Batman Returns an identity. It went out of its way to make you feel like you were in this bizarre, dark world.

Stomping through Gotham as you pulverized the scum that littered its streets was utterly satisfying. Sure, it was using the same techniques as any other in the genre, but every punch and kick hit with such force it was possible to imagine your own gloved fist driving into someone's jaw.

It's an area so many other attempts failed at miserably, mostly because they were so obsessed with just getting the character onto whatever box they could. Gibberish such as Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu—released for the PS2, Xbox and GameCube in 2003—was evidence of just this.


Above: Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu

In that particular gem, you mashed buttons alongside a friend as what sounded like music from a cheap porno played in the background. Aside from the title and license, there was nothing here that could be described as Bat-esque. It lacked personality and focus, even if it did have Kevin Conroy providing Bats' much-loved animated voice.

The same was true for 2001's Batman: Vengeance. Ubisoft may have ensured it included all the gadgets you'd expect—and an occasional first-person perspective in an attempt to make things more personal—but it was a lightweight at best. It was based on the TV show The New Batman Adventures, which meant this was aimed at a younger demographic, sure, but even the cartoon would venture into darker territory from time to time. Disappointingly, Vengeance was the same in its first hour as it was in its last.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was a slight shift in this mindset with EA's Batman Begins. While flawed, elements of what we'd eventually see in the Arkham series were planted here, back in 2005. Encouraged to use the shadows and turn your enemy's situation and environment against them, it was possible to be systematic in your approach, tactically taking out individuals one by one. Hell, you could even see their heart rate and chain moves together thanks to a handy vault mechanic. Sound familiar?

It was the first time a developer had thought about what made Batman unique, and although Christopher Nolan's grittier cinematic take on the narrative may have inspired that, there was more to Begins than many gave it credit for. It wasn't a masterpiece—that was made painfully clear given how pathetic the encounter with Ra's Al Ghul was during the game's climax—but seeds had been planted.


Batman: Return to Arkham screenshot courtesy of Warner Bros.

This brings us to 2009's masterpiece. The game grabbed your attention instantly and Rocksteady established a distinct mood before quickly drawing a line under who's who. Asylum lays an actual foundation and invites you into the world that this Batman inhabits. It's not just a man wearing a suit. He has his own identity and past. A huge part of the experience is learning exactly what that is.

It's the same with City, too. The ultimate Batman-simulator, never before had a game featuring The Dark Knight felt so open and free. There was a clear effort to put you in the comic icon's shoes, hence the included random, thug-related scuffles that you could either ignore or break up. You were on the night's watch: how such a stint should be tackled is entirely up to you.

There's an argument to be had that the Arkham series features one of the best fighting systems in modern gaming. It's not just because it's surprisingly rich and mechanically rewarding. It's because of how well it represents a Batman brawl: once you start to master it, the whole thing almost becomes a spectator sport. Someone can observe what's happening and be impressed with how it all chains together.

That sense of flow and spectacle extends to other mechanics. Whether you're gliding through the skies or investigating a crime scene, the balance between experience and engagement is spot on.

That's not to say the games were perfect, or free from criticism—there were countless areas that needed (and did receive) improvement as the franchise went on. On a conceptual level, though, the Arkham series was constructed by a team who wanted to do the Bat justice and, in turn, convert millions of doubters in the process.

Smart, deep, and well-executed, you could argue it'll be near impossible to top what's here in the Return to Arkham set. What else could realistically be done to imitate The Dark Knight so well? To better these Batman games may forever prove as impossible as keeping The Joker down and out, or Bruce Wayne finally finding happiness at the end of it all. But there's always hope.

Batman: Return to Arkham is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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