Though it might now seem strange to think it, the art of adapting superheroes into video games hasn’t always been as high-flying as the subjects they depict. Before 2009, they rarely managed to escape “meh” territory, if anything.
Superman 64 saw the Man of Steel fighting Kryptonite gas clouds, the X-Men were constantly done an injustice in everything that didn’t have “Legends” as a subtitle, and, while Treyarch did piggyback off GTA III’s successes for the much-beloved Spider-Man 2, who could forget that terrible Iron Man movie tie-in game that had you shoot missiles at endless waves of tanks and helicopters? We haven’t!
This all changed when a relatively unknown developer named Rocksteady sought to buck what had come before, choosing not to base its interpretation of DC’s Dark Knight on any upcoming movie version and instead plow ahead with an original take. Batman: Arkham Asylum released in 2009 to both commercial and critical acclaim, laying the foundation for which many other games (not just those based on superheroes) have been building upon ever since.
In the year of its 10th anniversary, we thought it worth highlighting what made Batman: Arkham Asylum so great…
Mention Batman: Arkham Asylum and one instantly conjures thoughts of Rocksteady’s infamous promise to let you “Be the Batman.” It’s a claim that many shrugged off as typical marketing speak, prior to release, yet it only takes mere moments of handling Brucie boy to realize that this was no false boast. Fighting as Batman feels just as brutal as it should, with the Caped Crusader’s fists hitting enemies with the weight of what feels like sandbags full of cement.
Dodging knife swipes, stunning thugs with just a swoosh of the cape… These actions, combined with a new approach to a combo-driven melee system Rocksteady dubbed “Freeflow combat,” let you live the fantasy of being a pointy-eared vigilante with daddy issues, as you unleashed a flurry of light punches and kicks, moving quickly between. Batman also had the ability to block and counter oncoming attacks, meaning that you could easily go through an entire wave of enemies without receiving a single hit. Freeflow combat on its own would have been enough to sell Arkham Asylum as the ultimate Batman simulator, but it’s elevated further by all of its refined elements.
Confined to the twisting corridors that make up Gotham City’s mysterious asylum, Batman isn’t all brawn – on occasion, he needs to do some actual investigative work. He is the world’s greatest detective, after all. Piecing together the puzzles and mysteries within the asylum’s walls afforded players the chance to experience another side of the Dark Knight so often ignored by the movies, which usually favor punching over detecting.
There’s also a stealth element that so often falls to the wayside in the movies. Thankfully, Arkham Asylum featured Predator Mode, which allowed you to take down a room full of baddies. Swooping from gargoyle to gargoyle and waiting for the perfect moment to strike, stringing a person up and then spooking the rest with a well-timed Batarang throw never got old. It also forced players to use a bit of strategy, like taking pawns out on a chessboard. It added a bit of complexity to the gameplay.
While its sequels expanded the scope and spectacle of the series, there’s something to be respected about limiting Batman to a smaller open-world location in Arkham Asylum. Rocksteady used this setting to its advantage, incorporating Metroidvania elements that tasked Batman with backtracking through the Asylum’s many interconnected rooms and chambers in order to find new secrets he’d missed before. Batman equipped new gadgets as he progressed as well, which made finding new places to explore more fun. The asylum itself was a densely packed gauntlet filled with Riddler trophies to hunt down and Easter eggs to appreciate.
It helps that, for as well-realized as its character and locations were, Arkham Asylum’s plot was a simple one, inspired by the much more complex Grant Morrison and Dave McKean comic of the same. Joker has taken over the institution in the hopes of creating a superhuman army using Bane’s Titan formula, trapping the Dark Knight with all of his rogues in the process. Both Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprised their roles as Batman and the Joker respectively, legitimizing Rocksteady’s goal of making the game as authentic a Batman experience as possible. As such, Hamill was in top form, stealing every scene with his manic voice, while Conroy did his best brooding since Batman: The Animated Series.
Arkham Asylum saw you butt heads with such celebrated villains as Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and, perhaps most memorably, Scarecrow through some seriously sketchy dream sequences. It was in these sections that Rocksteady once again demonstrated its affection for DC’s universe, delving into the psyche of orphaned Bruce as he ventured through the metaphoric hellscape that is his world falling apart. You guided the Caped Crusader in the attempt to dodge the oversized Scarecrow’s searchlight, playing cat and mouse until you reached the top. Forced stealth sections like this usually go down like a lead balloon in most games, but Arkham Asylum used it as an excuse to add to the lore in a cool way.
As inspired as Rocksteady’s first Batman outing is, for the most part, even Arkham Asylum couldn’t avoid some of the trappings that plague a lot of modern games. The climactic fight with a super jacked-up Joker still feels uncharacteristic a full decade later, yet any frustration is at least halted somewhat when you learn that the Clown Prince of Crime’s actions had ongoing repercussions in sequels Arkham City and Arkham Knight. Most other boss encounters were appropriately on point, with clashes against Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery feeling just as epic as they ever did on the comic book page.
Ultimately, Batman: Arkham Asylum marked a notable shift in how the video game world thought of superhero games, proving to AAA publishers that licensed releases no longer needed be sent to the bargain bin, as long as they were given the proper attention by a passionate developer that cared about the intellectual property. Rocksteady exceeded expectations in its handling of Batman in Arkham Asylum, refining such ideas as Predator Mode, gadget variety, and freeflow combat in later titles – to the point that the latter has been aped countless times in games like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max, and Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Currently, we have no idea what lies ahead for Rocksteady and Batman. Whatever it is, however, you can bet that gamers will jump at the chance to mutter these words to themselves once again: “I am Batman”.