A Rocky History: Batman’s Foray Into Video Games

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Well, we’ve finally hit that point.  With the release of Batman: Arkham City, the ultimate game experience revolving around the Dark Knight is finally here.  Players can literally fly around for hours, busting the heads of criminals and using a number of utility belt gadgets to get around.  But Batman’s rise to infamous gaming glory wasn’t always easy.

Over the years, we’ve seen some terrific Batman games, along with some really lousy ones that we’d rather forget about.  Here now is a recap of the most noticeable games we’ve seen.  Word of warning: we include some really lousy ones here, but let’s not forget the awesome ones either.

Off to a Good Start

Following up on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, Sunsoft released a superb NES title based on the same license, even if it went in a completely different direction as far as level structure went.  Rather than battling familiar foes from the film (aside from the Joker, obviously), the game pits you against devastating traps and a number of enemies, including gun-toting soldiers, ninjas, and robots.  Despite the unique direction, the game defined just what a movie-licensed game should be.  Too bad Acclaim didn’t listen with its Total Recall release.  Ouch.

Equally noteworthy was the Batman game for Sega Genesis.  It was more of a mainstream, side-scrolling action game than what the NES game offered, but it was still very good.  Initially, Sunsoft wasn’t going to release it due to licensing issues, but it managed to clear them up in time for a summer 1990 release.

Sunsoft followed up on these games in 1991 with Batman: Return of the Joker, which introduced an interesting new style of gameplay, with Batman shooting a variety of guns from a wrist holster, rather than using traditional weapons.  The NES version featured some very impressive visuals (for the time, anyway), though the controls left something to be desired.  Still, that game turned out to be better than the Genesis version, which was terrible.

Konami took over the Batman franchise in 1992 with the release of Batman Returns, which was once again based on a Tim Burton film.  The NES version was pretty forgettable, a side-scrolling beat-em-up with minimal visuals and bland gameplay.  However, the SNES version proved to be a real powerhouse, featuring authentic Danny Elfman-style music, terrific gameplay (think Final Fight with Batman’s utilities), and superb visuals that mimicked the look of the film.

Sega also produced various games based on the Batman Returns franchise, including versions for Sega CD, Genesis, and Game Gear.  They were mere side-scrolling efforts at best, barely able to keep up with the superb SNES game.

Konami then produced a quality SNES effort based on the Adventures of Batman and Robin series, featuring levels based around episodes from the TV show.  It was a remarkable effort, with terrific side-scrolling action and exquisite design.  It surely outperformed the Sega Genesis version, produced by Sega.  That game was trying to be a side-scrolling shooter, ala Gunstar Heroes, but was way too difficult for its own good.

The Downward Slide

When Acclaim snagged the rights to the next Batman Forever movie, things took a turn for the nasty – kind of like the film series itself, actually.  The game, which came out for SNES and Genesis in 1995, was a frustrating side-scrolling game with too many gameplay problems and poor stage design.  Worse yet, the motion capture was so laughably bad, it made Mortal Kombat look classic by comparison.  The company did slightly improve on matters with an arcade edition of the game (which also came out for Saturn and PlayStation), but relied more on over-the-top action than functional gameplay.

Batman & Robin didn’t fare much better when Acclaim released it one year after the awful film’s release on PlayStation.  Relying on an ancient 3D engine, poor controls, and a lackluster story, the game went nowhere fast.  It was better off staying…on ice?

Ubisoft took over on Batman games in 2000, but things didn’t get necessarily better.  The first title it produced, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, turned out to be dead on arrival, a side-scrolling brawler with no redeeming values.  The following release of Batman: Gotham City Racer didn’t fare much better, despite being in control of such vehicles as the Batcycle and Batmobile.

The next generation of gaming came rushing in, and Ubisoft came prepared with Batman: Vengeance, a 3D adventure that actually made pretty good use of Batman’s tools in a huge environment.  The game lagged at times, though, and the whole thing was done within just a matter of hours.

Ubisoft managed to pump out one more Batman game, the top-down action effort Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu (decent, but forgettable) before Kemco produced an original effort based more closely on the Batman comic book franchise.  That game was Batman: Dark Tomorrow, and despite a promising opening cinema and an original story, the game ended up being an utter failure.  Frustrating gameplay, poor visuals, and a completely broken interface failed on all fronts.  It’s easily the worst Batman game in existence.

The Climb Back Out

Batman’s return to quality gaming came in 2005 with the release of Batman Begins, which came from Electronic Arts.  Despite the somewhat straightforward level designs and limited gameplay, its production values were high, and its segments were entertaining, particularly a Batmobile segment that resembled Burnout 3: Takedown.  We’d totally get a game made up of those segments alone.

In 2008, WB Games released Lego Batman: The Video Game, a title that successfully followed up on the Travellers Tales’ Lego Star Wars games, utilizing Batman, Robin, and fellow heroes and villains in fun gameplay segments that were perfect for all ages.  It’s well worth checking out if you haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Last but not least, before we get to Batman’s huge return, there’s one more game worth mentioning – WB Games’ Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  Despite the fact it wasn’t as well crafted as the Arkham games, it was still a good cartoon-style affair for two players, mimicking the style and presentation of The Adventures of Batman and Robin.  It’s good fun if you can track down a copy.

Into the Asylum of Greatness

In 2009, an up-and-coming development team at Rocksteady Games worked closely with WB Games on Batman: Arkham Asylum, and the release paid off in spades.  Millions of copies of the game have sold, all powered by a wonderful game engine that has yet to be matched in the comic book realm, along with a splendid story by Paul Dini, a wide array of gadgets for Batman to use, incredible voice talents (including two of Batman: The Animated Series’ main stars, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill), and plenty of challenge rooms to run through after you finished the game.  Oh yeah, and it looked spectacular.  This was the way to do a comic book game, and we didn’t think it could ever be topped.

Silly us.  Batman: Arkham City, which is available now, expands upon Asylum’s formula with bigger areas, more challenges, more villains, the return of the voice talent and story writers, plenty of new extras, and improved gameplay, including the ability to glide anywhere to do some damage.  The story takes a new twist this time, as Batman must investigate the happenings in the city-built prison, which is being ruled under the iron thumb of Hugo Strange.  We’ll have a review for you soon.

Last but not least, the future is looking promising in 2012, with the unique spin-off Gotham City Impostors.  Despite the fact it’s a first-person shooter, it’s based really well around the universe of Batman, revolving around a pair of imposter gangs who want to rule the streets of Gotham.  Our time with the beta has been well spent thus far, and the gameplay, being handled by the F.E.A.R.-producing team at Monolith, really holds up well.  You’ll be able to see this for yourself once the game releases early next year.

 

And that’s it!  That’s the history of Batman gaming in a nutshell.  It’s been a bumpy one, but thanks to Rocksteady Games, the franchise has really come out on top.  And we’re not done yet.  Not as long as Batman can still take flight...

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Robert Workman
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