Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Digital Knight: The Best Batman Games that AREN'T Arkham Asylum



In Summer 2009, Rocksteady Studios, a relatively unknown British games developer gave superhero and comic book fans the first truly excellent game for this generation: Arkham Asylum. Such was the level of intricate detail put into that magnificent game that people have universally praised it as the best superhero game of all time. Sure, it wasn't quite perfect as you didn't get to venture out beyond the Asylum's gates, or drive the Batmobile or any of the Bat-vehicles. But nonetheless, everything you did get to do was just sublime. You had access to a wealth of Batman's weapons and gadgets, many of them cleverly resembling ones he'd used in the movies (even though the developers weren't explicitly allowed to base any designs in the game off of anything outside of the comics, elements like the zip-line launcher and the remote control batarang were surely inspired by the similar weapons used in the earlier movies). And the combat was spec-fucking-tacular. The combat challenges alone make you feel more like Batman than actually wearing a Batsuit.




But what of Batman's other ventures into cyberspace? It's well-documented that Batman has had a fairly murky history with games, as have most superheroes that don't shoot webs or deliver pizzas for Mister Aziz. In fact, the Superhero Game sub-genre is so maligned that it boasts one of The Worst Games of All-Time, Superman 64. The less said about that, the better. (SOLVE MY MAZE!!)


Honestly though, Batman's gaming history isn't all bad. There are some real gems from the NES era  as well as the SNES/Sega Genesis era of gaming. Things only really got really dodgy when Batman games ventured into the troublesome third-dimension, but even there, there are some decent outings, even if there were no really good ones up until Asylum.

The wonderful world of game emulation has opened up all kinds of doors for me to discover the 32-bit era of gaming. The first game worth a mention is 'Batman' for Sega Genesis based off the 1989 film.



The game's graphics are decent, without being stellar but the game just does a really good job of taking the main action beats from the movie and turning them into a kickass platformer. Batman uses his grapple gun, batarangs and punches and kicks to defeat the Joker's criminal army (some of these guys are really cool. There are also two levels that feature the Batmobile and the Batwing, respectively. The game isn't that long, but is fairly difficult even with unlimited lives. It could have used a few more cutscenes to explain the story, as the bulk of it is told in a text-screen at the start, and unlike other games based on the 1989 movie (such as the other, also-decent, completely different one for the NES), there aren't any other classic villains that feature in the game. Also, while the music is fun and exciting, it's nothing to do with the Danny Elfman score from the movie (as is often the case with these tie-in games). Nevertheless, despite these complaints it's a really solid outing and a delightful platformer for Batman fans and 32-bit fans, alike.



Most seasoned Batman fans will agree that the best pre-Arkham Asylum Batman game is probably the SNES version of 'The Adventures of Batman & Robin' and I'm certainly inclined to agree. The game is a beautifully faithful adaptation of Batman: The Animated Series (which the game probably should have been called, as Robin's barely even in it and you can't play as him) with every level based on a particular episode.



 Batman runs, moves and fights in the same fluid animation style as seen in the show and the music in the game draws extensively from the Danny Elfman/Shirley Walker collaborative style from the earlier episodes. The game even has a password and a cheat system, if you're a newer, lazier gamer like I am.



The only complaint I have against this game is that the combat isn't quite as streamlined and fun as it is in the above game. This is a minor complaint though, and this is definitely recommended for animated series fans.



Much like the other three of the original series of Batman movies, there are a number of different games based on Batman Returns. I haven't played any of them too extensively, but I do think that both the games for SNES and Genesis are worth a play.



The SNES (and the NES) version is just a basic beat-em'-up brawler in the Streets of Rage tradition. It's hard to get those kinds of games wrong and it's a lot of fun, but it gets very, very repetitive. The Genesis version is more along the lines of the previous Genesis game and uses a lot more of Batman's gadgets. It's blockier and less linear than the 89 game though and because of the eerie, twisted film on which its based, the aesthetic probably won't be too everyone's tastes.



The less said about the games based off Batman Forever, the better. Like Returns, one version for PSX/PSOne was a beat-em'-up arcade game which somehow managed to be quite a bit more mediocre and the other (for Genesis and SNES) was a platformer, which was just flat-out woeful and nigh-unplayable. Try it if you don't believe me.



There was a game released on PSX and N64 based off Batman & Robin and it was also pretty terrible. It had the right idea by letting you play as Batman, Robin or Batgirl and you could freely roam around Wayne Manor, the Batcave and certain sections of Gotham City as well as being able to use all of the vehicles featured in the film. Unfortunately, that was about it, as the game's controls were useless. You had to stand perfectly still to fight and turning around took almost five seconds. I remember I nearly completely gave up on the game when the Batmobile got stuck between two walls because I'd turned badly. It really is a pity that this game wasn't good, as we're still waiting on a Batman game that allows you to play as multiple characters across a free-roaming Gotham, with access to Batman's vehicles. Arkham City is almost there, except for its lack of vehicles.

The next two Batman games are probably the two most important before Arkham Asylum came along.



Batman: Vengeance was released around 2001 for PS2/Xbox/Gamecube and was once again based off the animated series (although this game used the updated designs of The New Batman Adventures). It was one of the first games to feature Kevin Conroy's voiceover efforts (although he did voice a couple of point-and-click Batman games that while awesome, don't really count) and like Arkham Asylum, it featured an entirely original plot about the Joker faking his own death so that he could destroy Gotham. Or something.



The plot was mostly decent enough, but the game's shaky cutscenes and poor audio levelling meant that it was sometimes difficult to follow what was going on. This bled into the actual gameplay of the game as well, as the game was often so dark that it was difficult to avoid pitfalls or find ledges that needed climbing, etc. Which isn't to say that it was a bad game. For the first time, there was a really playable 3-D Batman game. While the controls were a bit blocky (once again, the combat was pretty crappy), they were at least a lot better than they had ever been before. Batman's cape allowed you to glide across distances (an ability that appeared in other games, but here was the first time it was used to its true potential) and the Dark Knight had a vast array of gadgets at his disposal. Gadgets were used in the handy first-person mode, to allow for precision. You also got to drive the Batmobile and the Batplane/wing once again, although these were the worst, most depressingly difficult levels in the game.




Nevertheless, here was a delightfully playable Batman game and deserves a second look. The gadgets and the way they are used is the best part about this game and is almost identical to the improved method used in Arkham Asylum, which makes me almost certain that it was probably partly inspired by this game.



Batman Begins was almost an excellent Batman game. From the first images that popped up of it (many months before the film or the game's release), it was obvious that the game had the best graphics of any Batman game and it certainly excels in that regard, I think (even compared to some of the best PS2/Xbox/Gamecube games). It also has an excellent cinematic feel and the voiceover work is outstanding, with Christian Bale giving Kevin Conroy a run for his money. This game is probably Bale's longest outing as Batman as he appears to have more lines here than he had in either of the two movies (even though most of it is just exposition).



Even the combat and the controls are great (even if they're not quite as outstanding as in Arkham Asylum). The problem with Batman Begins is that it's such an excellent game that it practically plays itself. From the very start of the game, handy boxes guide you around the levels, inviting you to interact with them, essentially removing any real exploration or curiosity from the game. You might as well just be following arrows for the whole game. The game is based on the principle that Batman's enemies need to be afraid in order for him to be effective. A typical scenario sees Batman stealthy moving up towards a group of enemies, some of whom are armed, and causing some sort of distraction (for example, knocking down a weak girder). For some unexplained reason, this makes the enemies so frightened that they drop their weapons, leaving them free for Batman to intervene with punches and kicks. Even the gadgets can only be used when they flash up onscreen during a fight (although batarangs and the grapple are used throughout the game). While the game isn't quite as devoid of a challenge as I'm making it out to be and while it is a lot of fun to play through, it would have been remarkable had the developers offered the player a little bit more freedom.



The influence of Batman: Vengeance and Batman Begins on Arkham Asylum is quite obvious if you've played the former games as thoroughly as I did, growing up. Arkham Asylum relies heavily on stealthily picking off enemies and actually delivers on the promise of getting to be able to 'think like Batman' in stealth situations and use fear to your advantage, where Batman Begins so shamefully failed. Arkham Asylum also uses a gadget-system much like Vengeance's, except that you're not restricted to only use gadgets in the first-person mode and while there are fewer gadgets available, the limited variety means they're easier to access. And once again, the combat just about trumps every single game of its kind, maybe ever. I've never had as much fun roundhouse-kicking a thug in slow-motion.




The sequel to Arkham Asylum promises a bigger, vaster playground in which to fight crime and while it's not quite the entirety of Gotham, it does have a lot of the best parts in it (such as Crime Alley where the Waynes were killed, and Ace Chemicals where the Joker was born into madness). Like the dreadful Batman & Robin game, it allows you to play as the Boy Wonder (only in challenge modes, however) as well as Catwoman (who you play as in side-missions and some story missions). The one crushing blow to the game is that we still won't be able to command the Batmobile or any of Batman's wonderful vehicles, but I'm hoping that Rocksteady are saving that for the next Bat-epic. I'm holding out for the eventual 'Gotham Theft Auto' and it looks like these two games are a massive step in that direction.

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