Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Hall of Action: An Action Figure Retrospective

In the late seventies, when Star Wars was all the rage, toy companies wisely realised that the elaborate vehicles and sets from the franchise would be too costly and cumbersome for 12 inch dolls. Thus, the action figure was born. Cheap, sturdy and miniature enough to be able to fit into larger vehicles (like the Millennium Falcon). Superhero action figures were released soon in the legendary 'Super Powers' line. 

As a kid growing up in the 90s, action figures grew more and more expensive as their popularity increased. This meant that unlike kids in the 80s and 70s, I didn't actually have that many, and it was a pretty big deal whenever I got a new one, although I did have quite a few. A vast, massive majority of them were Batman-related figures, particularly from the Animated Series. I also got a handful of figures from other franchises such as Superman, Star Wars, Spider-Man and even stuff like Power Rangers (a lot of these have been lost over the years). 

These toys meant the world to me and as a result of my lack of access to comic books (for the first half of my childhood, anyway) and the only occasional showing of cartoons like Batman and Superman, I would often spend hours dreaming up my own stories and scenarios, using miscellaneous figures as new characters. As far as I can tell, I was collecting and playing with action figures long after it was socially acceptable (which was a depressingly young age among my circle of friends). 

As the years have grown on, I grew less interested in collecting figures, for the sheer fact that they don't make 'em like they used to. When I was growing up, action figures were designed to be sturdy and durable rather than painstakingly accurate to the design on which they're based. Nowadays, figures sacrifice durability and toughness for design accuracy and they're anything but cheap. There's also this weird spectrum where size is concerned. Figures for 'serious collectors' (the people who leave them in the box or in a display case) are 9-10 inches and the ones for 'younger collectors' (kids who want to actually play with them) are as small as 4-5 inches. When I was a lad, figures were just right at 6-8 inches. 

With the advent of the Internet, the plummeting prices of DVD Boxsets, Graphic Novels and the growing realism and quality of video games, the question of whether kids are even bothered playing with toys anymore is a pretty interesting one. I know that if I had had a games like 'Lego Batman', 'Spider-Man 2', 'Arkham Asylum' (or a more kid-friendly version of it) or 'Batman: The Brave and the Bold' as a kid that I might be a little bit more inclined to want to be immersed in a virtual world of heroism before playing with bits of plastic. Maybe that's just the cynic in me, though. I've come to an interesting point in my life where I'm not really sure I want to keep my toys around anymore. Most of them aren't worth a penny, because they're so war-torn (plus, they're not in their original packaging), and some of them I just couldn't even imagine parting with, because of the sentimental value (even if it means they'll just be sitting in a box in my attic). The purpose of this post is to pictorially archive all the action figures I have left that mean anything to me. 

On the left is 'Combat Belt Batman', the first ever action figure I owned and the first figure from the Batman: The Animated Series line and probably my most cherished action figure. I remember the day I got it (my fourth birthday party) and I remember my mum putting the accessories away for safekeeping (I lost them all very quickly). On the right is Robin (not sure what his full name was) and although it wasn't the 'standard' design from the cartoon (I wouldn't get that figure for another twelve years), I loved it dearly. I got that one for Christmas 1995. I played with these figures more than any other figure I ever owned.

On the left is 'Capture Net Superman' from the 'Superman The Animated Series' Line. I remember the day I got Capture Net Superman, I scoured all of Dublin looking for Superman figures from the cartoon, finally finding this one in town. The S logo got badly chipped as seen in the picture, and I tried to paint it back in, but the paint was too weak and just stained the figure yellow. I played with it, anyway. On the right is 'Heat Vision Superman' (I think) with a bit of modding. A common trick for toymakers and action figure lines was to put out a stream of different designs for the core character, to get kids to go back and buy the colourful alternate version. This often left me with a load of weird looking figures I got as presents that I didn't really know what to do with. I made use of the black-suited Superman and pretended that he was a youthful clone of Superman that was created when Superman was struck by lightning. Superman named this clone 'Electric Superman' or 'Ez' for short. They became partners. Little did I know, in the 90s there actually was a character called 'Electric Superman' in the comics, and Superman had a youthful clone (Superboy) around this time as well. 

(Left to Right: Comedian, Iron Man, Nite-Owl (still in the box), Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan)

Not really sure why I never took Nite-Owl or Rorschach out of the box. I think I just liked the boxes and wasn't that pushed about taking them out. Iron Man, Comedian and Doc Manhattan actually belong to my brother (who is also at the end of his toy-collecting days, which makes me feel old). 

Two identical Azrael figures from the classic 'Legends of the Dark Knight' line. Having no access to Knightfall comics as a kid, we always just referred to this figure as 'The Batman with no mouth'. Notice how I tried to give Azrael a new cape (it was lost years ago), using paper and a cape from another figure. Last Summer I found the figure on the left for a dollar at Toronto Fan Expo. I asked the guy if I could just buy the cape for 50 cents, but he made me buy the whole figure. In the background is the 'KnightsEnd' Azrael, the later, deadlier suit he used in his battle against the original Batman. I also got this at Fan Expo, for a dollar. Man, what an awesome place.

Robin and Nightwing. I bought the Robin on the left on eBay in 2008 and it cost something like €25 altogether. But I love it, because he's just such an interesting design. He's the only Robin figure from the animated line that got the proper yellow and black cape and even though the head sculpt looks like the character from the cartoon, the body is all wrong, with far too much detailing and the wrong belt. The reason for this is that the makers re-used the body from the 'Batman Returns' Robin figure (yes, they made a Robin figure, even though he wasn't in the film). On the right is Nightwing (Dick Grayson two years older), who once belonged to my 19-year old brother. I'm inclined to say he didn't play with it as much as I did. 

The Riddler and the Penguin having the Bants beside the two Supermen. These were the first villain figures I owned from the Batman The Animated Series line and they've really stood the test of time. Unfortunately for the Penguin, I lost his coat, found a replacement years later from a friend who didn't really want it, only to lose it again, just recently. 

Yeeearrgh! This is one of the kookier figures from the 'Legends of the Dark Knight' line. A pirate version of Two-Face. When I was a kid, I thought Two-Face was badass, and I desperately wanted the Batman Forever version of the character, to no avail. I was absolutely delighted when I got this figure even though it was so crazy and I played with it for years. In case you were wondering, Two-Face's left hand was originally a hook and a sword, but they both got snapped off. Years later, I got an animated series version of Two-Face and it was really badass and had two-guns...but I haven't seen it in six years.

The Batmobile from 'The New Batman Adventures' and the first Batmobile I ever owned. I got this the day of my communion in 1998. I got it in Forbidden Planet (which was on Dawson Street back then) and it was one of the greatest days of my life as a result. Twelve years later, my mum (who works in the Blood Bank in town) met a mother and her kid at work who were going out to Forbidden Planet because it was the boy's communion. That orange missile there went missing more times than I could count, because of carelessness. One time, it went missing for over two weeks, only for me to find out that it was stuck in the inside of the car. It also stopped firing properly for a while. My Dad and I unscrewed it and discovered that there was a bit of a cocktail stick stuck in the spring. It still works today.

The seating of the TNBA Batmobile was such that Batman and Robin had to sit back to back. I still thought this was awesome. I loved this so much that I used to assign specific functions to every button on the sticker panel as well as the other buttons that were located around the interior of the car. There were stickers that went on the outside of the car as well, but these were pretty pointless and I got rid of them pretty soon.

The very first Michael Keaton Batman figure from 1989. I bought this in Toronto in a comic shop for 5 dollars. He's sitting in the Batmobile from 1997's Batman & Robin, which I got for something like €2 in a school fair, a couple of years ago. I'd give anything to get the Batmobile from Batman Forever or Batman Returns. 

Another 'mobile I bought only a couple of years ago, from the animated show 'The Batman' (not a bad show; not a good show, but not a bad one) from a few years back. The figure in it is a Bruce-to-Batman figure from the same line. I also got this car at a school fair, for piss-cheap. I actually think it's pretty cool, because while it is fearsome and intimidating-looking, it's also fairly discreet and looks like it would be a car someone like Batman would actually drive. 

It also has pop-out guns on the sides of it which are pretty cool.

The Batwing from the Animated Series. Another eBay purchase, from just a couple of years ago. I think this is really cool and I really wish I'd owned it when I was younger. The only thing I don't like about it is the green glass (it was blue in the cartoon). This one also has the back-to-back seating of the TNBA Batmobile.

A load more figures. The brown guy on the left is Ducard (or the 'real' Ra's Al Ghul to those of us who've seen the ending of Batman Begins) and the green guy is a repaint of him. This was one of the last figure I broke my heart trying to find, only to find it months later for practically nothing. In front of the two Liam Neesons is a Bruce-to-Batman figure that doesn't really look like Christian Bale. An awesome Scarecrow is hanging back behind everyone. Notice a couple of Marvel figures in here. I used to have Spider-Man and Mysterio from the 90s animated series, but they got lost. The only remaining Spidey figures I have are from 2007's Spider-Man 3, which had a great line of affordable figures from the entire trilogy. We have Green Goblin around somewhere but in the mean-time, there's Symbiote Spidey, New Gobin and Venom. I love that Venom figure. He just looks so delightedly evil.

Lex Luthor and Superman's Robot from the 'Superman: Doomsday' animated film. I didn't really care for the design of Luthor in this film. Too much white. I love that they gave Superman a robot servant though. I always love the idea of Superman having robot servants in the Fortress of Solitude. 

An Indiana Jones figure I got in Disneyland, Florida. He came with a whip, a pistol, a flaming torch and an emerald encrusted sword. Only the whip and the torch survived. That pistol was really cool. Wolverine there is from some Marvel line and came with a comic that was set in the future. It's a pretty renowned X-Men story that I'm sure other people reading this will know.

This Wolverine came with a giant robot battlesuit. I also got this in Florida in 2001 after begging my Dad to get it for me on the subject that I pay him back. The battle suit was crappy and fell apart after a few years, but I only really wanted the Wolverine figure anyway.

The Superman Returns Clark-to-Superman figure. I'm really glad this figure was so easy to find, as it's awesome. Superman has a wig attached to a pair of glasses, a shirt/waistcoat, slacks and shoes as a disguise. It's no wonder no one knows he's really Clark Kent.

Lex Luthor from Superman Returns, looking impressively like Kevin Spacey. This one was a lot harder to find but once it did start showing up, you could get it pretty much anywhere. He's holding a tube of Kryptonite and also came with a Kryptonian Crystal that you could squeeze into it, as Luthor did in the movie. He also came with a missile blaster that shot out the same Kryptonite missile from the movie. 

This figure was just badass. It was from the 'Man of Steel' line from the mid nineties. It was called 'Anti-Kryptonite Superman' and was supposed to be a suit Superman wore to protect him from Kryptonite poisoning. You could take the helmet and the armour off. Funnily enough, the head sculpt of Superman looked an awful lot like Nicolas Cage who had been cast as Superman around this time (in a thankfully never-made Tim Burton film), which has made me suspicious as to whether or not the head sculpt was from a Superman Lives concept figure.

As I got older, I started taking better care of the accessories that came with figures. While a lot of them still manage to get lost, there's a lot of really cool stuff here. 

A repaint of the classic Animated Series Batmobile (from before TNBA). This was another eBay purchase that I bought in tandem with the Batwing. I really like this, but again the green detailing spoils it and that silly glow in the dark logo is annoying. Still glad I bought it, though.

Terry McGinnis/Batman Beyond sitting in the 'Bathammer', one of the stupider vehicles from the third act of 'Batman & Robin', designed solely to sell toys. This was another school fair purchase. I'd never spend any real money on something as crappy as this. The figure in it is another story.

This is the 'Tumbler' Batmobile from Batman Begins. I got this for €15 about a year after the movie had actually come out, and it's awesome. It only fits one figure (and it doesn't do the Batpod thing from 'The Dark Knight') but if you push that middle button at the back there, weapons spring out from the side. The other buttons are sound and light buttons, which are also really cool. I never actually bought the Batpod one from the sequel, because it was one of those things where Batman was forcibly stuck to the Batpod and couldn't be removed. I always hated toys like that as a kid, because it took away from the fun if you couldn't remove the figure from the vehicle.

Another wide shot of all the figures. That other Batmobile is from Batman Beyond and also belongs to my brother. I never liked it that much, because of all the ridiculous stickers. At the far, far back is the Movie Masters Dark Knight figure, which is awesome.

All in all, I can't see myself parting with most of these. Hopefully, I can store them away safely until I have somewhere really permanent to display them or until the point where and if I live to have kids or nephews or nieces who will cherish them as much as I did growing up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Walker, Texas Ranger is Exactly the Same as Batman

Some of you might know that I have something of an affinity for the Chuck Norris Phenomenon that kind of died a death in 2006. Unlike most, however, I still get regular, nigh-daily pleasure out of this Internet wonder and his supposed omnipotence, rumoured hyper-fertility and his back-catalogue of hilariously cheesy action movies.

However, the Bearded One's biggest claim to fame was Walker, Texas Ranger; a stupendously distilled version of the Chuck Norris Experience. The show had a suspiciously similar premise to Chuck Norris' coup de grace 'Lone Wolf McQuade' (a.k.a. 'The Funniest Film Ever Made') in that it starred Chuck Norris as a member of the elite law enforcement agency The Texas Rangers who was always adverse to fighting alongside a partner until his superiors forced one on him. The show combined typical detective-show elements with martial arts that just seemed to get more and more insane(ly awesome) as the years went on. And Chuck Norris himself sang the fucking theme tune.

For eight mighty years, families across the world were graced once a week with a 45-minute television experience of sublime, action-packed badness. Because it was the 1990s, there was almost a mandate that the show get more and more outlandish, with weirder episodes showing Walker going up against ghosts and having the ability to communicate with animals. The strangely watchable show is unmissable, brainless hangover television.

But the best thing about it is that it's pretty much exactly the same as Batman. 

Most of the main characters in the show have a direct correlation to the main characters in most Batman stories. In some cases, this is just a minor coincidence owing to the fact that most action/detective stories generally have the same group of stereotypes (the cypher, the sage, the love interest and the comic relief), but then there's completely WTF stuff that is either flat-out plagiarised or an hilarious coincidence).

Let's take a look at the cast of supporting characters and who they compare to,

James 'Jimmy' Trivette = Robin, The Boy Wonder

Trivette is Walker's partner and often joins Walker for the climactic fight scenes. Alas, he's not quite as tough as Walker and often leads to the bad guys getting away. This is quite similar to what happens with Robin in a lot of Batman stories. Trivette is also really good at doing some Computer Work! to help in a given case, as Robin is often known to do, especially in stories from the last thirty-odd years. Similar to Dick Grayson's past as a circus-acrobat, before Trivette was a crime-fighting Texan, he played football for the Dallas Cowboys. And when it comes to crime-fighting, Trivette is often shown to be something of a novice compared to the infinitely experienced Walker, who knows everything and can do everything, much like the difference between Robin and Batman. Trivette's greatest ability is his ability to answer phones and make phonecalls, which he is seen doing at least five times per episode. Sometimes, he doesn't even leave the office, because he's so busy making phonecalls, so in a way, you could also compare him to Oracle who can be excused for doing this, because she's in a wheelchair.

C.D. Jones = Alfred and Commissioner Gordon

Imagine if you somehow rolled Alfred Pennyworth and Commisioner Gordon and removed all of their wit, steely determination and seriousness and replaced all of this with Kentucky Fried Chicken. The resulting character would be C.D. Jones, the lovably ridiculous comic relief character who appeared in the first five years of Walker. C.D. Much like Jim Gordon, C.D. spent many years on the force (although Gordon was never a Texas Ranger) and despite his old age, he still has a lot of fight in him. Like Alfred, he always has a glib remark or a comment to make (although unlike Alfred, they're never witty; just retarded) and he's an adventurous cook whose culinary experiments are often too intense and foul-smelling for the other characters to appreciate. C.D. tragically died in one of the later seasons, as Alfred and Jim Gordon are sometimes known to do in various retconned stories. 

Alex Cahill = Rachel Dawes

Alex is tricky, because up until the Christopher Nolan movies, Batman never really had a Lois Lane; a character who was very much on the side of justice and also wanted to have tickle-fights with him. Nevertheless, Alex pretty much is the precursor to Rachel Dawes in that she is a "Single-White-Female-Lawyer District Attorney". She initially scolds Walker for his harsh methods, only to change her tune when his manliness melts her cold heart. Much like Rachel Dawes, Alex Cahill is played by a terrible actress. 

Sydney & Gage = Batgirl & Nightwing

In the later seasons, Chuck Norris was well into his sixties and his character was firmly established as being the toughest, most unstoppable sumbitch on television and he already had a serious girlfriend in Alex, so there really wasn't an awful lot they could do with him as a character anymore. But the show was successful enough that it had to go on, so it was decided to bring in two younger Texas Rangers, Sydney Cooke and Francis Gage who unsurprisingly engage in a tortuous back-and-forth exchange of "Will they, won't they?" for the entirety of their two years on the show. This is much the same as Batgirl/Oracle and Nightwing both on the animated series and in the comic book series of Batman. Similar to Walker, lazy writers often don't bother trying to write about Batman himself because "Everything has already happened to him!!" (or rather, Warner Bros. don't want one of their most cherished brands tampered with too much) so instead they just develop and explore his sidekicks, to the point of giving them new costumes, new superhero identities and even to the point of introducing entirely new sidekicks. Also, just like Batgirl and Nightwing, Sydney and Gage never were shown truly embracing a romantic relationship, which is why the good people of the Internet have used them for hundreds of raunchy Slash Fan-Fiction stories. 

Now that we've explored the supporting cast, let's look at the big man himself:

Cordell Walker = Batman

Throughout the series, Walker is a sullen, brooding character who is rarely shown taking a break from crime-fighting. For some reason, he never needs a warrant to search anywhere (admittedly I'm not up on how much paperwork the Texas Rangers have to do) and he is often seen throwing the first punch. Walker rarely resorts to lethal force (although that's not to say he never kills anyone, which unlike Batman, he does fairly often) and usually only uses his gun to stun or disarm his enemies, similar to the way Batman uses his batarang. 

Like Batman, Walker's 'look' is iconic and while he does wear different clothes all the time, they're usually a variation of the same shirt/jeans/cowboy hat combo just as Batman's different costumes all usually rely on the same symbols and features. Just like Batman, women find Walker incredibly sexy, even though he looks completely ridiculous. Similar to the Bat-symbol, Walker is never seen without his Texas Ranger badge except when he's off-duty. Speaking of off-duty, much like Batman has a secret identity, Walker regards his status as a Texas Ranger as need-to-know and in the rare occasions where he's off-duty and amongst people he doesn't already know, he keeps his occupation a secret. 

When most people think of Batman, they think of him using his fists to fight crime. Unsurprisingly, this is what an awful lot of people think of when they think of Chuck Norris and Walker, Texas Ranger. In every single episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, there is an insanely awesome fight sequence of epic proportions, often with completely ridiculous 'sonic boom' sound effects.

Unfortunately, in spite of how well-known Batman's abilities as a martial artist are, practically none of his other-media appearances have done this justice with most Batman movies showing Batman awkwardly shuffling around, unable to turn his head or (in the case of the Nolan movies) picking off his enemies stealthily so fast and finishing them off  faster than the camera can keep track. However, the sublime videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum is so similar to Walker, Texas Ranger that it's actually frustrating that you can't unlock Chuck Norris as a playable character.

Now, most of you are probably saying "Most of these similarities are just coincidental and in keeping with the tropes of any action story". Here's where the real shocker comes in. 

When Walker was just a young boy, he watched as his parents were ruthlessly killed in front of him. The crime went unsolved for years. This trauma was what inspired him to become a Texas Ranger. In the third season episode 'Final Justice', Walker comes face-to-face with his parents killer, and this happens:

Look familiar? That's because an almost identical scene takes place in Batman 1989, although in that film, Jack Napier plunges into a vat of chemicals instead of being rescued. Hmm...

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.