Superheroes are big business now. There is a staggering amount of comic book films coming in the next few years. Everyone seemingly wants to get involved with the “shared universe” trend. Video games based on these characters are nearly as plentiful as well. With each new year comes new titles featuring both iconic, longstanding characters and new faces from recent print hits. It’s also easy to forget that, a few decades ago, these exact concepts were incredibly niche. Superheroes were never as mainstream as they are now. Of course, there are a few exceptions.
Batman is one of those. Ever since the Caped Crusader first appeared in Detective Comics #27 way back in 1939, he’s enjoyed a nearly unparalleled popularity. People from all walks of life can recognize and appreciate the longstanding defender of Gotham. He’s so iconic, Fox found success last year when they premiered their James Gordon focused show. You don’t need to know all about Batman to enjoy the character or the lore. He’s simply such a compelling and enjoyable figure. Really, it goes without saying that he’s found success across multiple forms. The list of live action representations is lengthy, as are the animated features and memorabilia. Batman has thrived in the print form for over 70 years. He’s also the lead of some of the best reviewed superhero focused games in history. Surely this isn’t surprising. If Batman can dominate every other form, virtual entertainment doesn’t have to be an exception.
Before the stellar Arkham series redefined what makes a good superhero game, the World’s Greatest Detective was stuck investigating why he couldn’t get a worthy adaptation. Okay, perhaps that’s a little harsh. With over 20 years of gaming history, it’s a given that Batman would get a handful of stinkers. The majority of those were based on the films that popularized the 90s. Video games that spawn out of movies are very rarely good, and not even a legendary character can avoid this pit. These were honestly just drops in the bucket though. Batman was never defined by the quality of his interactive entertainment. Even if the game was garbage, Batman never stopped being cool. He’ll take his punches and come back as always.
It did take a while before Batman games really made a big mark however. That’s saying something too when you consider that Batman’s first video game came in 1986. Unlike the character, who has evolved and grown so much over the years, his interactive adventures mostly focused on the brand for sales. A lot of these games were side-scrolling beat ups, which were very prevalent during the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit eras. Granted, putting Batman in the template makes perfect sense. The guy is a superhero after all. Yet that doesn’t actually make a notable game. Surely fans would be all about them, but everyone else had enough options to put their attention elsewhere.
This definitely didn’t last, obviously. Batman games are incredibly popular nowadays. What’s especially interesting about all of this is that these games are firmly planted into two categories: cartoony Lego Batman, and brooding Arkham Batman. Seriously, if you want a Batman game post-2008, these are your big options. You know what’s cool though? They’re both awesome. Legos are unbelievably fun and their games have a great reputation for quality, so giving them the Batman edge was a brilliant form of synergy. Of course these entries appeal to kids, but adults can have a lot of fun with them too.
The Arkham series is something else entirely. Arkham Knight, which came out last week. is the newest critically praised installment, but already these games have made their indelible mark. Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2009 showed people what a really great superhero game could be. It was probably one of the most honest Batman adaptations to ever exist. The entire tone was aggressively dark and disturbing, taking legendary characters and revolutionizing them for a completely different medium. They were incredibly violent too which is exactly what you’d want from a Batman adventure. You fight your way through a lot of henchmen and go toe-to-toe with villains that people consider to be the finest ever created. This was the series Batman deserved, and surely the entire world was on board. Batman: Arkham City, Asylum’s sequel, is the most critically acclaimed superhero game to ever exist.
I love Batman. Seriously, who doesn’t? I also love video games, which I hope you would know by now. However, these two have barely combined throughout my history. My experience is so brief, I have yet to even touch a single Arkham game. Their high quality is absolutely not lost on me and all intentions to change this are there. It just hasn’t happened yet. The only two Batman games I’ve ever played are the Game Boy version of Batman Forever and Batman Begins on the PlayStation 2. With both of these being games adapted from movies, I’m sure you can see how my interpretation can get warped. The former I had as a kid, and I absolutely could not figure out how to get through the first door. This game was entirely three bad guys and running into a wall for me. As for the latter, it just was not anything special. It was fun at first, but I got bored after a while. Since then I haven’t gone back, despite repeated recommendations to do so.
As a character, Batman is immortal. There will always be a new character in print to wear the persona like a badge of honor, especially when Bruce Wayne isn’t around. The list of actors willing to don the cowl in live action will never run out. People who claim that characters like Iron Man and Wolverine can’t get recast only need to look here to find out how wrong they are. The Arkham series proves that Batman can absolutely dominate virtual entertainment as well. Now that people know what makes a great superhero game, you can bet that the Dark Knight will continue on consoles for many more years to come. You don’t have to be a massively wealthy man with plans for every contingency to know that.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.