Member the games you used to play? We member. The basement at the Hardcore Gamer office has a section known as the Crust Room, with an old grey couch and a big old CRT TV. All the classic systems are down there collecting dust, so in an effort to improve the cleanliness of our work space, we dust off these old consoles every so often and put an old game through its paces, just to make sure everything stays in working order. We even have a beige computer with a floppy disk drive.
Superheroes may have originated in the comics, but they’ve been popular across multiple forms of entertainment media for decades with mixed results. Superman 64 and X-Men on the NES are some of the most atrocious video game offenders that come to mind, but there have been quite a few good superhero games across multiple console generations. Batman has always been a superhero who has (mostly) translated well to cinema and games, but it was Batman: Arkham Asylum that was not only the best Batman at the time, but also redesigned the template for superhero games which was repeated in its multiple sequels. The influence of its gameplay can be seen in other games such as Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Spider-Man.
Arkham Asylum begins with the caped crusader apprehending the Joker, sending him to the titular asylum where he belongs. Arkham is currently housing many of Joker’s goons after a fire at Blackgate Prison. Being the world’s greatest detective, Batman suspects something fishy going on and thinks Joker may have allowed himself to be caught. Batman goes to Arkham and his suspicions are confirmed after Harley Quinn hijacks the security system and Commissioner Gordon is captured. The Joker has bombs all over Gotham City that he threatens to use if anyone comes in Arkham after him, so Batman is left to deal with inmates running the asylum all by himself.
The asylum works well as a setting for this type of game. The large asylum offers a good amount of open world freedom, but structured enough to guide the player through a somewhat linear story progression. In addition to Joker’s goons, many of the super villains notorious for terrorizing Gotham happen to be conveniently locked up for a star studded line up of boss fights, and since the inmates are running this asylum, they tend to be in areas that are thematic matches for their diabolical trademarks.
It’s no secret that part of the appeal of donning the cowl and cape is to beat up a bunch of criminals and Arkham Asylum went the extra mile to make combat feel befitting of a superhero. Batman has always excelled in unarmed combat and Arkham Asylum did a fantastic job of translating his combat prowess into something that spectacular to behold and easy to execute. Whether he was executing counter attacks or dodging weapons, Batman could effortlessly move from opponent to opponent before they had a chance to attack. The mechanics allowed the player to flawless execute each of his brawler moves intuitively, making them feel as though they were unstoppable when outnumbered against a dozen thugs. Batman is also known to prowl in the shadows and hunt criminals unseen, using fear as a weapon. This also factored into the game as Batman could travel unseen, using his grappling gun and gliding abilities to move overhead in the rafters of Arkham. He could then swoop down and string up an enemy, leaving them hanging upside as a warning to others though this tactic seems more befitting of a spider than a bat.
A certain yellow rodent may try to claim this title for himself, but Batman is called the world’s greatest detective. As such Rocksteady would be remiss if they didn’t include any of Batman’s crime solving skills to complement his crime fighting. Using his finely honed detective mind and millions of dollars worth of high tech equipment, Batman is able to visually change his surroundings to where they reveal clues about what really happened before he arrived. This can be useful in figuring out what to do next in order to progress the story or find the truth behind some trickery done by Arkham inmates such as Scarecrow.
As Batman explores Arkham looking for Joker he learns that has been behind a more diabolical plot than he imagined. One of the doctors at Arkham Asylum, Penelope Young, has been developing a Titan formula, which is a more powerful version of the Venom formula that gives Bane his monstrous strength. The goal of Titan was to make patients physically tougher so that they can survive more intense therapies. Apparently the ethical treatment guidelines laid out by the APA in the 20th century aren’t exactly adhered to at Arkham Asylum, but that’s a different topic for a different day. Joker was bankrolling this project but not because he wants the patients to survive outdated treatment methods like lobotomies and trepanning, but because he wants to build an army of superhuman henchmen and apparently the old fashioned mix of steroids and PCP just wasn’t getting the job done.
When Batman: Arkham Asylum was first announced it did generate a lot of anticipation, which may have been augmented due to its release happening on the heels of the film The Dark Knight. The environment and atmosphere recreated the feel of the darker graphic novels and good Batman movies while the mechanics just made it a fun game to play. Exploring Arkham Asylum was an enjoyable adventure where it was always interesting to see how the developers incorporated traits of each supervillain into the design of their lair to feel like you were walking into their domain. Boss fights were varied against each foe which kept things from getting stale. Scarecrow’s nightmare levels were especially enjoyable as it allowed players to explore a more fantastical environment that wasn’t constrained by being grounded in reality. The Titan formula did play into some mechanical encounters as well such as Poison Ivy’s rampaging plants. Though one disappointment with the Titan formula’s implementation is they didn’t secure a performance by Vanilla Ice to coincide with the final boss fight.
Batman: Arkham Asylum was arguably the strongest superhero game released at the time. It generated several sequels across platforms and mobile devices, the most noteworthy being Arkham City, Arkham Origins, Arkham Knight and Arkham Origins: Blackgate. Many would argue that Arkham City or Arkham Knight are better games and these arguments do have merit, but Arkham Asylum is what kickstarted one of the best series of superhero games in history. A remastered version is available in Batman: Return to Arkham, but it’s one of the more questionable HD remasters around and if possible it’s best to stick with the original PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 version.
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