We love Batman because he’s a multifaceted superhero. He’s a kung-fu master with a cool costume and an arsenal of fancy toys. He’s a billionaire playboy. He’s arguably the world’s greatest detective. And most of all, he’s an orphan with a mountain of trauma who takes it out on the criminals of Gotham night after night.
Plenty of Batman comics, movies and TV shows have explored the many sides of the Caped Crusader, but the video game realm has been a very different story. In fact, it’s only recently that the Batman games have really hit on the ideal Batman formula. Let’s look back at Batman’s long, if not always glamorous, history in games and why it took so long for developers to truly put us in the Dark Knight’s shoes.
The Early Batman Games
Compared to heroes like Superman and Spider-Man, Batman made a relatively late debut on the video game scene. British publisher Ocean Software was the first to bring the Dark Knight to gaming, starting with an obscure 1986 game simply titled Batman, which was released on home computers like the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad PCW.
The very first Batman game is surprisingly different from the ones that would follow, as it’s more of an isometric exploration game than an action platformer. The game tasks players with dodging obstacles, finding the various pieces of the Batcraft and rescuing Robin. The rudimentary, low color graphics weren’t much to write home about even at the time, but the game certainly had its fans.
Ocean followed up Batman two years later with Batman: The Caped Crusader, an action-adventure title pitting Batman against the Joker and Penguin in two distinct chapters. The game is mostly notable for its attempt to mimic the look and feel of comic book panels. Think of it as an early prototype for 1995’s Comix Zone.
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Batman at the Movies
For many Bat-fans of a certain age, Sunsoft’s Batman: The Video Game was their first chance to take control of the Dark Knight in a video game. Based on the 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton, the game tasks players with jumping and punching their way through a series of levels in pursuit of the Joker. It even threw in a number of other DC Comics villains like Killer Moth, Electrocutioner and Deadshot, for good measure.
Batman: The Video Game was released on several consoles with varying levels of graphical fidelity. But it’s the NES version that remains the most iconic, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that the system’s limited color palette forced Batman to be depicted as a neon-purple avenger of the night.
Unfortunately, jumping and punching is about all players were asked to do, and the game quickly built a reputation for being the most difficult NES title this side of BattleToads. However, Ocean Software released its own movie tie-in game on home computers, one that added more variety in the form of a Batmobile level and even a puzzle where players have to figure out which consumer products are tainted with Joker’s Smilex.
Sunsoft followed up that game with 1991’s Batman: Return of the Joker. Despite that title, Return of the Joker isn’t a sequel, but rather a more comic book-influenced game inspired by platforming shooters like Contra.
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Given the success of Batman: The Video Game, it should come as no surprise that 1992’s Batman Returns got some video game tie-ins of its own. In fact, no fewer than eight different versions of Batman Returns were released by various publishers, ranging from Konami’s arcade-style brawler on the SNES to Sega’s platforming games on the Genesis and other consoles. But in pretty much every case, the basic formula was the same – move from point A to B and beat up the Penguin’s goons in between.
The Batman Returns approach set the standard for most of the ‘90s, with more new waves of Batman games hitting for both 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin. Acclaim’s Batman Forever games broke new ground by using motion capture to create digital sprites, similar to the tech powering the Mortal Kombat games.
Then there’s 1994’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin, inspired by the hit animated series. While the Sega versions weren’t a hit with critics, the SNES version was easily the best and most well-rounded Batman game up to that point. It features a novel mechanic allowing players to strategically choose which Bat-gadgets to employ in each level. And those colorful graphics showed just how far Batman games had come in ten years.
The Dark Knight’s New Highs and Lows
While the ‘90s certainly gave us our fill of side-scrolling action games featuring the Caped Crusader, there’s really only so much developers can do with that format. It was only with the advent of newer console generations and more technically ambitious Batman games that fans got to see new sides of the iconic hero. Mind you, not that the results were always pretty.
The highlight in this era was easily 2001’s Batman: Vengeance, another offshoot of Batman: The Animated Series. Taking advantage of the horsepower of the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, Vengeance offers a full 3D take on the iconic Animated Series art style. It also boasts a far more complex story than any Batman game before it, complete with many actors from the series reprising their roles. Vengeance augments its action and stealth sequences with a first-person mode that allows players to unleash Batman’s many gadgets in the field. The controls weren’t quite up to Metal Gear Solid levels, but it was a start.
Vengeance also spawned a loose sort of sequel in 2003’s Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu. That game’s main claim to fame is the titular villain, a completely new character created by DC’s Jim Lee. Let’s just say Sin Tzu never really caught on with fans.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there was 2003’s Batman: Dark Tomorrow. On paper Dark Tomorrow sounded like everything DC fans could hope for in a Batman game – an ambitious, open-world action game featuring a heavily comic book-influenced take on the Dark Knight and his supporting cast. But in practice, the terrible controls and tedious missions dashed any and all hopes. Even now, Dark Tomorrow is widely regarded as one of the worst superhero games ever released, if not one the worst games in general.
This era is also notable for giving us what is, to date, the last video game based on a Batman movie. 2005’s Batman Begins is a direct adaptation of the movie, with most of the cast reprising their roles. The game deserves some credit for attempting to shake up the usual beat-em-up formula with a generous dose of stealth and even a unique “fear” mechanic. Unfortunately, the game received middling reviews, and ultimately proved to be another nail in the coffin of movie superhero games.
Even now, Dark Tomorrow is widely regarded as one of the worst superhero games ever released, if not one the worst games in general.
LEGO Batman Opens Up Gotham
Bat-fans may not have gotten a new game based on 2008’s The Dark Knight, but they did get something even better that year – the first entry in the wildly successful LEGO Batman series. In LEGO Batman: The Video Game, developer Traveller’s Tales applied the same basic formula honed in previous games like LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Indiana Jones – a mix of cutesy combat and basic puzzle solving, topped off with dozens of playable characters.
What made LEGO Batman stand out from its predecessors was the fact that it wasn’t adapting the Batman movies, but instead told an original story inspired equally by the Batman comics, the animated series and the Tim Burton films. The game even features an entire second campaign putting players in the shoes of Batman’s rogues.
2012’s LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes broke further ground, both by being the first LEGO game to feature voice acting and by introducing an open world version of Gotham City. As if that weren’t enough, the game added in a number of Justice League heroes and villains, paving the way for more recent LEGO DC games like LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham and LEGO DC Super-Villains.
Welcome to Arkham Asylum
If Dark Tomorrow utterly failed to give gamers the ultimate Batman experience it promised, there would eventually be another. You might say Dark Tomorrow floundered so Arkham Asylum could soar.
2009’s Arkham Asylum introduced a new take on Batman and his rogues, one that drew equally from contemporary comic book storylines like Batman: Hush, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies and Batman: The Animated Series. Not a bad list of ingredients with which to build the ultimate Batman game.
Arkham Asylum finally did away with the linear, action-heavy approach of most previous Batman titles, instead taking full advantage of the titular prison compound to create a Metroidvania-style adventure that slowly opens up as Batman improves his gadgets and abilities. The combat drew from games like Assassin’s Creed, allowing Batman to take on groups of enemies with well-timed strikes and parries and making stealth and the grapnel gun both essential tools of the trade.
And that’s not to say Arkham Asylum is all about combat. The game broke new ground by making Batman’s detective skills as important as his fists, whether that involves dealing with the many hazards of Arkham or scrounging up those dozens of pesky Riddler trophies.
All that, plus a deep storyline bringing together many iconic Batman villains. That story continued to grow and evolve in unexpected directions in sequels like 2011’s Arkham City and 2015’s Arkham Knight. The Arkham series tells a story even the comics rarely touch on – what happens when Batman and Joker’s rivalry reaches its inevitable endgame?
Those sequels also improved and expanded on the gameplay formula. Arkham City gives players a massive, walled-off section of Gotham they could explore at their leisure. Arkham Knight turns the entirety of the city into your personal playground, while also adding the Batmobile to the mix. And 2013’s Arkham Origins also… exists.
In short, the Arkham games finally made good on a decades-old challenge by making gamers truly feel like the Dark Knight. But there was still one more hurdle left to cross.
Telltale Reinvents the Batman Mythos
The Arkham series succeeds in blending the best elements of the comics, movies and animated shows into one fully realized whole. But what about a game series that brings something wholly new to the table? That’s where Telltale Games comes in.
2016’s Batman: The Telltale Series is a rare example of a DC game where action takes a distant backseat to story. Following the model of previous Telltale adventure game releases, this Batman game is all about solving mysteries and making choices that often impact the plot in significant, far-reaching ways.
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Batman: The Telltale Series is also notable for distancing itself from the source material. It doesn’t look like any Batman comic or movie that came before, and the story certainly doesn’t follow the usual formula. Over the course of the original five episodes and the sequel series, Batman: The Enemy Within, players are introduced to a number of shocking twists that upend the traditional mythos. The Waynes are revealed to be corrupt billionaires in league with Carmine Falcone. Major characters are either killed off or undergo startling transformations. Even the Joker is profoundly different in this universe, with Batman himself having a direct hand in his origin story.
If the Arkham games defined what it means to be Batman in a video game, the Telltale games showed us a vision of Gotham that could only exist in video game form. The Caped Crusader has truly come into his own as a video game icon.
Which of these many Batman games is your personal favorite? Sound off in the comments below. And for more on The Batman, brush up on the history of corruption in Gotham and how Catwoman became Batman’s greatest love, and then see our full ranking of every movie Batsuit.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.