One of the biggest criticisms aimed at games is that they can’t do licensed IPs justice. It’s been a problem since game developing was in its’ infancy – even being one of the primary causes with the video game crash of 1983 and the industry has struggled with it ever since.
There have been a few bright lights more recently: Peter Jackson’s King Kong was one of the better received launch titles for the Xbox 360, and 2018’s Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 received several game of the year awards. The latter though – it would be fair to say – owes most of its’ positives and plaudits to the game featured in this article.
Batman: Arkham Asylum released the week of 24th August 2009 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Also that week Calvin Harris released his second album Ready for the Weekend, and Whitney Houston released her last. It was the only major release in the gaming world that week.
Arkham Asylum was set in its’ own universe away from all other Batman ones, opening with you – as Batman already rather than Bruce Wayne – delivering the Joker to the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. You question quietly how easy it was this time to capture your archenemy, but only briefly, instead more relieved that he is off the streets of Gotham.
Things quickly turn sour though as you realise all along it was the Jokers plan to get caught and be brought to Arkham. He’s teamed up with the asylum’s worst inhabitants to plot one big escape party and put Batman out of commission once and for-all.
What follows is one of Batman’s worst nights in recent memory, but also one of our favourite all-time games. Within minutes of the Joker opening all the cells and releasing the inmates Batman is running into the likes of Victor Zsasz, Poison Ivy and Bane. But my personal favourite was the run-ins with the Scarecrow.
It all starts fairly innocuously with Batman entering an elevator only to be greeted by another message from the Joker. Batman coughs but players quickly think nothing more of it as when the lift stops a group of asylum workers are having weird hallucinations. A shadow on the wall alludes to a sinister being, but who could it be?
Turn the next corner though and you see Commissioner Gordon lying dead against the wall. Batman tries to call Barbara Gordon – in this universe in her Oracle moniker – to tell her the news of her father and apologise for not saving her, but then the hallway you are walking down starts crumbling and turning in on itself.
The door at the end of the corridor leads to the morgue, but as you reach the tables, there is nothing on them. You think you must have taken a wrong turn and head back to the door to the morgue.
Upon opening it again, you end up in the same room, but this time with body bags on the tables. The first one contains your fathers reanimated corpse; the second one, your mother. But opening the third bag shows you who has been behind this all along; The Scarecrow.
What follows is a rather generic stealth segment as players try to avoid the gaze of a giant Scarecrow – players are under the influence of Scarecrows mind-altering noxious gas – but it is the build-up to these that make these sections stand out so vividly even now. It’s the constant fear of knowing they will happen again but not having any control over when. They helped illuminate Batman’s horror undercurrents in a game that wasn’t afraid to throw in a few jump scares.
It is tough to talk about these games without referring to you as Batman, as the game plays tricks on you as the player as well. On another occasion the game appears to crash, only to restart again at the beginning of the game. But this time, it is the Joker dropping Batman off at Arkham Asylum in an alteration to the opening scene. Quickly you realise that once again the Scarecrow has been pumping the gas into air vents.
But perhaps the best asset is in the revolutionary combat mechanics. It was by no means the first game to assign different strength attacks to specific buttons, but its’ free-flowing elements and large range of enemies that all had a unique weakness has been adopted countless times since.
When it worked at its’ full potential, the combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum felt more like a rhythm game than an action game; timing attacks and blocks became second nature like finger placements on a Guitar Hero controller, and knowing which attack to do as soon as you saw an enemy with a shield or an electric baton made the difference between a simplistic fight and a much tougher one.
Being an open-world game meant the developers could fill it with collectibles and easter eggs. And boy did they! Collectibles were tied into the appearance of Edward Nigma, better known as The Riddler. He had hidden hundreds of Riddler Trophies dotted throughout the asylum to collect. Some were simply hidden, others required puzzle solving, but all were good fun to collect. It was one of the few games I bothered to collect all the collectibles.
Arkham Asylum was an instant success and spawned two direct sequels and an ‘awkward’ prequel. Batman: Arkham Origins was developed as the third main game in the series but wanted to explore a younger Batman and his initial meeting with The Joker. Developed by a different team – WB Games Montreal and not Rocksteady – it included multiplayer for the first time in the franchise. It tried to create a new and unique multiplayer mode but didn’t quite execute it, and servers quickly emptied.
Add to this the technical issues across all platforms including save corruptions (which I was a victim of), unending ‘falling’ into the game world, and missions not completing as intended. WB Games Montreal even had the audacity to come out and say they weren’t planning on fixing any more issues within the game, and instead were focusing on DLC for the game. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with gamers who are all agreed that this entry is the weakest in the series.
But which is the best out of the other three? Many would say that 2011’s Batman: Arkham City is the best instalment but for me, the original has always been the best. It was unlike any superhero game that had come before and showed how licenced IPs could be handled. It wasn’t afraid to cram the game full of adversaries for Batman to deal with, but having the might of veteran writer Paul Dini devise an original story made sure that each character received the right amount of airtime. Whether that was learning the ropes with Victor Zsasz, being hunted by Killer Croc in the sewers or those iconic Scarecrow moments, each of them had the perfect interaction with Batman.
Batman: Arkham Asylum borrowed heavily from other games including Bioshock for its’ storytelling, Metroid for its exploration, Metal Gear Solid for its stealth, and many more to create a game that I cite as one of my all-time favourites. So much so that in the age of the ever-increasing backlog, it’s a game I have completed multiple times. Not least for the moments featuring the Scarecrow, who after this quickly became my favourite Batman adversary and whose sections in the game are some of my all-time favourite levels.
If you have yet to try Arkham Asylum fear not, as the game is available remastered on the Xbox One in one of two collections. Return to Arkham features remasters of both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City which were both originally on the Xbox 360 and priced at £39.99 or the Arkham Collection throws in 2015’s Arkham Knight for £49.99. Better still if you are a Games Pass subscriber, then you can enjoy it through that as well.
It’s hard to believe that Batman: Arkham Asylum is ten years old as it is a game I can even remember buying, but what are your memories of Batman’s night from hell? Which one in the series is your favourite? As always let us know in the comments below.