10 years ago, the state of licensed games was abysmal. The PS2 era ushered in endless movie and TV tie-in games, some of which were good, most were awful. And then the industry pivoted these efforts to mobile; as the iPhone blew up, licensed holders realized mobile games were quicker and easier to make and the free-to-play model could increase revenue quicker. Then along came Batman: Arkham Asylum.
It was 2009, the MCU was just being set into motion and the Batman fans were riding the high of The Dark Knight when Arkham Asylum came seemingly out of nowhere to surpass the expectations of critics and fans alike. Rocksteady was an unknown developer that came out swinging to deliver a new take on the world's greatest detective. A mix of the Animated Series cast with a grittier aesthetic that was still vibrant and colorful compared to the Nolan take, Arkham Asylum took '90s Batman and made it modern. It also happened to be an incredible stealth-action game.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is not just a one of the best superhero games, it is one of the best games ever made. And it changed gaming forever. In honor of its 10th anniversary, we are going to celebrate Rocksteady's masterpiece and discuss why it was so influential.
If there is one thing we've seen games lift from Batman: Arkham Asylum it's the revolutionary combat system. Batman zips from one enemy to another using his fists and iconic arsenal in a combat that feels finely tuned and expressive. The system is intuitive but forgiving. While it dissuades mashing with the counter indicator, it prioritizes animation and emphasizes that the player wants to look and feel like Batman. What starts off as a simple two button system slowly gets more complicated — and more dynamic — over the course of gameplay.
Games like Shadow of Mordor, which started as a Batman game, Marvel's Spider-man, and Sleeping Dogs take this system and tweak it to fit their characters and worlds. It's become a go-to style of combat for open world action games that still hasn't worn out its welcome.
Forgiving and Evocative Stealth
Since 2009, stealth games have by and large became more forgiving and accessible. The Splinter Cell and Thief series' were only for the hardest of the hardcore. Before the Dishonored series and 2016's Hitman brought fun, creative stealth to console players, we had Arkham Asylum.
Like the combat, the stealth system was tailor made to give players the sense of embodying Batman. As a human superhero, weakness to weapons grounds Batman, and as a player it forces you to hide in the shadows until it's time to risk that takedown. As you swing from gargoyle to gargoyle it becomes a stealth game about timing, momentum and empowerment. Once again the game opens up its toolset as the player continues, as you wait for the goons to trigger your traps while you skulk in the shadows. This balance of vulnerability and power is what makes Arkham Asylum one of the best stealth games of all time.
Translated Metroidvania Design to 3D
Batman: Arkham Asylum was certainly not the first game to translate the structure of a Metroid or Castlevania game to 3D. The original Metroid Prime preceded it by many years. But the way you progress by gaining new abilities that allow access to new parts of the map is present in Arkham Asylum. This non-linear sense of progression through the world would only be further popularized by the Dark Souls series in the following years.
This design structure suited the story and premise. While we still see many games chasing the scope of The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, Arkham Asylum was an early mainstream example of the possibility space of a dense, but compact open world where the objective is to figure out how to navigate the environment, not just run from one objective marker to the next.
Set the Blueprint For the Modern Superhero Game
2018's Spider-Man would not have been possible without the Arkham franchise. Arkham Asylum specifically proved that superhero games can be original in their storytelling and gameplay in the AAA space. You see the roots of Arkham Asylum's combat in both Spider-Man and the upcoming Avengers game. Each of these games have the narrative ambition to tell their own new story. Arkham Asylum was a testament to the fact that comic book fans and gamers want to see original storytelling in games, not just a rehash of the last two movies that came out.
Introduced a Generation to The Animated Series Cast
There's plenty of reasons why Batman: Arkham Asylum was important to video games as a medium. But to Batman fans, and young people who grew up on the Nolan Batman movies, this was an expansion of what that universe could be. The incredible voice cast starring Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively are the best of the best at the top of their game. To many who grew up on the Animated Series Conroy is Batman; Hamill is the Joker. This game and its sequels introduced a younger generation to the Bat family of the '90s Saturday mornings and gave these characters one last hurrah for nostalgic fans.