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Press L1 to Save Gotham

The ‘Batman: Arkham’ series proved that IP-based games didn’t simply have to mirror the story lines of movies or comics, with developers instead building out more realized worlds with their own pocket realities and discrete stakes

Daniel Zalkus

The Caped Crusader is back: On March 4, Robert Pattinson will become the seventh actor to don the cowl in a live-action film with The Batman. To prepare, join The Ringer this week as we navigate the grime of Gotham and explore the history of one of the most recognizable superheroes in the comic-book landscape.

Today on the PlayStation Store, for the price of one newly released title, you can get three of the best superhero games ever made. I’d encourage you to do so, not because the Batman: Arkham series is canon, but because the Batman: Arkham series is riotously fun and emotionally impactful in a way that has little to do with the Batman movies, or even the Batman comics.

That said, Arkham did effectively nerf the concept of a movie tie-in game. Since the early 1980s, we’ve been able to anticipate two things to accompany the release of a blockbuster film: a collectible McDonald’s toy and a video game with a short shelf life that borrowed heavily from the movie’s plot. This gave these games a kind of also-ran quality; early tie-in titles were chiefly unimaginative side-scrolling Contra clones. Legend has it the E.T. adventure game for the Atari 2600 was so lackluster that it caused the industry crash of 1983.

Not all of the movie tie-in games were that bad. Fans took a shine to Batman: The Video Game, which came out on the Nintendo Entertainment System alongside the theatrical release of 1989’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. It was a serviceable kick-and-punch action-adventure in which a player uses the directional pad to crouch under obstacles and dodge projectiles through five pixelated levels, culminating with a Joker showdown in the Gotham Belltower. The Warriors video game on PlayStation 2 was one of the best brawlers ever made for the console—“heavy rep” missions involved a steady-hand mini game for tagging up rival gang territory, which you needed to complete amid hails of attacks from mouthy thugs and showers of bricks and broken bottles. During Thanksgiving break, each year for three in a row, my brother and I would set a 20-inch TV on the breakfast nook in our family kitchen and play through The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which adapted the first two Peter Jackson films for the PS2. Two Towers also dropped you into giant melees with swarms of enemies, and like The Warriors, let you use the environment to defeat them in really entertaining ways.

In many cases, it wasn’t that the gameplay in these movie games was awful, it was just that playing them rarely extended or enhanced the experience of watching these stories unfold on the silver screen. Occasionally a video game could redeem elements that felt hokey or extraneous in the movie—Enter the Matrix follows the events of The Matrix Reloaded, but found moderate success and cult acclaim by focusing its story on Niobe and Ghost. The pulpy stuff that made Quantum of Solace a bad James Bond movie worked surprisingly well in the linear cover system shooter. (GoldenEye on Nintendo 64 is an outlier in all this—the game released a couple of years after the 1995 film is regarded as the best-ever tie-in, and one of the best first-person shooters period.) But rarely, if ever, did these games feel distinct from their movie counterparts.

Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Asylum stood apart. Released in 2009, a year after The Dark Knight, Arkham shared little with the Christopher Nolan films beyond their moodiness and predilection for carbon fiber. The player starts in one section of the titular mental institution, and as they gain experience and clues and gadgets, Arkham gradually opens up its environs. Rather than five levels like the first Batman game, there’s just one giant labyrinthine map controlled by the Joker. The combat draws its more artful elements from Assassin’s Creed: There’s a modified form of martial arts that can handle large groups of enemies at once, but you can also slink back into the shadows to pick off your prey, one by one, from a perched position. What made players truly “feel like Batman,” though, was the game’s Detective Mode, a kind of night X-ray vision that allows you to do things like track patrol patterns, expose the wiring to control panels, and monitor heart rate; as you whittle down a room of 10 henchmen to one, the remaining grunt will be left “terrified,” spraying his assault rifle up into the rafters, hoping to hit something in the darkness. You really do feel like vengeance. You truly are the night.

Almost every superhero game that followed—or any third-person action RPG with an overpowered main character—owes Arkham a debt. Its innovation was to build its game around the revolutionary idea that being unstoppable might make for a pretty good time, and that boss fights should mostly be a hassle, not an unscalable mountain. This did, unfortunately, open the series and its successors, such as Insomniac’s Spider-Man or Spider-Man: Miles Morales, to charges of repetitiveness: When you can kick someone and send them flying 25 yards and can also eat an entire magazine of bullets and not die, it’s difficult to introduce variation that doesn’t feel tedious. But Arkham helped redefine the superhero video game genre simply by taking its time: After it was released, developers no longer rushed out projects alongside theatrical premieres, instead building out more realized worlds with their own pocket realities and discrete stakes.

More than the menu wheel of super gadgets or the vicious beatdowns or the artful interrogations (in one instance you put a guy’s head under the rear tire of the Batmobile and rev it in neutral until he talks), it’s the story that makes these Arkham games worthy of exploration. Rocksteady enlisted Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill from Batman: The Animated Series to act out something the comics rarely touch on: What happens when Batman and the Joker reach the inevitable conclusion of their decades-long game of cat-and-mouse? What kind of power vacuums would that create? Who would fill them? Would Batman be able to stem the resulting tide all by himself?

One of my favorite scenes in the Arkham series came during City, the second and most mildly received installment: The assassin organization League of Shadows is about to neutralize every threat in Gotham, both real and imagined, via missile strike. The chips are down; you can tell from the dried blood under Batman’s nose, the rips in his leotard. He touches his earpiece as Ra’s al Ghul’s fleet of helicopters circles Gotham, their goal to “cleanse the city,” like in Batman Begins. Except, unlike in Batman Begins, they’ve already started killing innocents, and Talia, Batman’s love interest, has been kidnapped. So it’s either chase down her dwindling tracking signal or save thousands of innocents. It’s impossible choices like these that always reduce Batman to “Bruce Wayne.” There’s swelling music in the background as Batman pleads with Alfred over comms to triangulate all the bat satellites on Talia’s position so that he can pursue. Alfred sternly refuses, and it’s gutting, but it leads to this awesome mission where you swing and glide between the helicopters to find and take down the “lead” chopper.

“Batman must save Gotham,” Alfred says. “Deep down, sir, you know I’m right.” Batman sighs and swings into the fray. Maybe it is the stuff of movies after all.