Batman Arkham Asylum: When Superhero Games Got Good

The last fifteen or so years have been a true golden age for the super hero genre. And believe it or not, but the MCU is just one example, even if it’s the biggest. Countless shows, other movies, and video games have all proven that people running around in tights and saving the day isn’t something that’s going to go away soon.

It’s hard to remember the days before this current era. Back when comic book movies were box office poison. Back when people didn’t know who characters like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or Thanos were. Back when superhero games were god-awful cash grabs nine times out of ten.

Today, we’re going to be focusing on that last one. Particularly with the game that many consider to have been the start of the golden age of superhero video games: Arkham Asylum.

Batman: Arkham Asylum was a game that no one thought would be any good; few, if any, Batman games before it were. So imagine everyone’s shock when the game came out and actually proved to be really good! In fact, it quickly became the new gold standard for all superhero games, not just Batman! Not only that, but the combat completely revolutionized 3D action games! So many games after this copied Batman’s combat, like the Middle Earth: Shadow games and that Mad Max game no one remembers!

But that was a long time ago. Since then, we’ve seen tons of new superhero games, including three more Arkham games that refined the gameplay established in Asylum to an insane degree. So, the question is: does Asylum still hold up? Or have its successors made it obsolete?

Spoiler alert: it’s the ladder.

After capturing the Joker yet again, Batman takes him back to Arkham Asylum himself. However, upon arrival, Batman feels a sense of foreboding and follows in after him. Turns out, he was right to do so; Joker had set a trap to take over the Asylum and fill it with men made into monsters! Now it’s up to the Dark Knight to stop the evil clown’s latest plan and save Arkham Asylum and all of Gotham!

It’s a pretty interesting premise. Batman gets stuck in a building with all of his worst enemies and has to fight them all off. Conceptually, it’s really cool!

Buuuut in terms of execution, it’s not all that great. The dialogue can be really stiff and awkward, if it isn’t just straight-up bad enough to make your skin crawl (although the voice actors do manage to sell it pretty well; save for Harley Quinn’s, who is just terrible). Every villain that isn’t the Joker comes and goes like tumbleweeds in the desert and have about as much impact on the plot as a filler episode of Naruto. And everything related to the TITAN plot can actually go straight to hell and burn for all eternity.

Visually speaking… well, it depends on the version you’re playing. Surprisingly, the original version doesn’t look all that bad. And the remaster version in the Return to Arkham package is… well, it can look good. But it just feels… off. The character models somehow look worse than they did on the PS3/360. Although I do think the environments themselves are improved.

The music is pretty solid, too. There isn’t much of it, but it’s a pretty good OST. It feels kind of like the Noland Batman movies. Even more so in the later games.

On the subject of which, let’s talk about the game itself. Arkham Asylum has two essential modes of play: hand-to-hand combat and stealth combat. When you’re not doing that, you’re exploring the Asylum grounds or solving one of the Riddler’s many ‘fun’ puzzles and riddles.

Hand-to-hand combat is simple. You press a button to hit things and another when an enemy tries to hit you to counter them. You can eventually learn special combo moves that let you throw the enemy or instantly knock them out. Or you can incorporate your gadgets into the fight for some extra style points.

This is the aspect that shows the most age of this game. Later entries of the series fleshed out the combat system into something much more deep and engaging. Here, it’s incredibly simple and gets old pretty quickly. It isn’t terrible, but you can tell that this was their first go at it. Especially since some of these enemies are really unfun to fight.

Stealth combat is much the same way. You sneak around and use various techniques and gadgets to silently defeat a group of armed enemies. These are still really fun, even if your list of options is very short. Luckily, there aren’t many of these in the game, so they get old a lot less quickly than regular combat.

If you want to challenge your skills at both, there’s the challenge mode, where you enter a set instance of hand-to-hand or stealth combat and try to complete certain challenges to get the highest score possible. Which I did, way back in the day when I was addicted to these games.

And let’s not forget about the Riddler! The whole island is dotted with his puzzles. Some of them are piss easy, others require some strong knowledge of Batman lore, and a few even incorporate some fun Easter eggs! However, I wouldn’t say this quest is worth your time. Your only reward is an audio file of the Riddler being arrested. A far cry from the satisfying defeat we were hoping for the first time we collected them all.

Now, it’s time to talk about the worst part of this game: the boss fights. Arkham Asylum features some of the worst bosses I’ve ever had to fight in a video game. They’re all dumb, drawn-out, frustrating, and annoying. And to top it all off, we have the final boss, who is still the worst boss in the entire series. Whoever thought to turn the Joker of all characters into a giant monster should be fired. Then sent off to a farm where they can never touch a writer’s pen again.

Although to be honest: I still like these bosses more than the ones in Arkham Knight. Which are somehow even worse. But we’ll get to that another day.

Arkham Asylum is a perfectly fine game. It’s definitely aged poorly compared to the other Arkham games, which makes it tempting to skip. Still, it does make it easier to appreciate how much better the following games are when you remember where it all started.

And now, we move onto my jam: Arkham City.

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