Superhero games used to be a bit of a joke. Sure, there were exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, the joy of playing as your favorite crime-fighter wasn’t worth the frustration of mediocre graphics and janky controls. Like superhero movies in the ‘90s and early 2000s, at best it was “good for a superhero game.” At worst, it was an unplayable cinematic tie-in designed to sell more movie tickets. But for the most part, the glory days of the superhero video game genre lay in nostalgic fare like the 1992 arcade beat-em-up X-Men.
Enter: Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham trilogy.
Beginning in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum (and notably released one year after Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight raised the bar for superhero cinema), the franchise went on to completely redefine the superhero video game. You can trace its influence to countless other titles, including most notably, Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, which borrow liberally from the Caped Crusader’s interactive adventures.
Now, the entire Arkham trilogy (Asylum, City, and Arkham Knight) is available for the first time on Nintendo Switch. Here’s why they’re worth checking out, and what you should know before you do.
Before Arkham, Batman’s existence in 3D games could be described as clunky and uneven, which is a real letdown when you consider the character is renowned for being pretty good at, well, everything. If the player has better movement abilities in real life than Batman does in a game, that’s not a good sign.
The Arkham games’ most immediate impact is how they actually make you feel like Batman. (What a concept, right?) Right from the get-go in Asylum, the Dark Knight is just as powerful, agile, and cunning as you always imagined him to be, while City and Knight continued to upgrade combat and stealth elements. Whether you’re beating up a group of the Joker’s goons, sneaking around a room full of men with sniper rifles, or operating one of Batman’s many “wonderful toys” to solve a puzzle, the gameplay is ceaselessly satisfying.
As an added bonus, the Arkham games managed to cast Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, known for playing Batman and the Joker in the Animated Series, respectively. This creates an immediate sense of immersion and retains the broad pathos that made BTAS perhaps the most beloved superhero cartoon ever.
But even if you’re not already a fan, the Arkham trilogy stands easily on its own merits. You can enjoy the games without ever having consumed a single piece of Batman content. Through cutscenes and seamless storytelling, the games quickly establish their characters, what they want, and what drives them. You can understand the importance of Arkham Asylum, where the first game takes place, without needing to know its five decades of history and canon. But if you are a diehard fan, the trilogy’s many Easter Eggs and lore details only make it more fun.
Each game is set in a different location as the scope and ambition of the franchise continued to expand. Asylum is essentially a massive haunted house, City is a dystopian super-prison, and Knight takes place in Gotham proper after the citizens are forced to flee and the city becomes a playground for supervillains and criminals.
While Asylum makes incredible use of its claustrophobic map, it’s a pretty straightforward game.
The trilogy peaks with Arkham City thanks to the emotional core that is Batman’s relationship with the Joker. Finally, Knight spreads itself far too thin on a plot twist that one can guess a mile away. (The DLC for Knight, which grants more missions that involve foes like a mutated KillerCroc, a reformed League of Shadows, and the Mad Hatter, helps make up for these flaws).
While the Nintendo Switch is certainly not the smoothest that these games have ever run (Asylum and City play great, but Knight is prone to lagging,) this set remains a welcome return to Batman’s finest hour in gaming. Superhero games to come after would never be the same, and luckily, the recent Spider-Man titles have been more than up for the challenge of trying to thrill players in a post-Arkham world.
As for Batman, it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see a better example of his capabilities. But who knows! Gotham City is big, and when the sun goes down, and the freaks come out, anything is possible.