Let me preface this: I am not trying to convince anyone that Batman: Arkham Asylum is the greatest game ever; because there is no argument. It is the best comic based video game, and all around the greatest game of all time. But before we get into what makes it the best let’s look into the making of Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum while we celebrate its tenth anniversary. Yeah, it’s been that long, crazy huh?
Roots Of The Asylum
The ideas and designs presented in Arkham Asylum could be traced back to early Batman works with a heavy focus on the darker aspects from the 80’s and 90’s. But the major influence is simply in the name, Arkham Asylum. Yes that is a major lore location in Batman history but it also served as the name of Grant Morrison’s first foray into Batman. In October of 1989 DC released Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Series Earth, a graphic novel focusing on the fabled Asylum. We won’t go too far into the story of A Serious House but we will go over some of the aspects that helped form Rocksteady’s game starting with the atmosphere.
Taking place entirely in the asylum A Serious House focuses on Batman becoming locked in Arkham with his long list of insane villains, as does Rocksteady’s game. Instead of the story being just one building Rocksteady turns Arkham into an Island, as a means for more freedom and game play. While changing the location to an Island Rocksteady still keeps the small corridor feeling that A Serious House had with each hallway or path feel small and confined.
A Serious House retold the origins/history of the Asylum’s creator Amadeus Arkham while also expanding his story via flashbacks. Rocksteady kept this aspect in their game in the form of cryptic messages left behind from Amadeus. Although Arkham Asylum takes a fair amount of inspiration from A Serious House it doesn’t take it’s plot directly from the comic. Instead Rocksteady employed the help of Batman: The Animated Series/Detective Comics veteran Paul Dini.
In 2006 video game publisher Eidos acquired the core license of Batman, along with many other licenses. Eidos took the license to development study Rocksteady, who in turn made a prototype that essentially got them the job of creating Arkham Asylum. In May of 2007 Rocksteady started full development with a crew of only 40 people, but by its 2009 August 25th release date that number changed to 60. The greatest strength for Rocksteady and team was that Arkham Asylum wasn’t part of a movie tie-in or other media, thus allowing them a fresh slate to do whatever they desired.
The day that changed it all
On August 6th 2009 a much anticipated demo dropped on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. For me this was as exciting as the release date that was 19 days away. I would finally learn what it is to be The Batman, sans the dead parents. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, let’s travel back to the timeline we will dub before Batman: Arkham Asylum which was as horrible as it sounds until I heard of a game that would change my life, and the video game industry. I remember it vividly, I was 14 still not able to drive, very little cash to spend and making my way into the local Carrs with my mom.
I wasn’t much into online media, back then I was barely on any media, how times change huh? Since I didn’t get my info from any online search I learned everything from the Gameinformer magazine on the shelf. Adorning the cover was Batman under the Arkham Asylum sign, looking like the gloomy dark Batman that he is. For September 2008’s issue Arkham Asylum was the cover story, with nine pages dedicated to the E3 coverage of that year detailing the plot, game engine and what to expect.
Flying through the pages at the grocery store I lost track of time as I was sucked into the atmosphere of the claustrophobic asylum. Nearing the end of the article Arkham Asylum became a most own once I saw the stand off between the monstrous Killer Croc and Batman. Looking at this stand off between monster and man had me overjoyed, between the size difference of the two and Croc trying to intimidate Batman. The thought of how this scene would play out in a years time had me craving more like an addict. If Rocksteady was changing the design of Killer Croc this much what else would they change? Well a good amount of character designs for the better to start with.
With images from the magizine of a more deranged looking Joker, Batman taking out thugs, and the aesthetic of the island had me head over heels for the experience. In the year leading up to its release I looked for any morsel of information I could get on the game. With a Gamestop pre-order DLC focused on defeating skeletons in Scarecrow’s Challenge Map came on of the best commercials for a games DLC; Dem Bones. I’m not one to pre-order at a specific place because of a bonus from that store, but with such an amazing commercial I did the unthinkable and pre-ordered.
My adolescence stupidity didn’t stop there. I pre-ordered at another store since I had credit there and wanted the beautiful collector’s edition. I must admit, back in those years when I worked for extra money – not to pay bills – I bought so many collectors editions; so when you bitch to yourself about who buys those, it was me. To my defense the collectors edition looked Bat-tastic! With a 14-inch plastic replica of Batman’s batarang, a behind-the-scenes DVD, a leather-bound 48-page book about Arkham’s inmates, and a code to download the “Crime Alley” challenge map.
I still have all of these items and love looking at the leather-bound book. I’ve lost the stickers since then and broke the batarang off of its base. As awesome as it all sounded once you had the collectors edition in your hand you were in for disappointment. Instead of being metal or anything cool the batarang was a cheap plastic that couldn’t leave its base (unless forced like I did) and had “battle scars” that looked like absolute shit. When the game originally released I recall hearing that they made the plastic decision due to the realization that people would throw the batarang which could cause injury. Sadly I cannot find this info on our vest internet.
Yes as you may have noticed most of this will be me feverishly in love typing about how great Arkham Asylum is, mixed in with my personal stories, and I do apologize for that. It’s just how can’t you love this game? Plus it shaped my teenage years.
The Story Of a Bat and Clown
Although it took cues from many of the Dark Knights past adventures Arkham Asylum went the route of building its own story and universe, giving Rocksteady its own sandbox. With the ability of full creative control Rocksteady set out to make a darker Batman adaption with many easter eggs for longtime fans, while keeping the plot easy to follow for newcomers. This method made it so new and old fans could appreciate the story with no prior knowledge. As we know (since we’re in the future) this gamble worked out in the long run.
Here’s a quick synopsis,
The Joker, Batman’s arch enemy, has instigated an elaborate plot from within Arkham Asylum, where many of Batman’s other foes have been incarcerated. Batman investigates and comes to learn that the Joker is trying to create an army of Bane-like creatures to threaten Gotham City, and is forced to put a stop to the Joker’s plans. Throughout the night, Batman is forced to deal with the temporarily admitted sane prisoners from Blackgate prison, Scarecrow, Zsasz, Poison Ivy, Bane, Killer Croc and Harley Quinn. By the night’s end, all the villains, save Bane, Croc and Crane, are recaptured and placed back in their cells and what remains of the staff try putting the Asylum back in order. Though it is thanks to Batman that the criminally insane are brought back under control, administrator of Arkham, mayoral candidate Quincy Sharp, soon takes advantage and claims the credit himself for bringing the Arkham institution back under control. (1)
As you can tell Batman goes through a gauntlet full of villains, each with an updated design. Rocksteady took their chance playing in a sandbox and created brand new designs for each character that respected their past looks. Along side it’s great game design, voice acting from veterans of the animated series, story, and graphics, the redesigns of the characters were magnificent and made perfect sense in their respective world.
Granted his nightmare sequences are fan-fucking-tastic his new look is just as great between his tattered rags of an out
Bane was a monstrous force of muscle, who you had to take out with the bat-mobile. Main villain Joker looked akin to his animated series while sporting an older sickly design. Harley Quinn was not much of a difference either, now she just wore a nurses outfit. Rocksteady made Killer Croc more monster than man in his appearance, which happens to be my favorite look for him, with no other design being this good. Another villains design that should’ve carried to Batman’s other media would be Scarecrows.
fit and syringes for fingers his look itself is fear inducing. Zsasz looks like… Zsasz. Finally Poison Ivy, who is a sexy half-naked plant villain, so not much has changed. Only a few villains are showcased in Arkham Asylum but each show how well Rocksteady and team knew these characters with each fight you have feeling unique towards the character. Luckily they didn’t stop with just these villains, throughout the Asylum you’ll find hints and bio’s about other characters that aren’t in the game, but or detailed enough that it’s worth reading/listening too.
It helps that Rocksteady had Carlos D’anda do the concept art and character bio pictures. Hell, I would highly suggest looking up the concept art by Carlos D’anda because it is bat-tastic!
Makes You Feel Like Batman
I absolutely love when I see kids wearing shirts that say, “When I grow up I wanna be Batman.” Or anything to that degree. Why you ask? Because to me it’s essentially saying they want their parents killed, to train for years, be lonely, and get injured constantly. Yes, I know that’s not what it means, but it’s still hilarious to think about. Point being; Arkham Asylum makes you feel like Batman without having your parents killed or the years of lonesomeness and training. Granted the “makes you feel like…” has become a meme in the recent years, it fits perfectly for this game.
Instead of going with a first person POV – which would have been horrible – Rocksteady went with a close third-person perspective. In this perspective Batman takes up the whole left side of the screen showing Bat-ass to Bat-ears, thus making the gamer feel as if they are Batman but not with a limit defining first person view. This POV works perfectly with the free-flow combat Rocksteady made for Arkham Asylum and the gadgets Batman uses throughout.
Rocksteady’s free-flow combat set a precedence for fighting games with multiple copying this design, because it was a perfect combat system. This also happened with Dark Souls‘ combat and other game developers copying them. Hell, if someone makes combat feel as great as these games then why not copy them? Another concept that started a chain reaction in other games; Detective Mode/Detective Vision. Granted Arkham Asylum wasn’t the first with this concept but it brought it back into the general public making other developers take notice. With detective vision Batman could see in a multitude of different spectrums highlighting clues.
Arkham Asylum’s gameplay at times feels like Zelda and Metroidvania games with locations being locked off due to needing new gadgets and having to backtrack a air bit. When Rocksteady set out in making a Batman game that stood out from all the others – which isn’t hard – they wanted to nail Batman’s ease of fighting – they did – and his ability in sneaking around scaring thugs and taking them out silently. Thus making Batman the silent predator that he is. Combining free-flow fighting, detective vision, and the silent take downs Arkham Asylum evolved into a Batman Simulator.
Leaving The Asylum
Looking back on a game released ten years ago brings back so many memories. I bought everything involved in the Arkham Universe and even though I enjoyed all the other games, none of them can live up to Arkham Asylum. Every aspect about the game is perfect, especially with it never feeling like to much, but enough to not overwhelm while setting up the future.
Having finished this ten year anniversary write-up it reminds me why I’ve played and beat Arkham Asylum on every system it’s been released on. I love the series so much last winter I re-played all the games on my new PC. Personally I feel like no game will ever dethrone Arkham Asylum of it’s number one ranking on my favorite games list. So if you haven’t played it, then what the hell are you doing? If you have played it then go and replay it!