Batman Arkham Fans Should ‘Save the Date’ for a New Year’s Revelation

It might be time to shine the Bat-Signal into the sky this New Year's Eve.

Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment recently posted a mysterious teaser on its Facebook page, telling fans to "save the date" for a new announcement regarding its popular Batman: Arkham franchise on New Year's Eve.

Source: Facebook.

The Arkham series, which consists of three main titles so far, has been a commercial and critical hit over the past four years. The series has been credited for resurrecting the Batman video games in the same way that Christopher Nolan revived the ailing Batman film franchise.

While no one is quite sure what Warner Brothers will reveal on Dec. 31, let's take a nostalgic look at the Batman games that came before to better understand what makes the Arkham games so popular, and see what might be next for the series.

The early days of Batman games

Just like the Hollywood movies, the Batman games have bounced between incredible highs and dismal lows.

In 1989 and 1990, Japanese developer Sunsoft released two well-received Batman titles for the Nintendo (NASDAQOTH: NTDOY  ) Entertainment System and Sega Genesis.

However, Konami (NYSE: KNM  ) set the gold standard for Batman games in 1992 with the release of Batman Returns. The Super Nintendo and Sega CD/Genesis versions of the game combined a classic beat 'em up format (popularized by Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Capcom's Final Fight) with vehicle racing segments.

Batman Returns (SNES, 1992). Source: Screwattack.com

Batman Returns was well received, garnering a 70% to 80% rating (depending on platform) at Gamerankings.com.

Batman gets broken... by bad games

Unfortunately, the years that followed were not kind to the Caped Crusader.

Acclaim Entertainment was the worst offender. Attempting to capitalize on the popularity of digitized graphics in games like Midway's Mortal Kombat, it combined badly animated real-life actors with computer-generated backgrounds in Batman Forever. The game, released in 1995, was nearly unplayable due to its cryptic control scheme.

Acclaim's Batman Forever was the "Batman & Robin" of Batman games. Source: Youtube.com

Acclaim then followed up that disaster with Batman Forever: The Arcade Game (1996), a beat 'em up game that was graphically inferior to Konami's Batman Returns, despite being released four years later.

By the time the sixth generation of video game consoles arrived, the Batman franchise was a mediocre mess, with multiple developers and publishers experimenting with different approaches. The four titles below were the most widely known from that messy era.

Title

Developer

Publisher

Metascore

Batman Vengeance (2001)

Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft

70% (PS2)

Batman: Dark Tomorrow (2003)

HotGen

Kemco

25% (Xbox)

Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu (2003)

Ubisoft Montreal

Ubisoft

63% (PS2)

Batman Begins (2005)

Eurocom

Electronic Arts  (NASDAQ: EA  )

64% (PS2)

Source: Metacritic.

While several of these games, such as Dark Tomorrow and Vengeance, were praised for their solid voice acting and cinematic scenes, the games were mostly criticized as repetitive affairs with awkward control and camera schemes.

Batman Begins, developed by British game developer Eurocom, can be considered the bridge between the older generation of Batman games and the newer Arkham series.

Like Batman Returns, Batman Begins featured brawler-style combat and an obligatory Batmobile vehicle combat stage. However, it encouraged the player to employ stealth tactics, hide in the shadows, and frighten villains by turning off the lights and causing explosions.

Batman Begins. Source: Gamesradar.com

How Rocksteady revived Batman

Batman Begins showed promise, but the game was still mostly a linear affair based on scenes from the film. That's when Rocksteady Studios, another British developer, stepped in with a perfect formula for success with its seminal 2009 hit, Arkham Asylum.

Rocksteady hired the people who knew Batman the best -- the cast and crew of the animated series. The company hired Paul Dini, one of the top writers of the comic and the cartoon, to write the new game.

Rocksteady then gathered together some of the most well-known voice actors of the animated series, including Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn).

Although the voices were familiar, the new character designs were not -- they were much darker than their animated counterparts.

Animated Harley & Joker vs. their Arkham counterparts. Source: Author's edits.

Most importantly, Rocksteady introduced a completely new form of gameplay. Instead of attacking enemies head-on, Batman was equipped with a wide variety of high-tech gadgets to inflict psychological terror on his enemies.

Stealth tactics were no longer scripted events -- players had to survey a room from the shadows to find the best method of clearing a room undetected. Rocksteady also made Arkham Asylum a free-roaming sandbox game, a radical departure from the linear brawler games that preceded it.

As a result, Rocksteady crafted the game that Batman fans had waited their whole lives to play.

Arkham Asylum. Source: Videogamer.com

It followed up that tour de force with Arkham City in 2011, which expanded the sandbox environment of the first game into an entire prison city. Both games were massive hits, critically and commercially:

Title

Developer

Publisher

Metascore

Units Sold

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Rocksteady Studios

Eidos Interactive & Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

91% (PC)

7.31 million

Batman: Arkham City

Rocksteady Studios

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

91% (PC)

9.41 million

Source: Vgchartz, Metacritic.

Will the Dark Knight rise or fall?

Although Rocksteady revived Batman, the future for the franchise is less clear.

Just as Christopher Nolan couldn't make Batman films forever, Rocksteady stepped away from the franchise and handed over the reins to Warner Bros. Montreal.

The verdict on the new game, Arkham Origins, has been mixed. The game currently holds a Metascore of 73 for the PC version -- a dismal drop from the straight As that the series had boasted under Rocksteady's care.

Arkham Origins has only sold 2.48 million copies since its release in October, but it's still too early to tell if it can top the sales of its predecessors.

Arkham Origins. Source: Gamefreaks.co.nz

The main complaint about Origins is that it simply a rehash of Rocksteady's Arkham City. In addition, the top talent that had been the soul of Rocksteady's games -- Dini, Conroy, and Hamill -- were no longer involved.

While we shouldn't call Warner Bros. Montreal the "Joel Schumacher of video games" just yet, that big drop in quality raises questions about the longevity of the franchise without Rocksteady at the helm.

The final countdown

For now, gamers are still wondering what the big Batman revelation will be on New Year's Eve.

While some gamers have speculated that Warner will announce a next-generation Arkham game, it's doubtful, considering that the game is only two months old. It's more likely that the company will reveal a new DLC instead.

In closing, I hope you enjoyed this look back at the evolution of Batman games over the past 24 years. Let me know what you think of Warner's upcoming revelation on New Year's Eve, and have a great New Year!

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