75 years ago, Bill Finger and Bob Kane's Batman burst off the comics page for the first time in gaudy four-color glory. A blatant, amoral rip-off of The Shadow, he somehow caught on with readers and became the lead feature of DC's Detective Comics, quickly evolving into the unique and oddly moral violent vigilante we know and love today.
For nearly 30 of those years, game developers have been trying to transform Batman into a digital protagonist that captures the totality of the character. That's no mean feat, considering he's been everything from a pulp killer to a smiling kid-friendly mascot, from a world-class martial artist to a keen-eyed detective, from a silent marauder to an urban combat pilot. Needless to say, Batman's games have been all over the map not only in terms of content and genres but in terms of quality as well.
We've seen some very good and some very bad Batman games over the years. In keeping with USgamer tradition, we ask the question on the occasion of Batman's 75th birthday: Who makes the best Batman games? We've traced back every Batman game to its original developer and weigh the pros and cons, and leave the question for you the reader to answer. So... who is it?
Batman Returns (Genesis, 1992)
The case for: A methodical combination of brawler and platformer, Batman Returns managed to capture the essence of Batman the grappler and Batman the grappling hook user. The dark Genesis color palette nicely reproduced the dim, art deco style of the Tim Burton movie on which it was based, and the Caped Crusader himself looks legitimately beefy rather than getting all his apparent muscle mass from a padded vinyl suit (ahem, Michael Keaton).
The case against: Batman Returns feels inelegant and chunky in many ways, and the catchy electronic tunes are weakened by the poor sound effects. Acme played to Genesis' strengths, but also fell prey to its weaknesses.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (Vita/3DS, 2013)
The case for: Knowing full well the current-generation portable systems couldn't hope to recreate the proper Arkham experience, Armature drew on its experience working on the Metroid Prime series to create more of an adventure than an action game.
The case against: Blackgate tries to go full Metroid on Batman, but it lacks sufficient tooth. The Arkham combat doesn't mesh well with the scan-centric design, and the "realistic" feel the studios tried to create makes for a slow-paced and frequently tedious journey.
Batman Returns (GG/SMS, 1992)
The case for: You may recognize Aspect from our look at Sonic's parents, and here they fulfilled much of the same role: Creating solid Game Gear software for Sega. This version takes many cues from the Genesis title, but it plays faster and allows for a more varied approach with a modest level select feature. A remarkably ambitious attempt for the platform.
The case against: Aspect's take on Batman can be a bit cramped and simplistic thanks to the Game Gear's limitations.
Batman Returns (Lynx, 1992)
The case for: It seems like everyone in the world had a different take on the Batman Returns license, and Atari's effort for the Lynx is more of a belt-scrolling brawler than the more platform-like efforts of other studios. Huge character sprites and crisp, colorful graphics absolutely pop on the Lynx's screen.
The case against: Compared to the Game Gear version, this feels shallow and primitive. Sloppy combat, unfair enemy placement, and a weird lack of music combine for a letdown of a game.
Batman (Arcade, 1990)
The case for: The other Atari made Batman into the quintessential late '80s arcade action game: Tough, detailed, with a great FM synthesis soundtrack, and massive, multi-scrolling level designs. Multiple play formats and audio samples from the 1989 movie lend it a lot of variety and atmosphere.
The case against: Like many arcade games of the era, Atari's Batman is also frequently unfair — not to mention shallow as all get-out.
Batman: The Movie (Spectrum/PCs, 1989)
The case for: Like Acme's rendition of Batman Returns, Data East created a combination brawler and platformer that really pushed the limitations of 8-bit microcomputers to their ragged edge. Even on older, less capable systems, Batman: The Movie played smoothly.
The case against: As with many action games for older computers, Data East did their best here, but it just doesn't hold up to the standards established a year or two later by 16-bit consoles.
Batman Returns (Amiga, 1992)
The case for: While fundamentally similar to the other Batman Returns games, the one Denton Designs put together for Amiga stands apart. It's gorgeously animated, but the graphics look tiny. Those small sprites offered a valuable advantage, though: Batman Returns on Amiga was blazingly fast, with a Batman far more agile than we've ever seen in the movies.
The case against: You can perhaps overlook the minuscule visuals, but the grinding repetition of the action is harder to swallow.
Batman Begins (2005)
The case for: Before the Arkham games, Eurocom's take on the first Christopher Nolan film did a pretty solid job of translating its key scenes (and quite a bit of material never seen in the movie) into a PS2-era action game. And it nicely captured the look of the movie.
The case against: Action games have come a long way in the past decade, thanks in large part to Rocksteady work with this very franchise. The state of the art in 2005 feels terribly primitive in 2014.
Batman Forever (Arcade, 1996)
The case for: Arguably the most hyperactive Batman game ever made, Iguana's brawler throws an insane amount of stuff at players, with crazy power-ups and special moves to break up the combat.
The case against: Aggressive visuals and a constant flood of game factors can't change the fact that underneath the madness it's basically just your typical walk-and-punch brawler... a style of game that felt behind the times even in 1996.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (GBC/N64/PS1, 2000), Batman: Dark Tomorrow (2003)
The case for: Kemco brought its licensed game development heritage to bear on Batman around the turn of the millennium, producing a handful of entertaining titles that translated the stylish future-noir look of Batman Beyond into chunky PS1 and Game Boy graphics.
The case against: Alas, chunky PS1 and Game Boy graphics haven't aged as well as one might hope, and nothing about these games' designs particularly stood out even at the time.
Batman Returns (NES, 1992), Batman Returns (SNES, 1992), Batman: The Animated Series (Game Boy, 1993), The Adventures of Batman & Robin (SNES, 1994)
The case for: While Konami built its Batman games very much in the style of other early '90s games about comic book properties (i.e. "Hey kids, we hear you like Final Fight!"), it did so with the company's standard spit-and-polish. They're absolutely gorgeous games, especially the ones based on the cartoons, which perfectly nail Bruce Timm's brilliant visual style.
The case against: Gorgeous or not, they're still more or less bog-standard early '90s games about comic book properties.
Batman Returns (Sega CD, 1992)
The case for: A multi-format game made back in the days when technology didn't allow for seamless transitions between driving and on-foot action, Malibu's take on Batman Return distinguished itself from the countless other studios' takes on the movie with fast-paced vehicular combat and a rockin' soundtrack that wanted nothing to do with Danny Elfman's film score.
The case against: Essentially the same game as Acme's Batman Return for Genesis, all Malibu really did was add the driving sequences and some ill-fitting Redbook audio. So it suffers from all the same defects as the Genesis game while introducing entirely new ones.
Batman (Spectrum/PCs, 1986)
The case for: Ocean created the first-ever Batman game, and they took a pretty interesting approach. Built in the isometric platform adventure style that was all the rage in the UK in the mid '80s, Batman placed less emphasis on conflict and combat than other licensed games of the era, instead promoting exploration and discovery.
The case against: Unfortunately, Batman has very little to do with Batman, leading one to suspect that perhaps the game began life as something else entirely only to have Batman grafted on to it at the last minute. And those old isometric PC graphics haven't exactly aged with grace....
Batman Forever (SNES/Gen, 1995), Batman & Robin (PS1, 1998)
The case for: Probe's take on Batman Forever was just plain weird: They repurposed the engine they'd developed for their ports of Mortal Kombat and used it to render Batman and Robin as MK-style digitized sprites in something more free-ranging than a simple fighting game.
The case against: An interesting idea, but "interesting" doesn't always translate to "good." Mortal Kombat mechanics work fine for fighting. Anything more elaborate can get pretty dicey. And that would be a good description for Probe's work on Batman: Dicey.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi, 2009), Batman: Arkham City (Multi, 2011), Batman: Arkham Knight (Multi, 2015)
The case for: Rocksteady revolutionized Batman video games by remember that he's not just the Dark Knight — he's also the world's greatest detective. Arkham Asylum offered a single package that managed to combine everything great about Batman (his physical prowess, his stealthiness, his keen intellect), and Arkham City made it huge.
The case against: While Rocksteady nailed the spirit of Batman, these games' story beats tend to be dumb as a box of rocks.
The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Genesis/Sega CD, 1994)
The case for: Despite sharing a common name, Sega's two Batman releases were really separate games. The Sega CD version was more of a variety title than the more straightforward Genesis brawler. Both looked great, though.
The case against: Sega's titles feel very much like a product of their times, suffering from dated tech, dated genres, and dated mechanics. While reasonably entertaining, they fall well short of "classic" status.
Batman: Gotham City Racer (PS1, 2001)
The case for: Who wouldn't want to play a semi-open-world Batman driving game with chases and missions vaguely in the style of Grand Theft Auto?
The case against: Everyone, if that game had graphics five years out of date, painfully loose controls, and sloppy objectives.
Batman: The Caped Crusader (Spectrum/PCs, 1988)
The case for: Special FX came up with an interesting and creative approach to Batman: Even though it looks action-oriented, it's really more of a graphical adventure in which Batman explores a city. While gangsters and other hazards beset him, you're really meant to solve puzzles and sort your way to the end of a huge, sprawling maze of buildings where Joker and the Penguin await.
The case against: The goals and methods of this game can be maddeningly vague, and it's easy to lose your way in the world. That was all the rage in '80s PC games, but doesn't play so well these days.
Batman (NES, 1990), Batman (Genesis/PCE, 1990), Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy, 1990), Batman: Return of the Joker (NES/Game Boy/Genesis, 1992)
The case for: Sunsoft created some of the most beloved versions of Batman, including the dense and notoriously difficult NES game. While the company's relationship with the property was fairly brief (seemingly dissolved in the Batman Returns licensing melee), Sunsoft left quite a mark on nostalgia-addled 30-somethings.
The case against: While visually spectacular for their time, Sunsoft's Batman projects reveal their age with unbalanced difficulty and fairly simplistic mechanics.
LEGO Batman: The Video Game (Multi, 2008), LEGO Batman 2: DS Super Heroes (Multi, 2012), LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Multi, 2014)
The case for: Could these be the most popular Batman games ever? Not to mention the funniest. Like all licensed LEGO games, Travelers Tales' incorporates a light touch to create games packed with tons of fan service, appropriate for all ages.
The case against: Like all licensed LEGO games, this trilogy lacks much in the way of challenge or substance. If content tourism isn't your thing, stay away.
Batman: Chaos in Gotham (GBC, 2001), Batman: Vengeance (PS2/GameCube/GBA/Xbox, 2001), Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu (2003)
The case for: Ubi produced some solid Batman games in their brief run on the franchise. Chaos in Gotham featured swift gameplay and classy animation on the primitive Game Boy Color, and Rise of Sin Tzu brought the industry's longstanding "Batman has to be a brawler" fixation into the modern era with 3D action and a handy fisheye lens effect that gave players a clear view of the action.
The case against: While perfectly solid for the time, everything Ubi's Batman games attempted to do has been done better by Rocksteady's trilogy.
Warner Bros. Montreal
Batman: Arkham Origins (Multi, 2013)
The case for: Even though Warner Montreal was playing in Rocksteady's toy box here, they did a bang-up job with it. Arkham Origins feels authentic and in many ways improves on the mechanics and design established by the previous Arkham titles.
The case against: Origins notoriously suffers from some pretty severe glitches, and a couple of the boss battles break the game's own rules. On top of that, it's completely moot: Arkham Knight is basically being presented as if Origins never happened.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Video Game (Wii/DS, 2010)
The case for: It's WayForward, so as you might expect The Brave and the Bold looks fantastic — slick 2D animation perfectly captures the feel of the cartoon on which it's based. And there are plenty of great DC Universe cameos and costars to enjoy as well.
The case against: As often happens with WayForward's licensed titles, The Brave and the Bold probably could have used a little more baking time. It's decent, but the action grows repetitive fairly quickly.