As you may have guessed, we love single-player games. We share our love every day through the work that we do, but the pace of this industry means that we rarely get the opportunity to stop and look back.
Join us this week as we celebrate the best that single-player gaming has to offer as part of Single-Player Appreciation Week.
Flashback to 2008: Batman: Arkham Asylum is officially revealed with an ominous and cryptic teaser trailer. Arkham is dripping with grime, and fans are given a taste of Joker-regular Mark Hamill’s iconic laugh—but to what end? Where is the bat? Why is some no-name developer tapped to take on one of pop culture’s most notorious heroes? Oh well. Getting hopes up for another licensed game was probably a lost cause to begin with, anyway.
Come release, nearly one year later, Batman: Arkham Asylum came out of the night like a bat out of hell. Critics were raving, and naysayers were quickly laid to rest by one of the most focused, gripping games ever made. The team at Rocksteady had no right making one of the best metroidvanias ever conceived—but it did. Rocksteady should have never been given the rights to Batman and his rogues’ gallery, yet, no team has ever come close to such a pitch-perfect translation of a DC universe. Even the asylum itself proved to be quite the feat, giving fans a fully realized version of one of the most iconic locations in pop culture. When critical fans told this unproven team that it had no right making a Batman game, Rocksteady answered by letting players do something they had never dreamed possible: becoming The Batman.
Batman: Arkham Asylum put donning the cowl before anything else, and this mantra is the reason this series-spawner exists today. As former IGN staffer Greg Miller (and every other reviewer) said in 2009, “Arkham Asylum makes you feel like Batman.”
Bruce Wayne’s Dark Knight persona is not just about saving the day through stealthy means, as everyone who knows anything about Batman would never hesitate to call him a bonafide predator. Gargoyles line the walls of Arkham halls, making for the perfect vantage point while Bruce Wayne’s endless cabinet of tech is only a button-press away. The darkness serves as the player’s greatest ally, and striking fear into the hearts of Gotham’s meanest thugs becomes its own little side game. Should Batman lead one thug away from another two or three or strike while the henchmen are grouped up? Each stealth encounter is a puzzle in and of itself that requires planning and quick thinking. Rocksteady pushes things even further with its efforts to put players in the suit by letting them do things such as hanging upside down, which may not provide much utility, but remains excitingly chilling nonetheless. The tools put into the hands of the player to create a Joker henchmen’s worst nightmare exceeded all expectations, and this was only the beginning.
Batman is more than a silent stalker. The Bat is equipped with years of martial arts training and a vast knowledge of nearly every fighting style under his utility belt, to boot. To translate this idea panel to screen, Batman: Arkham Asylum introduced a combat system that is still being copied and built upon to this day. What this elevated, button-mashy combat does is offer a high skill ceiling without compromising its low skill floor, so that even the most inept player can feel like a total badass. Players could almost certainly make it through Arkham front-to-back by purely mashing the action button and still experience the game’s extremely cinematic combat. Where the wrinkle comes in is with Batman’s counter, utility belt, and upgrades. Just before an enemy strikes, pressing the counter button unleashes a swift reroute. Upgrades build upon the combat formula, providing new finishing moves and grapples. Mix this in with a few batarangs, explosive gel, and bat-cape stuns, and a room bursting at the seams with baddies can be knocked out cold in less than a minute. All of this feeds into the game’s flowy combat without completely shattering its realism.
For crying out loud, Rocksteady managed to establish classic combat and stealth mechanics that will be copied for decades, and this piece has not even touched the pacesetter that is Detective Mode.
Again, Rocksteady managed to sit down hundreds of developers across the board and take them to school with a single button press. Tapping one of the shoulder buttons yields discolored vision that highlights enemies, their heart rates, and general status. This same mechanic is used to track down kidnapped commissioners and dirty cops. Right when the intensity winds down, Batman: Arkham Asylum smoothly shifts gears into becoming a real crime drama. Then, when story is put slightly more on the backburner, Batman can explore Arkham’s nooks and crannies to find hidden trophies placed around the game world by the Riddler. An extension of this comes by way of the less obvious riddles, which see players using nothing but their wits to find locations directly tied to Batman’s extended universe. Satisfying, dark, engaging, and wholly unique; we may have seen slightly similar mechanics in past games, but Detective Mode was a complete reinvention. Detective Mode is the bow on top of Rocksteady’s perfectly crafted Batman package, and the balance of it all creates a marvelously seamless experience.
This is all without even touching Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s always-stellar performances or Batman: Arkham Asylum’s shockingly memorable music, which paints the claustrophobic halls of a worn-down hospital. Each villain—most notably, Scarecrow—is brought to life in all their horrific glory, too. So many layers exist at every mind-bending turn that properly praising the game is near impossible to accomplish in a single article. Of course, flaws exist that can easily be pointed out, such as a jarringly lackluster story ending and plenty of dated facial animations, but Batman: Arkham Asylum still changed video games forever. Combat, stealth, and puzzle-solving are the three pillars that make Batman comic book’s most-grounded super detective, and Rocksteady delivered on every front. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Rocksteady, in many ways, do not get enough credit for single-handedly revolutionizing so many features and mechanics that had grown stale over the years. Further than that, this game and that team somehow damn near perfected its formula on the first go. Marvel’s Spider-Man, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Horizon Zero Dawn, Sleeping Dogs, Mad Max, the Assassin’s Creed series, and even Red Dead Redemption 2 can be seen using at least one Batman: Arkham Asylum mechanic, heavily featured in gameplay—the influence is unavoidable.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is not just one of the most impressive comic book games, or even one of the most standout licensed games ever made. Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the best and most influential titles video gamers and comic readers have ever had the joy to experience. Period.