I have a confession to make: as a young child, I wasn’t really into superheroes. I had a casual interest in them- growing up in the early 2000s, they were everywhere, as a post-Batman and Robin and a pre-MCU wave of superhero movies hit theaters. I got a pair of “Hulk Hands’’ as a birthday present and dressed up like Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man on Halloween of 2004, but I think the reason that I didn’t quite get into it all was that these movies were PG-13, and my parents didn’t let me watch PG-13 movies until I was around nine years old. Even though these superhero films were essentially made to sell toys to children (toys that I was allowed to play with), I basically was deemed not tall enough to ride that roller coaster. Also, it didn’t help that none of the superhero cartoons ever seemed to be on TV whenever I was watching it.
By the time I turned thirteen in 2009, things were changing. My family had acquired a shiny new Blu-Ray player the year before, and my mom bought a copy of Batman Begins for it for Father’s Day. I don’t think my dad had any particular interest in the movie, but I was captivated by Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. I got swept up in the gritty reinterpretation of this character I only really knew anything about from the copy of LEGO Batman: The Video Game that came packaged with my Xbox 360. I needed more of this “grounded superhero” stuff, and that led me to the two 2008 films that would define the next decade of capeshit: The Dark Knight and Iron Man.
While the two films were very tonally different, both attempted to repackage the colorful world of comic books with a certain “realism” that would make them more digestible to people who weren’t previously into that sort of thing, and as a new teenager who wanted to be taken seriously, I gobbled that shit right up. In hindsight, Hollywood’s attempts to recapture the grim, brooding nature of The Dark Knight and the playful, interconnected universe that Iron Man was setting up would lead to the entertainment industry making many baffling and creatively bankrupt decisions, but in the late 2000s and early 2010s, everything these movies brought to the table felt really bold and fresh.
2011 rolled around, and the aggressive marketing for a new Batman video game caught my attention. Advertisements showed Batman and his extensive list of allies and enemies posed in stark monochrome, each accented by tiny bits of a singular color to break up the black and white. The trailers depicted an entire section of Gotham City walled off into a particularly nasty slice of Hell reigned over by the worst of the worst. A lone figure who refused to give up on this decaying metropolis soared over its rooftops in between clips of him pummeling dozens of goons as “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy played. All of this transpired under the sinister watch of Dr. Hugo Strange, who dropped the ultimate bombshell (for those of us who hadn’t already heard of Hugo Strange): he knew that Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same.
I had never played the previous game, Batman: Arkham Asylum, though I’d heard good things about it. However, it seemed Arkham Asylum had an intimate, claustrophobic terror to it, while this sequel was going for epic scale with huge, bombastic action. If Arkham Asylum was Ridley Scott’s Alien, then Batman: Arkham City was looking like James Cameron’s Aliens. It promised to be something spectacular like its predecessor while taking its pieces to build an entirely different sort of beast. Needless to say, I was sold.
That Christmas, I took the plunge into Arkham City. That first trip will have been a decade ago this December, but I still remember it vividly. The game had me from the very beginning, with its smoothly played tutorial that sees an incarcerated Bruce Wayne beat his way through overconfident baddies and scale buildings so he can reach the Batsuit that Alfred remotely dropped on a rooftop and get dressed for the long workday ahead of him. Arkham City never slows down from here, and every time I look back at it, I’m astonished by how massive the game feels. Its next-gen sequel, Batman: Arkham Knight, is technically larger, but Arkham City just feels so deep and intricate with all of its memorable characters, locations, and moments. There’s Two-Face’s kangaroo court, the Penguin’s natural history museum fortress, that motherfucking shark jumpscare, the boss fight with a zombie, infiltrating a steel mill full of clowns by diving down a smokestack, the Joker sharing his terminal illness with Batman (in more ways than one), the boss fight with Mr. Freeze in the frozen GCPD building, the ruins of Wonder City, the boss fight with Ra’s al Ghul, Hugo Strange unleashing Protocol 10, and that unforgettable twist-filled ending.
All of that just makes up Batman: Arkham City’s main campaign, which is only the surface of the experience. Countless sidequests are scattered across the city, promising diverse challenges and surprise encounters with villains who are both obscure and iconic. Whether you’re racing from payphone to payphone to hunt down serial killer Victor Zsasz or investigating the scenes of Deadshot’s assassinations, there’s always something happening in every corner of Arkham City. It helps the open world feel like a living place rather than a space with objectives spread across it and some hostile NPCs thrown in between them to make it appear less empty. Every inch of Arkham City has a purpose, whether it’s to tell a story or to allow the player to experiment with gameplay mechanics like combat or traversal.
The city’s layout is exploited by one character in particular: the Riddler. There are 247 Riddler Trophies (282 if you count the ones accessible with the Catwoman DLC) placed throughout the map, and they can only be accessed by completing “puzzles” that test all of Batman’s various skills and gadgets. These tasks range from trivial to playfully clever to fucking infuriating. Each time you collect a certain number of Riddler Trophies, the Riddler gives you a clue to where some of his hostages are being kept. The deathtrap rooms are covered in frantic scribblings and question marks, and contain electrified floors and massive spinning blades to make sure that you know that this isn’t your daddy’s Riddler.
Like the version of the Riddler who appears in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, he’s akin to something out of a horror film, but he still maintains the demeanor of a desperate, attention-seeking nerd that’s a universal aspect of the character. As you complete more of the Riddler’s challenges, his insults on Batman’s (and by extension, the player’s) intelligence gradually give in to panicked excuses that his traps weren’t ready or that Batman must be cheating. By the time you snag that final trophy, the Riddler has spent hours calling you an idiot, and it feels immensely satisfying to locate and infiltrate the Riddler’s hideout before finally smashing his smug little face. Getting there feels like a Herculean task, but nabbing that son of a bitch personally feels like one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced in gaming. At least, until the Riddler gets free and does that exact same shit in Arkham Knight, but this time with robots.
The upcoming Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League game will be set in the same universe as the Arkham games, and a trailer has revealed that the version of the Penguin who debuted in Arkham City will return. I hope the Riddler also comes back in the Suicide Squad game, specifically so that longtime players can finally get a sense of closure when Amanda Waller blows his head off or something.
The phrase “this game really makes you feel like Batman” has been used so much in regards to Arkham City (and its predecessor) that it’s ascended a cliché and reached meme status. But as comically overused as those words are, you can’t help but think of them as you play this game because they’re true. Between brawling hordes of enemies, picking off armed goons one by one like an apex predator, and zipping and gliding from one end of the map to the other, this game makes you feel like a badass. At the same time, the difficulty is just right so that it doesn’t feel like any feat you perform is handed to you. You can and probably will die in embarrassing ways, like taking too many hits from Two-Face’s thugs in half-melted president masks. However, Arkham City excels at allowing players to learn from their mistakes quickly and make fewer of them moving forward, allowing them to graduate to insanely long and uninterrupted combos.
This game was also my introduction to Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and the Joker. Without knowing that they’d spent years playing these characters since Batman: The Animated Series, I could already tell that they were the definitive voices for the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Conroy’s stoic determination and Hamill’s nasally chaotic glee play off of each other with such chemistry that it’s almost as if the characters are the ones playing the actors rather than the other way around. It’s particularly impressive how well Conroy and Hamill sell that their characters are dying of a terminal disease caused by the Joker’s use of Titan in the previous game. This illness really feels like a primal force destroying Batman and the Joker while chaining them together for one last ride.
Something that struck me while playing Arkham City for the first time was how it seemed to bridge the gap between the “gritty realism” of the Nolan Batman films and the more fantastic elements of a comic book. A lot of Arkham City’s character and location designs feel like they’re grounded enough to be recreated in reality while having just enough excess personality it makes sense for them to coexist in a world with a woman who controls monstrous plants and a hulking South American crime lord pumped-up with glowing green drugs.
This hybridized approach to design resulted in many interesting new takes on characters, like the Penguin’s iconic monocle swapped for a broken bottle shoved into his eye socket. Mr. Freeze no longer wears light armor with a fishbowl on his head, but a tank-like suit with a massive astronaut helmet and luminous tubes of “cryonic fluid” hooked into it. Perhaps the most infamous look to come out of Arkham City was that of Harley Quinn, whose dyed pigtails and heavy eye makeup overthrew the jester costume/domino mask combo as her signature look. It’s fascinating in hindsight to see how this game has gone on to influence Harley’s appearance across comics, live-action films, and animation in the decade following its release.
As much as I enjoyed The Dark Knight, it was difficult to see Nolan abandon his Batman Begins take on Gotham as an “art deco nightmarescape” for “Chicago, but kinda worse”, and Arkham City picks up that dropped ball by giving players a Gotham where the neon lights burn like hellfire and the streets are flooded with icy water and garbage. As much as the game lures in superhero skeptics with a promise of “realism”, it isn’t afraid to lean into that heavily exaggerated nastiness and crooked sense of style that you need to make a memorable iteration of Gotham. It embraced all of the outlandish elements of the Batman mythos that the films at the time were too afraid to touch, and that striking sense of identity provided something that had never been seen before in a game based on a licensed property. Arkham City has this unapologetic comic book feel to it, and interestingly enough, that actually served as the gateway to my love of superhero comics.
While after a few months I found the current Batman comics to be a bit too grim for my taste (this was around Batman: Earth One and that storyline where the Joker reclaimed his face after cutting it off,) this was the start of my exploration of an entire medium I hadn’t been interested in before. Without Batman: Arkham City, I probably would’ve never started checking out the comic shop at the local mall, and I wouldn’t have found the characters that eventually got me hooked on comics for good: the X-Men. Batman: Arkham City means a lot to me, not just as the incredible game that it is, but also for the doors that it personally opened for me. It was a remarkably formative experience during a remarkably formative time in my life.