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From Batwing to Websling: The Timeless Predecessor of Insomniac's 'Spider-Man,' by Emma Rudkin

I don’t play many video games, but there’s always one every few years that captivates my attention. For example, I absolutely fell in love with Insomniac’s Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4. I was never a Spider-Man kid, but that game and both Spider-Verse films have catalyzed the promotion of Spider-Man into one of my top three favorite superheroes.

Upon replaying it while anticipating Spider-Man 2’s release on October 20, 2023, I couldn’t help but think back to where this entire video game genre began (spoiler alert: it didn’t start with Spider-Man, or even Marvel for that matter.)

In fall of 2009, as a six-year-old, I had completed my nightly ritual of hastily brushing my teeth before rushing downstairs to the basement to meet my dad. My sister was a troublesome toddler at the time, so these nights alone with my dad were sacred for the uninterrupted time we could spend together.

These nights usually consisted of me watching him play video games like FIFA, NBA, Guitar Hero, and so much more that my six-year-old brain didn’t bother to remember. Sometimes he would indulge in turning on some Disney Channel, but I enjoyed watching him play just as much as Hannah Montana (and that’s saying a lot).

But this night was different; my dad revealed that he had bought a new game. He showed me the box — Batman: Arkham Asylum for the Xbox 360. I was familiar with Batman, but I never held him in higher regard than any other superhero. That fall 2009 night, I had no clue what I was in store for; I didn’t know that my entire personality would revolve around this character for years to come.

It didn’t take long for the game to captivate me. Right off the bat, the atmosphere the game creates was unlike anything else in gaming at the time. While neither I nor my dad knew that at the time, we did know it looked really cool. After just a few nights of watching, I forbade my dad from playing without me because I had to know what happened next. These already sacred nights became even more special.

The magic of Kevin Conroy’s Batman, Mark Hamill’s masterful Joker performance, the intricate character designs, superb world-building, state-of-the-art graphics: It all sucked us both into this new world of Arkham Island.

The final product was so brilliant that I never would have imagined that this game was so close to never being made at all.

Originally, the game was supposed to accompany Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight, just as Batman Begins shares a video game of the same name. However, unlike Batman Begins and other games at the time, the developers sought to curate an open-world experience in The Dark Knight video game.

For technical and logistical reasons, the project had to be scrapped. After cycling through different licensing companies and publishers, the backing for a Batman video game landed in the laps of Rocksteady Games. A small studio with only one game (of a completely different genre) under their belt, Rocksteady paved the way for superhero video games to date.

The most groundbreaking innovation of Rocksteady was the combat system in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Its free-flowing rhythmic nature has roots in the 2D rhythm action game that Batman: Arkham Asylum was originally pitched as. The rhythmic aspect of the combat discouraged (and sometimes even punished) button-mashing that was native to fighting games of the time.

This complex system doesn’t have a high skill floor, though, meaning my six-year-old self could sometimes defeat a group of henchmen in just a couple tries. The system is easy to adapt to, but it’s also sophisticated enough to have a high skill ceiling to fully maximize its potential. It rewards the player for being strategic about their combat without punishing a casual player for not being super skilled.

Each punch had impact as well. The combat makes the player feel powerful and impressive regardless of skill level, and therein lies the magic of the game.

While the game wasn’t incredibly open world, especially by modern standards, the ability to roam around Arkham Island was pretty much unprecedented in gaming by the time of release, at least at this scale.

The game provides the player with the agency to decide where to go next or how to navigate enemy encounters: Do they want to go in with batarangs-a-blazin’ or hide in the shadows until the perfect moment to strike? It may sound rudimentary to anyone who’s played a modern (or post-2010-ish) video game, but these open worlds were an innovation.

Rocksteady helped pioneer this with limited resources and experience, but never without an abundance of passion.

These elements continue to improve with each installment of the Batman Arkham game series. While the series is by no means perfect (from the monotonous Joker boss fight at the end of Arkham Asylum to the countless tank battles in Arkham Knight), the series still acts as one of the most comprehensive, well-polished video game series to date.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man, though, is giving Batman a run for his money. I find myself absentmindedly zipping around New York without any objective because the traversal mechanics are just that fun. I’m sorry Batman, but I’d take spidey-webs over a gliding cape to get around any day. The story is just as high-quality as those of the Arkham series, the graphics are phenomenal, world-building top notch, and so much more.

It may seem like anything the Arkham series can do, Spider-Man can do better, to which I would say, I’d hope so — it’s a newer game! Regardless, the Arkham series has its DNA embedded into Spider-Man, as there would not be an Insomniac Spider-Man game without the innovations and breakthroughs achieved by Rocksteady with the Batman Arkham series. The combat system in particular has Batman Arkham’s fingerprints all over it because it simply works.

It’s not a bad thing that Insomniac’s Spider-Man builds off the foundation established by the Batman Arkham series. If anything, it’s a testament to how innovative Rocksteady was, as the studio was able to create a game so comparable to another that used far more advanced technology.

Spider-Man doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to set itself apart from the Arkham games, nor is that what I’m asking for. It sets itself apart with world-building of its own, its own detail-oriented character models, dedicated voice actors, and its way of putting a Spider-Man spin on things.

All that I can ask for is that we, as people who appreciate the art form of video games, never lose sight of the feat that Rocksteady achieved with the Batman Arkham games. So when you’re swinging around New York in Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2, remember to respect your elders: the Batman Arkham games.

So maybe I’ll dust off my old Xbox and go back to my more gothic roots in anticipation for Spider-Man 2. Maybe I’ll thank my dad for deciding to pick out Arkham Asylum that one day. I do know one thing for certain: Batman will always hold a very special place in my heart. That wouldn’t be the case without the love poured into the Batman Arkham games, which inspired a new generation of games to do the same for other heroes.

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