Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first of developer Rocksteady's games featuring the caped crusader. It also might still be the best, most faithful interpretation of the character and his world that we've yet seen.
Its sequel, Arkham City, took things open-world. It was fine, but lost the reverse-claustrophobia of truly feeling like Batman's villains (and countless unnamed thugs) were truly locked in the infamous asylum with him. Arkham Knight was more of the same, plus a very obvious narrative twist and bizarre hover-tank levels, and Arkham Origins... Well, we don't talk about Arkham Origins (besides, the prequel wasn't developed by Rocksteady anyway).
By contrast, Arkham Asylum fires on all cylinders. It makes just-about-perfect use of Batman's rogues gallery. Killer Croc is a big, bad brute lurking beneath the sludge of a forgotten sewer. A pre-face turn Harley Quinn is a middle manager of evil. The Joker (sans a sadly unnecessary one-on-one final boss fight) is a fantastic voice in Bruce's ear, as well as those of the lackeys he promises to kill horribly if they fail to stop Bats.
And the Scarecrow levels? They're fourth-wall breaking brilliance--perfect for a character that never actually does direct battle with his nemesis.
It goes beyond the set dressing, true. The aforementioned claustrophobia of "predator" levels capture the opening scenes of every great Batman story from a new perspective. The stealth sequences have you stringing up, knocking out, and otherwise causing severe brain trauma (but don't worry, it's not killing) on hapless goons who somehow still think it's a good idea to point guns at the guy who's fought literal space gods.
Maybe less specific to Batman, but definitely more influential to modern video games, is the game's trademark "Freeflow Combat," which would go on to germinate in... basically every character action game from 2009 till The Presence knows when in the future. It allowed the player to seamlessly break noses (and arms, and legs, and spines) in combo-heavy brawls among battalions of goons. It really sold the idea of being the world's greatest hand-to-hand fighter. Also the idea that Batman does not care about the kind of life-altering physical damage he commits on strangers.
Despite their massive influence on popular game design, the Arkham games seem to have wrapped up in the time since Rocksteady Studios finished up its trilogy (unless you count a short "VR experience" set in the developer's universe). Maybe that's for the best. None of the other games in the series have quite lived up to their source material the way the first one did. But we'll always have the asylum.
As a replication of J.R.R. Tolkein's famous fantasy saga, The Two Towers video game isn't very true to the story's original vision. Then again, you could say the same thing about director Peter Jackson's movie by the same name. In fact we're saying that. We're saying the Lord of the Rings movies weren't super faithful to the books.
And you know what? That's pretty much okay. Tolkein's trilogy was likely never meant to be told on the silver screen. So instead of a direct interpretation, what we got was a handful of pretty great (if overly long) action-adventure flicks. Whichever version you liked best didn't have to step on the other.
In between it all, we got a couple of movie tie-in games. The Two Towers, and later Return of the King, were slightly updated takes on the simple fun of beat-em-ups. Except instead of bare fists and knee drops, the playable characters' weapons of choice matched those of the films. Legolas had his bow. Aragorn slung a sword. Gimli, ever eager to provide his blade of choice whether you want it or not, offered his axe.
The game was short, but looked great for the era and sported a fairly robust upgrade system. So the repetitive action of chopping and/or stabbing hordes of Uruk-hai never got too repetitive. In fact, it's thanks to that repetition that The Two Towers deserves special attention on this list. Because The Two Towers (the movie one) stands out as the one that made chopping up 6-foot goblins en masse so damn entertaining.
Its tremendous battle of Helm's Deep is basically the iconic moment of the films and is nothing but increasingly creative methods of orc murder. There's definitely something satisfying about that image: thousands of baddies you don't have to feel bad about dying, throwing themselves against an inferior force with superior defenses. The Two Towers predates the modern zombie boom in pop culture by a minute, but they share some similar DNA.
In that way, The Two Towers (the game one -- we know this is confusing) translates the on-screen fantasy into the hands of players. The forces of Mordor charge the players without end. The players chew through them like metal and magic blenders. Then you get rewarded for it with better ways mythical murder methods. It's a simple fantasy, but a tried and true fantasy.
This was a tough one. There have been a lot of Spider-Man games over the years: some good, some bad, some just mediocre. Okay, mostly bad. But when the franchise does hit its stride in interactive media it does so handily.
That's probably because the basic mechanic of web-swinging is such a good fit for video games. Bobbing and weaving through the air, always in motion, with solid and rhythmic control of your actions just feels good. At least, it finally did in the beloved Spider-Man 2 (based on the movie of the same name), which brought one of our favorite wall-crawlers into the open-world with an extremely detailed swing system that allowed for immense creativity.
But that's not the game that made this list! Instead we're talking about Ultimate Spider-Man, based on the comic of the same name. This follow-up to the film-based games featured a very similar (although simplified) style of swinging, plus cel shaded graphics that were much more faithful to the original comics. As a bonus, its cartoonish look--which included comic book panel-style scene transitions -- holds up a lot better today than the other PlayStation 2 and original Xbox games with "realistic" graphics.
The streamlined controls might be the biggest modern sticking point. According to developers, the game was meant to allow younger players to participate along with the big kids. That's likely because, for a time, Ultimate Spider-Man wasn't just mostly true to its source material--a comic meant for younger Marvel fans. It was considered part of the source material.
The whole thing is set a few months after that series' first appearance of Venom, with a quick prologue ripped straight from pages created by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. The game was meant to fill in a gap in the series' story, during which Eddie Brock and his accompanying symbiote hunted for answers about his mysteriously dead parents. Hence why the game also lets you play as Venom in several sequences.
Inevitably, the game's canon was removed from the comics. Bendis wrote his own version of its events in the form of the War of the Symbiotes storyline, which included its own wacky comic book contrivances and the series trademark drama. But for a brief moment, we had a nice little licensed game that did more than look and feel like its counterpart. It actually added something back.
Star Wars' batting average in games is a damn sight better than Spider-Man's. There's just something about putting a lightsaber in your game automatically makes your Metacritic score go up. From Dark Forces to Rogue Squadron to Star Wars Kinect (okay, maybe not that last one, but "I'm Han Solo" is a genuinely underrated novelty song), we're pretty spoiled for choice when it comes to good interactive Star Wars fiction.
But if someone was... hypothetically... holding us at gunpoint and forcing us to write about which Star Wars games embody the films the best, the Knights of the Old Republic series would be up there. There's just no denying how well the games integrate the size and scope of the universe seen in each trilogy; the time they spend deconstructing its binary religion or the simple joy of getting a ragtag crew together to save the universe.
The original game plays it pretty straight. Your team of aliens, humans, cyborgs, and one extremely memorable organics-hating droid sets out to stomp out a Sith lord. Except Knights of the Old Republic takes place millennia before Darth Vader was in short pants. Meaning the shape of the galaxy is very, very different. Players got to discover a whole new galaxy of strange, awful, and beautiful science-fantasy mysteries.
That lines up pretty well with Star Wars itself, which basically wrote the book on "background characters that look so interesting they deserve their own book." The added benefit of presenting this through a sprawling role-playing game is that those cool-looking creatures often had side quests associated with them. So instead of plunking down $9.99 ($12 Canadian) at the Barnes and Noble, the back story of Reginald Squidface III was included with the cost of the game.
The aptly named Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords expanded on this formula with more complex characters and a harder-hitting story. Which is about par for the course when it comes to developer Obsidian. Even the MMO, which dropped the "Knights of" bit from the title, is deeply focused on character development and fleshing out its world.
Over time (not to mention some less than stellar prequels and a corporate buyout) what Star Wars represents has evolved and shifted. But at the heart of it all is usually a cast of crewmates, Jedi pupils, smugglers, bounty hunters, or some kind of strange bedfellows through which we see the universe. Knights of the Old Republic was has been a, if not the greatest embodiment of that central theme. Hell, it's certainly a lot better than some of the movies.
Set in a cyberpunk noir hellscape, around killer androids and the people who kill them back, it's very easy to picture someone making Blade Runner into an action game. At the very least, we couldn't fault them for thinking Deckard's gun looked rad enough to deserve its own starring role.
But we're pretty glad nobody did. 1997's Blade Runner -- based on, get this, Blade Runner -- is a 3D adventure game. That means its a lot more thematically consistent with the 1982 film right from the jump than, say, a third-person shooter. But developer Westwood Studios (may it rest in peace in Electronic Arts' ever-growing graveyard of acquisitions) went the extra mile.
It's got in-game Voight-Kampff tests. We've got that weird 3D camera that lets you see stuff around corners in photos by saying "enhance." It's got police interrogations and a villain who continues acting in the background, in real-time, regardless of the player's actions. And while that's extremely stressful at times, it's also extremely reminiscent of the cutaways to our favorite Nexus 6 androids acting in the shadows from the 80s.
The game even has multiple endings. Each implies a different status for the main character at the end of the game: either he's a replicant, he's not, or it's left ambiguous. While that's probably an unintentional similarity to the movie's multiple edits, it's still pretty on-brand. And nothing says cyberpunk like brands.
If the Blade Runner game has any faults (besides some extremely dated graphics) it's that it's too similar to the source material. Seriously, the game is practically a retelling of the movie: with a blade runner hunting down replicants on Earth and bumping into some who are looking for a way to extend their limited lifespans. Although it plays with the world's fiction in some very cool ways. Unlike Leon from the first film, these replicants don't start by murdering a human being, but natural animals instead. Which is almost as bad, given how rare and expensive the endangered creatures have become in this world.
It's odd that we got a proper Blade Runner game at all, 12 years after the first movie, but it's also a shame that we're not likely to get more any time soon. Blade Runner 2049 didn't set the world on fire (appropriate, given that its predecessor didn't either) and licensed games are a dying breed to begin with. Still, Westwood proved the dark and complicated world translates just fine into video games.