Amongst all the hype for the Dark Knight Rises one thing is missing from all the fast food link ups, toys, lunch boxes (do kids still have lunch boxes?) and terrible t-shirts – there's no official tie-in video game. This is the second of Nolan's Batman trilogy to have eschewed the now routinely awful - barring a few notable exceptions - gaming accompaniment, a move which has benefited the Dark Knight's interactive adventures no end, with two superb Arkham titles and a pair of highly enjoyable Lego Batman games filling the void since Batman Begins was released for both cinemas and consoles back in 2005.
'Twas not always thus. Although the first pair of game titles for the Dark Knight – the smartly titled Batman and Batman: The Caped Crusader – were released in 1986 and 1988 respectively, I have to confess they were a bit before my time. Well reviewed isometric action-adventures, they appeared on the ZX Spectrum and other contemporary consoles, and eschewed the Adam West series in favour of the comic style of the time.
However, it is 1989's Batman: The Movie which is a strong childhood memory – launched to coincide with Burton's gothic Gotham adventure. It had me glued to my Gameboy, clutching the grey brick as I traversed the Axis Chemical Plant to knock Jack Napier into a vat of acid, transforming him into Jack Nicholson's ghoulishly Grand Guignol portrayal of the Joker.
The game itself was surprisingly good, even in retrospect, with five distinct levels and playing styles tracking the narrative of the movie fairly closely. There was platforming, vehicular action and puzzling, and it managed to capture the tone of the film well given the graphical limitations of the time. Various different versions were produced for the plethora of gaming platforms at the time, but it's the basic handheld iteration which sticks in my mind. The NES version did spawn a sequel, Return of the Joker, but moved away from its filmic origins, basing itself more on the comics at the time for a fun, if uninspired sidescrolling beat-em-up.
Burton's sequel, Batman Returns also had a successful tie-in, a side scrolling fighter which aped the popular Streets of Rage series. The graphics were good, capturing the circus themed baddies of the movie with fidelity and putting the now familiar Danny Elfman score to good use. It certainly wasn't easy though, and the skull-headed motorcycling clowns always proved a particular frustration.
There followed a couple of titles based on the excellent Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series, which were able to replicate its visual style within a fairly standard action-platform gameplay dynamic. It was all downhill from there though. Batman Forever had a suitably atrocious beat-em-up game, based on Mortal Kombat, and devoid of even the small charm which Verhoeven's first entry had. And it was no surprise that Batman & Robin should produce an equally terrible Grand Theft Auto-lite game, where you could play as a benippled Batman, Boy Wonder or Batgirl. It lacked any charm, even if the notion of an open-world Gotham title was ahead of its time.
With the films now taking a hiatus, the developers turned to the animated adventures for inspiration – the comics often adult tone apparently too challenging to grapple with – and there were near enough annual releases from Ubisoft. They all failed to impress. One in particular, 2003's The Rise of Sin Tzu, stands out as a huge disappointment. There was plenty of hype pre-release, the videos and stills showed a beautifully realised version of the animated world on the then cutting edge PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, and some exciting looking combat. What arrived was a repetitive beat-em-up with cookie cutter enemies, and a series of unexciting plot developments.
That was Ubisoft's last shot at the Caped Crustade – he'd endured enough of a battering, and the games have shown a notable upswing in quality since. Batman Begins was a step in the right direction, with a new gritty, realistic aesthetic borrowed from Nolan's hit, employing stealth gameplay and intimidation tactics to move away from the Pow, Bang, Wallop stylings of earlier titles.
However, it was 2009's BAFTA winning Arkham Asylum that really broke the mould. Leaving behind the film series to break out on it's own, it was a truly adult Batman game, developed in the UK by Rocksteady, trapping Batman in the dank walls of the eponymous mad house. Stuck with his impressive rogue's gallery the game forces you to use brains as well as brawn to take down enemies, swinging from high-up gargoyles to avoid detection and swooping down at just the right time. It made Batman mortal, vulnerable and brought the gothic horror elements that have always made him so popular to the fore. It's clear to see some inspiration came from Begins – there's even a sequence in that film where Batman hides in the rafters to take some armed thugs down one by one in much the way you do while playing the game – but it was also good to see a developer embrace the rich comic history of the character to do something new and different with a property which always had so much potential. It may not have the outright horror of Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, with which it shared a name, but it's much closer to that than the technicolour stylings of the late 90s.
At the same time, Traveller's Tales was sculpting the perfect Dark Knight for a younger audience. Lego Batman was a cutesy, intelligent and most importantly funny puzzle platformer that used in jokes and a love of all things Gotham to sculpt a joyous title, oozing with charm. Their follow up, Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, brings in the other Justice League stars, like Superman and Wonder Woman, but manages to maintain the laughs and stellar gameplay.
Rocksteady took a different tack with their sequel, Arkham City, taking the idea out into the open and creating a sandbox title that Batman & Robin had attempted and failed at so many years ago. With a story that's engaging, whilst also managing to weave in nearly all of Batman's famous (and not so famous) enemies, the addition of a playable Catwoman helped to spice things up. It had everything the fans were crying out for, even managing to take Batman back to his detective routes, something all the films have failed to embrace.
Arkham City improved on its predecessor to such a degree that it was hard to imagine where they would possibly go next. That was until the recent hints from Warner Brothers. With Nolan's trilogy about to end, and the company desperate to emulate Marvel's movie success with the Avengers, it seems that the Arkham games are going to follow in the Lego footsteps and bring the Justice League along to play with the Dark Knight. How this will work, and how Rocksteady will manage to keep the dark, realistically brutal stealth combat in tact when more fantastical characters like Superman and the Flash are brought into play remains to be seen, but what's sure is that the interactive Batman adventures have never been in better hands.