Batman and Superman are two of the biggest cultural icons in history. Yet their track records in the world of video games are spotty at best. The last few years have been very kind to Batman with the fantastic Arkham games. But it wasn’t always this good for Batman and his Kryptonian buddy. For many years, a sense of dread came with the announcement of any new Batman and Superman game. Fans had been burnt so, so many times before. Being Bats or Supes should be exciting, fun and larger-than-life. Sadly, many times it was boring, frustrating and completely forgettable.
Let’s take a look back at some of the good (and very, very bad) games from Batman and Superman’s past. We didn’t list every game to ever include these heroes, just the ones that were too good (or too bad) to pass up.
Batman: The Video Game (1990)
This is the first Batman game that many of us will remember because it was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and was tied to Tim Burton’s Batman. It’s nearly thirty years old now but is still considered one of the better Batman games. A fairly straightforward side-scroller, the game is similar to many others of its time. But it retains a lot of the colors and themes that would define Batman for decades. Plus Batman’s ability to do a wall jump was a total game changer.
Batman: Return of the Joker (1991)
Coming a few years after Burton’s film, Return of the Joker satisfied many Batfans who were eagerly awaiting Batman’s next adventure. Like most games at the time, this was another side-scrolling game, but the graphics were improved and Batman had different gadgets and shot batarang after batarang at villains. Return of the Joker holds its own against other action-platformers of the era like Contra and Power Blade.
Batman Returns (1993)
Batman Returns for the SNES was a luminous, loud, explosive adaptation of the film. It didn’t break the mold in terms of its format: yet again, it was another side-scroller that had Batman pummeling bad guys left and right. But the game showcased the gameplay and graphical capabilities of 16-bit systems at the time. The background animation, music and character designs were all a step up from previous games. Batman was becoming more and more like the Batman we saw on the screen and Batman Returns showed that in bright, eye-popping color.
The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994)
Again, The Adventures of Batman & Robin showed off the maturing world of video games. The graphics were better, the game play was smoother, the colors and character designs were much more accurate. That’s important because this game was based on the hugely popular Batman: The Animated Series. Fans took TAS very, very seriously. The Adventures of Batman & Robin was mostly faithful, though it contained little in the way of story. Instead, players went from level to level beating up bad guys and soaking up the iconic artistic style that defined Batman for a generation. The game was hard, too. Really hard, in fact, which was typical of games of that time.
The Death and Return of Superman (1994)
From the opening title screen, you knew The Death and Return of Superman was going to be something special. And it was. Yet another side-scrolling beat-‘em-up, Death did everything very well. The controls were tight, the levels interesting and colorful and the characters were well-known and loved. The game had an interesting approach, allowing you to play as five different versions of Superman. Want to fly around as Superboy? You could. Want to smash bad guys as Steel? You had your chance. Want to save Metropolis as the classic Superman? Well, of course you could do that. All in all, The Death and Return of Superman didn’t break the mold but delivered on the fun. Not all Superman games are bad!
Batman Forever (1995)
Time hasn’t been kind to Batman Forever, the movie or the Genesis game. The movie was panned for its awful story, sub-par performances (sorry, Mr. Kilmer) and bizarre costume choices. The game was lambasted for its sluggish controls, bland level design and painful difficulty. Looking back at it now, Batman Forever is a simple and forgettable cash-in on a hotly anticipated movie.
Superman 64 / Superman: The New Adventures (1999)
Well, here it is: the game that no one likes. Superman 64 is a mess of a game. To this day, people tell horror stories of the abysmal controls, bland graphics and plethora of glitches. People were promised a high-flying adventure based on the popular cartoon series. Instead they got a trashfire of a game that has been repeatedly cited as one of the worst games ever. If you know someone who played this, ask them about it and hear all about the game that still haunts them to this day.
Batman: Gotham City Racer (2001)
Batman: Gotham City Racer was something completely different from the usual beat-‘em-up format. Racer allowed you to drive around in the Batmobile, chasing down villains and tearing through the streets of Gotham. At least that’s how it was pitched. In reality, the game was filled with essentially the same streets and same objectives over and over again. This was years before the open-world games we all know and love, as there was only so much the gaming systems could handle. Therefore, Batman: Gotham City Racer was a game much more impressive in theory than in reality.
Batman Vengeance (2001)
Another game based on Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Vengeance starred an all-star voice cast including Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Bob Hastings and many more. It was like watching an episode of the show. That was a huge draw for fans. As for the gameplay, it remained mostly strong throughout the game, despite some awkward angles and controls. Surprisingly, no sequels were spawned from Vengeance.
Superman: The Man of Steel (2002)
This was an interesting game that was not tied to a movie release or even a particular comic run. Instead, The Man of Steel was a classical take on Supes, which excited many fans who wanted a game that wasn’t a cash-in for a movie or show. Despite the excitement, the game didn’t deliver. The levels were too repetitive and focused on time limits. As for the controls, flying had never been so difficult. What should have been a fun breath of fresh air ended up being a difficult bore. Too bad, because Superman fans were dying for a great game. One they are still waiting for, actually.
Batman: Dark Tomorrow (2003)
The less said about Dark Tomorrow the better. Widely considered one of the worst Batman games ever, Dark Tomorrow is a huge mess. The controls are atrocious, the lighting and graphics are weak, dark and forgettable. The story is flat, the character design uninspired and, worst of all, the game isn’t fun. Fans were wanting so much more, especially since Dark Tomorrow promised something new and different for Batman games. It didn’t deliver. Reviews and fans weren’t kind to the game, which was promptly forgotten. Sadly, that didn’t help the poor people who were suckered into buying the game.
Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins marked a new era for Batman and the way we saw him. The game based on the film aimed for the same, with markedly mixed results. Batman Begins focused heavily on sneaking, which was a popular video game trope at the time. It was a new concept for a Batman game, hiding in the darkness and spooking criminals before swooping down to scoop them up. It was a novel, smart approach to Batman but was limited by graphic capabilities, repetitive level design and shoddy A.I. Fans were hoping for a lot with Batman Begins but the game didn’t deliver. Little did people know what amazing Batman goodness was right around the corner.
Superman Returns (2006)
Based on the hit (?) Bryan Singer film, Superman Returns was the latest, greatest hope for a good Superman video game. Sure, it was an adaptation of a movie and, sure, there hadn’t been an impressive Superman game in…well, ever. Still, folks were hopeful – for both the game and the movie it was based on.
Much like the film, many were underwhelmed with the game. Like the games that preceded it, Superman Returns couldn’t get a good handle on flying and making Superman zoom around Metropolis was never easy or fun. The controls were sketchy, the character and level design was bland and the final boss of the game was a tornado, for some reason.
Things never really came together for Superman Returns and it became just another weak game that should have been better. For some reason, video game studios have never figured out Superman. What is it about him that doesn’t translate to video games? Being Supes should be a blast and so many Superman games are definitely not that.
Batman: Arkham Series (2009 – 2015)
Without question, the Arkham games are the greatest Batman games. Ever. No ifs, ands or buts. The games combined the mythos of Batman, the exhilaration of his fighting style and a voice cast that was as good – if not better – than most Batman films. Not only did it set the bar for all games based on comic book characters, it set the bar for all games. These weren’t just the best Batman games, they were some of the best video games around. Critics, fans and even non-fans cheered the Arkham games and their insanely fun fighting system and in-depth, layered story. Most will agree that Origins is the weakest in the series (that’s because it wasn’t actually produced by developer Rocksteady, the studio that made the other three), but collectively the games are a remarkable achievement for Batman in any medium.