It cannot go understated just how incredible Ubisoft’s fall 2003 line-up was. While not every title reached the sales they deserved, the company produced unforgettable classics like Prince of Perisa: The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil, the stylish cel-shaded first-person shooter XIII and quietly nestled among them was Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu. It’s easy to forget Sin Tzu even exists, and there may perhaps even be readers who are only hearing it for the first time in this piece. For me however, it helped in making 2003 one of the best holiday breaks ever.
2003 was one of the lower points in Batman’s popularity. Though Kevin Conroy was still crushing it as the character on Justice League, Batman: The Animated Series and its follow-up, Batman Beyond, had ceased getting new episodes for some time. The last cinematic outing, 1997’s Batman and Robin, was still a running joke and the public was still two years away from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
The character fared little better in the video game space. 2001’s Batman: Vengeance was a respectful action-adventure outing with a terrific art style, but the titles that released around Vengeance like Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman: Gotham City Racer and Batman: Dark Tomorrow were also among the worst reviewed games starring the Caped Crusader.
It was for that reason that Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu received little fanfare upon its release, reading more like a contractually obligated product made by Ubisoft to get out of a license that more than likely wasn’t paying off. Whereas Batman: Vengeance was ambitious in its design, mixing combat, platforming, first-person sequences, driving and flying, Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu was little more than a glorified brawler at a time when the genre had well run its course. It featured great animation, combos you could buy with currency earned from fighting, the ability to play as four characters: Batman; Batgirl; Robin and Nightwing, Kevin Conroy once again voicing Batman and a brand new villain designed by the legendary Jim Lee, but it still was little more than moving from room to room, fighting the same few bad guys over-and-over like Final Fight and so many others.
It came as little surprise then that Rise of Sin Tzu quickly dropped from a full-priced title in October to $29.99, at least in Canada, in mere weeks. This was assuredly bad for Ubisoft’s balance sheet, but great news for me. This was during my second year of University where I had little money to buy Christmas gifts for my family. My brother was a huge lover of comics, I credit him for me getting into superheroes and the medium in general, so a brand new Batman video game at a budget price was a win-win scenario for me.
My brother and I spent many hours playing versus games like Mortal Kombat 3 and Killer Instinct against one another, and when he got his PlayStation in 1999, I eagerly awaited him coming back from school in Ontario to watch him play titles like Final Fantasy VII and VIII. I would just sit there, entranced by the cinematics and story, doing what little I could to help like adding up attack damage as quickly as I could on a calculator for tough bosses. I won’t lie, part of me was happy when my brother would go out wish his friends so I could have the PlayStation to myself, but there was also a sadness in that I wouldn’t get to spend time with him and observe his adventures in Final Fantasy.
As the years went on, my brother started coming home less frequently from Ontario. The first couple of years he would return for the entire summer and the holidays, but eventually he would only come back to Newfoundland for a few weeks in the summer and Christmas. I had to take it upon myself to play Final Fantasy IX and X, daunting tasks for me as I’m terrible at JRPG’s, because I wanted to experience those games and he wasn’t going to be around.
Through Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, I was able to enjoy video games with my brother again in a way I hadn’t in years. Unlike Final Fantasy, I could even be a helping participant instead of a passive observer as like most beat ’em ups, Rise of Sin Tzu could be played two-players simultaneously. Night after night was spent developing strategies to manage the hordes of criminals polluting the streets of Gotham City and toppling the likes of Clayface, Scarecrow, Bane and even Sin Tzu himself. My brother as Batman and myself as Nightwing, every chapter concluded with us timing a swing from our grappling hooks into the circular area to move on to the next area. Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu isn’t a terribly long game, but I still felt a sense of accomplishment when we beat its final boss. This was also met with a pang of melancholy because I knew the game was over.
I had so much fun with this game that I was convinced that the critics were wrong about it and that they had judged it harshly. So much so that I decided upon returning to the city to resume my studies that I needed a copy of my own. Not only did I manage to get a collectors edition with a Nightwing action figure, I also tracked down the companion novel that gave further insight into its characters and story. No matter if I played by myself or roped in a friend to join in though, the joyous feelings I had over the holidays never even registered not but once.
The ingredient I was missing was my brother, now many provinces away. Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu isn’t one of the most prolific titles in Ubisoft’s catalog or Batman’s interactive legacy, but for me personally I cherish it for allowing me to connect with my brother again through video games in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. It’s easy to dunk on a game that didn’t sell or review well, but even those titles can manage to find a special place in someone’s heart.