Last year I read a review of Batman: Arkham Asylum that called it the first good Batman game. I immediately objected, "But the Sega Genesis Batman was great!" But after playing B:AA and seeing how good a Batman game (or any kind of game) can be, my nostalgia for the Genesis version faded, and that game seems like a cookie-cutter action platformer.
It may seem unfair that I'm comparing a game made 20 years ago to a game made last year. But what's makes B:AA great isn't just technological, but the fact that it tries to encapsulate the character that it's about. The games of that era couldn't have been expected to be anywhere near as good, but they at least could have made an effort to convey the essence of the character. What the Genesis Batman did was try to capture the atmosphere of the Tim Burton Batman movie that it was based on. It performed admirably in that regard, given the limitations of the Genesis. But when you strip off the visuals, you're left with a generic jumping / punching / throwing protaganist in a mediocre game.
If you've never played Batman for the Sega Genesis, here's a video of the first level:
You can see that stealth is not a element of the game at all. The detective aspect of Batman is not represented. Gadgets are barely represented. The Batmobile and Batwing levels are generic shoot-'em-ups with Batman window dressing. The NES game Metal Gear -- for all its faults and bugs -- showed that stealth could be implemented with the technology back then. The technology wasn't the big hindrance though. I guess the main thing preventing more creative gameplay was either laziness or lack of imagination from game developers.
There are good games from the 16 bit era, but Batman: Arkham Asylum really opened my eyes to how good games can be, and made me wonder why the games that came out in the '80s and '90s weren't better than they were. I'll have more thoughts specifically about B:AA later.