The Sequel Conundrum

After years of reading various video game reviews and comments all over the internet, I’ve realized that there has to be a perfect formula you’ve got to keep in mind when making the sequel to a video game, especially a popular one. There must a perfect equation that accurately represents, to the finest decimal place imaginable, the ratio between changes and similarities compared to the previous game in the franchise. Unfortunately for developers, I’ve got no idea what that equation is or even any sort of idea where one would even begin to start calculating such a mystical equation. How do I know it exists then, you ask? Simple: the proof is the very nature of the number one and two most common complaints with regards to video game sequels: too much of the same or too different. …or vice versa, it depends on the franchise honestly.

Let’s answer the easier of the two questions first: under what circumstances would the sequel to a game to be considered “too different” from its predecessor? It’s hard to come up with an objective definition of what could make a sequel too different, but the general consensus seems to involve a complete shift in gameplay – the American/European Super Mario Bros. 2 is a particularly common example of what it means when a game is too different from the predecessor, though this is somewhat justified, considering it was originally a Japanese game by the name of Doki Doki Panic. But by that token, Super Mario World is even more different from its successor, Super Mario 64, but both of these games are held in high regard to this day. Needless to say, accusing a sequel of being too different appears to be extremely random: Grand Theft Auto III is held in much higher regard than the first two GTA games, despite being an almost complete departure from them in terms of gameplay. On the other hand, even now, some people still complain about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s differences from the original Legend of Zelda.

In my opinion, another game that diverged from its source material to its own detriment was the NES Strider. Lacking the slash-’em-up action seen in both the Arcade and Sega Genesis games of the same name, the NES Strider reminded me more of another NES Capcom game: Bionic Commando, stripped of all of its unique gameplay elements. There have also been a myriad of Sonic the Hedgehog games that overtly abandoned the series’s signature formula to each game’s detriment: Sonic 3D Blast comes to mind right off the bat. Sonic’s first foray into 3D was a colossal misstep: shoddy controls and confusing perspectives made what could’ve been an interesting diversion into an aggravating sendoff to the blue blur’s glory days on the Genesis.

Despite the argument’s simplicity, it’s easy to understand why many people can criticize a game for diverging from earlier titles in the series. After all, losing the basic essence of what made the fanbase fall in love with the franchise in the first place is a perfectly reasonable fear. Take, for example, Resident Evil: once considered the first true “survival horror” game, the series is now more of an action-shooter these days, much to the chagrin of the older games’ fanbase. Of course, considering that Resident Evil 5 outsold Resident Evil 2 (the highest selling “survival horror” RE) by over 1 million units. Factor in that the last Resident Evil game made with emphasis on “survival horror” underwhelmed Capcom in terms of their target sales (some sources claim it didn’t even break 100k sales) and chances are that in spite of the fanbase revolting (and trust me, they are revolting), the new direction has taken hold over the series for the foreseeable future, but perhaps Revelations’ re-release on more platforms might change things. The point is, that you never know what any sort of major change to a franchise may bring.

Of course, shifting gameplay mechanics can also be extremely advantageous as well, breathing new life into a franchise, when done properly. Take, for example, the Darkstalkers series. The original Darkstalkers was effectively a prototype of the Street Fighter Alpha games starring some wacky Universal Monsters knockoffs, and while the second game Night Warriors didn’t change much, it did begin to carve its own niche within Capcom’s stable of fighting games, focusing more on fast-pased chain combos and non-stop action, effectively inspiring the later Marvel vs. Capcom games. But the series reached its peak with its third (and as of yet, final) game: Vampire Savior, which offered fighting game action so fast, some Japanese players even say it’s “too fast for the West”. Another example of a series that benefitted from some fresh new ideas would be the Castlevania franchise, at least with its shift between standard, stage-based platformers to the “Metroidvania”-style games that focused more on exploration. While I did always prefer the old-school Castlevanias more than any other gameplay style for that particular series, I must admit that the “Metroidvanias”, as they’re called, offered an excellent change of pace. Finally, there’s also Kid Icarus: Uprising, which wasa complete change from the original Kid Icarus games on NES and Game Boy, but was amazing nonetheless.

But then there’s the flip side of the coin: accusing a game of being too stale by not changing enough between iterations. As gameplay is the most important part of any video game, simply improving upon the previous mechanics and perfecting them, in most gamers’ minds, is simply not enough to justify making another game in the franchise, unless there’s some kind of a new mechanic that changes everything. You all know by now that I’m a huge fan of the MegaMan Classic franchise, right? MegaMan has been the video game poster child for stagnation since the ’90s, to the point where even the joke that “MegaMan is stale” has been stale for years now. I’m not going to lie and say that there’s no truth to that, it’s a valid example. People have also said the same thing about Call of Duty and Madden, but those two franchises still sell like gangbusters and are critically-acclaimed.

One game comes instantly to mind when I think of stale franchises: Dynasty Warriors and its various spinoffs. Egads, there have got to be at least 30 of those games all together by this point, and I got sick of this game back around Dynasty Warriors 4. But Koei just keeps making them again and again and again and again and you get the idea. I’d also argue that Mario Kart has been suffering from this kind of stagnation since the Wii incarnation and the fact that another one’s been announced for Wii U already fills me with dread.

Again, this is a valid point: letting a series stagnate is probably the worst thing you can do to it. At least if you end up changing things for the worse, you’re trying to improve on the original. Enshrining the design and mechanics of a series pretty much kills any incentive for most people to buy any future titles (again, aware of my hypocrisy with regards to this statement and my love of Classic MegaMan). So, much like how changing a series too much can be seen as a detriment to the fanbase, leaving everything exactly the same as before has the potential to kill any potential future sales, and by extension, the series itself.

I guess I tend to look upon a franchise’s stagnation much more favorably than most people do, I’ve seen so many ROM hacks, remakes and fan tributes to old games that have piqued my interest in the past. The number one example I’d use with regards to loving a franchise that saw it was fit to “stop evolving” is obviously the aforementioned MegaMan games. You could also bring up numerous old-school puzzle games like Tetris or Puyo Puyo, which don’t really change much in terms of mechanics from games to games. Some also argue that the Professor Layton series also follows a set formula and few have held that against that series.

So we’ve established that all video game sequels have the potential to either discard what made the series so beloved in the first place or to remain exactly as its predecessor was to the point of becoming stale. I never really had any problem with either hypothesis. The real question I wrote the article to figure out is whether or not there is a perfect median between these two extremes. I mean, it would clearly need to vary from franchise to franchise if such a happy medium existed, but whether or not this point exists in the first place is what I’m trying to figure out.

Of course, when it comes right down to it, all of these complaints are the products of people having their own opinions on video games in general. Obviously, there is no perfect ratio to save a sequel from the criticism of being considered too similar or too different from its predecessor. In several cases, you’ll hear people on opposite sides make opposing arguments over the same game: one person’s stale rehash is another’s bastardized departure from what made the original great. The real lesson for developers here is to just avoid trying to please everyone and focus more on developing a proper follow-up to the preceding game(s) in the franchise, regardless of how much you change and how much you retain from earlier games. Because if you don’t, you’ll just end up with something like Resident Evil 6: an ambitious game that tried to please everyone, but in doing so, ended up bland and unsatisfying.

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