First is the Worst: The Flawed Beginnings of Legendary Franchises (Part 2)

Welcome to the second part of my series examining the rough starts of classic series. As I’ve hopefully pounded into your head by now I love sequels and hate when people present them as a bad thing, so I’m going to show you three more series we should all be very grateful are not represented by their first attempt. I even have one that isn’t by Nintendo this time, so let’s dive in!

Resident Evil

Platform: Playstation
Year of Release: 1996

The Good Parts

I think we all know about the influence Resident Evil had on gaming. While like every game that spawned clones it wasn’t the very first example of its genre, Resident Evil was the template for the survival horror games that came after it. 3D itself was pretty new to most gamers in 1996, and few had ever seen it used the way Resident Evil did. Resident Evil used its detailed pre-rendered backgrounds and static yet varied camera angles to frighten players, an emotion games really didn’t capitalize on at the time. The story was pretty unique for gaming at the time, and there was an atmosphere of mystery that the series hasn’t replicated since. As cheesy as the voice acting is, both the setting and the gameplay had an atmosphere of tension that was amazing for gamers at the time. Resident Evil was one of the first games to use 3D for an experience that absolutely could not have been done in 2D.

The Bad Parts

Notice how I made barely any mention of gameplay under The Good Parts? Yes, Resident Evil was trying to be scary, and yes, that would have been undermined if your character was too powerful. However, you still need to balance things like that, and Resident Evil simply didn’t. Your character controlled poorly, was at the mercy of camera angles often ill-suited for gameplay, and was completely incapable of even the most basic spatial reasoning. The problem with zombies is that the stereotypical version RE uses is actually less of a threat than a normal person. Since Resident Evil wanted even the basic zombie to be a large threat to the player, they had to make your character truly terrible at dodging and fighting. Everyone knows about the infamous tank controls, and not assisting aiming in a game with pre-rendered camera angles is just sadistic. In a common theme, Resident Evil had a good formula, but it just hadn’t been polished to the point where the gameplay could stand on its own.

How the Sequels Fixed It

Okay, I’m going to avoid the minefield of Resident Evil 4’s impact on the series, and instead focus on the sequels that used the same formula as the original Resident Evil. Resident Evil 2 took the “here’s the original formula, but we got it working this time” route to sequel improvement. It’s really pretty simple what it did, ammo and healing items were more reasonably given out (and more variety in difficulty settings helped people from feeling overwhelmed or under challenged) and you felt like you were making more progress throughout the game instead of often circling an area draining your resources. Later games would add more helpful features like a quick turn move. Future games just felt less like the game was going out of its way to make your character weak just so that one zombie you could probably kill in real life would be a threat.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Platform: Super Nintendo
Year of Release: 1996

The Good Parts

Back when Mario had only conquered half of gaming’s genres instead of all of them, the idea of Mario being in an RPG seemed bizarre. The last game Square made for a Nintendo system before gaming’s most bitter and painful breakup, Super Mario RPG made this odd combination work. Taking the traditional formula of Square 16-bit RPGs and adding light platforming, humor, and Mario references to it produced a good result. Things like talking to Mario enemy species instead of killing them and a story beyond Princess Toadstool being kidnapped were novel at the time, and really expanded on the Mario universe. The timing aspect to battles and ability to jump broke the tedium that turn based RPGs can fall into. RPGs weren’t big in western markets when Super Mario RPG was released, and SMRPG used a familiar franchise to great effect to get new gamers into RPGs while still making the game enjoyable to RPG fans.

The Bad Parts

Like Kirby’s Dreamland, there’s nothing cripplingly wrong with Super Mario RPG, but compared to its sequels it feels like something’s missing. While there were significant things added to the Square turn based RPG formula, there were still several areas where Super Mario RPG felt like a watered down traditional RPG. The combat was quite easy and while timing hits was fun, there was little strategy involved. While jumping was used to pretty good effect, that was the only thing you could do outside of battle beyond the usual “talk to people/check something” RPG standard. Super Mario RPG was certainly a fun game, but it has a bit of an identity crisis that prevents it from reaching its full potential on either end.

How the Sequels Fixed It

While Super Mario RPG never got a direct sequel, Nintendo has continued to make two Mario RPG series. Paper Mario was released five years after Super Mario RPG with no involvement by Square, and it no longer feels like it’s torn between two identities. Paper Mario is clearly a Nintendo game, and uses its design philosophy to the fullest. While the combat initially seems absurdly simple with only two party members at a time and tiny hit point meters, the battles factoring in things like elements and which weapons can reach an enemy make the fights more strategic. Badges make Mario customizable in a much bigger way than just trying to get the best equipment, which also ensures the combat never feels repetitive. Outside of combat you now have partners that can be used as Zelda-style items, greatly improving the level design. While the series would keep changing after Paper Mario, PM demonstrates the improvement over Super Mario RPG that mattered most: a game that is sure of its own identity and never feels like it is being held back.

The Legend of Zelda

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Year of Release: 1986

The Good Parts

As you can see, I saved the most controversial entry for last. The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises, and it has been that way ever since the first game. The original Legend of Zelda did indeed have a lot of great ideas. The open world and epic feel to the game was something very few console gamers had seen before, and the use of items gave the game a feeling of incredible depth. As you may have guess from my rant against passwords in the first part of this series, the North American Zelda introducing battery saving is one of my favorite technological innovations in gaming history. From the perspective of the late 80s, The Legend of Zelda deserved most of the attention and praise it got.

The Bad Parts

I’m just going to say it, the original Zelda aged horribly. The “puzzles” almost all rely on luck/extreme trial and error, the control is stiff and not suited for how challenging the combat can be, and the second quest is horribly designed in every way. Like Metroid, LoZ is an innovative game with the blueprints of a great formula that simply has not been refined to a playable state. Some praise the game for not “holding your hand.” Yeah, that’s bullshit, pure and simple. Getting through LoZ requires luck and endurance of tedium, not skill. Making it so you can break some identical looking walls with (your very limited supply of) bombs is not a puzzle. And I could fill an entire article swearing at that second quest dungeon hidden under a completely random bush that you have to burn, and which contains the item that lets you burn more than one bush per screen. Like Metroid, the original Legend of Zelda is only worth playing today for historical purposes.

How the Sequels Fixed It

We all know that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link played nothing like the original game or anything else in the series, so there’s not much point in comparing them. Like Metroid, the turning point for Zelda was on the SNES. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past played like the original Zelda, but fixed everything. The controls were improved so that combat was actually fun, dungeon locations and destroyable objects actually had some indication, and the items and puzzles were exponentially improved. A Link to the Past is everything the original Zelda should have been. The series would reach its full evolution in the fourth game, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Yes, the Game Boy one, although seldom acknowledged it set the formula that Ocarina of Time and future Zelda followed. Link’s Awakening put more of an emphasis on level design and puzzles, finally letting the series achieve the promise that its item system had shown glimpses of from the very first game.

So there you are, six legendary series that would have given so much less to gaming and gamers if they had been abandoned at their initial outings. Go ahead and curse me if you love one of the original games I listed, but I don’t think many people will deny that at least most of these examples show how important sequels can be to game series and even innovation. I may do another entry in this series someday, but for now I’m going to take a break from something so controversial. See you next time in Always Online Pay to Win Collectathons Are Our Superiors.

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