Of Axioms and Idioms: The New Sub-Standard

While I’ve been having fun revitalizing older series that I abandoned awhile back, it would be hypocritical of me to orphan my latest series. This time, it’s not so much a lack of topics that has caused me to forgo writing Of Axioms and Idioms, it’s more a lack of time. I’ve got so many ideas for new articles that I’ve managed to leave a good number of worthwhile topics on the back-burner for quite some time. It doesn’t help that I seem to be coming up with more new ideas quicker than I can write the existing ones. Worst of all is the fact that I tend to find my newest ideas the most intriguing, which pushes things back even further in many cases. Still, it’s been roughly half a year since the last time I wrote an article in this series, so it seems like it’s the right time to bring it back.

This one’s been rolling around in the back of my mind for quite some time, yet ironically, it’s also the latest topic I’ve managed to come up with for this series. Basically, there’s something of a stigma when it comes to long-running series. Specifically, when it comes to their latest iterations. The issue isn’t specifically liking the current games in an old series, that seems to be alright by most accounts. Rather, considering the most recent entry in well-established franchises to be the best that said franchise has to offer seems to be frowned upon among die-hard fans. Likewise, when a more or less “objective” best game is chosen, it’s generally a relatively early title in the series’ history.

To show you just how long this idea has been sitting around, the original example that inspired this topic is no longer relevant. Tekken Tag Tournament 2, while still currently my favorite game in the Tekken franchise – ironically, I’ve yet to pick up Tekken 7 – is no longer the latest game in the franchise. Still, I felt a little ashamed to acknowledge that the latest entry in the series had become my favorite, simply because I was a long-time fan and therefore, was familiar with the earlier games in the series. Meanwhile, ask the average Tekken fan and chances are they’ll name a much earlier game as their favorite: specifically, Tekken 3. If you’ve read my Tekken retrospective from earlier this year, you’d know that I was never really quite as enamored with the game as the majority of the Tekken fanbase, even if I did recognize its quality.

Another slightly more relevant example would relate to MegaMan, specifically the Classic series. Personally, I think the tenth game in the franchise – which has been the most recent game for a whopping 7 years at this point – is the best that the series has to offer. Most of the Classic faithful, on the other hand, are still hung up on MegaMan 2. Honestly, I don’t even think MM2 is the best of the NES games, let alone the best in its entire series. MegaMan 2 made the most significant improvements over its predecessor, but the franchise still had room to grow. What I find especially ironic is that MegaMan 9 – a game that was essentially built to perfectly emulate an MM2 ROM hack – received much greater acclaim, despite having weaker level designs. Worst of all, it seems like if you don’t accept 2 as the “one true Classic MegaMan game”, you’re bound to be accused of being a contrarian, or worse still, a hipster. Don’t get me wrong: MM2 is a great game, I just think that some of the later games in the series made vast improvements to the formula, but they’re generally cast aside as inferior copies. As a side note, I think it’s a crying shame that the Game Boy games (namely IV and especially V) don’t receive as much attention as they deserve: I think both of those games blew MM2 out of the water, in spite of their hardware limitations.

A slightly less relevant example would be the near-deification of Super Mario 64 among the 3D Mario platformers. Sure, people recognize the quality of both Galaxy games – to at least some extent – but for whatever reason, 64 is still somehow the golden standard to which all future Mario games of that type are held against. I’ll never understand it: honestly, I never thought SM64 was that good in the first place and I think every other game of that type in the Mario series surpassed it in some way, even the abomination/cult classic Super Mario Sunshine. To make matters worse, I actually consider 3D World to be my favorite in that particular batch of games, though I’ve seen more than a few people dismiss it as an inferior knockoff of 3D Land which was, ironically, my previous favorite. I’d argue that the 3D Marios keep improving with each game and that makes 64 the worst by default. Yet it is still the clear favorite for some reason.

Of course, perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is the fan reaction to the Legend of Zelda games. While both A Link Between Worlds and especially Breath of the Wild have seemingly put it to rest, the so-called “Zelda cycle” is, by and large, the most prevalent and observable example of this mentality I’ve seen on the internet. The Zelda cycle, as I understand it, can be broken down thusly: after enough time has passed since the release of the latest Zelda game, the fanbase begins its backlash against the game itself, deeming it terrible. This, in turn, allows the previous game in the franchise – the one that was previously dubbed the worst the franchise had to offer – to be viewed as an acceptable game for the series. The game that came before that will then usually take its place at the series favorite, the stated “gold standard” for what the next Zelda game should attempt to be. The former “gold standard” is then considered to be overrated (but still good) and everything before that seems to just fade into the ether, effectively just becoming acceptable in general but not a major focal point for the franchise. A safe choice, considered “good for their time” and generally otherwise ignored.

As for a counterpoint to this particular attitude, the best I’ve really been able to observe would have to be within the Ys fanbase. Put simply, “every Ys is best Ys”. Given the fact that the series has gone through at least two major gameplay shifts in its 30-year existence, it only makes sense that most of the fanbase would generally be pretty chill about liking the newest games in the franchise, as Falcom always seems to strive to improve upon mistakes made in the previous games and avoids change strictly for its own sake, rather only fundamentally shifting the gameplay style once they’ve reached the limits of their current format. Of course, this isn’t a perfect example by any means: there’s a distinct faction that considers The Oath in Felghana (and to a far lesser extent, Origin) as the one true Ys game(s), disavowing anything that came after and, bafflingly enough, before. I guess there are problem children in every fanbase.

Then there’s the Sonic fanbase, which I supposed also acts both as an example and a counter-balance to this perspective. There are essentially three major camps contained within the Sonic fanbase: those who enjoy the original Genesis-era games and feel that this is the best direction for the franchise moving forward, those who cut their teeth on the series during the Adventure games and want the games to go back to that style (in spite of the fact that Sega already tried to recreate said formula twice and ended up with the games generally considered the worst in the entire franchise in the process) and finally, fans of the modern games who consider any references to older titles to be meaningless pandering to a bygone era. If it’s not obvious, the former two camps clearly act in support of my theory, while the third and final camp appears to be its Bizarro doppelganger rather than a nuanced reaction. Of course, these three factions don’t encompass the entire Sonic fandom – there is room for nuance elsewhere – but they definitely make things difficult for Sega moving forward.

Of course, there is a certain level of forgiveness allowed when it comes to committing the grave sin of liking the latest game in a long-running series in general. This is generally reserved for those new to the series. After all, you always remember your first and as they’re new to the series, they have time to learn the “right way” to consider the series. Older fans, on the other hand, generally aren’t afforded the same level of leeway. They’re already familiar with the franchise and its history, so the entire concept of long-time fans disagreeing with the status quo is inconceivable to the hiveminds generally associated with these fanbases. It’s almost like to prefer a game that was intended as an improvement to earlier games in the series is to completely discount the series’ entire history in one fell swoop.

So what exactly is the cause for this animosity towards the most recent games in a franchise? An obvious culprit would be the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t necessarily follow: if nostalgia were to blame, then every fan would generally consider the first game they played to be the best in the franchise, which would be a particularly difficult move for those who had been playing games in the series since its inception. Not to mention the fact that if the first game in a franchise is its best, then there’s really no point in continuing to produce them, diminishing returns and all that. Likewise, given the fact that many video game franchises tend to have one or two games that are considered the best at large, that would also imply that most of the fanbase started playing the series upon the release of that specific game, which seems a bit farfetched if you ask me. So clearly there’s more at work here than simple nostalgia.

A much more likely explanation is equally simple: credibility as a fan. With well-established series – regardless of medium – knowledge of the series’ origins has a tendency to give the impression of legitimacy with regards to any particular fan’s adoration for the works in the general. The same could be said for general consensus: as with most group dynamics, a lack of dissention among the ranks has a tendency of creating a much stronger sense of community, an element that fandoms require to thrive at any stage in their life cycles, from their humble beginnings on. Whether or not this means that most fans legitimately believe that the designated best game in the franchise is their actual favorite, they’re simply giving the game lip service to fit in or that they’ve been essentially railroaded into considering said game to be the best in order to align themselves properly within the group tends to vary – all are clear and distinct possibilities, though I’d consider the former two to be the most likely.

This leads to a much more pertinent question: why is there such resistance to the idea that modern entries of an existing series could potentially surpass their forebearers? I mean, it just seems logical to me that games should constantly strive to improve over what came before them, so maybe I’m missing something. Does acknowledging the strength of newer games make the older ones retroactively worse? Is one’s credibility at stake if they acknowledge improvements made to an existing formula if they just happen to be implemented to close to current year? I’m at a bit of a loss here.

Maybe newer games are just being held to a higher standard in general. After all, they do have years of experience to fall back on, so I can’t argue that they should be held to a higher standard than the games of old. However, there is also the potential to take things way too far in this regard: while nostalgia isn’t completely to blame, they can generally build classic games up to be better in fans’ memories than the reality – take a look at how well various re-releases for more obscure games have been received. Put both the overinflated quality of older games with an expectation for every game to exceed the previous entries in their series to an obscene degree, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I mostly wrote this article to essentially dispel any shame, perceived or otherwise, I’ve felt when liking the latest games in series I’ve been following for quite some time. The sheer sense of elitism when it comes to long-time fans vis-à-vis newer entries has always just struck me as weird. I suppose that this was more of an exercise in trying to justify my own preferences to myself. Of course, this is a fitting use of the “Of Axioms and Idioms” banner, as they’re generally meant to explore my various opinions, unorthodox or otherwise. But what do you think? Do you think I’m completely off-base or am I on to something? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

Of Axioms and Idioms: A Breath of Fresh Err

Well, I said I had a second topic in this series and I’m going to use it. Welcome to another entry in “Of Axioms and Idioms” – the series where I detail some of my more less-specific opinions when it comes to video games. Last time, I detailed how playing later games in a series retroactively ruined their predecessors if I’m not familiar with them in the first place. While this seems obvious in hindsight (sequels are supposed to improve upon previous iterations in the series), it is one of those issues that seems to plague me on a wider scale – not merely effecting how I see series of games, but rather entire sub-genres.

Today’s topic is a little more complex and probably more rigid than the previous entry. When it comes to “bad games” in a series – that is, the ones that are generally considered the worst of their series – I’m generally more forgiving of them the more they deviate from their franchise’s standard formula. Quite simply put, if a game is experimental and bad, I’m far more likely to accept its shortcomings and look upon the game more favorably compared to games that are just a shallow and/or flawed recreation of the series’ pinnacle.

The two games that inspired this article were the fourth and fifth games in the Ys series, both released on the Super Famicom. While Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys for the PC Engine is generally considered among the best games in the entire series, the Super Famicom’s Mask of the Sun was developed by Tonkin House – who previously handled the SNES port of Wanderers of Ys, which is generally considered the worst of the fourth-generation console ports. Both games had similar design philosophies: taking inspiration from the first two Ys games. However, the SFC version took more inspiration from the earlier PC releases of those games, which required significantly more precision when landing attacks. This didn’t translate that well given both the Super Famicom’s simpler control scheme and the comparatively more forgiving Ys: Books I & II, which predated Mask of the Sun by almost 4 years. This led the SFC version of Ys IV to be considered among the worst games in the series.

Its sequel, Ys V: Kefin, Lost City of Sand, didn’t fare much better in terms of reception. Discarding the traditional “run-and-bump” gameplay that the series popularized in favor of a more traditional “hack-and-slash” attack mechanic common to action RPGs, Ys V was a significant departure from its predecessors’ established formula – much like the aforementioned Ys III. However, unlike Ys III, this game would have a much more permanent effect on the series – with future games adopting the more standard attacks system, though handling it much better. Ys V’s controls were terrible – Adol’s slashes felt less responsive than those from the original Legend of Zelda in 1986. The jumping mechanics were awkward and worst of all, different sword upgrades would change the style of Adol’s attack: a horizontal slash or a “stab” (though, I thought it looked more like a “poke”) with more forward range. Throw in a magic system that’s essentially useless and you’ve got Kefin in a nutshell. Due to the lack of any other releases, Ys V is generally considered the worst game in the entire franchise – but due to the lack of any companion titles or remakes, it’s kind of an unfair comparison.

Honestly, at first glance, I would probably say that it’s hard to determine which of these two games is worse overall. They’re both essentially blights on their franchise – but neither game really did that much damage to the overall reputation of Ys. Looking back though, I’d probably say that I may have enjoyed Ys V slightly more and my reasoning is simple. Mask of the Sun attempted to recreate gameplay I had seen earlier, but was less competent in the process. It effectively tried and failed to achieve the same level of quality from a previous iteration in its franchise, which gave it no reason to exist. Ys V, for all its flaws, at least attempted something new for the franchise. It may have also have failed miserably, but it tweaked the series’ formula and tried something new. Ys IV had a blueprint for success: its counterpart on the PC Engine proves that. Ys V had no plan, no established formula to follow. While its experiments failed miserably, they led to further games and better titles down the line.

My next example may be a little controversial, as pretty much no one considers one of these games bad anymore. However, for quite some time, it was considered fashionable to bash the Western version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario USA in Japan) for not being the “true” Mario 2. This title belonged instead to Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels elsewhere). The latter is essentially a level pack, with insane stage designs that far exceeded what was possible with the original’s controls left intact. I’d go so far as to say that it’s essentially just a less-playable version of the first Super Mario Brothers. Meanwhile, Super Mario USA was an improved reskin of a Fuji TV collaboration game known as Doki Doki Panic. I know, everyone knows that old story. What’s more interesting, however, was the later reveal that Doki Doki Panic was based on a scrapped Mario prototype that focused more on vertical platforming. So, in the end, Super Mario USA could be considered more of a Mario 2 than the “official” Lost Levels.

Another example is a bit odd: the sixth and seventh games in the MegaMan X series. Let me make myself perfectly clear: I completely despise MegaMan X6. It’s probably the worst MegaMan game Capcom ever made in-house. While X7 seems to be considered a worse game overall, it at least had the excuse of attempting to recreate the classic action of the MegaMan platformers in 3D. It’s hard to argue that it failed in this regard. X6, on the other hand, had absolutely no excuse to be as terrible as it was. It was built using the engine of my favorite game in that entire sub-series (MegaMan X4). X5 may have been a downgrade from its predecessor, but X6 crashed and burned. Terrible level design, unbalanced boss fights, the addition of X’s awkward Z-saber attack, the ability to get completely trapped in an area if you lack the right power-up – the only redeeming factor was probably the soundtrack!

There are even cases where swapping genres can work out well for a series. Take, for example, Double Dragon. After the disappointing Sacred Stones, Super Double Dragon was an attempt to recreate the magic of the first two games. While the SNES had a legendary amount of quality beat-‘em-ups, Super Double Dragon not only failed to stand out among its contemporaries, but even faltered in comparison to its predecessors. Conversely, when Technos Japan attempted to make a Double Dragon fighting game for SNK’s NeoGeo platform, it turned out well: despite the sheer amount of competition in that genre on NeoGeo, “Double Dragon” would do so well that it eventually received a spiritual sequel, Rage of the Dragons. Of course, Tradewest – Double Dragon’s publisher in North America – attempted their own fighting game earlier – Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls. The less said about that one, the better.

This even applies to games that are generally considered dead-ends. While I liked both the NES Zeldas more than I expected upon playing them, I think I had a slight preference for Zelda II. Frankly, I’m almost certain that that’s because the original Zelda presented itself as a more primitive version of the other 2D games in the series, while Zelda II was strikingly different. Zelda II was effectively a side-scrolling action RPG, compared to the top-down adventure formula that most of the early games in the series encapsulated, and that difference made it stick out a bit more in my mind. The same could be said for Ys III: Wanderers from Ys – to the extent where I constantly compared Zelda II and Ys III while playing both. It doesn’t hurt that they were considered evolutionary dead-ends in their respective series – and by extension, inherently terrible – but to me, they were simply interesting deviations. Even more ironically, both games were followed by what was generally considered the early masterpieces of their respective series: A Link to the Past and The Dawn of Ys, respectively.

Unlike my “Bayonetta May Cry” axioms, there’s a method to my madness. If a successful formula has already been established for a series, ruining it with a mediocre follow-up that attempts to hit the same note should be impossible. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about games that simply don’t live up to their predecessors and are lambasted as retreads. I’m talking about games in existing series that attempt to recreate their established formula and fail miserably. The MegaMan games for DOS are a perfect example – they were intended to resemble the popular NES games, but failed on pretty much every level. When a series’ formula has been established, there’s a blueprint for success. If the game deviates from that formula in a meaningful way – by changing core mechanics or even switching genres, there’s at least an excuse for a piss-poor final product. There’s just no excuse if a company’s creating a copy-paste of a previous title and manages to create something objectively inferior to what came before.

There’s a corollary here as well. Bad games using established formulas can be toxic to long-running series: there’s always the chance that it won’t simply be considered a bad game, but rather the formula itself has gotten stale and repetitive. On the other hand, development mishaps in a title that deviates from the norm can yield better results down the line. The aforementioned Ys V is a perfect example of this – the following games in the series also utilized “hack and slash” and platforming elements and improved vastly over their SFC predecessor, essentially creating a new trilogy of games that are arguably better than even The Dawn of Ys.

Of course, judging whether something is a bad game or if the entire formula has gotten stale gets harder to judge when there’s a generational gap between games. It’s relatively easy to tell if a game is legitimately worse than its predecessor if they were released during the same generation, especially if they’re both on the same system. Comparing an NES game to its sequel on PS4 makes it hard to determine whether the game suffered from being recreated imperfectly or if the original game itself was simply considered good for nostalgic reasons. Obviously, there’s a chance that the formula itself could just become inherently stale and in need of alteration or outright rejection for the series to survive. Of course, this would have little effect on the quality of the original game itself – it’s a simple case of diminishing returns, nothing uncommon when it comes to video games in general.

In the end, I guess it’s a matter of taste. For some people, deviating from an established formula is essentially considered betrayal of what made that particular series great in the first place. I can respect that difference in opinion, but I believe that at the very least failing in an entirely new way is, at the very least, more interesting than watching someone incompetently recreate a game I liked. More importantly, what do you think? Do you agree that failing in a different way is at least more interesting than second-rate reruns? Are established formulas the key to success? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

 

Of Axioms and Idioms: The “Bayonetta May Cry” Syndrome

I have this tendency to start new series on the Retronaissance blog seemingly at random, only to let them die. I think my main problem is that I come up with a topic that I would absolutely love to revisit on multiple occasions, I come up with one topic to serve as a pilot article for the prospective series and then when it comes right down to it, I’m either unable to think of a good follow-up or a severely limited number of viable subjects for future pieces. Here’s hoping this one ends up surviving.

Welcome to the first article in a new series, “Of Axioms and Idioms”. These articles will essentially act as a soapbox for various “rules of thumb” I appear to have. Odd quirky choices that have affected my personal taste in video games and specific trends I’ve pinpointed. These aren’t going to be simple revelations – so don’t expect articles on why I love arcade-style games over their simulation counterparts, why I love fighting games or why I detest most turn-based RPGS – more along the lines of specific aspects that transcend genres, companies and generations.

The topic of this first article is simple, yet more than likely incoherent: a certain phenomenon I generally refer to as the “Bayonetta May Cry” syndrome. Essentially, playing later games in a franchise/genre, has a certain tendency to paint earlier iterations in such a negative light, that I’m completely unable to enjoy them. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a prejudice I wholeheartedly acknowledge. Of course, on the surface it probably seems obvious: I’ve never heard of a case of a video game sequel not attempting to surpass its original.

“Bayonetta May Cry” seems like an odd way to phrase it, but I mainly identify it as such due to the events that led me to fully realize and articulate exactly what was going on. I was playing the original Devil May Cry on the PS2 for the first time. Unfortunately, by that point, I had already played through the original Bayonetta on Xbox 360 and it had painted a very vivid picture of what to expect of “character action games”, a sub-genre which DMC trailblazed. Unfortunately, DMC1 did not live up to the hype and as such, I never ended up finishing the game. I may want to do so at some point, but only on my terms – perhaps if Capcom decides to port that shiny HD collection to PC?

There are some other examples that come to mind. Obviously, I played Street Fighter II long before the original (or at least, a real version of the original) – but that’s so common, it’s not worth mentioning. Tekken 1 and 2, on the other hand, seems a lot more interesting. While I did encounter Tekken 1 first (in an arcade on vacation), Tekken 2 was the first game in the series I played. The evolution that went on between these two games is amazing – the graphics, the gameplay, everything but the roster had changed immensely. Likewise, you’ve got the Capcom vs. SNK duology: the first game was alright, but playing the second game first: with its extended roster, the expanded number of fighting styles and the complete overhaul of the ratio system, CvS2 surpassed the original in every way.

Aside from Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, perhaps the best example of this feeling happened with Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series. While I did technically start The Sacred Stones first, playing Awakening on the 3DS pretty much confirmed that I would never be looking back on it. The best part about this one is that I can even track my opinions of it. At first, I thought Sacred Stones was alright, a bit slow compared to other strategy-RPGs I had played at that point, but not bad. After playing Awakening, however, I decided there was no looking back: too much had improved and I was completely looking forward. The ability to pair up units alone confirmed that I would never go back to the GBA title and made me glad that I hadn’t paid a single cent for it – after all, I had received it as a 3DS Ambassador bonus.

Of course, it’s all contextual: I’m a lot more forgiving when it comes to retro games – or at least, what I consider to be retro games. Anything before the 5th generation (Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation) are generally safe, as well as the Dreamcast due to its short lifespan. The rest of the 6th generation – the PlayStation 2, the GameCube and the original Xbox – are more of a blind spot for me. I understand that they’ve been gone for roughly a decade now, but it feels like they were the beginning of what the current generations of consoles built themselves upon, a clear break from the earlier generations. It doesn’t help that that was the generation where I essentially felt out of mainline video games, preferring to stick to portables and classic retro for the time being.

I’m certain this bias has pretty much always existed in the back of my head. It’s part of the reason I’ve always liked playing series “in release order” as opposed to doing what most people suggest and start with the latest game in the series before working backwards. I’m completely convinced that playing later games earlier will ruin the earlier games in a franchise for me, though there have been some cases where this has not come to pass. For example, I played the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ys Books I & II after Ys I & II Chronicles+ on Steam. I enjoyed the TG-16 version a lot, despite Chronicles+ being a longer game, with more responsive controls and superior graphics. There were some things I’d argue that Books I & II did better than the later release – best example would be the fact that the leveling system was balanced to account for both games.

Still, I worry that game mechanics and features that I grow to rely on and expect in later entries in a long-running series may end up spoiling me. More importantly, I’m worried that it may color my outlook on the earlier games, because I’ll be unable to realize whether I hate it because it lacks features I’ve come to expect or if the game is legitimately bad. Of course, that’s something that anyone who focuses on retro games would have to worry about, whether there is nostalgia for the subject matter or if it’s an unfamiliar release. It’s important to keep this kind of thing in mind.

Of course, the truth is it’s for the best that I’ve realized this bias of mine. It helps me to compensate when playing older games. This came into play this past year, when I finally decided to livestream Final Fantasy 7 – one of the three games I’d consider the most beloved (if not overrated) of its generation, alongside the original Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. When playing the game, I promised not to compare it to more modern turn-based RPGs I liked: games like Undertale, Evolution Worlds and the first two Paper Mario games. I decided to compare it to its predecessors – Earthbound, Super Mario RPG – as well as a contemporary game: Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, originally released a few months before FF7 was in Japan. It didn’t help matters (I still ended up hating FF7), but at least I avoided the pitfall of judging the game against modern games that should have surpassed it.

Of the odd preferences and quirky opinions I could possibly discuss in this series, this one would have to be one of the more negative ones. Comparing older games to later iterations in their series or genre is clearly unfair, but the problem would have to be that it’s common. When you consider that there are younger gamers enjoying the medium, some that weren’t even alive during the 5th and 6th generations, it’s completely understandable: few people my age like watching films from before they were born, so why should kids today be forced to appreciate games that are clunkier and less refined than those that are available to them on a wider and more regular basis? The one upshot to that is that by acknowledging it, I can avoid unfairly judging older games by forcing them to live up to unfair standards and hopefully this will allow me to judge them more fairly, even in retrospect. Maybe one day, I’ll even go back to playing the original Devil May Cry.