New Appreciation for Mario

Soulless. Lazy. Rehashed. Uninspired. These are just some of the words that describe the reasons people have for hating the New Super Mario Bros. series. Half of it, at least, is underrated and does not get the love it deserves. Yes, I know they’re some of the best selling games of all time, this is about their reception in the gaming community. Before I go into detail about the two I want to defend, let’s have an overview of the entire series.

New Super Mario Bros. was announced at DS’s public unveiling during E3 2004. Very little was known about it at the time, but there was one gigantic thing it had going for it: it was the first new traditional 2D Mario in well over a decade. When the game was released in 2006 it got great reviews and spectacular sales, but it didn’t take long for people to start complaining that it wasn’t as good as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. There are valid reasons for believing that (low difficulty, poorly executed use of power-ups to find secret areas), but the predominant ones were superficial or unfair. The game’s graphical style lacked “soul”, it was too similar to a game we hadn’t seen anything like in 15 years. This led to a considerable backlash against the game, and despite how well it sold we wouldn’t hear another peep from the series for three years.

At E3 2009, Nintendo defied all expectations and announced the next game in the New series for Wii instead of DS. Called simply New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the game was overshadowed by Super Mario Galaxy 2 being announced at the same conference. While there’s no circumstance where you can say it was unfair for Super Mario Galaxy 2 to overshadow something, NSMBW still got relatively little attention for Nintendo’s big holiday game that would go on to sell tens of millions. Most focus is given to the co-operative four player mode it introduced, which is really a great disservice to the game, but I’ll go into more detail on that later.

At E3 2011 Nintendo showed a tech demo for their new Wii U console called New Super Mario Bros. Mii. Despite claims that it was a tech demo and not a real game, it was obvious from the detail in the HUD and amount of levels shown that it was going to be a full game at some point. Before the real game was shown, however, Nintendo announced New Super Mario Bros. 2 for 3DS. This is when people really started to turn on the series, furious at it for merely existing before we knew any details about it. New Super Mario Bros. Mii was renamed New Super Mario Bros. U at E3 2012 and confirmed as a launch game for the Wii U, while NSMB2 would launch in August. Despite the fact that it is not uncommon for a series to have a portable and console game released in the same timeframe (Metroid, Castlevania, Call of Duty, Resident Evil, and God of War are some examples) and that the NSMB series was averaging a new game every two years since its inception, people were absolutely enraged by this “milking” of the series. Neither game was given a fair chance by the gaming community, and one of them absolutely deserved one.

You’ve probably guessed which of the two games I feel are so underrated. They are the console ones, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. There is a pretty clear explanation for why the quality in half the series is so much higher than the other: the original New Super Mario Bros. was made by an inexperienced team and Nintendo as a whole was out of practice at making 2D Marios. The team reached their stride with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was made by a new rookie team while the established one made New Super Mario Bros. U. This shows in pretty much every aspect, with the console games being much more challenging, creative in level design, and willing to try new ideas.

Let’s start with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As I said earlier, people often associate it with the ability to play the entire game in four player co-op, which spread to other 2D platformers. This undersells what makes the game great, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is at its best in single player. The level design is on par with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, NSMBW deserves to be seen as an all-time platforming classic. The game’s best new feature wasn’t co-op, it was the Super Guide. Yes, I know that sounds insane, but give me a second. For years before NSMBW was released, the biggest complaint with Nintendo’s games was that they were too easy. So the last thing we needed was a mode where the game would literally play a level for you, right? Wrong. Super Guide allowed the designers to make the levels challenging without frustrating newer or more casual players. Ever since its introduction, the “ease disease” that afflicted Nintendo has been eradicated. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was free to deliver an experience on par with the best Mario games of old, and if you give it a chance where you’re really concentrating (instead of messing around with four players and relying on the abundant lives and instant respawns to get you through) on it you’ll see its true quality.

Now let’s look at New Super Mario Bros. U. Much of my praise for it is similar to what I said for New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The level design is even better, and the many Super Mario World references (most notably the interconnected world map) are greatly appreciated after Super Mario Bros. 3’s themes dominating the New series for so long. Being as good as NSMBW would be enough for it to earn far more praise than it has been given, but there is something else in the game that adds at least as much as the main story, and makes it easily my favorite 2D platformer of all time. This feature is Challenge Mode. Challenge modes aren’t unheard of in platformers, but it is NSMBU’s flawless execution of the concept that makes it so much better. The challenges are fine tuned to perfection, achieving a brutal difficulty that far surpasses The Lost Levels while never feeling unfair. Things you didn’t even notice when playing levels normally turn out to be perfectly implemented for a challenge all along. For example, one level has coins flying at you throughout it, in normal gameplay it barely means anything. But when you have to beat that level without collecting a coin, you realize the coins were meticulously spaced so that they were all avoidable, but only with precise platforming and timing. The gold medal times for the time trial levels are calculated to an amazing degree, it was very rare for me not to be within a second of them when I succeeded. Nothing has tested my platforming skill to such an extent in over a decade, and anyone who feels the series has gotten too easy absolutely has to play NSMBU’s challenge mode.

Okay, I’ve raved about the games, but I’m not going to just pretend the criticism of them doesn’t exist. Let’s go over a few complaints. The most common one is that they are “rehashes.” Yes, the variety of settings has pretty much stayed the same throughout the series, but do you really play 2D platformers for the backgrounds? NSMBW and NSMBU both made significant advances in gameplay. New Super Mario Bros. Wii added the co-op function that, while given more attention than I feel it deserves, was definitely something new that had an impact on the genre. It also made the use of powerups more focused, instead of New Super Mario Bros.’ annoying “Here’s a star coin you need a rare powerup not in this level to get” tactic NSMBW designed levels around a single powerup that was the only one found in that level. It also introduced the Super Guide, giving quite a bit more freedom to the level design to challenge players. New Super Mario Bros. U added Challenge Mode, which despite its appearance of being a minor bonus is actually a huge step forward for the series. The other biggest complaint is that the series feels lazy and soulless. Making great levels is never easy, regardless of how different the backgrounds are, no game with level design like the console NSMBs can be lazy. Soulless is a meaningless term when applied to gaming, it almost always refers to superficial features like art style. A game’s soul is its gameplay, and the console NSMBs have plenty of it.

2D platformers don’t make for good trailers. Showing a few seconds of a level can’t convey the important parts of level design, and isn’t going to be very flashy from a visual perspective. I understand that all of the NSMB games may look the same on the surface, but if you look deeper and give them a chance you can find two of the greatest platformers of all time in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. Think of all the good times Mario has given you, and give his New games a chance. You’ll be the one to benefit in the end.

What’s Your Frequency?

When it comes right down to it, the MegaMan fanbase is a living contradiction. Less a united coalition and more a volatile combination, the fanbase is typically prone to in-fighting with regards to which sub-series is considered the most important to the franchise’s continued survival. Many place stock in either the original “Classic” incarnation or its first offshoot (the X series), citing that MegaMan is literally shorthand for “jump ‘n shoot man”. Others, generally younger members or those who started gaming later in life, hold the Battle Network series in high regard, due to the fact that it single-handedly kept the series from dying by reinventing classic concepts and implanting them into a new universe with totally new gameplay. Still others enjoy the Legends series the most, as we saw with the confirmation and subsequent termination of the third game in that particular series. Of all the series, there is one that is by far the least popular. Fittingly enough, it was also the last series Capcom developed for dedicated gaming devices: MegaMan Star Force, or Ryuusei no Rockman [Rockman of the Shooting Star] as it was known in Japan.

Truth be told, I actually liked the Star Force series. Maybe it was the fact that the Battle Network series went down a steep decline after the third game and the Star Force series, while extremely similar, changed things up enough to draw my interest once again. Maybe it was because I liked the character designs and the characters themselves, regardless of how stupid the English names for various characters were. Geo Stelar and Omega-Xis? Seriously, Capcom? Whatever it was about the series, I still proudly sport one version of each game on my shelf of Nintendo DS games.

What’s easier to understand is why so many people hated the series. The most common gripe was with regards to the gameplay. While the basic overworld engine was effectively identical to that of the Battle Network series, the battle engine was altered in fairly significant ways. Both games placed their respective MegaMans on a 3×6 grid in a real-time battle situation where you can either rely on a chargable buster or special attacks represented by a finite number of “battle chips”. To keep in-line with the MegaMan tradition of stealing abilities from downed enemies, you can even summon bosses that you defeated earlier on through special battle chips. There were a few significant differences between the games though. While Battle Network had an overhead view and gave you a default 3×3 area of movement, Star Force did an over the shoulder view and limited players to a 3×1 area of movement. In order to mitigate for the loss of the important tactical ability to move across two axes, Star Force also gave players the ability to lock-on specific battle chip attacks (specifically melee attacks like sword slashes) and to put up a temporary shield.

More importantly, people just didn’t take to Star Force for one very simple reason: it wasn’t Battle Network 7. People just didn’t bother giving the series a chance, because while it was extremely similar to the Battle Network series in design, gameplay and tone, it just wasn’t the same. Or perhaps, it just wasn’t different enough: the X games became extremely popular because they were a more mature take on the Classic series, despite being an equally derivative evolution of its predecessor in terms of gameplay. Perhaps if they had taken a more mature (read: darker) tone, it would’ve been better recieved by the general public, or at the very least in the West, where even the BN series didn’t enjoy mainstream popularity. Then again, the comparisons to the X series (in the sense that, like the X series, it took place in the far future of the previous [Classic/BN] series) may have drawn even more ire toward Star Force: maybe some people were hoping to fight Boomer Kuwanger.EXE with X.EXE when they first heard about the BN sequel series in the first place.

Even more telling was the fact that the most popular of the Star Force trilogy was the third and final game, which was commonly cited for turning the series in “the right direction”. What was this right direction you ask? Why, more closely aping the Battle Network series, of course! The series’ MegaMan got redesigned to more resemble EXE and BN’s Soul Unison system (where MM took on both the physical characteristics and the abilities of specific allies) came back as Noise Forms. Even the story imitated that of the Battle Network series; opting more for a terrorist organization as the antagonist, rather than an alien invasion or the resurrection of an ancient culture, like the first two games.

Of course, there was one aspect of the Battle Network series that the Star Force series retained much to their own detriment: multiple versions of the same title. Starting with the third Battle Network game, each iteration of the series released with two versions: each with their own exclusive Battle Chips, secret bosses and special power-ups. It’s speculated that this was done to either compete with or imitate the Pokemon series. Unfortunately, this also came into play with the Star Force series and the first game of the series got it the worst: it had not two but THREE versions, one of which ended up being a store exclusive in North America. The other two games shifted back to the traditional two versions, but at large, the idea never really worked as well with either MegaMan series. While the Pokemon series thrives on its multiplayer when it comes to replay value, both Battle Network and Star Force relied on more traditional JRPG methods: post-game dungeons with secret bosses and items. The multiplayer in MMBN and MMSF felt more like an afterthought than an integral part of the game itself.

By comparison, the MegaMan ZX series was similarly unpopular, compared to earlier MegaMan platformer series. Its sales were pathetic and despite the second game out-performing the first, Capcom decided to shelve the series before it was able to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, it still manages to maintain a cult following and Inti Creates, who developed both this series and its predecessor the Zero games, went on to create MegaMans 9 and 10. Of course, its popularity may be due in part to the fact that it takes place in the main MegaMan timeline and is even rumored to directly link the Classic-X-Zero timeline to the mysterious Legends games.
Of course, it’s a moot point. Star Force 3 brought the series to a …well, definite ending. The series is complete and there’s really no reason to attempt continue it. But that doesn’t mean we have to forget it. Maybe one day, people will be able to look back on the MegaMan Star Force games with nostalgia, rather than apathy or outright hatred. And hopefully, it won’t be because we’re looking down the barrel of a MegaMan XOver 7 release date.

When Losing Control is a Good Thing

If you listen to the gaming community, aside from having a burning hatred of humanity, you’d probably think that it was best for a game to give players control over every aspect it possibly can. In a shocking twist, I disagree with the people who lower my opinion of humanity. While there are certainly many areas players absolutely should control (auto-platforming is the worst thing to ever happen to my favorite genre), it is not a universal constant. I’m going to explore some small areas, and a couple big ones, where games really need to stop letting/making the player make every decision.

Let’s start with something that I feel should be one of the ten commandments of game design: linearity is not a flaw! There are several genres that simply work better as linear games. Non-linearity may give the player the feeling that they are on a grander adventure and have more freedom, but do you know what the cost is? Level design. In any game with a focus on combat or environmental obstacles, designing levels in a way that always allows backtracking is going to cripple what can be done. The genre where this is most obvious is the platformer. Making a level in a platformer physically possible to backtrack in and explore areas in different orders requires greatly simplifying the level geography. The non-linear collect-a-thon platformers often had mostly flat, circular levels. Areas with platformer staples like crumbling platforms, auto-scrolling walls, and enemies that double as platforms ironically had to be much more cramped and restricted to accommodate the non-linear, explorable parts.

Platformers aren’t the only genre to benefit from linearity. The core of an action game’s level design is enemy placement, meaning a non-linear one has to either make you re-fight a tough battle several times with respawning enemies or break the pace of the game with treks through empty rooms as you try to figure out where to go next. Even in genres where complete linearity would be a bad idea, there are places where it is needed. In adventure games from the Zelda mold, you need an order for main story areas so that the game knows what items you have and can design areas around them. Good luck doing that if dungeons can be completed in any order.

Speaking of games knowing what items and abilities a player has, that segues nicely into my next area where I feel games often give players too much control: character customization. Now having gotten into the Pokemon meta-game, I’m not going to say there isn’t a place for character customization. But like non-linearity, there are contexts where it suffocates the level design. This mainly applies to real-time games with an emphasis on environmental level design. Let’s say I’m designing a level where the player has a double jump. I can do all kinds of things with it. Almost every aspect of the level design has to take it into account. I have to make the jumps trickier, make enemy projectiles bigger, place hard to get items in areas the player can’t just double jump to.

Now what if the player MIGHT have a double jump? Well, that just messes up everything. Either the level is unfair/impossible to players without it, or it makes the level too easy, or I just never have any situations where it matters. And what if the player may or may not have a double jump, the ability to climb walls, a projectile based weapon, a stealth ability, and the ability to possess enemies? Well screw this, I’m just going to have to make every dungeon as basic as possible. Maybe if I make 100 of them, people won’t mind. And that’s precisely what happens when games give you too many variations in what powers your character has and when you have them: the level design has to be neutered. This doesn’t mean real time games can never give players choices, but there has to be a balance. I’d rather have three distinct character classes with the level modified to suit mine than 30 combinations of abilities that one level has to accommodate all at once.

Another area where some genres should let the game itself do the work is camera angles. This mainly applies to more fast paced genres, games where the player simply doesn’t have time to constantly adjust the camera. Action games are the prime example, nothing is worse than getting hit by an enemy you couldn’t see at the time. Some may think that limiting the player to camera angles the game decided on would make this problem even worse, but what that objection overlooks is that the game will KNOW what area you can’t see. If the player controls the camera, then obviously enemies can’t be programmed to act according to what the player can see. But if the game sets the camera angle, it knows for sure if the player can see an enemy. Enemies can stay in visible areas or not attack when the player can’t see them. Obviously giving the camera over to the game requires a great deal of trust in the competence of the designers and programmers, but when it works it works very well. The Devil May Cry, God of War, and Super Mario Galaxy series give little or no camera control to the player, and it enhances the games, eliminating serious camera problems found in many other games of their genres.

Those are the biggest areas where I think some games can benefit from giving players less control, but there are a few other instances where I think it is a good idea. Many games where you can choose the morality of the protagonist strongly encourage picking an alliance and sticking to it, so why put in 100 choices when there are really just two real ones? A game like Infamous would benefit from just letting you choose to be good or evil at the start, it would mean less disappointment that you’re pressured into sticking with one side and allow for more variations between the two paths. I’m also quite frankly sick of “in gameplay” cinemas. Having to follow a character or pace around a room while a story event happens does not add any more to gameplay than watching a cinema, and reduces the chance of a game letting you skip it. If you don’t want a game to ever take control away from the player, make sure there’s always some sort of gameplay while the player is in control.

A recurring theme of this article was that all of my suggestions were only for certain genres and situations, and I want to reiterate that. There are many areas and genres where the player should always have choices. A linear sandbox game, turn-based RPG with no customization, or puzzle game where you couldn’t control the camera would all be absurd. However, that doesn’t mean giving the player control is a universal good in every single context, and the sooner developers and gamers realize that, the less games will be harmed by it.

Don’t Resuscitate, Reincarnate!

Some of the best video games of all-time have been sequels. It’s generally accepted that sequels are expected to be superior to their predecessors, due to the inherent interactivity of the medium, which allows for more improvements to be made with each new iteration. In fact, we’re generally disappointed when this turns out not to be the case. However, this runs counter to the majority of more story-focused forms of media, like literature, film and television. Outside of gaming, sequels are considered inferior to the originals as a rule, usually due to a ham-fisted attempt at shoehorning in an extension to a story that’s already met a satisfying conclusion. As time marches on, video games become more and more story oriented, which means that soon video game sequels will fall victim to the same exact issues sequels in other media suffer from. At the same time, the idea that each new installment will improve upon the original will likely always be relevant with regards to video games. So how can developers compromise between these two conflicting viewpoints?

As I said before, video game sequels, in general, improve upon the predecessors: refining existing mechanics and adding entirely new ones to create an improved experience. Despite the fact that many gamers bemoan the lack of original IPs, sales figures imply that sequels are much more popular. This is especially important for publishers, where even a single flop could spell disaster for all but the largest companies. The video game industry just isn’t as conducive to new intellectual properties as it once was… back when there weren’t any existing franchises.

Ironically, the games of old were always more suitable for sequels from a story perspective in the first place. Most games from the 8-bit, 16-bit and even many from the 32-bit eras of gaming had fairly simple storylines, akin to those of Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, just how many times did we rescue Princess Toadstool from Bowser or stop Dr. Wily’s plots for world domination? But as with so many other aspects of gaming, most modern games’ stories are much more complex, akin to more refined forms of media, specifically movies. Self-contained adventures with a concrete beginning, middle and end. For example, before a sequel was taken into consideration, the original Portal had a very decisive ending, where Chell (the main protagonist) simply escaped at the end. This was later modified with an additional scene via a patch just before the sequel had been announced. Less lucky in this regard was the original Bioshock, which had two fairly decisive endings, neither leaving much room for Bioshock 2, which itself had to play around with the first game’s canon by adding entirely new characters to the existing setting of Rapture. This attempt at retconing was met with much less enthusiasm compared to that of Portal 2.

Of course, other games tend to leave their endings open-ended. Sometimes, it’s because the creator wants to make an entire series as opposed to a single game. Other times, it’s just because the publisher wants to leave the option for a sequel open if the game ends up doing well. Unfortunately, when plans change or games bomb in terms of sales, the main victims are fans of these games. After all, MegaMan Volnutt is still rotting on the moon and loads of people are still waiting for the third installments of both Shenmue and Half-Life, even though most of us have given up hope. Reboots don’t generally fare much better, take a look at how well recieved DmC and Bomberman: Act Zero were.

So how do you reconcile the unique advantage that video games have always had with regards to sequels with the increasing disadvantages a greater emphasis on storylines modern games suffer from? Why, by making spiritual sequels of course! Spiritual sequels, while commonly associated with creators who have lost the rights to their IPs, could very easily allow for iterative sequels of old, without the worries of retcons and unresolved cliffhangers. As an added bonus, now all those whiners can get brand new shiny IPs with the added benefit of using a tried and true formula, allowing for a safer sell on the part of publishers and their investors, compared to an entirely original IP.

I can even think of a few good examples of some existing spiritual sequels that did fairly well. There’s the aforementioned Bioshock, which was actually a spiritual sequel to the System Shock games. The original Paper Mario was originally intended to be a direct sequel to Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG. Same goes for both Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, respectively codenamed Princess Crown 2 and 3 while in development. Compare Platinum Games’ MadWorld to Clover Studio’s God Hand or hell, Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. Blazblue and Guilty Gear. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. The point is, it’s been done and in many cases, it’s worked out quite well. There’s your proof of concept.

Of course, in many of these cases, the original games in question haven’t been all that popular to begin with. I mean, Princess Crown never even made it outside of Japan in the first place and God Hand was a colossal bomb in terms of sales. What if you tried a spiritual successor with something like Call of Duty, Madden or Grand Theft Auto? A lot of what makes megaton hits like those three sell as well as they do is brand-name recognition. As depressing as this may sound, there is an enormous customer base that only buys games in specific series (CoD and Madden being the most popular) and nothing else. While most gamers are aware that series like this are exceptionally rare, publishers and especially investors are not. And in these rare cases, spiritual sequels would be incredibly detrimental to the future of any devteams working on said games. Unfortunately, in these conservative times, many publishers hold that intellectual properties are much more important than refined gameplay and given the realities of the marketplace, they’re not exactly wrong.

Maybe there’s a possiblity for a compromise. You could do something along the lines of a spinoff or even a sequel in name only, sort of like what they did with Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (which was referred to simply as “2010” in Japan and had nothing to do with either Street Fighter or Final Fight) or Red Steel 2, which had nothing to do with the original. You could also make distinct references to the previous game through advertising. And of course, in cases where the game’s canon has come to a decisive end, nothing’s stopping you from doing a prequel elsewhere in the universe: Bioshock Infinite comes to mind almost instantly.

Regardless of what happens, this problem needs to be solved if the industry is going to “grow up” like so many producers are trying to do with the medium. Personally, I don’t believe that dropping one of the key strengths video games have over most other forms of media is a good way to evolve. At the same time, perhaps gaming should strive to deliver on more experiences than just fun, like some creators want the format to do. Regardless of what direction gaming takes in the future, it is important to discover a compromise between the advantages of improvement of game engines via iterative development and the potential for self-contained narratives in video games.

Top Ten SNES Games That Need Sequels (Part 2)

Welcome back to my list of ten games/series that made their last appearance on the greatest system ever made and need sequels. Once again there is no particular order, just five SNES games with a description and how I envision a current-gen sequel working. And the mandatory intro paragraph, of course.

Wild Guns (Natsume, 1995)

The Game

Wild Guns belongs to a distinct but extremely rare genre. A combination of run and guns and rail shooters, Wild Guns has you controlling both a reticule and your character simultaneously, shooting enemies in the background while dodging their bullets. There are a handful of other games that use this concept (Cabal, Nam-1975), but Wild Guns is widely considered the best. Like Sunset Riders, Wild Guns takes place in the old west, but it isn’t just the bullets that have a futuristic feel. For reasons I’m not sure are ever explained, robots have invaded the 19th century western settings and it’s up to you to destroy all of them. Wild Guns actually has some features that are ahead of its time, letting you dodge roll and blow up most of the background objects. With intense but never cheap gameplay, it really is an overlooked classic.

The 2013 Version

The first instinct of many developers would probably be to make Wild Guns a traditional shooter. No, don’t even think about it. A modern Wild Guns needs to keep its identity, but the single screen levels could feel a little limiting on modern systems. Thankfully, there is one game that is essentially a perfect 3D translation of this rare genre: Sin and Punishment. Taking the same control scheme of moving both a character and reticule and having them run on rails through full 3D levels is exactly how a modern Wild Guns should work. This lends itself perfectly to the over the top action a game about robots attacking the old west deserves, the game practically programs itself!

Ninja Warriors (Natsume, 1994)

The Game

Another great game by Natsume (possibly the most underrated SNES publisher), Ninja Warriors could best be described as a hybrid of beat-em-ups and one on one fighters. You have the multiple enemies and scrolling levels of a beat-em-up, but you have the one plane movement of a fighter and the moves that come with that. This manages to solve some of the problems beat-em-ups have where the developer doesn’t seem to know how to balance three dimensional movement in a time when it was rare. The fighting feels more strategic, and like Wild Guns the core gameplay is very well balanced and has robots!

The 2013 Version

Ninja Warriors is pretty easy to translate into a modern game. Unlike Wild Guns, I think Ninja Warriors would work fine as the closest mainstream genre to it. The fast paced, combo heavy gameplay feels similar to modern 3D action games, and Ninja Warriors would work well as one. There really isn’t that much that has to be said, Ninja Warriors’ gameplay would translate nearly perfectly into a Devil May Cry style game. There isn’t even a need for a “keep the same tone” disclaimer, since action games seldom try to be overly realistic or serious anyway.

Skyblazer (Sony Imagesoft, 1994)

The Game

Skyblazer is an action platformer with the standard Engrish filled throwaway plot you’d expect from that era. The gameplay is solid and has a good amount of variety (auto-scrolling flight levels, mazes, a level where the walls are rotating in 3D) and bosses. In addition to your standard melee combat abilities you can climb walls and gain access to a number of spells as you progress through the game. A very good but not exceptional game, what makes Skyblazer stand out is that it’s a SNES game made by Sony, so it’s unlikely to ever appear anywhere else.

The 2013 Version

Since a sequel to Skyblazer would be Sony exclusive, it seems appropriate to use another Sony franchise as the template for it. Skyblazer’s setting and melee combat/platforming gameplay would fit perfectly into a God of War style game. Go ahead and make it darker and more violent, it’s not like anyone cares about the groundbreaking characters Sky and Old Man. With a larger emphasis on platforming and the mythology having a more eastern influence, Skyblazer could set itself apart enough from God of War to be a good addition to Sony’s first party lineup.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Enix, 1993)

The Game

I’m not sure if thinking E.V.O. was an educational simulation game was common or just me, but the game is actually an action-RPG/platformer hybrid. E.V.O. starts you out as a simplistic sea creature, and as you level up you evolve new forms and abilities from several options. The game also covers several eras, each with its own unique enemies and forms for you to choose from. With multiple endings and real-time sidescrolling combat and dungeons, E.V.O. was a very ambitious game for its time. While the combat and platforming is far from perfect, it’s functional enough to let you enjoy the addictive process of evolving your creature to easily kill and eat enemies that used to terrorize you.

The 2013 Version

This is another game where a modern version is easy to picture, but so is what made the game great being ruined. A modern E.V.O. would be tempted to turn into a full sim game, and that would ruin what made it special. E.V.O. should remain simple in its gameplay and leveling and keep the supernatural elements. A modern version should simply expand on it, imagine if it went from amoebas to space exploring humans. It would be important not to let ambition hurt the game Spore style, but as long as the combat remains real time, the evolution paths simple to manage, and the mystical story intact I think a modern E.V.O. could be amazing.

Demon’s Crest (Capcom, 1994)

The Game

You remember those red gargoyles from the Ghouls ‘N Ghosts series? Well they had their own spin-off series, and it’s actually better than the original. Unlike Arthur who only has one weapon at a time and the worst armor in the world, the gargoyle protagonist Firebrand has a variety of abilities and gains new one and improvements throughout all three of the Gargoyle’s Quest/Demon’s Crest games. Despite the RPG elements, the core of the series is still action platforming, and Demon’s Crest is definitely the best in the series. Don’t let that infamous week it had more returns than sales fool you, Demon’s Crest is one of Capcom’s best SNES games.

The 2013 Version

A projectile-based platformer, Demon’s Crest could be tricky to translate into 3D. I think the best bet would be a big genre combination like Darksiders. A Zelda style overworld and dungeon setup would fit well into the series, especially Demon’s Crest with its emphasis on multiple paths and different forms for Firebrand. The style of combat and platforming mix would be nearly impossible in 3D, so since this is my fantasy about a game that will never be made anyway let’s just make the dungeons 2D. A higher puzzle emphasis and less linearity within them (which means adding a map is ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY, just in case I acquired reality warping powers without realizing it and this game gets made) would be a logical evolution for the series. Since we have a 3D overworld (even the SNES game had that, kind of), might as well use it for some gameplay and having rail shooter style air battles. This game might end up with negative sales again, but it sure would be awesome.

So there you have it, ten games that last appeared on SNES and need sequels. I’d like to make a few honorable mentions for Pocky and Rocky (had a sequel much later, but from what I’m told it was terrible), the Soulblazer trilogy (had an even more obscure fourth game on PS1), and Yoshi’s Safari (which just didn’t quite make the list). Will any of these games ever get actual sequels? Well, it’s not impossible, with the rise of lower budget downloadable games and the internet making nostalgia exponentially more powerful there’s always a chance. But until then, at least we still have these SNES classics.

Top Ten SNES Games That Need Sequels (Part 1)

I’m just going to say it: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is perfect and the greatest system ever made. But rather than force my opinion on people who would deny this objective fact, I want to talk about some of the unsung SNES classics. The following five games had their last installment on the Super Nintendo, and it’s time they got their long overdue sequels. This isn’t going to be a complex list, just a quick description of the game and how I think it could work on current-gen systems. In no particular order, here are five SNES games that need a sequel:

Actraiser (Enix, 1991)

The Game

Actraiser is a very unique hybrid of two genres. Half action-platformer and half city building sim, Actraiser puts you in the role of The Master and tasks you with protecting humanity from demons and the inability to plan a functioning town in a game which Americans are assured has no religious themes. The platforming is pretty simple and the controls are a little stiff, but it’s still enjoyable. Town building is very fun, simple and with some real time combat from an overhead perspective. The game feels very satisfying to play and the music is great. And yes, I know it had a sequel, but not only did it have nothing to do with the original, it was also a SNES game as well.

The 2013 Version

The biggest obstacle with making a modern Actraiser would be the danger of the sim part being made too complex. Don’t make us manage our town’s economy or grain supply, keep it the simple and intuitive quest to seal monster lairs so you can fight the big demons. Maybe put in some simple tower defense style gameplay to protect your villages, but that’s it. I’d integrate the gameplay styles a little bit more, have specific areas on the map open up action segments when your townspeople reach them. The action segments aren’t difficult to imagine in a modern setting, just give it a solid action game engine and let the angel statue slice through demons with some light platforming.

Joe and Mac 2 (Data East, 1994)

The Game

This entry is really for the entire Joe and Mac trilogy. Yeah, trilogy, J&M2 was really the third game, but the second was renamed Congo’s Caper for North America. Joe and Mac is a simple game with a simple concept: dinosaurs and evil cavemen have kidnapped all the cavewomen in the titular heroes’ tribe, and they have to rescue them. Although all three games have some pretty noticeable differences in their presentation, all of them are platformers where you smack colorful dinosaurs and an endless supply of cavemen with your trusty club. You can also do a spin jump, which was enough to get the North American arcade release of the first game renamed Caveman Ninjas, because… well, it was the 90s.

The 2013 Version

I’m re-imagining most of the games on this list as big budget retail releases, but for Joe and Mac I’m making an exception. The concept is so 90s that a download release with nearly identical gameplay is the only way to go. The obvious path to take with presentation is to play up the cheesiness, I’d even say to give it the Caveman Ninjas name again. Other than that, just give us the same colorful, cartoony world and caveman bashing gameplay. Add to the game’s length by including the overworld map from Joe and Mac 2, with more humor in the dialogue and some bonus objectives.

Sunset Riders (Konami, 1993)

The Game

Sunset Riders is Contra in the old west. There isn’t that much more to say about it, that’s what it is. You play as a cowboy rampaging through hundreds of outlaws and everyone has six shooters that fire energy bullets. The distinctly western settings and memorable (if sometimes kind of offensive) bosses set this game apart from Contra and make it a solid entry in an underrepresented genre.

The 2013 Version

Making Sunset Riders into a modern game would be tricky, six shooters firing bright pink slow moving energy bullets would seem even weirder in 3D. I think the best way to address this is to make the game as stylized as possible. Don’t make the story too humorous, but give the game an over the top feel. Don’t try to explain why you’re a cowboy in a pink poncho and sombrero shooting spread shots of energy from your realistic gun, just embrace it. For the gameplay, the only game I can think of that has a suitable play style is Vanquish. A third person shooter with an emphasis on fast movement and dodging, instead of time slowing just make the shots slow enough for you to react to and dodge them normally.

UN Squadron/Area 88 (Capcom, 1991)

The Game

UN Squadron is a very unique shmup. While the gamneplay itself is completely traditional over the top horizontal scrolling shooting goodness, the structure is very unique. You choose which order you want to do missions in, and this actually matters since the normally useless points are money in this game, money you can use to upgrade your plane. You can increase your plane’s stats and choose which and how many special weapons to have for it, adding an element of strategy to the shmup formula. Your plane can also take more than one hit, which is something I really wish more shmups would do.

The 2013 Version

There isn’t that much that needs to be changed to make UN Squadron’s formula work in a modern game. Replace the limited continue system with saving and make the game a lot longer, and you’re set. Some more missions variety would also be a good thing, UN Squadron had a few mini-missions where you had to destroy a stationary target in a limited number of flights over it, so a new one could make more simple objectives like that. With how limited the amount of 3D shmups is, I would also like at least some of the game to be Starfox style. The game’s anime license is what’s keeping it off compilations, so Capcom would have to make this a spiritual successor. Despite the license, story isn’t a big part of the game so changing it wouldn’t have any significant impact.

Uniracers (Nintendo, 1994)

The Game

Uniracers was truly ahead of its time. If I was comparing it to a mainstream game, my first choice would be Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Uniracers is about riderless unicycles racing and competing in trick competitions. What made this game stand out so much among SNES games was the variety of tricks you could do in the air for points or bursts of speed, always having to stop them soon enough to ensure you landed in a safe position. The surreal atmosphere added to this game’s uniqueness, ensuring everyone who played it remembered it.

The 2013 Version

Translating Uniracers to a modern game would be easy. The extreme sports format that was big in the first half of the 2000s is perfect for it, just make the game 3D and expand on the trick engine and you’re set. Since I don’t think anyone would be insane enough to try to bog down a game about riderless unicycles with realism or a distracting story, Uniracers could be just what the genre needs to get back on track.

Well, there you have it, the first five SNES games that may or may not be forgotten, but definitely all need sequels. Since we’re talking about SNES there are obviously more great games to discuss, so stay tuned for the second part of this article where I’ll discuss and re-imagine five more SNES classics.

Genre Hopping – Part 2: Concepts

Last month, I discussed many (if not all) of the times the MegaMan franchise as a whole has deviated from the traditional “jump ‘n shoot man” style of gameplay. From racing games to puzzle games, fighting games to FMV games and so on, MegaMan has done far more than just his infamous style of platforming. I also brought up the fact that as Capcom has had little luck with reviving the Blue Bomber in his traditional format, why not try another spinoff?

You’re probably asking, “But Professor Icepick! It’s so obvious what Capcom should do: just make another 2D game, except with something besides 8-bit graphics!”. And of course, why fix what isn’t broken? Well, to be honest, the fact is that, while MegaMan’s traditional gameplay format is time-tested, the sheer amount of games in the series that follow this formula has made the franchise itself something of a joke. Furthermore, I never implied that a MegaMan 11, a MegaMan ZX 3 or even a MegaMan Star Force 4 would deviate from the gameplay that made its specific franchise so popular. I’m thinking about this more from the angle of a spinoff, not unlike the games I discussed last time. Sort of a way to get people who never played any of the old-school games a chance to fall in love with the series that we love.

Take, for example, the rhythm-based platformer: not too far removed from the MegaMan pedigree, but with enough potential for a different experience. Games like the Bit.Trip Runner series and Harmoknight, for example, which blend classic platforming gameplay with rhythm-based gameplay, typically determined by the background music. Considering the fact that one of the most important elements of any MegaMan game is the music, this seems like a match made in heaven. MegaMan Classic would be the best choice for this genre, in my opinion: imagine blasting Metools and Sniper Joes in perfect harmony with rearrangements of classic Robot Master themes like Needleman, Flashman or Napalmman. Better still, you could simultaneously buck the trend of simply having 8 robot masters before starting the fortress, while getting newbies acquainted with MegaMan’s history in the process.

Unfortunately, there is a fatal flaw with this idea: the majority of rhythm platformers tend to be exclusively auto-scrolling affairs. Does that sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what they did with the much maligned Rockman XOver. Sure, most other rhythm platformers tend to add hazards, but considering the sheer amount for fan backlash, well, it would probably be best to avoid anything that even resembles XOver at this point. If there were some way to properly craft a game that allowed players to maintain the freedom of movement of a typical 2D platformer while maintaining the amount of rhythm elements in traditional rhythm-platformers, I think it could work.

Another problem would be the fact that it would be harder to utilize Master Weapons, arguably the MegaMan franchise’s most defining trait, in the context of a rhythm game. Granted, all modern consoles often have shoulder triggers on their most common input methods, allowing for quick switches, but traditionally weapon selection is done via a pause menu in MegaMan games, and pausing mid-stage would pretty much ruin the flow of a rhythm game. Maybe it would work if you were allowed to map specific weapons to specific button presses, though few systems would have enough buttons for each weapon considering you’d also need a button to jump. Perhaps if outside the context of boss fights, alternate weapons had only superficial differences from the standard Buster –maybe they could all be different instruments! Either way, there are some interesting ideas there, but it would take a lot of work to make a proper rhythm-platformer that is undeniably a MegaMan game. However, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to see Capcom try it. Quite the opposite.

In that case, what about a platform that focuses more on exploration? A “Metroidvania”, if you will. Sure, many people will argue that the ZX series was already fairly Metroidvanian, but I’m talking less about individual stages connected by a hub world for the most part and more of a single major area, almost akin to a dungeon crawling platformer, with save points in lieu of extra lives. Within the MegaMan canon, I feel like this would be a good choice for a Legends spinoff, due to that particular sub-franchise’s emphasis on exploration and let’s face it, most of the major action stages in MML were basically dungeon crawls. So it’d be interesting to see the one MegaMan game that was always meant to be in 3D be ported back to 2D.

Of course, doing a game in the Legends series that isn’t MML3 would likely reopen old wounds and making such a dramatically different game into the third Legends game would likely cause widespread backlash from the fanbase. As such, finding another MegaMan franchise to do this kind of experiment with would be difficult. Classic and X definitely wouldn’t work, due to the fact that most Metroidvanias try to guide players into tackling various obstacles in a specific order by closing off certain areas until you obtain a certain power-up, the Classic and X series are better known for their non-linear stage order. Zero’s been concluded. The aforementioned ZX series may be similar in style but it still focuses on stage-based gameplay at its core. I suppose maybe Battle Network and Star Force could work, but considering the fact that both series have been more or less concluded, it might be better to avoid it. So while making a Metroidvanian MegaMan spinoff may lack the design issues making a rhythm platformer would have, it’s still probably for the best to put that idea on hold.

Speaking of Legends, I guess the most obvious answer would be transitioning the Blue Bomber from 2D to 3D. I mean, I’ve seen enough people ask for this kind of thing. Throw in some TPS elements or maybe just some good ol’-fashioned lock-on to handle the aiming, make sure it’s got some actual platforming in it like the 2D games have and you’re pretty much set. Frankly, the idea of MegaMan going 3D platformer doesn’t exactly inspire much excitement out of me. On the other hand, a 3D platformer going MegaMan sounds outright interesting. Imagine trying to navigate “Yoku” block puzzles (you know, those bits with the disappearing platforms) in full-on 3D. Of course, if they ever did anything like that, they’d probably switch back to a 2.5D view, like many modern 3D platformers do. Spoilsports.

I guess there are a few major things holding back any existing MegaMan series from being made into a 3D platformer. The fact that MegaMan managed to survive the entire PS1 generation without being turned into a straight-up 3D series, an incredible feat considering the fact that pretty much everything went 3D that generation, usually to disasterous results. Yes, I know Legends was 3D, but it was also a spinoff as opposed to an existing series, Classic and X both only got 2D games on PS1. Furthermore, the first time a traditionally 2D MegaMan went 3D, MegaMan X7, well, let’s just say that managed to poison the well in a way that even its vastly improved sequel couldn’t untaint. On that note, I’m sure for as many fans who want to see a 3D MegaMan game, just as many (if not more) fans want the series to keep its traditional 2D gameplay. So the only way to do something like this without the potential for massive fan backlash would be a completely new sub-franchise, and considering that Capcom appears to be working on unifying the brand rather than branching out even further…well, I’d say “outlook not so good”.

Maybe we should go in a different direction, how about a traditional top-down 2D action-RPG? You know, not exactly like Zelda, but closer to say, Crystalis or Startropics. More of an emphasis on combat rather than puzzles, leveling system and all that good stuff. At the very least, it seems like a good way to do a more story-oriented MegaMan game or at least quell the unquenchable demand a small fraction of the fanbase has for a MegaMan RPG without going for your traditional turn-based JRPG-style combat system and keeping at least a modicum of traditional MegaMan gameplay in the game itself.

Unfortunately, the whole idea that MegaMan needs an RPG is somewhat flawed in and of itself. Legends is already an action-RPG, albeit a 3D one. The Battle Network and Star Force series themselves were more traditional JRPG fare, albeit with a much more active battle system. This leaves Classic, which really doesn’t need it; X, which already got a traditional RPG itself; Zero, which is over and done with; and ZX, which frankly, I’d rather just see return in its standard format. I guess a 2D action-RPG would work as a budget title in the Legends series, but aside from that, it doesn’t seem worth pursuing.

Another major strikingly different genre MegaMan could possibly take on would be that of a first-person perspective (FPP) game. Call it an FPS if you have to, but I’m referring more towards games like Portal and Metroid Prime, which focus more on other elements besides just headshots, tactical strikes and multiplayer. Granted, there is a pretty cool multi-player MegaMan FPS deathmatch fangame out there, which sort of implies that a Capcom-made single-player first-person MegaMan game would be an interesting experiment, to say the least.

Of course, for all the potential a MegaMan FPP game might have, it would definitely be the easiest to mess up. Considering Capcom’s attempt at moving towards a more Western style for their worldwide releases, it seems likely that doing a game in a genre that’s strictly seen out of Western developers would likely cause a perfect storm of the exact phenomenon that has so many Capcom fans so leery over their shift towards Western-friendly titles in the first place. As for a series that might work with this idea, a single-player FPP adventure would probably work best as either a Legends game (consider the amount of exploration seen in Metroid Prime) or an entirely original sub-franchise.

So, having gone through these five different genres, another question occurs to me: are there any genres that were used to make earlier MM spinoffs that I’d like to see get a second chance? Well, yes, yes there are, I’d love to see an actual MegaMan one-on-one fighting game at some point, whether it’s traditional 2D, a 3D arena fighter or even done Smash Brothers-style. I’d also love to see a puzzle game, a shmup and especially a WarioWare-style minigame-dealie, like those Japanese cell phone games I mentioned last time.

Regardless of whether the next game in the MegaMan series is a traditional 2D platformer like the rest or something totally different, doesn’t really matter in the end. What matters is whether or not the next MegaMan game properly represents the spirit of the franchises. All things considered, it’s unlikely that the next game in the series will be anything like the last one, due the fan backlash regarding the 8-bit homage art-style. If Classic resurfaces, it’s likely that we’re going to venture into some uncharted territory regardless. But as long as the spirit of the MegaMan series is still there, I have faith that whatever Capcom delivers will be fine.

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.

Don’t Do What DLC Don’t Does

When this generation began, I had really high hopes for the idea of downloadable content, or DLC for short. Cheaper expansions for fighting games, as opposed to just churning out 5 additional versions at $60 a pop. Additional level packs for games that already felt complete, a bonus. The ability to put in various ideas that would have, in the past, just ended up on the cutting room floor and be lost to time. DLC seemed like it could have improved the industry at its core, allowing for better experiences. I was optimistic about the good DLC could do for the industry as a whole.

As is normally the case when I’m optimistic, I was dead wrong. I could not have been more wrong. Gaming continues to slide its way into dystopia. DLC is used for little else than cashgrabs and squeezing as much money out of the consumers as humanly possible. This generation we saw the cost of games return to the $60 we saw during the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Yes, yes, I know, inflation means that $60 goes less far than it did in the 90s and that game prices back in those days weren’t as standardized as they are today, as carts with larger amounts of memory yielded higher prices. Shut up. That doesn’t mean people didn’t flip their shit when the $10 price rise was announced at the beginning of the last generation and at least back in the Genesis/SNES days, there wasn’t the additional leech of DLC further draining one’s pockets. Yes, somehow the addition of DLC has actually made games even MORE expensive than they were back in the 90’s, and depending on the game, the full cost of the game might even dwarf those of the earliest Nintendo 64 games ($70-$80) or in some cases, even the mighty NeoGeo AES (a whopping $100 per game!). This is ridiculous. I understand that games cost far more now than ever to make, though that’s mainly because most developers focus less on streamlining technology and more on gaudy photo-realistic graphics that nowadays fall well-within the realm of the uncanny valley (you go, Creepy Old Man Head). But hey, that aside’s a topic for another day. This article is going to focus more on things companies should avoid and attempt (but mostly avoid) when it comes to the usage of downloadable content. Maybe if companies heed the words of their customers, DLC can truly reach its full potential: being used to improve games, rather than just bleeding consumers dry.

Rule the first: DON’T do on-disc DLC. It’s hard to forget Capcom’s whole debacle with Street Fighter x Tekken and for good reason. In SFxT, 12 complete characters were found just by searching a disc that was obtained before the street date. Upon the discovery of these assets, Capcom claimed it was done in order to avoid compatibility issues regarding the future release of the DLC characters, as was the case with Mortal Kombat 9. This wasn’t the first time Capcom pulled stuff like this: both versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (DLC characters Shuma-Gorath and Jill Valentine), all versions of Street Fighter 4 (alternate costumes), Dead Rising 2 and Off the Record (alternate outfits and, in OtR’s case, cheat codes). It wasn’t the last either, but the games in question were well into development by the time the controversy began. My point is SFxT caused enough backlash to cause even Christian Svennson, the face of Capcom USA, to state outright that they would be reconsidering using such business practices in the future. So far, it looks like even the seemingly oblivious Capcom of Japan managed to get the message. Furthermore, DON’T take assets that were originally intended to be on-disc DLC and sell them as “true DLC”. Admittedly, this is much harder to prove that the aforementioned on-disc DLC, but it’s scummy all the same.

Rule the second: DON’T make overpowered assets (i.e. weapons, characters) into paid DLC. Frankly, I think it’s wrong to make overpowered assets as DLC period. But charging for said power-ups is just another way of incorporating a favorite corporate tactic: “pay to win”. While “pay to win” is significantly more common in free-to-play games (like Farmville), it’s slowly begun to creep its way into AAA $60 retail titles as well and while it can be somewhat justified in the case of the former, the same cannot be said for the latter. It’s arguably even scummier than on-disc DLC. Of course, there’s an easy way around that: just add the ability to unlock these new weapons, characters or whatever via in-game “achievements”, like beating the game on the highest difficulty level or something. …of course, nowadays, it’s not entirely unheard of for developers to charge extra for said highest difficulty level.

Next we come to the last major rule: DON’T do “true” retailer exclusive DLC. That is to say, don’t do DLC that is only accessible if you preorder a certain game from a certain retailer. Now I’m not saying that allowing for preorder bonuses from ordering from a specific retailer is wrong in and of itself: exclusivity for a limited time is perfectly fine in my opinion. It’s just when the DLC is not made available for general consumption on the system in question’s online store that I get annoyed. It hardly seems fair to anyone who either bought the game well after the game’s release. Furthermore, it doesn’t make any sense to me, as it removes a potential avenue for future revenue regarding older games, which seems a bit counter-productive, considering most publishers these days seem to exist for the sole purpose of draining every last penny from their customers’ bank accounts. Making certain pieces of DLC exclusively preorder bonuses also tends to bother fans in general: I’ve got a friend who still curses to this day the fact that he was unable to get all the DLC characters in Disgaea 4 for the PS3, due to his choice of retailer. Of course, he also complained that he was unable to get the Casino Night DLC for Sonic Generations, which was a pretty pointless piece of DLC in the first place.

Those are the three major rules I’ve come up with, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t other things publishers should avoid when it comes to dealing with DLC. For example, DON’T charge so much for the ability to implement older assets in future titles, looking at you, Namco Bandai with your damn Tekken Tunes in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and the older soundtracks being in Soul Calibur IV and V. If anything, they should just be included on the disc in the first place, but if you can’t fit it on the disc, don’t charge so much for the entire package: make it roughly $1 for an entire game’s soundtrack or old skins or old maps or whatever. On that note, DON’T make things that would’ve been unlockables in the olden days into paid DLC. Also, DON’T break immersion when it comes to adding additional bonus areas to games: for example, in Darksiders II, the DLC bonus dungeon required you to access it from the main menu, rather than having it appear in-game. Of course, this doesn’t apply to cases with episodic add-on content, like Undead Nightmare in Red Dead Redemption.

Now onto some more positive notes, after all this wouldn’t be much of an article if I didn’t provide any advice to publishers with regards to DLC practices that customers might actually enjoy. For example: DO mix free and paid DLC updates. Now I am aware that in many cases, publishers aren’t ENTIRELY at fault for the fact that it seems like all significant DLC is paid, while free DLC is limited to necessary gamefix patches and that these limitations are somewhat due to certain…other parties at work (*coughhacksnortMicrosoftcough*). Hopefully, future generations won’t be limited by such things, but for the time being, at the very least, making certain pieces of existing DLC free for a limited time (for those who already own the game, at least) might act as a way to garner a bit of good will amongst the consumer base, though this might be even more difficult, just due to the closed nature of most online storefronts. Granted, Valve’s Steam platform has gone beyond the call of duty in this case, by even making entire games free for an entire weekend in order to drum up interest. Free trials have the added benefit of getting consumers who might not have otherwise bothered with your game to try it out, and that could lead to more sales down the line, especially on older titles.

Speaking of older titles, DO release DLC down the line to revive an established game, with entirely new content. Case in point, Nintendo’s upcoming Super Luigi U is a full-on expansion pack for New Super Mario Bros. U that is as long as the original game, and it’s a DLC add-on. Besides, nowadays consoles seem to be moving more and more towards PCs in terms of hardware architechure, so why not revive one of the great ideas of PC games: the expansion pack? As an added benefit, companies could use expansion DLC as a way to keep the original dev teams of their respective games working and allow for a greater understanding on the sales of said game, rather than just basing the future of a game on its day 1 sales and immediately either starting work on a sequel or just straight up ditching the franchise for the next 5-7 years. Expansion packs just sound more reasonable to me, in the long run.

Another thing with regards to games that have been on store shelves for awhile, DO release “Game of the Year” or at least editions marked “complete” with all of the DLC content included AND implemented on-disc. Whether they come out the next year or a few more years down the line, this is actually kind of important just due to the fleeting nature of DLC itself. Take for example, the whole spiel with the extra characters in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, when all of those DLC characters and missions were taken down from both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s online stores, though they were eventually brought back…for a limited time. Seriously, people are already worried about archiving modern games because bullshit like this. I mean, at least back in even the days of the PS2 and the Gamecube, people never even considered that games might be put up for re-release in the future, but nowadays, it’s so commonplace that this shouldn’t even be an issue. Considering the difficulties that many companies are having with their own re-releases, you’d think that many of them would be openly trying to avoid sabotaging the potential for future re-releases. I guess that’s why many gamers openly opine that games have become far more disposable than ever before, but I suppose that’s a topic better explored another time.

Again, three suggestions with regards to what SHOULD be done with regards to DLC, but what else can be done to regain the trust of gamers? Well, for starters, DO improve bug-testing before going gold. While not strictly DLC related, it does fall into a similar category and a heavy reliance on day-one patches have not helped matters. Also, DO consider doing some cost-effective DLC (like say, extra difficulty settings) for free in order to add some replay. And finally, DO implement backwards-compatibility with regards to DLC. One of the things Rock Band did really well was allow you to access DLC from the first game in the second game. I’d be insanely for the next Street Fighter to allow me to use all of the old costumes I bought in the various SF4 games and SFxT at no added cost.

So there you go, there are some good dos and don’ts with regards to how DLC should be handled. And the timing couldn’t be better, as it seems like publishers are going even further with this sort of thing by implementing a new form of monetization, well, new to consoles anyway: microtransactions. We’ve already seen it happen with Dead Space 3 and chances are we’ll be seeing it a lot more often in the future, at least from EA. This worries me, but hopefully other companies will avoid jumping on the bandwagon and instead try to make DLC more viable and less of a thorn in the sides of gamers.

First is the Worst: The Flawed Beginnings of Legendary Franchises (Part 1)

I’m a big proponent of sequels. Sequels have become a scapegoat for everything people dislike about gaming (and other forms of media), but video game sequels actually have a remarkably good track record for improving on the original. To demonstrate how beneficial sequels have been to video games, I’m going to profile the first game in six series that would go on to be legendary classics. The common thread between these games is that they are the worst (or at least one of the worst) in their series due to design flaws that were greatly improved in their sequels. Some of these flaws were nearly unavoidable at the time, but this is less about bashing the actual games than showing how much sequels can improve a formula and fighting back against nostalgia coded memories. Due to that second objective, games that are universally considered the worst in their series do not qualify for this article (so no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES or Street Fighter 1). So if you’re afraid for your childhood, this is your last chance to back out. Let the list begin!

Metroid

Platform: NES
Year of release: 1986

The Good Parts

Let’s dive right in with a controversial entry. I won’t argue that the original Metroid was a revolutionary game. The open world mixed with action-platformer gameplay and the way items were used to open new areas has created its own sub-genre and is a great concept. I’m not mentioning introducing passwords because I hate them with a burning passion and the only reason I’m not counting them against the game is that the original Famicom Disc System version had saving. Metroid was certainly an ambitious game with a lot of great ideas that laid the foundation for one of Nintendo’s best series.

The Bad Parts

However, that foundation was nowhere near finished and a danger to anyone who tried to explore it. For all the great ideas Metroid had, they had not been built to a playable state. The lack of a map in an open world game is always a gigantic flaw, and the repetition of the 8-bit graphics made figuring out where you had been before an even bigger problem. The power up system was innovative but having to switch weapons by finding their original location again, in a game that was already painful to navigate, was inexcusable. The difficulty was unbalanced with an unreasonably high penalty for dying in terms of how far back you were sent, and starting with 30 hit points (when you could get your maximum amount up to 800) made tedious grinding a necessity whenever you died or entered a password. Controls for this type of game also hadn’t been perfected in 1986, while they certainly weren’t horrible, they weren’t as perfect as is needed for a game this difficult. Unless you have the game memorized already, the current Metroid is only valuable today for historical purposes.

How the Sequels Fixed It

Metroid II: Return of Samus on the GameBoy made a few improvements to the formula, making navigation less nightmarish and adding saving for gamers outside of Japan. This also came with some drawbacks and a frankly disturbing story (Samus is sent to an animal’s home planet specifically to make it extinct), so while I think the game is better than the original Metroid it’s not where I would say the series became great. That turning point was Super Metroid. Released on Super Nintendo in 1994, Super Metroid is quite similar to the original in setting and structure, but fixes everything wrong with it. Perfect control, a much needed map, tons of items that add to the gameplay and never require you to recollect them, and masterful level design make Super Metroid a true classic and one of the best games on the SNES. The series never looked back, the problems that plagued the original Metroid would never return and even the weaker post-Super games were still significantly better than the original.

Kirby’s Dreamland

Platform: GameBoy
Year of Release: 1992

The Good Parts

Kirby’s Dreamland is a fun to play platformer with good level design and some interesting ideas with the sucking/spitting of enemies and ability to fly for an infinite amount of time. There’s really not a huge amount to say about Kirby’s Dreamland, but unlike most of the other games in this article there’s no crippling flaw in it either. Just a fun but not fantastic platformer.

The Bad Parts

You know what I’m going to say. Kirby’s Dreamland is absurdly short, with five not very long levels its length is closer to a single world than a whole game. The game is also extremely easy on the standard difficulty setting, but that can be forgiven due to a very challenging hard mode being available. Even with that, however, you can 100% the game in a day. It’s a fun game, but even in 1992 it’s hard to justify paying full price for it. The game just doesn’t feel complete, Nintendo hadn’t even decided on Kirby’s color when they released it.

How the Sequels Fixed It

Kirby didn’t have to wait long to reach its potential. Just a year after the first game, 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure was released and introduced the format for Kirby platformers that is still used today. Kirby’s Adventure added the signature ability to obtain powers by eating enemies, adding much more variety and giving you more incentive not to rely on the generous amount of hit points to get you through levels. It also added secret exits and mini-games, and most importantly it was much, much longer. Kirby’s Adventure is one of the best first party NES games ever, and even the GameBoy Kirby’s Dreamland 2 would greatly benefit from the template it set. Nintendo may be determined to only let Kirby have platformers on consoles that are about to expire, but no one can deny that Kirby has far exceeded his humble beginnings.

Pokémon Red/Blue

Platform: Game Boy
Year of Release: 1998 (1996 in Japan)

The Good Parts

Everyone knows the good parts of this game (except really bitter people who still think this over 15 year old franchise is a fad), Pokémon Generation 1 had a great concept that was enjoyable even without the whole playground consuming social aspect. Capturing and raising your own unique team of monsters was something few gamers (especially outside of Japan) had done before, and it was addictive as hell. With 150 (Er, 151. Wait, 152, don’t ignore Missingno! And don’t forget the 30 or so kids at school made up.) fully playable characters to capture and train, Pokemon could keep you busy for a long time, especially if you had other players to pit your team against. There was also the emotional connection you felt to Pokémon you had chosen out of so many options and customized so much, and the sheer excitement you felt when you finished a battle and got that wonderful “What? (Name you wouldn’t admit you chose now) is evolving!” message. The battle system was also deceptively complex, with 15 types and a huge amount of moves. Unfortunately, that aspect was lacking in some areas…

The Bad Parts

Of all the games in these articles, Pokemon Blue (Blastoise>Charizard dammit!) is the one I have the most personal nostalgic connection to. Despite this, I have to be objective and acknowledge a simple fact: Pokémon Gen 1’s battle system was completely broken. Several types had no good moves or a severe drought of Pokemon, and even people who didn’t play the game know how completely overpowered Psychic types were. If you somehow don’t, Psychic type moves were only resisted by Psychic Pokémon, and Psychic Pokémon were only weak to one type of move that’s only attacks were so weak being doubled in power still wasn’t enough. That’s not to mention Psychic being a special type attack, which due to how stats were determined had a giant advantage over physical ones. There were other problems as well, such as the tedious to use HM moves, several great moves only being available through a one use per save file item, and the lack of breeding making it a nightmare to get the earlier evolutions of the starters you didn’t pick. When not looking at Generation 1 through the eyes of a child amazed at the concept, there really are a lot of flaws that come close to complete breaking the game.

How the Sequels Fixed It

Pokémon has been making steady progress throughout its life, each generation making a good amount of positive changes (albeit it with a few steps backwards now and then).Pokémon Generation 2 fixed the most obvious flaw of Generation 1, the ridiculous type imbalance. While there were still some types that were better than others (which still hasn’t been totally fixed), there at least wasn’t one type so powerful it made the rock paper scissors system meaningless. As the series progressed we’d continue to get improvements like Generation 3’s ability and revamped EV system making the training of Pokémon more strategic, Generation 4 not permanently tying types to special/physical attacks and adding online trading to ease the amount of games needed for 100% completion, and Generation 5 speeding up the gameplay and making TM’s more user friendly. If you can look past nostalgia, you’ll see the current Pokemon games are greatly improved in both the single player quest and the meta-game of multiplayer battles.

That’s it for Part 1, but in Part 2 we’ll look at three more series and just how far they’ve come since their first games. Until then, try to appreciate the sequels in your life, do something nice for them.