First Impressions

These past few months, I’ve been working on a couple more retrospective articles not unlike the one I wrote for The Legend of Zelda back when Breath of the Wild launched last month. In addition to writing a far larger than average article, I’m also left researching various things, simply to jog my memory for games I haven’t played in quite some time, so I’ve had little time to write much else aside from a post on my side blog and another list in what’s quickly become my April Fools tradition. The one upshot to all of this is that I was running low on topics to write about outside of said retrospectives and in the process of writing them, I’ve had time to think of new topics to write on. In fact, the topic for this very article was inspired by a trend I noticed while writing one of the retrospectives.

Effectively, I was researching the fan reception of one of the games I was writing for – a game that I specifically remembered being considered the worst of its series – and found that, unsurprisingly, the game had its own set of fervent defenders. Some of the people defending the game in question made the argument that it was, in fact, the first game in the series that was truly the low point of the series and that most people gave it a pass simply because it was the first game in the entire franchise – and therefore, was owed a great measure of respect, as the series itself wouldn’t exist without it. Obviously, the argument raged on after that, but I must admit the statement gave me pause. I’d felt this way about the originators of various other classic series: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, MegaMan …the list goes on. Yet somehow, an obscure flame war on some internet forum actually made me reflect upon it. Many fans of video game series do generally afford the first games of the franchise in question a greater extent of leniency than all other games in the series.

I mean, the reasoning is understandable. Being the first release in a series means that not only have the basic gameplay mechanics not been completely established, as the games that start series generally end up being far more experimental in nature, simply because they were often developed as stand-alone titles in the first place. As such, it’s dishonest to compare them to their sequels: after all, most sequels tend to build on whatever framework the original had. You know the old metaphor, “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants”? Same basic principle here – the clear majority of video game sequels wouldn’t be able to reach their level of quality without learning from both the mistakes and successes of earlier titles.

Of course, that leads to the major question at hand: do we overcompensate when it comes to discussing these first games? It does seem entirely possible that when looking back at the games themselves, especially in the case of longer-running series, we’ll often forgive bizarre design choices, stiffer controls, blander level design and other short-comings, simply because they were the originators of their respective franchises. Of course, this is particularly evident in series where there is a designated black sheep – a later game in the franchise that is despised by the fanbase in general, no matter how many lone wolves claim that they actually liked it, either due to contrarianism or genuine love for the game in question.

The weird thing about this is that this level of protectionism only seems to apply to the first game in the franchise, as opposed to earlier games in general. It’s as if, by the time the second game rolls around, every aspect had better be perfected or else the game itself is considered garbage. Take the second Ace Attorney, for example – despite the fact that we only received the enhanced port of the first game, people judged the second game far more harshly. As such, people would ignore the improvements Justice for All made compared to its predecessor’s gameplay, such as increased complexity, a higher difficulty level and the addition of the “Psyche Lock” mechanic.  Instead, most player reactions concentrated on the game’s flaws, particularly some story elements that were not considered on-par with those of the first Ace Attorney. You’ve also got to consider many cases where the second game was a complete departure from the first game’s base concept, though this will often yield softer criticism than incomplete refinements of existing formulas. Yet, in other forms of media that gravitate towards a more serialized approach, missteps in the process of development are generally more easily forgiven. Why then are video games so different?

Is the reason for this standard practice merely consideration for the game’s age and relative simplicity compared to its follow-ups or is there more to it? Could nostalgia play a role? The fact is that while there is a case for nostalgia being attributed to some cases of blatant protection – Legend of Zelda, Virtua Fighter and Metroid all come quickly to mind – this isn’t particularly a rule of the case. I mean, I honestly doubt that many people attribute any lasting nostalgia to games like the original Tekken or Bomberman, but even new fans of a series avoid scrutinizing these early iterations harshly. On the other hand, there are cases where there are objectively worse games later on in the series, which kind of muddies discussion about the first game’s flaws – it’s kind of difficult to pick apart a game if one of its successors is obviously flawed in ways even the original managed to avoid.

This phenomenon is particularly strange when you consider video game genres and sub-genres in general. While the first game in a beloved series will often be given a pass for their various shortcomings, the same is not always true for games that originated entire genres. For example, Pac-Land could be said to be one of, if not the, earliest attempts at creating a side-scrolling platformer, but doesn’t receive nearly as much love as the original Super Mario Bros., which popularized the genre in general. The same can be said for Karate Champ with regards to the fighting game genre: it’s generally viewed as a curiosity as opposed to hailed as a legitimate game, despite creating many of the conventions the genre enjoys to this day. Likewise, I’ve heard few discussions of the history of RPGs mention the Atari 2600’s Dragonstomper, perhaps the earliest example of the genre appearing on home consoles. Most discussions favor discussing Dragon Quest, or worst case scenario, the original Final Fantasy. This would seem to imply that age is not the only factor that causes people to be protective of the first games in these series, likely because these games are so obscure, they aren’t really under attack either. Still, it feels a bit hypocritical that if earlier games are considered important, these trailblazers aren’t afforded the same privilege.

While writing this article, I also considered if there were any major examples of series originators that missed out on these protections. I racked my brain, trying to think of multiple examples, but in the end, I could only think of one: the original Street Fighter. For the longest time, most people’s knowledge of the series started at “Street Fighter II” and for some reason, no one ever seemed to question what had happened to Street Fighter “One”. I’m not sure what people thought – maybe they figured that the “two” was referencing that there were two fighters in a match? I’m not entirely sure. Basically, back in the 90s, if someone mentioned “Street Fighter”, you knew they were talking about SF2, period. Of course, I had limited knowledge of the original Street Fighter game – but that came in the form of a port that managed to be worse than the original in every respect. These days, however, knowledge of the original 1987 arcade game is a lot more common, albeit tinged with copious amounts of vitriol. I’d probably argue that it’s almost a comedy of errors that Capcom still celebrates the franchise’s anniversaries on the original Street Fighter’s release date. Nonetheless, perhaps it’s the fact that it isn’t afforded any respect that made Street Fighter stick out in my mind: at best, I’ve seen people request characters that are forever tied to the game reappear in later titles as fully playable characters, as they are considered concepts too good to be left as unplayable characters in a game no one likes.

Maybe the true reason for handling the first game in a series so gently is less due to hostility towards follow-ups, but simply done with the purpose – subconsciously or otherwise – of making sure that these games don’t end up like the original Street Fighter. In the end, these games definitely hold an important place in the history of not only the franchises they started, but in the case of some particularly old series, video game history itself. I guess when you take that concrete level of importance into account, it’s easy to see how an attempt at treating these gaming giants with well-earned respect can quickly go overboard – nostalgia filter or no. Likewise, bashing a game simply because the ones that followed it improved on the formula isn’t particularly fair. However, by that very same token, holding a sequel accountable for “not doing enough” to improve on its precursor by criticizing it excessively doesn’t strike me as the proper response either. In the end, I guess it’s just better to keep a firmer grasp on context in general when documenting a series’ evolution, regardless of medium.

10 Games I’d Like To See Re-Released #06: Konami

After a long stint of writing longer articles, I always like coming back to these wishlists. Sure, it’s little more than an exercise in greed, but they’re cathartic for me: it’s always nice to remember old games that I wish we could access in these modern times. For whatever reason, I’ve got a certain intuition that making these lists increases the chances of these games seeing the light of day once again.

As with last time, I’ve decided to moon over recent PC ports and announcements in these re-release articles, since my PC ports wishlist series has been put on hiatus for the time being. First off, we’ve seen two more Steam iterations of classic NeoGeo games readily available on Humble Store: The Last Blade came out at the end of August, while Shock Troopers 2nd Squad came out at the end of September. Both versions have added online multiplayer, as has become common with these re-releases. We’ve also seen the release of Cave’s classic shmup Dodonpachi Resurrection (which I mentioned in a previous list) on Steam this past month, courtesy of the good people at Degica. Nippon Ichi Software announced that it will be bringing the second Disgaea game (rechristened Disgaea 2 PC) to Steam early next year, with all the additional content available on the PSP – including some characters that were exclusive to the Japanese version. Finally, we’ve got some news from the good people at XSEED. Xanadu Next, a Falcom action-RPG, which was originally announced for Summer 2016 will finally be releasing on November 3rd. They also announced two new PC ports: Senran Kagura: Bon Appétit! – a music-rhythm spinoff to the fanservice-laden brawler – will be hitting Windows PC on November 10th, while Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel, a fighting game crossovers starring female characters from various visual novels, will be hitting PC “this Winter” with additional features like additional victory animations, animated backgrounds and the ability to save Training Mode menu settings between sessions.

Once again, let’s go over my constraints for this series of articles. I’m going to be looking at games from the 6th generation of video games (Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox) and earlier, as games from later generations are still easy to get a hold of. To maintain focus, I’ll be looking at one company for each article and considering the fact that I live in North America, I’ll be focusing on games that haven’t seen a legitimate re-release in my own region – I’ll just ignore any talk of importing these games from Japan and Europe. Unfortunately, this means that games that have seen re-releases on services like Nintendo’s Virtual Console and Sony’s PlayStation Classics have technically already been re-released, regardless of their quality (or lack thereof) compared to a full-on remaster. The important thing is that they can be accessed by modern audiences, no matter the quality – sorry, Zone of the Enders. I’ll also discuss any possible improvements that could be made to the games with re-releases.

This time, we’ll be looking at Konami – a fitting choice, considering they made the Castlevania series, considering the time of year. Of course, these days I guess the truly terrifying thing about Konami is their status within the video game market. These days, they seem to be focusing more on farming out their intellectual properties to make Pachi-Slot machines. What few video games they’re still making are…at best, misguided. Things weren’t always this way though, and it’s safe to say that Konami still has plenty of games trapped in their vault that should be re-released. These are but merely 10 of them.

Castlevania Bloodlines (GEN)

This would have to be my number one choice, the game that I figured was the biggest missed opportunity for the original iteration of the Virtual Console. We saw the other two major 16-bit era Castlevanias hit the Wii’s Virtual Console: Super Castlevania IV for the SNES and Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine-CD, as well as the SNES’s inferior copy of the latter. Of those three games, Bloodlines was always my favorite: Eric LeCarde’s unique playstyle was a fun contrast to the traditional Belmont style of John Morris. The gameplay was akin to those of the NES games, albeit with improvements. I think one of my favorite parts was the fact that this Castlevania managed to take place outside of Castlevania’s general setting of Transylvania, with Morris and LeCarde travelling to Greece, France, Italy, Germany and England.

I personally feel like each of those three major 16-bit Castlevanias had a strength unique to itself: Super Castlevania IV dropped the stiff controls of the older games and had the best control of the series. Rondo of Blood focused on secrets, with multiple paths, alternate stages and even a hidden character. Bloodlines, however, I felt had the best level design: long sprawling stages, with deviating paths suited for each of its playable characters and unique design gimmicks for each stage. Hopefully, we’ll see it return someday.

Potential Improvements: I’d honestly be fine with just a straight port on this one, though at this point, it will probably be difficult. The modern iterations of the Virtual Console no longer support Sega Genesis and the only platform capable of doing straight emulations of Genesis games is SEGA MegaDrive & Genesis Classics on Steam, which currently has no officially supported third-party titles.

If we did get an enhanced port, I’d love to hear a rearranged version of the classic Bloodlines soundtrack, so long as the classic Genesis FM synth returns as an option. Likewise, the ability to choose between the Japanese and Western balancing would be appreciated.

Rocket Knight Adventures/Sparkster/Rocket Knight Adventures 2 (GEN/SNES)

Despite being considered a cult classic these days, the Rocket Knight franchise was a victim of its times. Released at that point in time where Sonic the Hedgehog had kicked off the “platformer starring an animal mascot with attitude” trend, the original Rocket Knight Adventures was generally considered to have been cut from the same cloth as such gaming losers as Bubsy Bobcat, Awesome Possum and Aero the Acro-Bat. Anyone who looked past the superficial similarities, however, was rewarded with one of the best games the Genesis had to offer. While the original was my personal favorite, the other two games were also great – better than the mediocre 2010 reboot on 7th generation consoles.

Potential Improvements: Once again, I’d be perfectly fine with a straight re-release in this game’s case, especially given the aforementioned reboot, which rubbed me the wrong way. While Sparkster for the SNES is still within the realm of possibility for re-release via the Virtual Console, the Genesis games have less readily available means for legal emulation.

Contra: Hard Corps (GEN)

Last Genesis game, I swear. While most people are fond of the Super Nintendo’s Contra III: The Alien Wars, I had more of a soft spot for the Genesis’s Hard Corps. Taking place in a futuristic dystopia, with robotic soldiers and gun-toting werewolves, Hard Corps ditched the more contemporary setting and in my opinion, it benefitted from it. I’m still surprised that a few years back, it managed to get a sequel: Hard Corps Uprising, developed by the good people at Arc System Works, no less!

Potential Improvements: I was generally more of a fan of the Japanese version of this game, which allowed the characters to take multiple hits before dying, as opposed to being one-hit wonders like the Western versions and earlier games in the series, so the ability to choose between those two versions would be great. Likewise, as with all Contra games of that era, the European version was rebranded as Probotector, replacing the organic protagonists with robotic counterparts, so it would awesome to see both themes in the same release – albeit with the proper framerate, as opposed to the slower one associated with European releases of that era.

Sunset Riders (Arcade)

One part Rush’n Attack, two parts Contra – Sunset Riders is one of those games that were so popular, you would have guessed that they would have gotten a sequel, but somehow they just didn’t. Utilizing the same style of two-plane stages seen in games like Shinobi and Rolling Thunder, Sunset Riders was effectively one of the more interesting games Konami released in the arcades. Since we’ve already seen a re-release of the SNES version, I thought it would be interesting to see the original Arcade version make a comeback as well.

Potential Improvements: Online multiplayer, the usual round of graphical filters and an adjustable amount of credits, leading to multiple “difficulty settings”. Basically, a similar release as the old Simpsons and X-Men arcade games from last-gen.

Kid Dracula (FC/GB)

Kid Dracula’s an interesting concept. Effectively a more comedic take on the Castlevania franchise, the Kid Dracula duology puts players in the role of Kid Dracula, Dracula’s child (who may or may not grow up to be Alucard of Symphony of the Night fame), as he tries to retake his rightful throne from the demon Galamoth. We only saw the release of the second game for Game Boy outside of Japan, but having both games re-released would be great.

Potential Improvements: If they manage to get the first game re-released, I’d love it if Konami were to completely translate the game – sure, the story’s not important, but small details like that are important to me. Other than that, straight emulations would be appreciated.

Contra (NES)

I’m still in shock that this game hasn’t seen a straight re-release (outside of course as a bonus in Contra 4 on the Nintendo DS), but considering that game’s long out of print, I think it fits with this list. Like I’ve said in previous articles, the original Contra is probably one of the three games that most shaped my gaming tastes overall. I just find it weird that Super C got re-releases on both Wii and Wii U, while the original – the more famous of the two NES releases – hasn’t seen anything in a long time.

Potential Improvements: I guess it would be interesting if they included both the NES and the arcade versions of the original Contra together: that would be an interesting contrast. Both arcade Contras were re-released last generation via Konami Classics on Xbox 360, but aren’t available on modern platforms. Likewise, it’d be cool to see a release with the previously mentioned Probotector reskin released in Europe – again, at the proper framerate.

Vampire Killer (MSX)

I’ve always been somewhat interested in this game, despite never having the opportunity to do so. This was the very first revamp of the original Castlevania – but while most of the future versions maintained the same basic gameplay concept while rearranging the stage designs and locales, Vampire Killer totally reimagined it. Many people consider Simon’s Quest to be the original prototype for what would eventually be called the “Metroidvanias”, but Vampire Killer for the MSX has it beat. In this iteration of Simon Belmont’s first adventure, players are tasked with exploring Castlevania, looking for various keys and items to progress, allowing the stages to progress in far less linear fashions.

Potential Improvements: Just a straight port would be fine, though honestly if they decided to give it the “Castlevania Chronicles” treatment with revamped graphics and a remade soundtrack, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.

Snatcher (Sega CD)

Possibly the second most famous game associated with Hideo Kojima – sorry again, Zone of the Enders – Snatcher was an early example of a visual novel more than a standard point-and-click adventure game of its era. However, its storyline was so engrossing to many that it would eventually become a cult classic. There have been multiple releases of this game across various platforms, starting with Japanese computers PC-88 and the MSX2 and later released on the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn. However, the only official English release of the game was the Sega CD version.

Potential Improvements: Once again, the main concept that comes to mind would be to include every iteration of Snatcher – preferably with brand new translations, just like Rondo of Blood had in Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. It would also be great if the MSX2 game SD Snatcher – meant to be both a slight reboot and conclusion to the original release of the game (which ended on an annoying cliffhanger) – were also included. SD Snatcher reimagined the visual novel as a cutesy RPG, with variations on the original game’s plot, a welcome lack of random battles and a unique battle system.

Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon/Goemon’s Great Adventure (N64)

I’m still kind of baffled by the Goemon series. Referred to as “Ganbare Goemon” in Japan and “Mystical Ninja” elsewhere, there have been a literal truckload of releases due to its extreme popularity but very few have seen released outside of Japan. North America got a game for the Super Nintendo, one for the Game Boy (Europe lucked out with a second!) and two N64 games. Considering we’ve already seen re-releases for the other games in the series via the Virtual Console, it’s only fair that we also receive the remaining games already available in English, right?

Potential Improvements: Straight ports seem like the best way to go on this one. I can’t think of anything to add, unless Konami decides to do a massive Goemon collection with all new translations of the Japan-exclusive titles. That seems outside the scope of something they’d be willing to do though, so let’s just stick to hoping for straight-up Virtual Console releases.

Getsu Fuuma Den (FC)

Another game of interest to me, Getsu Fuuma Den is effectively the Murasame no Nazo to Castlevania’s Legend of Zelda: a similar game concept that looked like a great deal of fun but was strictly released in Japan due to fears that cultural differences would lead to poor sales. The game thrust players into the role of warrior Getsu Fuma on his quest to recover the three Pulse Blades to avenge the death of his brothers and defeat the evil demon lord Ryuukotsuki, who escaped hell and took over the Earth. The game relies on an overhead map system, not unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, but the action stages themselves effectively play like a more action-packed NES Castlevania game. They’re short, but there are many more of them and a certain level of exploration on the overworld is necessary to beat this game.

Potential Improvements: Bare minimum, I’d want just a full English translation. Of course, if Konami wanted to get on my good side, they would do a full-on remaster, like Castlevania Chronicles or The Dracula X Chronicles. Best of all, they could still include the original Famicom version (with that aforementioned translation) as a bonus unlockable.

As usual, before I wrap this up, I’d like to mention some honorable mentions. First, there’s the Parodius series – as much as I would have loved to have put these on the main list, there are just too many of them to choose from, so I’d probably just want a full-on collection of every game in the series. Next, Castlevania Legends for the original Game Boy. Most people tend to prefer Belmont’s Revenge when talking about early portable CVs, but I think we can all agree that Legends deserved a re-release way before the abysmal Adventure. Finally, there’s Pop’n Twinbee: Rainbow Bell Adventures for the Super Nintendo. A fairly standard Konami platformer, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – just not good enough to make the main list. Likewise, I’d like to give a shout-out to the Bonk’s Adventure, Bomberman and Bloody Roar series: while they’re technically Hudson Soft properties, Konami owns their vast library of IPs, which is a crying shame.

I guess in the end, this was probably the most bittersweet of these lists I’ve had to write. Konami’s currently in a bad place right now: if not in terms of finances (they still seem to be in a good place there, at least for the moment), then definitely in terms of corporate climate. Proclaiming that they were ditching the video game market in favor of pachinko machines and mobile games (before immediately backpedaling), abusing their employees and effectively becoming so much of a super-villain, I’m sure it would make the heads of Activision, EA and Ubisoft blush like schoolgirls. Konami still holds the rights to many series I like, so their recovery would be in my best interest. Unfortunately, at this point it just feels like the only way for these old games to survive is by burning Konami to the ground.

Broad Strokes

For anyone that’s spent any significant amount of time interacting with the gamer community at large, you’ll know that there are certain specific phrases and subjects that provoke controversy, usually causing a conflict between two diametrically opposed but equally zealous sides of the argument. We’ve seen the big offenders: who has the worst DRM, used games, sexism/racism/social justice/etc. However, there are also those phrases that invoke an overwhelmingly negative reaction, to the point where there is little to no debate. One such phrase fills the entire online gaming community with overwhelming vitriol: “we’ve decided to try to broaden the audience”. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of on their side: retooling games to capture a larger market share tends to leave long-time fans of specific series and genres out in the cold and it’s been done so many times with the significant majority of attempts ending up as diluted failures, as opposed to visionary titles that bridge the gap between newbies, casual players and the long-time hardcore fans.

One has to keep in mind the reason why games tend to get retooled in order to appeal to a wider audience. The answer’s pretty simple: money. Like it or not, the majority of video game publishers are businesses, many are traded publicly on various stock exchanges. Above all, these companies have a responsibility to put the interests of their stockholders above all else, and making big bank is job 1. Of course, the art of making video games in the first place is getting more and more expensive by the generation, and this is especially evident now since we’ve just entered a new generation, with a whole new set of standards to meet, at least with regards to AAA titles. It only takes one big-budget bomb to wipe out a developer now, so there is absolutely no room for error anymore. Sometimes, a successful game isn’t even big enough to keep their dev team running: Irrational Games was recently closed despite their latest title, Bioshock Infinite, selling over 4 million copies.

Despite the understandable reality of the situation, gamers still remain cynical and hostile towards the broadening the appeal of video games, especially “hardcore” gamers. It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case, though. Many attempts at taking older games and crafting sequels for a larger audience have ended up as shallow reflections of their predecessors. Simply put, most of the time, the new games end up being dumbed down. I don’t mean simplified for the sake of streamlining (which I’d actually argue is a good thing), but literally dumbed down. As in a shell of its former glory, a game that resembles the originals in appearance and name only, but retains none of the compelling gameplay that made its old fanbase fall in love with it in the first place.

Of course, there’s another narrative here that’s become more common. Instead of the hardcore gamers fighting to keep the spirit of the original game alive in future incarnations, I’ve seen several game journalists pose an alternate explanation: hardcore games are nothing more than a bunch of big babies who refuse to “share their toys” with casual players. Of course, this is just another phase of yet another on-going narrative within the industry: the culture wars between “casual gamers” and the “hardcore”, but I’ll go into greater detail with that another time. The main thing to keep in mind is that many hardcore gamers feel that games that typically cater to them are being retooled in order to bring in a wider audience, but at the cost of what made that experience special to them in the first place. It was all perfectly encapsulated in the Dark Souls II “easy mode” controversy: a simple mistranslation in an interview led fans of the series to rage over the loss of one of the few modern games considered hardcore and gaming journalists tore into them, like a pack of wolves into a crippled doe. The whole situation was ridiculous, but it illustrates the issue at hand: many long-time fans tend to be left high and dry when publishers appeal to a larger audience.

While modifying games for wider appeal take on a multitude of different forms, I have noticed that there are some common methods that typically crop up, especially in the case where the new games offend the pre-existing audience. Perhaps the top offender is simplifying the gameplay. While this isn’t always detrimental to the gameplay (in many cases, I think it’s actually beneficial), there’s a difference between streamlining the game and removing the game’s complexities. Related is reducing the game’s overall difficulty, usually achieved by removing obstacles and dumbing down enemy AI. Of course, this isn’t always intentional: poor AI and level design are the hallmark of poor designers. One last common culprit of expanding a game’s audience is tacking on a multiplayer mode to a game that is either awkwardly implemented or simply isn’t needed. While this is commonly done to prevent trade-ins and attempts to appeal to hardcore gamers instead of casuals, it still has the negative effect of taking away resources from single-player campaigns.

There’s no better way to characterize the harmful effects attempting to broaden a game’s demographic improperly can have on the game’s overall quality than listing some examples. The first one that came to mind was Resident Evil 6: it attempted to recapture their old survival-horror fanbase from RE4 while holding onto the more action-oriented third-person shooter audience from RE5, but only delivered a bland, mediocre game decried by gamers and journalists alike. Mass Effect 2 and especially 3 were criticized for ditching some of the RPG elements from the original in favor of cover-based shooter gameplay, while Dragon Age 2 had been accused of reducing the gameplay to mindless hack-and-slash action gameplay. Dead Space 3, while otherwise a fine game, was tainted by microtransactions, which EA added under the pretense of “appealing to mobile gamers” and you can probably guess how well that turned out.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts has been argued to be an example of this as well, ditching the game’s classic collect-a-thon gameplay (and openly mocking it at times), though the only real evidence we have that this was done to appeal to a broader audience is an interview with the game’s composer, Grant Kirkhope. This practice isn’t even limited to the previous generation: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was developed because Squaresoft was under the impression that JRPGs were too difficult for Western audiences. However, the most drastic example is probably Bomberman: Act Zero, which reimagined the classic character in a gritty, grimdark reboot with mediocre gameplay.

That’s not to say that there aren’t examples where attempting to broaden the audience for a particular title ended up making it a better game overall. Take for example, Street Fighter IV and its various expansions. As Street Fighter III ended up being a commercial failure for Capcom, SF4 ended up taking on gameplay more similar to that of the SF2 games, with slower, more deliberate action and reduced the complexity of various game mechanics. The parry system was dropped, while “focus attacks” were added in, which ended up being used by tournament players in a number of ways. Perhaps most controversial among hardcore fans was the transition from 2D sprites to 3D models, as this evoked the failed “Street Fighter EX” spinoff. However, the gameplay stayed entirely true to the game’s roots, resulting in a 2.5D game. Old fans of Street Fighter from the 90s ate the game up, and after a brief period of hostility, so did the majority of fighting game enthusiasts. That’s not to say it won over everyone in the community, but with the FGC, you have to realize there’s just no pleasing some people.

My next example is probably going to be the most controversial: the “Super Guide” function that’s appeared in recent Nintendo platformers. Yes, yes, I know it’s generally a win button that’s considered lame by most “real” gamers, but hear me out on this one. First, it’s optional, so even if it gets triggered in-game (after dying 5 or so times), you’re never actually forced to use it. Second, Nintendo’s made a pretty big point of trying to cater to casual gamers as of late, especially compared to Sony and Microsoft. So, with that in mind, Super Guide is probably the best solution to this problem: novice players have a way to continue on without getting stuck at some particularly difficult level and Nintendo has free reign to beef up the difficulty. And trust me, they have: Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country Returns are incredibly difficult games if you beat them without any help, even if you don’t take their post-game campaigns into account.

One last major case where simplifying gameplay to broaden an audience had a net positive effect was Saints Row 2. While the original Saints Row was your typical Grand Theft Auto knockoff, SR2 removed some of the more obvious design flaws that hurt GTA’s base gameplay: a lack of checkpoints during missions, long drives back to the starts of a missions and being penalized for causing chaos outside of missions. While game reviewers still thought of Saints Row as a low-rent GTA clone, many gamers prefer it, even to the then-recent GTA4. Furthermore, by differentiating itself from GTA in later games, the Saints Row series gained an audience of its own, being one of THQ’s most successful original franchises and was one of their first titles to be obtained after their bankruptcy.

The point I’m trying to make with this article is simple: video game budgets have swollen to the point where what would’ve been considered phenomenal sales a decade ago are simply not enough to keep AAA development going. Appealing to a wider demographic is one way to circumvent that and that’s not an inherently bad thing. What is bad, is using that as an excuse to deliver a shoddier product: one that doesn’t streamline existing gameplay, but rather scraps the elements that made the original game so engaging for its fans. That’s why core gamers revolt every time any publisher mentions “broadening the audience” – because it’s become a code phrase for “here comes an inferior product we’re literally pushing out to exploit casual gamers, but using a cult-classic IP to draw in the hardcore too”. If you ever want to buck that trend, you’re going to have to work hard to make games that are easy to learn but difficult to master, as opposed to just appealing to the lowest common denominator like you normally do. You need to make games that literally appeal to everyone, from the novice casual player to the veteran hardcore gamer. In short, deliver more games like Street Fighter IV and less like Resident Evil 6.

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.