Well, I said I had a second topic in this series and I’m going to use it. Welcome to another entry in “Of Axioms and Idioms” – the series where I detail some of my more less-specific opinions when it comes to video games. Last time, I detailed how playing later games in a series retroactively ruined their predecessors if I’m not familiar with them in the first place. While this seems obvious in hindsight (sequels are supposed to improve upon previous iterations in the series), it is one of those issues that seems to plague me on a wider scale – not merely effecting how I see series of games, but rather entire sub-genres.
Today’s topic is a little more complex and probably more rigid than the previous entry. When it comes to “bad games” in a series – that is, the ones that are generally considered the worst of their series – I’m generally more forgiving of them the more they deviate from their franchise’s standard formula. Quite simply put, if a game is experimental and bad, I’m far more likely to accept its shortcomings and look upon the game more favorably compared to games that are just a shallow and/or flawed recreation of the series’ pinnacle.
The two games that inspired this article were the fourth and fifth games in the Ys series, both released on the Super Famicom. While Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys for the PC Engine is generally considered among the best games in the entire series, the Super Famicom’s Mask of the Sun was developed by Tonkin House – who previously handled the SNES port of Wanderers of Ys, which is generally considered the worst of the fourth-generation console ports. Both games had similar design philosophies: taking inspiration from the first two Ys games. However, the SFC version took more inspiration from the earlier PC releases of those games, which required significantly more precision when landing attacks. This didn’t translate that well given both the Super Famicom’s simpler control scheme and the comparatively more forgiving Ys: Books I & II, which predated Mask of the Sun by almost 4 years. This led the SFC version of Ys IV to be considered among the worst games in the series.
Its sequel, Ys V: Kefin, Lost City of Sand, didn’t fare much better in terms of reception. Discarding the traditional “run-and-bump” gameplay that the series popularized in favor of a more traditional “hack-and-slash” attack mechanic common to action RPGs, Ys V was a significant departure from its predecessors’ established formula – much like the aforementioned Ys III. However, unlike Ys III, this game would have a much more permanent effect on the series – with future games adopting the more standard attacks system, though handling it much better. Ys V’s controls were terrible – Adol’s slashes felt less responsive than those from the original Legend of Zelda in 1986. The jumping mechanics were awkward and worst of all, different sword upgrades would change the style of Adol’s attack: a horizontal slash or a “stab” (though, I thought it looked more like a “poke”) with more forward range. Throw in a magic system that’s essentially useless and you’ve got Kefin in a nutshell. Due to the lack of any other releases, Ys V is generally considered the worst game in the entire franchise – but due to the lack of any companion titles or remakes, it’s kind of an unfair comparison.
Honestly, at first glance, I would probably say that it’s hard to determine which of these two games is worse overall. They’re both essentially blights on their franchise – but neither game really did that much damage to the overall reputation of Ys. Looking back though, I’d probably say that I may have enjoyed Ys V slightly more and my reasoning is simple. Mask of the Sun attempted to recreate gameplay I had seen earlier, but was less competent in the process. It effectively tried and failed to achieve the same level of quality from a previous iteration in its franchise, which gave it no reason to exist. Ys V, for all its flaws, at least attempted something new for the franchise. It may have also have failed miserably, but it tweaked the series’ formula and tried something new. Ys IV had a blueprint for success: its counterpart on the PC Engine proves that. Ys V had no plan, no established formula to follow. While its experiments failed miserably, they led to further games and better titles down the line.
My next example may be a little controversial, as pretty much no one considers one of these games bad anymore. However, for quite some time, it was considered fashionable to bash the Western version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario USA in Japan) for not being the “true” Mario 2. This title belonged instead to Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels elsewhere). The latter is essentially a level pack, with insane stage designs that far exceeded what was possible with the original’s controls left intact. I’d go so far as to say that it’s essentially just a less-playable version of the first Super Mario Brothers. Meanwhile, Super Mario USA was an improved reskin of a Fuji TV collaboration game known as Doki Doki Panic. I know, everyone knows that old story. What’s more interesting, however, was the later reveal that Doki Doki Panic was based on a scrapped Mario prototype that focused more on vertical platforming. So, in the end, Super Mario USA could be considered more of a Mario 2 than the “official” Lost Levels.
Another example is a bit odd: the sixth and seventh games in the MegaMan X series. Let me make myself perfectly clear: I completely despise MegaMan X6. It’s probably the worst MegaMan game Capcom ever made in-house. While X7 seems to be considered a worse game overall, it at least had the excuse of attempting to recreate the classic action of the MegaMan platformers in 3D. It’s hard to argue that it failed in this regard. X6, on the other hand, had absolutely no excuse to be as terrible as it was. It was built using the engine of my favorite game in that entire sub-series (MegaMan X4). X5 may have been a downgrade from its predecessor, but X6 crashed and burned. Terrible level design, unbalanced boss fights, the addition of X’s awkward Z-saber attack, the ability to get completely trapped in an area if you lack the right power-up – the only redeeming factor was probably the soundtrack!
There are even cases where swapping genres can work out well for a series. Take, for example, Double Dragon. After the disappointing Sacred Stones, Super Double Dragon was an attempt to recreate the magic of the first two games. While the SNES had a legendary amount of quality beat-‘em-ups, Super Double Dragon not only failed to stand out among its contemporaries, but even faltered in comparison to its predecessors. Conversely, when Technos Japan attempted to make a Double Dragon fighting game for SNK’s NeoGeo platform, it turned out well: despite the sheer amount of competition in that genre on NeoGeo, “Double Dragon” would do so well that it eventually received a spiritual sequel, Rage of the Dragons. Of course, Tradewest – Double Dragon’s publisher in North America – attempted their own fighting game earlier – Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls. The less said about that one, the better.
This even applies to games that are generally considered dead-ends. While I liked both the NES Zeldas more than I expected upon playing them, I think I had a slight preference for Zelda II. Frankly, I’m almost certain that that’s because the original Zelda presented itself as a more primitive version of the other 2D games in the series, while Zelda II was strikingly different. Zelda II was effectively a side-scrolling action RPG, compared to the top-down adventure formula that most of the early games in the series encapsulated, and that difference made it stick out a bit more in my mind. The same could be said for Ys III: Wanderers from Ys – to the extent where I constantly compared Zelda II and Ys III while playing both. It doesn’t hurt that they were considered evolutionary dead-ends in their respective series – and by extension, inherently terrible – but to me, they were simply interesting deviations. Even more ironically, both games were followed by what was generally considered the early masterpieces of their respective series: A Link to the Past and The Dawn of Ys, respectively.
Unlike my “Bayonetta May Cry” axioms, there’s a method to my madness. If a successful formula has already been established for a series, ruining it with a mediocre follow-up that attempts to hit the same note should be impossible. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about games that simply don’t live up to their predecessors and are lambasted as retreads. I’m talking about games in existing series that attempt to recreate their established formula and fail miserably. The MegaMan games for DOS are a perfect example – they were intended to resemble the popular NES games, but failed on pretty much every level. When a series’ formula has been established, there’s a blueprint for success. If the game deviates from that formula in a meaningful way – by changing core mechanics or even switching genres, there’s at least an excuse for a piss-poor final product. There’s just no excuse if a company’s creating a copy-paste of a previous title and manages to create something objectively inferior to what came before.
There’s a corollary here as well. Bad games using established formulas can be toxic to long-running series: there’s always the chance that it won’t simply be considered a bad game, but rather the formula itself has gotten stale and repetitive. On the other hand, development mishaps in a title that deviates from the norm can yield better results down the line. The aforementioned Ys V is a perfect example of this – the following games in the series also utilized “hack and slash” and platforming elements and improved vastly over their SFC predecessor, essentially creating a new trilogy of games that are arguably better than even The Dawn of Ys.
Of course, judging whether something is a bad game or if the entire formula has gotten stale gets harder to judge when there’s a generational gap between games. It’s relatively easy to tell if a game is legitimately worse than its predecessor if they were released during the same generation, especially if they’re both on the same system. Comparing an NES game to its sequel on PS4 makes it hard to determine whether the game suffered from being recreated imperfectly or if the original game itself was simply considered good for nostalgic reasons. Obviously, there’s a chance that the formula itself could just become inherently stale and in need of alteration or outright rejection for the series to survive. Of course, this would have little effect on the quality of the original game itself – it’s a simple case of diminishing returns, nothing uncommon when it comes to video games in general.
In the end, I guess it’s a matter of taste. For some people, deviating from an established formula is essentially considered betrayal of what made that particular series great in the first place. I can respect that difference in opinion, but I believe that at the very least failing in an entirely new way is, at the very least, more interesting than watching someone incompetently recreate a game I liked. More importantly, what do you think? Do you agree that failing in a different way is at least more interesting than second-rate reruns? Are established formulas the key to success? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.