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Weekly Musings #7 - Are Sequels Good or Bad?
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: July 26th 2004
One common complaint leveled against games these days is that they're all sequels or derivatives of other games. "Like the first, but with better graphics." In many cases, this is correct - there ARE many games that do this, and there are many game studios that thrive on it. However, those making this statement are at the same time the most likely customers to be buying sequel games. Why is this?

It's because sequels, contrary to the rather sharp and hard-nosed opinions of those making the statement, are neither good nor bad for the industry. At the very least, they're no worse than sequels and remakes and reimaginings are for the movie industry; sometimes, an update to a classic is very necessary, and can be done while bringing in new methods of gameplay and innovation. Other times, it's simply the remembrance of a forgotten genre.

Other times, it's best to let a forgotten or past game lie, rather than trying to revive it. Indeed, there are some well-remembered gems of the past that haven't been given modern treatments, which is sometimes for the best.

Let's take a look at a few games/series which have, by and large, gotten better over time:

Super Mario Bros.

The obvious place to start our little adventure is the game of Super Mario Bros. Yeah, that little old thing. The first game was very basic - run, jump, shoot fireballs. It was enough.

When the time came for Super Mario Bros. 2, the designers came up with a completely different style of gameplay. Some players didn't like it, but it was still fun. Jumping on enemies was replaced by picking them up and using them against others, and it worked quite well.

Then came Super Mario Bros. 3, which introduced multiple suits and items, and the SNES classic (and launch title) Super Mario World, which brought us the wonders of the flying cape, and of Yoshi. In each stage, innovations, but losing none of the classic gameplay.

Then, the series made its transition to 3-D with Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Sunshine... and they were good. In some respects, Sunshine wasn't as good as 64, but overall it was still a credit to the series. Meanwhile, spinoffs like Paper Mario and Super Mario RPG had brought out new innovations in Mario-style RPG gameplay, and of course Mario Paint brought the idea, however crude, of using a console for something other than games as such.

At each stage, innovation is key. Nintendo kept to the core of what made Mario a fun title, but the surroundings and add-ons changed, and so kept the games new and fresh. It's a textbook example of how to do things right with a game franchise.

Metroid

Again, with Metroid, Nintendo figured out what made the series work and never let it get out of the game. The original's difficulty is still unsurpassed; while difficult, Metroid II: The Return of Samus is less so, and the games go down the line. Playing the original Metroid again on my copy of Metroid Prime reminded me of just how far the series had come.

Of course, the innovations are key, too. Metroid II gave us wonderful innovations like the Spin Jump; Metroid III gave, of all things, directional shooting. On the Gameboy, nothing has really moved forward since; Metroid Fusion changed around the weapons a bit, but was mostly a storytelling venture, and Metroid: Zero Mission was a remake of the original, with extended play that integrated all the options of the previous titles.

Metroid Prime took the series into 3D, and like the Mario games, did very well. Great care was taken to include most - but not all - of the options from the previous games (notably, the Spin Jump was left out, though word is it'll be in the sequel). Key items to gameplay were carefully considered, and the only downside seems to have been an over-reliance on the lock-on targeting system, when many gamers are used to FPS controls and would have welcomed being able to control motion with the analog stick and vision with the C-stick.

Space Quest/King's Quest

Ah, the venerable favorites - Sierra's two most-favored (and fun) text/graphics adventure titles, from all the way back in the days when CGA graphics were common. And yet, they not only worked well, they thrived. Space Quest didn't get bad until its sixth title, and even then was not so much awful as merely starting to go downhill; it could have come back with its seventh.

King's Quest survived through eight games, and good games at that. It did it by integrating well-made gameplay, first with text input and then mouse icons, with an extensive storyline that stretched over generations; by the end of the series, gamers were playing with the grandchildren of the characters from the original.

The rub, of course, is that such storytelling as existed in those days has started to wane; very few titles in today's console lineup or otherwise have anything except the "save the world, and while you're at it save the Princess" method of RPG play. CG cutscenes have somewhat replaced witty diatribes and the occasional cultural reference, as existed in Space Quest's constant puns and jokes.

Warcraft/Starcraft

Another notable game series to always remain good is the Warcraft series, as created (and expanded) by Blizzard. I decided to include Starcraft because, while not a strict sequel, it holds a definite place in the evolution of Blizzard's engines and gameplay.

Blizzard's formula for the games is simple; balance, balance, balance. The first Warcraft game was solid, but it was the second that really cemented their place as the kings of the RTS genre. Why? Because they took the resource management, and requirements tree for advanced units, to a fine art. That and they spent time, and time, and more time balancing the game; between this title, and Starcraft, they made the Battle.net program what it is today.

Warcraft III, likewise, added more to an already well-tuned formula; the Hero system. While some might say it's a ripoff from the Heroes of Might & Magic series, the fact remains that the Hero system changed, again, how people thought of RTS gameplay, and forced many players to learn micromanagement in a time when they had learned only to maximize the number of units they could fit onto the board.

The Mechwarrior Series

If ever there was a game series that's a poster child for how sequels are a good thing, it's the Mechwarrior series. Introduced in 1989, the Mechwarrior series was based off of FASA's tabletop giant-robot game Battletech. In the time of DOS games, using keyboard controls and minimal customizability, the game still managed to be quite playable.

Six years later, we were treated to Mechwarrior 2, which is the game that nearly single-handedly sparked the graphics card wars. Over a hundred iterations and builds of the game were released, tailored specifically to all manner of 3D graphics boards; the ultimate version would come a few years down the road. The programmers didn't sit idle, however; the Ghost Bear expansion pack added more 'Mechs and diverse armaments, and the Mercenaries "sequel" added a fully functioning economy system, requiring players to save cash and hoard parts in order to keep their machines functional.

Zipper Interactive got their hands on the license for Mechwarrior 3, and released it through Atari. The game changed significantly, becoming even closer in some respects to the tabletop rules; Zipper even added in a sub-aiming system, with the mouse used to fine-control aiming while the joystick steered and torso-twisted the robot. The graphics were also far superior, despite myriad upgrades the Mechwarrior 2 engine had taken. Meanwhile Activision, after losing the Mechwarrior license, got their hands on the Heavy Gear license and proceeded to make two rather mediocre titles out of it, the first being a bare minimum effort that used 90% of the preexisting Mechwarrior 2 engine.

The series got better yet when Microsoft snagged the license, Atari having fallen on hard times. Mechwarrior 4 was regarded as a triumph, nearly picture-perfect. It helped that the same engine used in the game, was retooled to become the engine that runs the Virtual World Entertainment simulator pods. The Black Knight expansion reintroduced the idea of an economy system, and Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries perfected it.

Microsoft also took the time to bring Mechwarrior to the Xbox and Live!Online service, with MechAssault, a game that fans of pounding on each other with giant robots just can't seem to get enough of to this day. It looks like they're innovating with the coming sequel as well; word on re-use of the foot soldier armor (known as "Elemental" armor to fans of the games/novels/series) indicates that it's going to be one heck of a game.

Crimson Skies

When Microsoft acquired Fasa's Mechwarrior license, they also picked up another tabletop title, Crimson Skies. The PC game was an immensely innovative flying title; part arcade adventure, part story adventure, part flight simulator, it allowed players to explore expansive areas and engage in death-defying barnstorming feats, rewarding them with screenshots in a scrapbook at prearranged stunt points.

For the sequel, Microsoft took to the Xbox, and to Live!Online play. Borrowing the successful kill-and-powerup formula that had made MechAssault a success, they turned out another immensely fun game, with tricky, intense multiplayer as the ultimate goal. Needless to say, it worked quite well.

Duke Nukem

In the days of DOS, fans of 2-D scrollers had multiple options. id Software got their start with the Commander Keen line, while developer Apogee got their start with a gun-toting, pixelated hero named Duke Nukem. The Duke went through two platformers before being briefly forgotten. Then, following the release of Doom II, Apogee released the Duke in a colossal makeover.

Utilizing the newly found power of PCs to push 3D graphics, and recognizing how much the "attitude" of Doom had helped it, Apogee took Duke Nukem over the top. Now, he wasn't simply a gun-toting hero. He was an overly muscled, cigar-chomping, gun-toting hero with a taste for Playboy and loose women. The risque nature of locations wasn't all that the game brough to the table, of course; gamers were treated to truly 3D worlds, worlds where floors existed on top of floors. They could hop, jump, and leap around, changing entirely the pace and expression of deathmatches online. And, of course, time-delay weapons like pipebombs and trip mines were suddenly feasible.

In fact, Duke Nukem 3D's only real, unfortunate flaw is that it was followed up with Playstation titles Land of the Babes and Time to Kill, and by the rather lackluster Manhattan Project title on PC. Oh, and the fact that despite Doom 3's shipping, and id Software managing to put out three Quake titles in between, Duke Nukem Forever seems no closer to shipping today than it did when Daikatana finally shipped.

X-Wing and Tie Fighter

Unlike the Wing Commander series, which was rather ambivalent, gamers in the 1990s were treated to an amazing spaceflight simulator series, based on one of the most popular sci-fi titles of all time: Star Wars.

Star Wars: X-Wing gave gamers, for the first time, the ability to pilot any way they chose within the Star Wars Universe. Sure, there were missions to accomplish, and the graphics are dated by today's standards, but the game was solid, and anyone with a joystick was overjoyed to be playing it. Then, Lucasarts turned the series on its head - literally - with Star Wars: Tie Fighter. Tie Fighter not only took the game to new levels of difficulty, but sparked off a raging debate amongst players - which craft was, in fact, superior? Or was it all about the pilot?

Lucasarts sensed a good thing, and in 1997 gave gamers the chance to battle it out, over modem or online, with Star Wars: X-Wing VS Tie Fighter. As an afterthought, they did release one other online-capable title (X-Wing Alliance) in 1999, but X-Wing VS Tie Fighter is always remembered as the pinnacle of Star Wars online spaceship fighting.

Street Fighter II

Capcom's Street Fighter series is also respected - not perhaps as the pinnacle of ALL fighting games, but the first and primal example of how they got good. And it took a sequel to really get there, too. In the beginning, karate tournament fighters speaking identical characters and difficult controls were the rule. The original Street Fighter was no exception; small graphics, a versus mode in which Ryu vs Ken was the only option, and rather touchy fighting controls.

Then, someone figured out how to buffer and analyze the input controls, and immediately better detection became workable. Added to by improved graphical hardware, and a programmer's goof that made jumping faster than walking, and players were soon enjoying a high-speed, halfway aerial battle in Street Fighter II.

But the designers didn't stop there, of course. New Challengers added more moves and characters, and then Turbo started adding the charge meter. Ultimately, the series' innovations reached a near-pinnacle in the Alpha series, featuring the familiar three-level charge meter, cancellable moves, and cast of characters.

Capcom still tried to innovate further; some games worked (the EX series, up until the regrettable EX3), while others (Street Fighter III) slowed down the action and didn't do as well. Still, one can never claim that Capcom hasn't innovated with its Street Fighter series at every release.

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

Like the Street Fighter and Mechwarrior series, Tenchu is a game series that it took designers a while to get right... not that they had much choice. The original Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (and Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins) were Playstation titles. As a result, the designers took some odd choices; mobility on the D-pad, turning on the L and R buttons, for example. It was workable, but crude, and often frustrated gamers.

Then, we were treated to Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven and Tenchu: Return from Darkness. Wrath of Heaven changed up the control system, incredibly for the better; it was much more fluid and allowed gamers to get the all-important stealth kills with regularity, by relying on the dual analog sticks available on the PS2. Return from Darkness, the Xbox "director's cut" edition, allowed even more innovation with co-operative and deathmatch modes through Live! Online.

These are just a few examples of some games where the sequels are better than the originals, or where truly horrid games can beget a wonderful, fun sequel. Of course, there's always the other side: good games sometimes receive horrid or indifferent sequels, which is what obviously drives away people from sequels in general.

Weekly Musings #7: Are Sequels Good or Bad?


Added:  Monday, July 26, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 1/2

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