While video games keep evolving and growing up as media, their sequels have finally caught up with other kinds of mainstream media, especially movies; in this generation, many of us have started saying that videogame sequels “are not as good as their original” or that “maybe they shouldn’t have bothered doing a sequel at all.”
Of course, sequels are still technologically superior to their predecessors, but with every new coat of polished graphics or game-play these games usually suffer from a lack of depth or the personality that made them unique when their new IP was first introduced (titles like Gears of War, Dead Space, and the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare comes immediately to mind).
Every year, we are hyped to play the sequels of those games that made a great first (second, third…) impression on us, only to end up with a stale, shorter and/or watered down product compared to its original.
Nowadays, it has become clear that game publishers are more worried about releasing the next big title of the series than actually delivering a game of the same or better quality than the last one.
But times didn’t use to be like these. Sequels had a good long run being increasingly better than their originals; long gone are the days when we got excited whenever we got our hands on a sequel of a killer title –like Contra, Super Mario Bros, or Castlevania– and it actually paid off.
Actually, sequels were even more outstanding during the early days of videogames; heck, they actually were complete new games that –in many cases– were even named differently.
Back then, game publishers used to demand their development team to actually make a new game (for a lot of reasons I don’t have the space to cover right now), and that led to a time when developers used to experiment and take risks with the IP they had in their hands.
For example, Donkey Kong Jr. (1982) is the sequel of the first popular game made by (Super Mario and Legend of Zelda creator) Shigeru Miyamoto; while it’s named slightly different than the original, Donkey Kong Jr. is entirely a new game; it posses a completely new game-play you have a new character to play with and, –shockingly– it’s the first and only time Super Mario has ever played the role of the game villain.
Meanwhile, Cosmic Ark (1982) for the Atari 2600 is believed to be the first video game sequel released in a game console, it is said that the spaceship you defend in this game is the same one that escapes at the end of the game Atlantis, released earlier that year. While the link between these two is subtle, this was one of videogames’s first attempts to tell us a story. Also, at the end of Cosmic Ark (that is, when you are not longer able to withstand the increasing difficulty of the game), there’s also another small spaceship escaping from the Ark’s explosion; forecasting the announcement of a sequel never made.
Zelda II: The Adventures of Link (1988) is another fine example of the bold attitude from that era; the game integrates a new and more action-oriented game-play as well as the inclusion of R.P.G. elements (like experience, levels, and magic). Although, this sudden difference backfired quite a bit since many followers have considered Zelda II the black sheep of the series because of how different this game is compared to the original; something about the lack of items, puzzles, and… I’ll leave the rest of complaints to someone else, I actually love this game.
Talking about black sheep, I bet many of you pretty much know the story behind Super Mario Bros 2; the game we got in America is actually a make up version from a Japanese game named Doki Doki Panic, so no one would ever want to trick you to think that the grossing difference in this game was actually deliberate. But the thing I’d like you all to remember is that this game was sent to America because the real Super Mario Bros 2 released in Japan was merely an update from the original, that offered practically nothing new to the series (except for an almost unplayable difficulty level and the infamous poisonous mushroom); Japan denied exporting this game for doing what is now the industry’s standard.
On the other hand, there’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest; I wouldn’t be able to defend this game with the same enthusiasm as the last two, since I was also a victim of its frustrating and infuriating game-play but still, I’d acknowledge the things the game tried to pull off; it took the first steps for the series into an exploration-oriented adventure, and the game incorporated a day and night mechanic that is now part of games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; personally, being caught at night in this game remains one of the most iconic moments from the 8-bit era; before that famous game for the PlayStation, this is how I remember The Symphony of the Night.
As weird and unorthodox as some of the first video game sequels were during the old days, I remember those as the remnants of a time when developers dared to do something else, or wanted their games to be something different. Those were the times when the industry pushed forward innovation and experimentation, as opposed to these days when publishers mostly invest in safe and already tried formulas.
Of course there are some good video game sequels out there that are worth your time, but it’s even hard to find out which follow-ups are actually great when you see reviewers being condescended to some of them because “they present the same thing you loved from the last one, plus a little more.”
We shouldn’t patronize a little more, we should be demanding a lot from games that keep basically repackaging themselves year after year, ask for a full price at retail, and then bombard us with their fie downloadable content (among other despicable sins).
Let’s not forget that video games are no longer just about graphics and game-play narrative has become a major ingredient in great games, and nothing kills it faster than a buck-load of sequels.
Pretty much like (author of detective novels) Michael Connelly once mentioned about writing too many books about the same character: “It is like peeling the skin of an onion, with every book the onion keeps getting smaller.”