Op-Ed: Sequel Snubbing

Do sequels deserve the extra scrutiny that they’re so often subjected to?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 02/25/2014 09:00 6 Comments     ShareThis

There’s something about video game sequels that makes people very irrational. Outside of annual titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, most games take two to three years before a proper followup arrives (longer, if you’re a Final Fantasy fan!). Yet, despite a respectable amount of time between most series installments, critics are quick to grow restless with a franchise’s signature mechanics and gameplay. It’s understandable that going into a sequel, some people will to want to see significant changes to the source material in order to find the experience worthwhile. To denounce a video game sequel that’s only the second or third entry in a series as being redundant, however, just seems outrageous to me.

IGN’s review of the L.A. Noir DLC Reefer Madness is a good example of this confusing mentality. In the review of the main game, reviewer Hilary Goldstein said “L.A. Noire does something we’ve never seen before.” Flash forward to a couple of months later when the DLC dropped, and Greg Miller told readers that whether or not they’d want to play the new content “depends on if [they] are really itching for a new case to do the same old thing in.” “Same old thing” being an incredibly odd thing to say considering the concept was “something we’ve never seen” two months prior!

That’s a more extreme example, of course, but it’s not uncommon in principle. Too often, reviewers are quick to penalize a sequel for not straying enough from the path. What’s vexing is that the path many of these games stick to is wholly unique to that given franchise. Series like Pokémon, for instance, are almost impossible to come by. There have been imitators over the years, certainly, but as has been demonstrated for over a decade now, no one can match Nintendo’s loveable monster catching franchise. That’s why when a new Pokémon drops, I’m more than happy to play through its familiar trappings because I can’t find them anywhere else.

To me, incremental improvements to any given series’ formula or play mechanics in a sequel are just as exciting as a huge overhaul. Lumines Electronic Symphony on Vita is a good example of this. While Electronic Symphony wasn’t radically different from previous Lumines games, the changes that were made focused on what mattered most. The controls were tighter. The graphics were more beautiful than ever. The song selection was more coherent and pleasing. Developer Q Entertainment could have tried to take Lumines in a whole new direction, but instead wisely clung to what made the games loved by fans to begin with. As a result, Electronic Symphony is an amazing experience that stuck to its roots and was all the better for it.

I often think about traditional board games and sports when I’m making this argument. People have been playing chess and baseball for generations ceaselessly. Other than little tweaks here and there, the basic formula for these games have been the same, with little complaint from their players. The reason is simple: the act of playing them is endlessly satisfying. People might spice things up with new techniques, or uniforms, or themed pieces, but whatever the twist might be, there’s no denying that a hundred years from now, human beings will continue to be just as entranced with them as ever. We’ve been hitting the A button for over thirty years for the same reason we’ve been swinging a bat for over a century; there might not be a lot of deviation, but who cares when it’s fun!

There’s more to a good sequel than pure familiarity, as no one wants a series to rest on its laurels time in and out, but in the end, if something is fun, I want to play more of it. There’s nothing wrong with innovation, and if a developer has something new to say or do with its series after only a single installment, that’s great. But when something different and fun rolls along, I think it’s more than justifiable to go back to the well. They’re games, after all, and the most important thing about any title is that you have a good time playing it.

6 Responses to “Op-Ed: Sequel Snubbing”

  • 819 points
    Toadlord says...

    It must be hard to be a developer working on a sequel, because you just aren’t going to be able to please everyone. People have different ideas about what sequels should mean for a franchise.

    A general rule I have for enjoyable sequels (at least, ones that I have enjoyed) is that they keep the core gameplay mechanics relatively the same. Beyond that the objectives, story, and characters can change without much issue.

    Some series I think have done well with this are: Pikmin, Portal, and Ape Escape.

    An example of a series that messed with this formula is the gamecube/ps2 era Prince of Persia games. The first game is relatively lightharded, and focuses and acrobatic moves with occasional combat. The sand tanks in this game are mainly used to reverse mistakes, or slow time down for a particularly difficult section.

    Fast forward to Warrior Within, and combat is at least half of the focus. Combo systems have been implemented, which wouldn’t be bad on their own, but all new powers are also combat oriented. The platforming sections that the player goes through all have to be repeated numerous times throughout the game. The main character’s personality has also changed, which would be fine if the player was experiencing character growth, but all of this happened between games apparently. The game also targeted a new demographic with the M rating, which felt forced and cringe-worthy at times. I won’t even get into the soundtrack.

  • 0 points

    I think Robert hits upon a lot of true points – but they’ve essentially all been said before. Time and again. None of them really seem to break out into anything that could “direct” this editorial.

    One interesting direction to have taken this piece would have been to compare the sequels from three of four different series. For example, Mario, Sonic, Crash, and Samus.

    Then depict how the sequels played out, what changes were made to the level design, game-play mechanics, visual presentation, and musical themes as the sequels progressed – and then chart how the sales did as well.

    Did when these sequels were released have anything to do with their success (system sellers compared to a game coming out late in the life-span)? Did popular trends at the time have anything to do with planned changes, and thus seemed to take the emphasis away from a cultural product that can sustain its own world to one that is influenced by the media around it?

    The ideas this topic seems to bring up are great. But it seems to spend it’s time confirming that some people don’t mind doing the same repetitious task over and over again, and others are hard-wired to never jump off the same bridge twice.

    Even the notion of there being a formula as to how much change a title should incur would be a fascinating read.

    As I said. The topic is absolutely great. It’s like you discovered a magical tree no one’s ever seen before in the forest. It’s just too bad you decided to pick the lowest hanging fruit.

    • 1294 points
      Robert Marrujo says...

      That’s not the point I was trying to get across. The intangibles of what makes some sequels work and others not isn’t something that you can realistically diagram and quantify. Plus, there’s not always a correlation between what fans enjoy and what critics enjoy. I focused on the critic side of the issue for this piece. Sometimes a sequel, even if it’s good, gets shafted by reviewers because the focus is, I think, unfairly based on if the game is “different” enough, as opposed to giving equal consideration to if its well-made and fun. That’s the only thing I wanted to address here.

  • 0 points

    “Sometimes a sequel, even if it’s good, gets shafted by reviewers because the focus is, I think, unfairly based on if the game is “different” enough, as opposed to giving equal consideration to if its well-made and fun. That’s the only thing I wanted to address here.”

    I find this comment to be disingenuous. Not because you don’t mean it – or knowingly partake in something “false,” but because the very field you partake in when writing these articles (i.e: journalism) should have sent alarm sirens and red lights flashing when you wrote:

    “The intangibles of what makes some sequels work and others not isn’t something that you can realistically diagram and quantify.”

    Why not? Why can’t you analyse these things? Who knows what amazingly powerful theme may very well just JUMP OUT at you when you conduct even some basic research? I’ll pull out what I said from above again:

    – Take four separate series.
    – Look at their “differentiation” rate between their sequels.
    – Examine game-play elements that were innovated, themes that were kept from previous titles, and give a general sensation of how it presented the “universe” of the key mascot.
    – Look at advertising presence, release dates (in connection with the lifespan of the console), trends in gaming, and what people expected back then compared to what they expect today (post indie boom).

    Like I said – there IS a very interesting article lying in wait here. What you presented above Robert, while not in any way “bad,” seems to miss the heart of what can be explored here.

    This editorial idea has the chance to spawn into some really amazing pieces – that can take a fresh look at some of our very favourite series’s.

    You could even track the emergence of “genre kill,” where new games never before having been played or seen are ignored or marked poorly because they share so many attributes of so many other games of their same genre.

    Especially with the platformer generation, you could take a look at the correlation between the number of platformers being released in general and the number of improvements people began to expect (or want) from games they had essentially “already played before.”

    Are the differences between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 the same kind of jump that occurred between Super Mario World and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island?

    The argument could be made either way – consider that when Super Mario Bros. 2 was released, only Super Mario Bros. had really stood before it. So, in terms of taking jumps, it was huge. But then look at the two Super Mario World’s – and how the very philosophy had seemingly evolved from what “taking it to the next level” really entailed.

    As I said – there’s a lot there. And it is quantifiable. Even if not to the degree of scientific exactness, then to the degree of putting in enough research, and compiling enough data, that an opinion, right or wrong, would hold vast interest.

  • 0 points

    But I do wish to apologize. I don’t want to make it seem that Robert’s writing is bad, or that I think little of it. Just that, well, I guess I’m used to the more in-depth articles from places like Polygon. Who aren’t afraid I might leave if there’s more than one page worth of text.

    Not saying that Nintendojo’s format is inherently flawed or anything – but Nintendo’s world is vast and deep. There should be a couple articles that aren’t afraid to really dedicate themselves to the topic – in terms of covering it through and through.

    Especially with a topic such as this.

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