A movie sequel aches against the expectations created by the original. Isolated series instalments work best, like when Indiana Jones struts into a nightclub and you don’t have to watch any of the other movies to know what’s what. Movies are usually bound to a sequence, though, and even George-Lucas-the-Hutt couldn’t predict how difficult that is to keep up.
But sequels are different for video games. They’re not usually bound to an extended narrative (and if they are it’s always in isolated instalments like Uncharted, aka, interactive Indiana Jones). A video game sequel learns from its predecessor with the ability to emulate it, ideally taking only what worked and reproducing it in a new, sometimes barely new, way. This is how J.J. Abrams has resurrected Star Wars, and how video game sequels very often surpass their originals.
Usually though, they don’t surpass them this much. For this list I’m focusing on games that not only changed the design of their series, but which also became more successful after making the change. Not all of them improve the games themselves, so I’ll also make a space for the drawbacks of that success. What can’t be denied is that after any of these games, that series would never be the same.
The change: Bethesda Game Studios resurrected the PC strategy game with an First Person Shooter twist. The Wasteland of Fallout 3 is one of video gaming’s most infamous overworlds. It has enough bugs (monster and graphical) to last you a simulated lifetime. With its trendy retro style and offbeat pseudo turn-based combat, Fallout 3 burrowed its grimy way into a whole new generation of explorers.
The drawback: Fallout 2 was an intimate creation of style and story. It had tightly-woven lore and meaningful character interactions. Its sequel would push the free-form exploration to its limit, but in doing so may have compromised the ineffable charm of a DOS-era strategy game many still contend has the best universe in all of video gaming, even though it just didn’t sell well.
The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
The change: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was actually bigger than its sequels, procedurally generating a truly massive fantasy world. But the smaller Morrowind was grander, with sophisticated storytelling and a comprehensible user interface. Dropping into the port town of Seyda Neen and catching a ride on a whale-sized flea to lands unknown is exactly as fun as it sounds, made only more epic by Jeremy Soule’s rousingly mythic score.
The drawback: Well, there’s a certain enrapturing mystery to those 90s-era PC RPGs. Morrowind was better in every way, but for the most stalwart among us perhaps a bit too processed. Daggerfall’s inconceivable size (walking across it is comparable to actually walking nearly the whole length of Great Britain) has a grandeur that for some, no clearer mechanics or more literal story can match.
Grand Theft Auto III
The change: Most people don’t remember Rockstar’s top-down PS1 gem, but the original Grand Theft Auto was more like an open-world Smash T.V. than the sandbox we know today. Grand Theft Auto III pushed the car-stealing series to its now self-actualizing fame, and with its enormous open world and then complex modeling techniques has allowed every future entry in the series to succeed with minimal essential changes since.
The drawback: You’ll prefer one or the other. I would argue the first game ages better because it doesn’t put your modern graphical sensibilities at risk or challenge your belief in nostalgia’s preserving effect on those childhood gems. Shooting in a third-person environment has come a long way since GTA III and for some the more self-explanatory original better retains its charm.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The change: Call of Duty 4 could be the singular gaming event of the 20th century, the one that blurred the difference between jocks and geeks and made the modern FPS exactly what it is today. It’s the reason you can pick up any shooter and instantly know that X is reload and Y is switch weapon. It’s the game that brought Halo’s LAN deathmatches into the wireless Internet age. COD is a game series that has sold a near-unthinkable 250 million copies according to VGChartz (as a comparison, The Legend of Zelda series has sold about 82 million, according to the same source). Modern Warfare is the game that made it possible.
The drawback: As much as creating the modern shooter template is a pro from a sales sense, it’s a con from a design sense. Modern Warfare has become the conceptual gravity well the FPS has to escape in order to create new mechanics, tell new stories, or dare to render blades of grass with more style than realism. No one can deny its influence, but I miss the days of Valve, Interplay, and Id striking into wild unknowns for a gory good time.
The change: The shift to handheld for the second instalment changed (I would say shrank) Metroid based on new limitations, so the standard here is the first one. Super Metroid took the concept of isolation made so all-encompassing in the first game and directed and designed it. It was still a cold, lonely world in space. Your ability to explore was just now a 32-bit masterwork of development and innovation. This one wasn’t a jump in sales, but I’ve included it anyway because its influence on the genre is too notable to ignore. From Axiom Verge to Guacamelee!, if you’re enjoying Metroidvania on your Steam or XBLA or PSN account, you have only one game to thank.
The drawback: The first Metroid really tests your wits. When you beat it it’s like you overcame a real challenge. Maybe you exploited a glitch or made your own maps or gave in to the winding design and grueling bosses. In the end, the isolating experience felt more personal, even if it was much, much less polished.