Out of the uncertain age of the arcades, video games in the mid-eighties aspired to become franchises. But the prevailing idea was that you were paying for a new adventure, not a new chance to beat your high score. Instead of expansions, sequels were now thought to be whole new games.
This led to drastic changes in the way game companies handled their properties. Whether a game grew fundamentally through its sequels or stayed the same for its home audience, the original sequel had a profound impact on the way the original franchises would become our games industry. Let me start at the beginning.
The Arcade Years
The essential video game from this era was designed similarly to a gambling machine, where players would win the least while feeling the most possible urge to continue playing. This meant that sequels were nearly identical to their predecessors. From Ms. Pacman to Defender II, the arcade years clearly denote the role of the sequel: to renew interest with the same crowd. Anyone who liked Defender will have to get their coin rolls back out and start at zero points again.
Home ports were a new way to milk the same crowd again. The limitations of the home consoles in the early eighties made shams compared to their arcade counterparts (and everyone knows about Atari’s legendary E.T. fail), but video games started failing at this time for a different, more fundamental reason: the gambling machine design didn’t work in the home. That minimum victory, maximum urge design template starts to get really old from the comfort of your couch (imagine having a slot machine in your living room). The NES was the evolutionary answer to this problem.
The Adventure Years
Super Mario Bros. is a perfect example of how games changed between these two eras because it is itself a sequel. The 1983 arcade Mario Bros. bears little resemblance to the home console titan from 1985. Nintendo expanded the design template for video games beyond the confines of the casino counting house. Players could now experience robust adventures and compete, not for points, but completion.
This left the sequel in an awkward position. Since you presumably beat Super Mario Bros., how could you justify paying for a tweaked version of the same game? Since achievements were no longer score-based, there was less need to design sequels for the in-crowd only. Often these original sequels provided a chance to address problems with the original and attract a new audience, while hoping to keep the original players’ interest with a fresh but relatable take on their favorite game. There were also franchises that simply refused to change.
Instead of addressing all franchises, I want to classify these original sequels into two main groups—the “do-over” and the “flat line”—to group the franchises by patterns of development and see what that reveals about their evolution as a whole.
This was a common move for a sequel in the adventure years. The idea was to address the problems that prevented some players from enjoying the original. This meant a new concept that was often so radical, the second entry was barely even recognizable as a sequel.
Super Mario Bros. 2 was a game built by strange circumstances, by rom hacks and localization and things left unsaid. But the important thing is that by no longer moving exclusively from left to right, or jumping on enemies, or doing practically anything that encompassed the Super Mario Bros. experience, this strange adventure may have set the precedent for sequels in this era to make radical changes.
Perhaps none changed as much as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I ranked this #5 in my list of The 5 Worst Zelda Games of All Time because of its esoteric design, but not even the perspective of the original game remained intact, as Link now traversed Final Fantasy-style overworlds mixed with side scrolling fighting stages. RPG elements such as leveling up and visiting towns attempted to deepen the experience.
That was a common theme, as in the similar case of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Those who played the original Castlevania and thought it was too hard now had a game designed more for them, with the ability to grind for strength, collect items, and explore a windy, obtuse world map filled with thankless NPCs and trial-and-error exploration. Metroid II took the opposite do-over approach, simplifying the core experience almost to an insult.
All of these games have in common the perception that old players wanted a new and different adventure, and that errors could be fixed in the design that prevented some players from enjoying the first game. This design is “reactive,” meaning it takes things like reception, popularity, and perception so dearly to heart that it will change itself to suit them.
The Flat Line
The opposite approach was when a franchise from the adventure years was so confident in its formula that it refused to make many changes at all. The best example of these is Mega Man 2, which was identical to its original conceptually but focused on bringing better controls, graphics, and music instead of a flatter difficulty curve or RPG elements.
Ninja Gaiden II changed even less, feeling more like an expansion pack than a true sequel to the nail-biting stress test platformer from 1989. Ghouls n’ Ghosts upped the graphics from Ghosts n’ Goblins but kept the core intact. Street Fighter II added new characters and controls. Final Fantasy II was another adventure to the same audience. Super C followed up Contra with a game of nearly identical conceptual make, and anything new (like the top-down levels) has since been universally panned by series fans.
The important thing about flat line sequels is that they share in common a niche audience and a development team that did not want to expand that audience. Instead of simplifying, easing, or changing their formula, these series approached their franchises with reverence, and it is this faith in their own product identity that gives them the name “hard corps.”
Notice that these are the series that today are either waning in popularity, or which must remain as retro and risk-free as possible in order to maintain their limited remaining supply of fans. Consider the case of Contra, that after three main games it shifted to 3D, tried top-down on the PS2, failed, floundered, went all-for-broke with a retro release on the DS, and since lies dormant on virtual console and in remakes, hoping to be bought again by the same audience. Compare this to Mario games, which have confidently conquered all dimensions and even get out for tennis on weekends. Why is that?
The Threequel Formula
Flat line sequels forced their franchises to remain in their niche audiences, to be non-reactive in their designs to the perceptions of the gaming public. No new players were welcome onto their hard corps. scene, and no changes would be made to the formula until the shift to 3D made it seem necessary. By then it was usually too late.
On the other hand, do-over sequels prided themselves in expanding and adapting to new audiences. Often this meant a return to formula for the third entry, but the experience of taking a risk in the second one gained them new audiences and the flexibility to experiment and truly evolve beyond the arcade. Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and Super Metroid all demonstrate the threequel formula as a return to the original. Then, when it was time to venture into the modern gaming age, these franchises had experiences to draw on to adapt and change where the flat lines could not.
For example, consider the extra dimensions of Super Mario Bros. 2, and how instrumental entering doors, climbing, and traversing new spaces would be to Super Mario 64. When looking at The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, consider that it takes even more from Zelda II than from the original, incorporating the linear dungeons, towns and NPCs, and fixed item puzzles from the sequel more than the free-form exploration of the isometric original. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night took the RPG elements from Simon’s Quest and made them tenable, taking very little from the simple, linear design of the original.
The properties that dared to make changes were the ones able to evolve, shift audience focus, and learn how to make games for the most number of people. Observe the curious case of Metroid, which was late to the three-dimensional party with Metroid Prime and based itself, not on the easy and accessible second entry with improvements, but more on the first and third in its series. This made it drift over to the flat line camp, and thus Metroid has ceased to exist on all platforms. To survive, it seems that sometimes you must rise below your original concepts and make something everyone can enjoy.
But in the end, though the do-oversequel sheltered its franchises through transitions, it has created a new crisis, one that is now industry-wide. Its philosophy to give people whatever they want has created the general gaming public that demands only prettier, easier, more digestible experiences. Take the case of Mario, which now creates the same kinds of games over and over, not for the hard corps. crowd, but for the now institutionalized lowest common gaming denominator that demands to be catered to. Ocarina of Time was praised but look at Skyward Sword and the depth to which simplification can take a once fresh and engaging adventure.
The do-over’s reactivity has brought AAA to a new low in innovation by placing the demands of the average gamer above the desires of the artists that make games (or the ideal players they used to make them for). Now, when they try to do something even a little different, the mainstream crowds rebel in full force. Just look at the intense negative reaction to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, before anyone had even played it. Sonic the Hedgehog has been trying to make a do-over sequel for decades and just can’t get it right.
Thankfully, the Indie scene may vindicate the properties confident enough in their designs to retain their franchise’s core appeal, whatever the popular trend. Spiritual successors to old games like Axiom Verge to Metroid, Hyper Light Drifter to The Legend of Zelda, and Super Meat Boy or Braid to Mario provide a compelling argument to maintain the purity of the uncompromised core design.
The history of sequels is really the history of player expectations. Whether you’re one of the millions disliking the Infinite Warfare trailer or one of the few supporting the likes of Axiom Verge shows not only what you expect from your games but, if history tells us right, what the games industry expects of you.