Welcome back to my multi-part blog post on sequels! Sorry for the wait last week, there was a lot to juggle and honestly I couldn’t put off cutting the grass any longer and that took forever because my area had a flood a few weeks prior so it was like clearing jungle.
Anyway, today I want to explore kinds of sequels and how each kind affects the series it becomes a part of.
The first type of sequel is the direct sequel or follow-up. This type of game often reuses a lot of assets and game play styles from the first game but builds on top of the original.
Don’t (Doki Doki) Panic
For a long time growing up in the U.S., there was this mythical sequel to Super Mario Bros., that we knew as The Lost Levels. It was apparently the true sequel and deemed much too difficult for American audiences, so instead we got Super Mario Bros. 2, aka Doki Doki Panic. More on that later, what I really want to examine is The Lost Levels.
The Lost Levels really operates the way we’d come to expect expansion packs and, later, DLC to operate. Essentially everything builds directly on the first game so seamlessly that if The Lost Levels were attached to the end of Super Mario Bros., that you wouldn’t even notice anything more than a continuation of the difficulty curve. It’s mostly the same assets, minus a few new surprises, and the developers don’t grow what it means to be a Mario game in any significant way. But what they do is give you more.
Manage your vices
Much like The Lost Levels, GTA: Vice City is a direct sequel to GTA III. Unlike Lost Levels, the setting is different, there’s a whole new atmosphere and most of the story is new.
But much like how the Lost Levels picks up right where Super Mario Bros. leaves off, Vice City picks up right where GTA III ends. And the game adds a few new mechanics, one of them being assets. In Vice City, now you can purchase businesses and these property assets will generate cash for the player.
It was a totally new mechanic that tied the player more intimately to the setting they were in. This mechanic remains in the next direct GTA sequel, San Andreas but is removed in GTA IV before returning in GTA V.
What this kind of development allows Rockstar to do is experiment with the kind mechanics the player uses to interact with the world. But because these mechanics aren’t introduced at the beginning, but rather in a sequel, they can be trimmed away when the direction of later games needs to be more focused.
It’s a mega sequel
When it’s time for Capcom to make a sequel to their mascot platformer Mega Man, they give us a great example of what it means to be a direct sequel not just once but five times, back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
What ends up happening to Mega Man, Capcom adds small improvements and tweaks to each game that end up generally carrying on to the next game. But no game adds so much that any of them end up feeling over-stuffed with features. You can tell even then that Capcom was cautious on how they would build their IP.
This caution allowed them to manage to produce six quality Mega Man titles on the NES alone. But what they end up missing is the kind of experimentation that other kinds of sequels afford. And when they do decide to expand on Mega Man, they have to create an entire spin-off to really revolutionize their franchise.
The Refining Sequel
While some games add mechanics and features and generally expand on their franchises, some games pump the breaks. When you expand too much and never remove features or mechanics, you can end up with a game that feels bloated or inaccessible. Or worse you can end up with a game that suffers from power creep to a degree that it’s no longer fun to play.
Skyrim was the limit
At first Skyrim may not seem like a game that refines if you’re looking at the game as an adventure game first. Bethesda doesn’t skimp out an inch on exploration, the game is as wild and sprawling as any game in the Elder Scrolls series.
But if you look at Skyrim as an RPG, it’s a different story. An RPG is a game where the decisions you make are about what kind of character you are and how that character grows.
So when you look at the progression of Elder Scrolls games from Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim, you’ll notice the RPG systems going through waves of refinement and streamlining. So you go from an experience like Morrowind where the character you build immediately starts to define the kind of experience you’re going to have with the game and already locks you into a path of character progression before you even leave Seyda Neen, to Skyrim where you’re given immense freedom to experiment with your build and add new skills and abilities to your character throughout your stay in the land of the Nords.
This has a major effect on the series. First off, the freedom Skyrim gives you plays very well with the freedom it gives you in the exploration side of the game. Just like you can go to any mountain or headout in any direction, dive into any cave, you can do the same with your character.
However, the intensity of the decisions you make when you level up takes a sharp decline. It’s no longer a tense balancing act to level up. These decisions are no longer as compelling. When you level up in Skyrim you get stronger, but the decision the player makes of how is so meaningless that it barely matters.
The Black Sheep
Super Mario Bros. 2 USA, The Adventure of Link, Fire Emblem Gaiden, Metroid 2: Return of Samus, Castlevania II.
You should have a pretty good idea of the sequel I’m talking about. Back when gaming was young and developers were still blazing the trails that are now super highways, one of the most interesting kinds of sequels was the blacksheep.
These sequels don’t just add or subtract, they turn and twist, fitting into new genres, bringing entirely new sets of mechanics with them. And then followed up with sequels that are more true to the original game than the blacksheep sequel. For instance, going back to Mario, Mario 3 and Super Mario World follow in the same spirit as Super Mario Bros., A Link to the Past follows the traditions of Zelda 1. Super Metroid builds off of Metroid 1. And so on.
But the blacksheep hold an important place for their respective series. They bring diversity that is incredibly important for the long term health of a franchise. Mario 2 USA introduced a whole new set of enemies that continue to help diversify rosters and influence other installations. Super Mario 3D World, for instance, owes much of its DNA to Mario 2 USA. Zelda II added music that would stick with the series for ages, and the RPG elements return in interesting ways in Breath of the Wild.
And going back to Mega Man, the series that wouldn’t see a proper blacksheep game until Mega Man 7 and even then that game doesn’t really stray much at all from the formula established by the first six games. You have to wonder how Mega Man could have developed if there was a core Mega Man game that experimented more with what it meant to be a Mega Man game.
The future of the sequel
Modern games have much to learn from the early stages of gaming. It seems the trend in modern games is to stick mostly with follow-up sequels and refine those mechanics incrementally as the franchises progress.
But developers and publishers shouldn’t discount the value a truly left-field sequel can bring to the longevity of a franchise. I hope we see more games with the vision and risk-taking nature try to surprise their audiences again.
Next Week: Routes, tall grass and random encounters at the end of the world.
Tune in next week for a look a closer look at Pokemon’s game design.