Game Over: The Improved-Upon Game

Have you ever passed on a per­fect­ly good book because the sequel had bet­ter fea­tures? I’m not talk­ing story, either. I mean, has a book’s sequel ever had supe­ri­or fea­tures, such as more aero­dy­nam­ic cover design, easier-to-turn pages, or even online mul­ti­read­er? Books have been around for many more cen­turies than other forms of enter­tain­ment, and yet the Book plat­form seems to be stag­nat­ing in an indus­try that just doesn’t value inno­va­tion and keep­ing up with the times any­more.

No? Okay. Let’s try again.

Have you ever turned your nose up at a movie because it’s only 2D? Do you sneer at any film that only offers a con­ven­tion­al audi­ence expe­ri­ence and doesn’t push the bounds of what is logis­ti­cal­ly fea­si­ble? Cinema, con­sid­ered by many to be a stag­nat­ing art, will almost cer­tain­ly fall by the way­side if we don’t expand and evolve, incor­po­rat­ing not only the won­drous 3D expe­ri­ence, but also such time-tested inno­va­tions as Smell-O-Vision, open-ended sto­ry­telling, and a moral choice sys­tem.

Disagree? Well then, it appears we’ve stum­bled upon a prob­lem unique to gam­ing.

There are some games to which I can always return; at each epoch of my gam­ing career there are cer­tain titles whose charm, fun fac­tor, or some other qual­i­ty, have earned them a spe­cial place in my heart. Games such as Super Mario 64, Metal Gear Solid 3, Mega Man II, and more recent­ly Fallout: New Vegas, I count among my favorite games of all time, and though tech­nol­o­gy has evolved and years have rolled over their heads, I will always remem­ber them fond­ly and will play the ever-loving poop out of them when­ev­er I get the oppor­tu­ni­ty.

Then there are games that have been sur­passed by their sequels. Far too often we come across titles that, beloved and excel­lent in their own way though they may be, advances made in the series have made them unplayable. I am not here con­cern­ing myself with games which, by virtue of improve­ments or changes to story or non-mechanical aspects, are con­sid­ered more pop­u­lar than pre­vi­ous install­ments in their series. Any series of any­thing faces install­ments that fluc­tu­ate in qual­i­ty. I’m con­cerned here with games that lose some of their appeal to the play­er on the sec­ond playthrough (or in some case a first).

This prob­lem, I feel, is one unique to video games, because unlike books or movies, where the inno­va­tion is either pure­ly tex­tu­al or tech­ni­cal, games must also inno­vate with fea­tures or else draw accu­sa­tions of lack of inno­va­tion and copy­ing the orig­i­nal. A devel­op­er may make an incred­i­ble game which is excel­lent in every way, but if it feels too much like a pre­vi­ous title in its series, it is deriv­a­tive and labeled anoth­er Dynasty Warriors game.1

For any enter­tain­ment indus­try, there is the cur­rent and the past. There are clas­sic books, and then there is the New York Times Bestseller list, so to speak. These two exist at the same time, in the same mar­ket­place, and there is no real way to escape this. Any book I write must con­tend not only with the other books com­ing out this Holiday sea­son, but every other book ever writ­ten by any­one ever. Technology has a way of ensur­ing that a given title’s com­pe­ti­tion pool is thinned down; one movie may make the jump from, say, DVD to Blu-Ray, where­as anoth­er may be damned to the bot­tom of the $5 bin at Best Buy, passed over along­side all the other titles that we might con­sid­er if they took a lit­tle off the price.

More effec­tive than the bar­gain bin is the sequel. Of course, books and movies also have sequels, which may be bet­ter or worse. The evo­lu­tion of a book series might vary with the author’s evo­lu­tion of the char­ac­ters, story, writ­ing style, or any num­ber of other fac­tors. A series of movies may get bet­ter or worse, the direc­tor, actors, or writ­ers may change, and any of these might make or break the series. But the improved or less­ened qual­i­ty of book or film sequels does not often ren­der pre­vi­ous titles unread­able or unwatch­able. Only in gam­ing do we run across the title that has been sur­passed by a sequel, and thus ren­dered unen­joy­able.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was one of the first games I ever bought for the XBOX, and I was in love. I loved the Star Wars-ness, I loved the choice sys­tem, and (even though I real­ized that it was undu­ly bina­ry), I loved the RP-ness of the G. Overall, it was a ter­rif­ic game, and instilled in me a love of BioWare that per­sists even today. A year or so later, I picked up the sequel, KOTOR II: The Sith Lords, and that was even bet­ter! Not only was I treat­ed to a deep­er sto­ry­line with far more intrigue and sug­ges­tive glances toward true moral ambi­gu­i­ty in the Star Wars uni­verse, but I was actu­al­ly able to gain influ­ence over my com­pan­ions and their align­ments, which brought with it a deep­er, rich­er expe­ri­ence that pre­sent­ed great pos­si­bil­i­ty and nar­ra­tive com­plex­i­ty. Put sim­ply, it was deli­cious!

The prob­lem came when I attempt­ed to replay the first KOTOR. I won’t illus­trate with a charm­ing anec­dote, as is my style, because there was no sin­gle moment when I real­ized the title’s short­com­ings. What turned me off the game I once loved was a pre­pon­der­ance of lit­tle things, such as fewer slots with which to upgrade my lightsaber (a sur­pris­ing­ly big­ger deal than you might think), or less inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and choic­es.

Overall, though the game wasn’t bad, nor had it “not aged well” as peo­ple are prone to say of titles that no longer hold up to today’s com­mer­cial lens, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on my pre­vi­ous playthrough, and the rea­son was that I had played a bet­ter game which had improved on the sys­tem I knew and loved. I found myself unable to sep­a­rate the expec­ta­tions cul­ti­vat­ed over my time spent with TSL from my thoughts on the game and my expe­ri­ence of the moment. Ultimately, the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance became too great, and I aban­doned the playthrough. To this day I refuse to play the first game again, because time spent play­ing it is time I could be spend­ing with the sequel.

Hitman: Blood Money is one of my favorite games. It was the first, and will prob­a­bly be the last, Hitman game I ever play. The con­cept of an open, yet con­tained, area with numer­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties and a pletho­ra of ways to accom­plish your goal (mur­der­ing a per­son) is a superb one, and it is exe­cut­ed (par­don the pun) exquis­ite­ly here. Unfortunately, because I entered the series mid­stream, I can­not go back­ward. I have since attempt­ed to play Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (some two games pre­vi­ous to Blood Money), but unfor­tu­nate­ly, 2 lacked almost every­thing I loved about the series (and I under­stand it’s only down­hill from there). This sit­u­a­tion is almost more lam­en­ta­ble than the one described above, because rather than view­ing Blood Money as a spec­tac­u­lar improve­ment to a beloved series, I have no fur­ther gems to find in the cat­a­log of Hitman titles. While there may be many won­drous chunks of amaz­ing murder-people-action to be found, I can­not see them for the crap in which they are mired.

The rea­son these games, games which were hailed as mas­ter­pieces at time of release, no longer pass muster is because they have been sur­passed, not by other games by other devel­op­ers, but by fur­ther install­ments in their own series. Titles don’t face this prob­lem when it’s anoth­er series that one-ups them; Street Fighter II (the orig­i­nal, mind) is no less a great game because Soulcalibur II hap­pened. The for­mer, some argue, has been super­seded by SFIII: Third Strike or SSFIV, while the lat­ter has never been best­ed.

So, what is the solu­tion? I don’t know. There is no mag­i­cal for­mu­la, unfor­tu­nate­ly, to solv­ing the prob­lem of games which have been improved upon, although it would be a shame to skip a good game sim­ply because it came out before its supe­ri­or sequel. The only answer, then, is to pull a Pokémon.

A few years (and many con­sole gen­er­a­tions) back, Nintendo did a cou­ple of very smart things. See, they faced prob­lem as their tech­nol­o­gy moved for­ward to the Game Boy Advance, name­ly that they were unable (or unwill­ing?) to allow play­ers to trans­fer their old Pokémon from their Game Boy/GBColor titles to the newer Ruby and Sapphire. This defi­cien­cy affect­ed me direct­ly, as it was the prin­ci­pal rea­son I avoid­ed upgrad­ing. So what did Ninten-…wait for it…-do??? Why, re-release the old games in the new sys­tem with all the new fea­tures, of course! These updat­ed titles were called Fire Red and Leaf Green, and while they didn’t let the Old Guard keep their griz­zled, battle-hardened vet­er­an pock­et mons, they facil­i­tat­ed the rebuild­ing and adap­ta­tion of old favorite teams as much as pos­si­ble in the new era, in addi­tion to allow­ing new­com­ers to the series to meet these orig­i­nal 150 that the old Poké-farts were always grip­ing about2.

So it seems devel­op­ers do indeed have a solu­tion, imper­fect and, I imag­ine, tedious though it may be. Updating the clas­sics is a trend that is being seen more and more these days in both film and lit­er­a­ture, admit­ted­ly with dubi­ous results. Perhaps, though, in a mar­ket cli­mate that encour­ages adap­ta­tions of the famil­iar, a re-hashing of out­mod­ed clas­sic games with cur­rent engines might prove suc­cess­ful. Your move, devel­op­ers.

  1. For those unaware, the Dynasty Warriors series puts you in con­trol of a badass gen­er­al who must cut to rib­bons vast armies of enemies…and that’s about it. A fun con­cept, but after about six or seven titles, plus a pair of Gundam games, the con­cept has become stale. []
  2. Although such edu­ca­tion is hol­low and incom­plete, for they did not include that most ancient and beloved of imper­fec­tions, Missingno. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.