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. []

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