Same Sky
All Worlds Share the Same Sky…

“Sequelitis”

As I pointed out earlier, this holiday season will present a slew of sequels to famous franchises. Some of the best-selling franchises, at that. Halo 3 will undoubtedly kill in sales, selling XBox360’s to boot, and Grand Theft Auto 4 will most likely clean up nicely, as well. I have high hopes for Super Mario Galaxy being a best-seller, too. Practically everyone who owns a Wii will most likely pick that one up, and it’s bound to push units, too. If sales of Smash Bros. Melee are any sign, Brawl could very well end up being the Wii’s top selling game through its lifespan.

This is what everybody (in America) will be playing in a few months…

But with all of this hoopla, we have to ask ourselves if these games will strike us with a bad case of the “samies.” Pokemon Diamond and Pearl have been selling by the truck load, and the reviews have been in the “8” range, praising the game’s fine-tuned quality. However, that refinement has been the result of mostly minimal changes over the course of the entire Pokemon franchise. It’s sad to see such a triple-A team produce something that feels so very similar to its predecessors. What’s even sadder is that consumers eat it up and no one’s the wiser. The reason why the Pokemon games have hardly changed all these years is because they keep selling millions with minimal change.

Sometimes, a drastic change is in order. I cite the modern classic Resident Evil 4 as the textbook example of how to reinvent a franchise. This game did away with all of the flaws from the previous Resident Evil titles yet kept the elements that were good and made it its own series while injecting in a lot of solid gameplay concepts, including some that were unseen at the time. “Cineractive” gameplay became famous with Resident Evil 4 and God of War, both of which launched in the same time frame. Now, you can see the influences this style of interaction has had on so many games these past couple years, including Tomb Raider Legends and Heavenly Sword.

 

Already in the books as a classic.

Resident Evil 4 played all of its cards right–it kept the good, did away with the bad, and took its time to refine everything to near perfection.

But what about a series that is already good–one whose only real flaw is the fact that it’s started to feel stale? I’m looking at you, Zelda. We’ve had a lot of good times, and you’ve set a lot of standards around here. However, while Twilight Princess may have had the best storytelling you’ve had to offer thus far and was one of the most well-paced games I’ve ever played…you felt like you were trying too hard to be Ocarina of Time all over again. Ironically, this is precisely what many people wanted, and, ironically, this is precisely what people complained about when you showed up.

 

Oh, look–a temple…with fire…Hm…Sounds familiar…

So how to remedy this? If you want my take, it’s to give the series some completely fresh mechanics. The Phantom Hourglass sounds like it’s going to do its best effort to pump up the franchise’s legs with stylus controls, some new mechanics involving the hourglass and sand, and competetive multiplayer as a bonus. Not to mention that it’s fittingly using the Wind Waker style to great effect on the DS. To be sure, this one’s going to be the DS title to own in ’07.

 

Such an amazing game…

But let’s take a trip back to a title shrouded in controversy–my personal favorite of the Zelda series: Majora’s Mask. Many refuted this title as being too different, but I was very pleased by just how different it was. Majora’s Mask was very character-driven and had a concept so unique that it was completely original and years ahead of its time–I could write an entire feature on this title alone (not a bad idea!) but the point is that Majora’s Mask, while not perfect, had a LOT of good ideas that not only breathed new life into the Zelda franchise, but stayed true to the series’ roots at the same time. You had dungeons, sidequests, heart pieces, lock-on combat, character growth through items…but you had time travel, excellent character interaction, and the mask system. It was an amazing sequel and it’s a shame that so many people were and still are quick to judge it as faulty. The reason why Twilight Princess felt so much like Ocarina of Time is because Nintendo tried to expand the series in two ways–one through its gameplay and storytelling, and the other through its visual style and atmosphere–and people complained both times, begging for a “return to Ocarina.” They got precisely that. And while Twilight Princess is an amazing game with great artistic style, solid gameplay, and excellent pacing, the fact is that it’s closer to Ocarina of Time than Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker both were.

 

At least this one looks to be mixing the formula a bit.

Zelda doesn’t need a visual face lift, though it could certainly do with a change of pace–Wind Waker gave us a cool cel-shaded style (that still looks amazing despite its age) and a fresh oceanic take on the classic formula. I don’t know where Zelda could go for an atmosphere change, but wherever it goes, it should be somewhere that enables it to add a fresh dimension to its gameplay. I’m not Nintendo and won’t even try to suggest what types of new gameplay mechanics should be used, but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that Nintendo will take advantage of the Wii’s technology to not just give us Wii-mote enhanced Zelda of old, but something completely new that still contains elements held throughout the series. It’s possible, and Nintendo can do it. It’s all a matter of them trying–and fans giving it a try.

 

 

Boy, this doesn’t look familiar at all…

 

Another type of sequel is the kind that takes its time in coming every few years and refines what was found in the prequel. Pokemon does this, but doesn’t seem to change quite enough–and they occur much more often.

 

Shaping up to be an outstanding sequel.

I point to Halo 3 and Smash Bros. Brawl as the two big sequels this year which will really refine and evolve their franchises further. It’ll have been 6 years since the last Smash Bros. title when Brawl comes out, but I have faith based on what Sakurai has shown us thus far that it will make good steps at evolving and refining the Smash Bros. formula with new techniques and mechanics along with characters, items, stages, and modes. Melee blew the original Smash Bros. out of the water in every single way, and while I doubt Brawl will be as large a leap, one must keep in mind that the farther you refine something, the shorter the gaps are. Take a look at the technology of console games for proof of that–compare the NES to the Atari, and then compare the Wii to Gamecube. Not nearly the same jump. That’s how it goes when you’re trying to perfect something. Halo 3 and Brawl will give players the same game they know and love but with refinement, taking out flaws and balancing issues from the prior installment while adding in fresh gameplay so we’ll have to adapt to creating new strategies while perfecting old ones.

 

Originality, breathtaking art design, and some familiar faces, too.

Mario Galaxy is looking to show what the Wii can with its controls and graphics as well as wash the Mario franchise in a new light of originality and fresh gameplay ideas. Metroid Prime 3 will probably stick closer to its laurels, but it promises to flex the Wii’s muscles, as well, especially in the ways of demonstrating what the controller can do. Corruption has a lot to prove–come August, we’ll see how it holds up as a sequel, a Metroid title, and a showcase of the Wii’s capabilities when in the hands of a skilled developer.

Will they pull it off? Time will tell.

Grand Theft Auto 4 is the last one on this list of to-be blockbusters, and it’s the one I know the least about, being one who isn’t into the GTA scene myself. From what I’ve seen of it, it looks very similar to past iterations but with that layer of polish that’s been lacking in the previous games. It also looks more story driven. I imagine Rockstar will put in plenty of new ideas while perfecting the GTA formula and getting rid of elements they think bogged the experience down. I’m sure this title will do just fine, though I do wonder just how well it will sell–you can bet on the 360 version selling more copies simply due to the hardware numbers. But who knows? Maybe GTA4 is what the PS3 needs to sell more units…? I doubt it myself.

 

How relevant is this series these days? Guess we’ll find out soon.

So there you have it. Some thoughts to ponder as we get prepared to see sequels of our favorite franchises. Will they refine enough to be worth our money and our wait? Will the more original ones offer up a fresh taste we haven’t experienced yet?

Either way, sequels are a tried-and-true business venture–let’s just hope developers take good care of our favorite franchises so we don’t see them going the way of blue hedgehogs.

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