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Weekly Musings #7 - Are Sequels Good or Bad?
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: July 26th 2004

Final Fantasy X-2

To start off on the second part of this article, I'd like to take a recent title: Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy X was a truly innovative title for a number of reasons. The Sphere system of advancement, allowing (over time) any character to take any role, was a definite change from former linear-advancement modes. The character switching modes in battle allowed all characters to be utilized in their respective roles, which eliminated the problems previous games had had with certain characters languishing behind in advancement and never seeing usage in the main adventuring party.

Final Fantasy X-2 took all these advancements and threw them out the window. The Sphere system was switched out for the Garment system; while the three characters remained in gameplay at all times, their roles were determined by switching between dozens of dresses. Unfortunately, at least the first time through the game, this inevitably meant leaving most of the dresses alone, because the dresses (and not the characters themselves) were what leveled up; around the middle of level three, switching to a previously-unused dress was a good way to get a character killed.

If that weren't bad enough, the ongoing story and freedom of movement present in previous titles were all but gone; instead of traveling the world, or flying over it, players simply selected a location from a list and pushed a button to be dropped there. Not very exciting. Finally, the motive in visiting most places was not to advance storyline, but to avoid the thrust of the main storyline in favor of side-quests, something that quickly turned boring.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider, released in 1996, was at the time a wonderful game. Exploration of caves, solving of puzzles, and a minimal amount of fighting action brought gamers into was was at the time a very fun world to explore.

With the advent of Tomb Raider 2 and beyond, unfortunately, Eidos Interactive took all the wrong signals. Over successive games, the puzzle element declined over and over, to be replaced by ever more linear levels and constant fighting against enemies.  Likewise, despite the addition of the analog controls of the PS2, the series' control systems have remained relatively sticky and unresponsive; it was relatively excusable when on all-digital controllers, but users of analog controllers expect a better degree of control than what was being offered.

A seventh Tomb Raider title - yes, seventh - is in the works. Will it be better? It could; there's not total hope lost for the series. None of them, however, have managed to hold a candle to the first.

Unreal II

Unreal, released in 1998, was the challenger to Quake that did everything right that Quake did wrong. Instead of a cobbled-together storyline, Unreal's storyline was expansive and exploratory from start to finish; exploration of the world of Na Pali, and what had happened when the Skaarj arrived, was the player's goal and impetus to keep going. The imaginative weapons and fun gameplay cemented it in the number two spot right behind the Quake series in terms of what players would play, and deathmatch in, online.

The expansion pack, Return to Na Pali, offered yet more, if only a wonderful single-player addition.

Unfortunately, despite the success of the Unreal Tournament line, Unreal II managed to be a colossal disappointment. Multiplayer only materialized after massive outcry from gamers of the lack of same. The weapons were relatively unchanged, and seemed somewhat basic to all FPS titles. And just when the storyline got good in the single player mode, just barely past the first real plot twist... the game was over. Had it gone on twice as long, gamers probably would have been entirely happy with the game, but as it stands, it's worth about $10 at my local Half Price Books store, and barely going for $20 at Gamestop.

Street Fighter III / Street Fighter EX3

Coming off the success of the Street Fighter Alpha line, Capcom decided that a game which brought back the slower-playing "roots" of the Street Fighter series was in order. They changed up almost all the characters as well, with only Ryu and Ken the recognizable holdovers between games.

The result? A mess, really, admired by few but ignored by many more; while Street Fighter III is still played in arcades, it has largely languished there, as Capcom - perhaps sensing its standing on the hierarchy of Street Fighter titles - has only now released Street Fighter III on the PS2, and even that only in Japan.

What was wrong with the game? Well, projectiles - a standby of the series - became nearly useless. Likewise, mobility and jumping, as well as attacks, became extremely slow, with extra frames of animation that make the action "smoother" but at the cost of speed of gameplay. Finally, a "tech" system, utilized by tapping forward on the joystick, edged the game ever higher with those who can master a title, while putting it well out of reach for casual players or those whose arcades do not keep their machines properly maintained.

Despite this, Street Fighter III still wasn't quite as bad a disappointment of the Playstation2 title, Street Fighter EX3. What was wrong with this game? Just about everything, honestly. The Street Fighter EX series had done a good job of introducing new characters and gameplay, as well as pseudo-3D gameplay, to the world. Unfortunately, Capcom decided that with EX3 they needed to ape Tekken Tag Tournament, completely eliminating the one-on-one gameplay that is the mainstay of the Street Fighter series, and resulting in a disappointment that seems to have singlehandedly destroyed the Street Fighter EX line.

Deus Ex: Invisible War

Released in 2000, Deus Ex garnered almost instant acclaim; despite the title's coming from the lesser-known Ion Storm Austin studios (in retrospect, the better of the two Ion Storm divisions), it had solid, multilinear gameplay, a compelling storyline, fun multiplayer, and a fully populated, fun to explore world with random books, reading material, and exploratory rewards scattered throughout. Between that and its well-made RPG-style skills advancement system and biomod system, it nearly couldn't miss; games that can be played equally well by players as either a run-and-gun FPS or a Thief-style sneak title are almost impossible to do, but the Deus Ex team pulled it off.

Unfortunately, time and resources were against the team tasked with creating Deus Ex: Invisible War, and design team too conscious that they were designing for the Xbox console - after learning "lessons" that weren't helpful from creating the Deus Ex: The Conspiracy PS2 port of the PC title - resulted in the RPG system and inventory system being highly dumbed down. The skills advancement disappeared quickly, subsumed into the Biomod system, forcing gamers into even more hard choices - in some ways a good thing, but the experience points for exploration were missed. In addition, however, the first game's expansive levels were no more; whereas in the original, a compound encompassing the entirety of Ellis Island (including areas inside the Statue of Liberty's base) was cut in half, and other areas likewise sized down, with load points galore.

Even those might have been tolerable, were it not for the world's feeling barely "moved into" and the game's shortness; gameplay time was a mere quarter of the original's, and gone were the reading material and random items scattered throughout. While it was still a good title in its own right, Deus Ex: Invisible War just couldn't measure up to the brilliance of the original.

F-Zero GX: the Multiplayer mode

Anticipation of F-Zero GX, prior to its release, was quite high; gamers had pleasurable memories of the immensely well-designed F-Zero X, and the recent re-release of the original F-Zero on the Gameboy Advance had likewise helped awareness of the title.

As far as gameplay went in single player, F-Zero GX was nearly as good as its predecessor; though the physics system hurt many cars, it opened up others and made learning to race all the more important, and the custom car system was a nice touch. More expansive tracks also made the game exciting.

Unfortunately, when it came to multiplayer - one of the things that had made the original so much fun - F-Zero GX missed completely. The loss of the "slot machine of death", the ability for crashed players to act as a spoiler, was justifiable if the designers wanted to concentrate on racing. What wasn't so excusable, however, was ending the race the moment someone won; with four players playing, allowing all to either die or cross the finish line in a racing game is not an optional component.

Super Smash Bros. Melee

As a Nintendo Gamecube release title, gamers would have thought that Super Smash Bros. Melee would have been a polished, fun, well-made title. Well, one out of three isn't bad - it's fun, for a while, and fun enough that it still garners the occasional tournament.

Unfortunately, SSBM still has to try to measure up to its predecessor, the excellently-balanced and fun Super Smash Bros, and it is here that the game fails. The problem isn't in the graphics, nor the level design, nor the number of characters. Put quite simply, Nintendo got everything right, and then proceeded to ignore something they're normally quite good at; game balance.

The unfortunate truth about SSBM is that too many characters are over- or under-powered. As examples, compare a few between games. Donkey Kong in the second, stripped of his ability to execute a running charged punch, is problematic. The recovery time on Jigglypuff's singing ability is so short that, unless it hits on a jumping-in attack, enemies will recover and counterattack before Jigglypuff can move. Yoshi's egg rolling attack is far too likely to send him off the side of a platform.

Good idea, but bad execution - it's often the problem with sequels that fail to live up to their predecessors.

Likewise, there are a few game series that manage to have their ups and downs; and at each up, a new bar is set for future games to reach.

Final Fantasy

Take, for instance, the Final Fantasy series. Gamers who follow the series all have differing opinions on the "best" title so far. Some claim that VII is the end-all and be-all, representing the series' jump to "maturity" on the Playstation. Some stick to VI, or IV, or III on the old NES or SNES consoles. Others claim that the entire Final Fantasy series is eclipsed by ancillary Squaresoft titles, such as Chrono Trigger. And some are still sticking to Final Fantasy X as the best.

Of course, all are eagerly awaiting the coming of Final Fantasy XII, which is reputed to change the magic and combat system completely once again, to a system similar to a single-player version of Final Fantasy XI's. Will it be good? Or will it go the way of Final Fantasy VIII?

Megaman

Likewise, the Megaman library - now on yet another set of iterations with the Zero and Battle Network series - continues to grow. Is it good? The series has its ups and downs. The first is insanely difficult; 2 and 3, by contrast, are remembered fondly by most NES fans. IV, V, and VI are less enjoyed, representing a slide downwards... and then came the Megaman X series, which rejuvenated the line, giving us the stellar X, less so X2 and X3, and then absolutely brilliant X4.

Unfortunately for Capcom, X5 and X6 weren't so good, suffering badly placed controls for some of Zero's attacks, and annoying reuse of previous levels from X5 when X6 was made. And then came X7, the attempt to bring the series to 3D, which left too many gamers struggling to understand why Capcom would do such a thing after the lackluster response to the three titles  in the ill-fated Megaman Legends line. Capcom's promised that X8 will be 2D again, with 3D graphics for effects only; hopefully this will come to pass.

Meanwhile, on the Gameboy Advance, the Megaman Zero line is about to reach its third title, and the Battle Network series its fourth. While relatively mediocre titles (Battle Network is slightly dumbed-down for younger players, and Zero is for those who feel the need to achieve perfection in all titles), they're still better than what the X series has become, and perfect examples of how Megaman, despite its ups and downs, has stuck around for so long.

Mortal Kombat

Finally, we have the antithesis of the Street Fighter series: Mortal Kombat. Originally the triumph of realistic blood and gore, using video motion capture, the first Mortal Kombat drew in gamers who were interested as much in annoying their parents as seeing all the "cool" fatality moves. Gameplay was passable, but secondary to the visuals, a formula that the arcade title Street Fighter: The Movie would follow to a much more pathetic end.

On the heels of this success, Midway pushed out Mortal Kombat 2, with more moves, bloodier fatalities, more interesting characters. Had things gone on from that point, it would have been quite nice.

Unfortunately, it ws not to be. Mortal Kombat 3 left many players angry that their favorite characters were stripped from the game, and perplexed others with a combo system designed around only executing preplanned, ridiculously-complicated chain attacks. The Fatality system had expanded, but not to a good degree; instead of being ways to show one's skill, many of the new "Animality", "Babality", and "Friendship" moves were more about novelty than anything else; after seeing them once, gamers didn't care to see them again. 

The game became somewhat popular again with a tournament edition encompassing all previous characters, giving it slight redemption. Then, disaster: Mortal Kombat 4, the series' first attempt at 3D fighting. There's only way to sum this title up; it completely sucked. The controls were unresponsive, camera angles were bad, moves were bad, graphics were barely passable, and gone was the photorealism of motion capture that had been the game's saving grace.

Thankfully, all was not completely lost. In 2002 Midway let loose with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Many former fans of the series wouldn't touch it, having been turned off by 3 and 4, but others did come back... enough so that Mortal Kombat: Deception is on its way in October of 2004.

It's a long argument to make, and I don't expect these examples to change anyone's mind - after all, the argument goes on. For every good sequel, one can find at least 3 or 4 bad ones. Then again, for every good game title in a year (remember, a few thousand titles are released per year), there are literally hundreds of bad titles. 

But maybe it's not a symptom of sequels that causes this, any more than the "curse" of the sequel is a hard and fast rule in Hollywood. Maybe it's just selective memory.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #7: Are Sequels Good or Bad?


Added:  Monday, July 26, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 2/2

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