Sequels. The games industry loves them, and even I must concede that I’m as guilty of sequel love as the next gamer – I’m currently ploughing through Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV and Forza 2, and my good friend Jimothy’s coming round later this week with his copy of Ninja Gaiden II for me to have a gawp at.
The beauty of video game franchises, of course, is that they’re seldom subject to the same diminishing returns (otherwise known as sequelitis) so often suffered by cinema; for every worthy movie sequel like Godfather II or Aliens there are at least ten forgettable, straight-to-video follow-ups that should never have been made – witness the horror of Starship Troopers II, Jaws: The Revenge or The Phantom Menace.
Most video games do improve with each iteration – I think it’s safe to say that Halo 3 is better than any of its predecessors, as is GTA IV. Games are a little like cars in this respect – technology is refined and evolves with each successive model as designers learn from previous mistakes.
To carry the car analogy further, the reverse can also be true: sometimes car manufacturers lose sight of their original goal, and what began as a sleek, nippy little city vehicle ends up as a bloated, overweight and oversized monstrosity by mark III. Again, this is true of the games industry too – just look at The Getaway: Black Monday, a sequel that not only failed to iron out the flaws found in the (quite good) original, but also managed to add extra problems of its own, with dull stealth missions and some decidedly unintelligent non-player AI.
In other cases, it’s clear that a franchise has been warmed over just to squeeze out the last bit of cash from a tired, over familiar brand name. Look at the ridiculous Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, which features the most bizarre cross-over I’ve yet seen – I thought it was pushing things a bit when Soul Calibre IV included a couple of Star Wars characters, but Superman in Mortal Kombat? How could Sub Zero, Raiden or whoever possibly perform one of their gory finishing moves on an indestructible, godlike superhero, and more to the point, will DC Comics really allow Midway to show Kal-El having his spine ripped out? The mind boggles.
The flipside to Mortal Kombat‘s ‘flogging a dead horse’ mentality is Tomonobu Itagaki’s attitude to his limbs-flying gore fest Ninja Gaiden II. In a recent interview, Itagaki stated that the NG franchise had ‘nowhere else to go,’ and that he wouldn’t be involved in a sequel. It’s an unusual display of integrity in a franchise-hungry industry – though I wonder if Itagaki-san’s statement has more to do with his much publicised and acrimonious split from Tecmo a matter of days later.
The constant demand for sequels must be a creative drain on developers too – Bungie have spent the past seven years producing Halo games and little else, a business decision apparently made by purse-string holders Microsoft. Bungie’s recent announcement that they’re going independent appears to be about retaining creative control – their CEO Harold Ryan stated in an interview with Variety: ‘there is more latitude for us to put our focus on other IP, other universes, other things… we’re going to really lay it on the line and push to come up with the next best thing in entertainment. It feels better to do that as an indie.’
Microsoft would probably argue that an entirely new game from Bungie would never be as popular as another Halo instalment. While I’m sure this is true to a certain degree, I still believe that gamers have an appetite for new titles beyond the established franchises already filling the shelves – just look at the excitement that’s building around the forthcoming Too Human. With the hype and marketing that big publishing companies can provide, it’s not difficult to generate interest in a debut title; the pre-release clamour that surrounded Haze – a game that sadly failed to live up to expectations – is a prime example. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s just cheaper and easier to fall back on an existing IP rather than risk marketing a new one.
I’m not in any way saying that sequels are a bad thing – I’m looking forward to Gears of War II, Resident Evil 5 and even Bionic Commando Rearmed with readied thumbs – but the fact that they’re now so prevalent is a rather disquieting one. It’s exciting, and often comforting, to see the return of a familiar IP, but at the same time it shouldn’t be at the expense of new games with fresh ideas.
Ryan Lambie writes every Thursday at Den of Geek; read his last column here