Actually, The Sequel Was Better
Often times, not just in gaming but with entertainment in any medium, there can be a tendency to look upon the first in a series as the definitive, superior entry, with all others to follow damned to never be able to measure up. The original titles gain an almost religious reverence and deference shown to them, with them continuing to be pointed to as the standard bearer for later titles to attempt to measure up to. Sometimes the original may indeed be the superior entry, but often it seems to me this consideration being shown to it truly stems from its place chronologically in the series rather than any objective consideration of its merits compared to the sequels, with the reasons for why being manufactured after the opinion is formed, rather than serving as the basis for it.
I dispute this whole notion. The original games in a series tend to excite because it is our first time being exposed to its various elements: the characters, big picture story of those characters’ world, the core gameplay mechanics, the set of weapons and abilities available, and so on. However, while these elements may be good, often the excitement that’s felt for them has more to do with the sensation of freshness from not having seen these things before compounding on their solid quality, rather than being as purely based on their quality as such “original is the best” devotees would lead you to believe. Essentially, when an original game in a series is good, we all will tend to enjoy a sort of “honeymoon” phase with it where we’re caught up by all its good qualities. Some simply remain in that phase, hence the loyalty to the original.
The problem with such unquestioning loyalty to the originals is that it misses the shortcomings they can and do often have, encouraging a stagnation that never fixes them. The thing about the first iteration of game series is that the ideas are just being tested out for the first time in the wild as it were, and things that overly complicate and slow down character progression, make the pacing of the narrative feel off, don’t satisfy in their depth on customization and so on can be missed during a studios internal testing and never discovered until the trial by fire that is being opened up to gamers to explore. Some of these mistakes could go to misjudgments arising from the studio, whether general bad calls or simply learning the nature of their new IP and what does and doesn’t work in how they should handle it. Other things aren’t mistakes at all in the short term necessarily, but with time giving greater perspective, namely from sequels coming around and improving on the formula, come to feel like mistakes, or it at least feeling like certain elements feel dated because of the various quality-of-life improvements and greater refinement those elements have been able to be shown with time.
On this other end, besides sequels being able to cut those bad or unnecessary elements and refine those solid but imperfect elements, they are also able to benefit from hindsight in having what new elements are introduced to excite players being based off that understanding and more likely to be more consistently well-executed, satisfying and exciting than the new elements in the original, which are inescapably a mix.
Undoubtedly some examples would make this whole case better than exposition, so let’s get into it.
Rock Band 2 is one of the simpler examples of the case I’ve been making. The original felt perfectly fine for its time, but RB2 expanded the base song list in the game natively as well as providing much greater support for expanding on that content with regular new DLC song packs to download, smartly making these available to buy in smaller doses rather than forcing you to buy an entire album or album’s worth of material, undoubtedly making them greater sales from fans more willing to part with a little spare cash for a song they love regularly while also satisfying fans with that formatting so they never felt obligated to have to spend money on unwanted content. This was a clever encouragement for replay value as well: checking back to see what new songs were added, seeing a handful you really enjoyed and getting excited about whacking out the drumbeats of one of these new options or watching your friend and “bandmate” attempt to do its vocals knowing he’d fail hilariously got you excited to play all over again. Speaking of your bandmates, the greatly improved customization system for the look of your characters and your instruments while performing and being able to use that in collaboration with your friends to come up with a look and feel for the in-game band you created together that you all loved was a really simply but greatly satisfying improvement.
Now, Rock Band isn’t a series that I do see the original being revered over the sequels with, but I wanted to bring it up to illustrate the point I was making more clearly about how sequels can benefit from the understanding of how the basics of a game concept have been received.
Now we can turn to a couple case that do more fully deal with the issue I’m talking about. One would be Pokémon. The Red and Blue Versions and the first generation roster of Pokémon are often held up as highlights of the series, not just by fans, but even in practice by those making the newer games, with new pre-evolutions or evolutions or forms for that generation’s Pokémon being implemented in the sequels that have occurred since in far greater numbers and with far greater regularity than any other generation. Yet…those games and that roster actually represent some of the weakest the series has had to offer. With the games more generally, the region design wasn’t particularly interesting in retrospect, there wasn’t much of a story to speak of, the battle mechanics - while not bad for their time - have been greatly outclassed by the later changes made to it, the representation of types was poorly handled in some cases - the one Ghost type line seeming weak to the Psychic types they were on paper supposed to be strong against or Dragon types seeming weaker to Ice than they were because of their only lines final form being extra weak to it, for example, and an extremely limited post-game involving one small new area to explore and one new Legendary Pokémon to catch. The biggest problem with that roster I already mentioned in the mishandling of the type distribution across the different lines in the games, but beyond that is just the simpler facts that subsequent generations have had more interesting designs, better typings and more interesting evolutions methods to attain them.
With almost every single specific element of those original games, putting aside the new features not introduced until later, we can find a sequel generation in that series which did it better: every generation except the fourth has had better region design, third and fifth had excellent world stories while the new eighth generation tells an excellent Gym Challenge-related story, second through fourth - with arguments to be made for others - made needed improvements on the core battle mechanics, basically every subsequent generation has had better type distributions across the new roster, and the second and third generations especially had excellent postgame content with revisiting Kanto for the former and the Battle Frontier for the latter greatly expanding the time you wanted to play beyond the Championship.
All of this, understand, isn’t to say the first generation of games or their roster of new Pokémon were bad, just that in comparison to what has come since, they are far from the pinnacle of what the series stands to offer you and certainly not deserving the infallible status some ascribe to them.
Now, let’s turn from Nintendo’s flagship franchise to Microsoft’s. With Halo it is considered considerably more contentious than with Pokémon to challenge the original’s superiority. To be fair, Combat Evolved stands the test of time better than Red and Blue versions do for Pokémon. The story’s tone of desperation juxtaposed with Master Chief’s badass capabilities and heroism is a great dynamic, which along with the sense of awe looking around the environments and the sense of exploration and decision on which objectives to approach and how all serve to be strong benchmarks for the series to make it a point to reach, either directly or in some equivalent sense. However, the reuse of multiple levels along with the general monotony of the Library level’s design, overly frail allies with questionable decision making hurting their survivability, often confused multiplayer map design that can complicate efforts to strategize with a team, and the overly centralizing Pistol and Scorpion making use of most other weapons and vehicles moot are all rough points to it.
Much was made of Halo 2′s more linear level design and cliffhanger ending, and to some extent not having more time to play as the Chief (though this has died for the most part over time) and it has some of its own unique problems, but what we do have makes it my overall favorite in the series: characters in general are more developed, new characters are interesting, the development of the backstory to your enemies is fantastic and remains relatively unique among all games I’ve played, the level variety is great and your objectives often feel more epic and important. The music within the Campaign is some of the best in the series, arguably its overall best, which does matter given its ties for setting the tone to accompany the narrative. With gameplay, the change to destructible vehicles and the ability to board them both looks cool and provides needed balance to their power while boost added onto Covenant vehicles helps differentiate the feel of them from the human vehicles better. Of course, there was also the addition of dual-wielding to note as well. As I’m a more competitive player, this isn’t something I made much use of personally, but it was aesthetically a really cool thing to be able to do and for my less competitive friends who enjoy the series is something they really loved and have missed since it was cut as a staple element from the series’ gameplay, so it certainly secured its place as a beloved element, too. Last, but certainly not least, is easily the best multiplayer map design the series has ever had. Taken together, this made for Halo 2 to be more satisfying overall - and certainly more satisfying long-term - than its predecessor. Other games in the series have also done various elements better than it, or even better than Halo 2 in some cases as well.
Ditto again on this kind of case when it comes to Sony’s flagship franchise in God of War as well, which notably goes out of its way more than any of the other series I’ve mentioned to not be beholden to the original as anything sacred and a baseline off which to model itself. The results here are telling: with greater character development and a more emotionally-driven story than anyone ever would have expected, a simultaneously more complex and more refined combat system, a satisfying upgrade system, revamped mission structure and much more, it has all the perfect ingredients to not just make it an excellent entry in that series, but the best yet, in spite of being the fifth. If a mentality of “the original is the best” had been held and it had been developed from that perspective, fans of the series and those the newest just drew in all would be devoid of this gem as it is, however.
There are of course other series - many more - to which illustrate my case, but I’ll consider these flagship franchises by the Big Three sufficient to make my case as is. Undoubtedly, you can think of other examples yourself. What all of these go to show is in actuality a relatively simple truth: sequels are often, if we are objective about their qualities, better than the originals and deserve to be respected as such. Being the first doesn’t inherently make something the best; that is only a status we’ve arbitrarily applied to how we approach thinking of games, or perhaps entertainment more broadly. Failing to take an honest look at how well sequels do on these different elements and the impact that has on their overall quality not only negatively impacts the individual gamer, who is preventing themselves from enjoying their games more, but also negatively impacts gaming culture, as it sends the message to developers that stagnation in the further work they do is not only acceptable, but to be encouraged.
When they aren’t encouraged to try bold new ideas they think could improve the formula for what a series stands to offer and instead play it safe, we are denied who knows how many exciting gaming moments we could have otherwise enjoyed, instead left with something akin to the original, but feeling more like a cheap imitation than a true sequel. In this way, that “original is best’ mentality becomes self-fulfilling prophesy, as we inadvertently encourage the very kind of lackluster experiences with sequels that can make the original seem like the best an IP can give us. I think we have a duty as gamers to take a step back more and instead of just being critical of games, also consider being critical of our thought process for how we approach looking at them for this kind of behavior and to rectify that when we find it within ourselves, for the sake of our own happiness and that of the gaming community.
So, the next time you find yourself thinking “the original is best,” look deeper. Maybe it really is. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be surprised what you find.
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