I recently started playing Kid Icarus: Uprising
on Nintendo 3DS. Although this franchise is considered a Nintendo keystone, there’s curiously only been 3 games made in the series. Kid Icarus
was first released on the NES in Japan in 1986, it’s sequel Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters
came out on the GameBoy in 1991, an astonishing 20 years before Uprising.
This is the Project Sora developed, take on a series which retained it’s reinvented look of protagonists Pit and Palutena from their own Smash Bros Brawl
designed incarnations (created in 2008 under the HAL Laboratory development studio moniker at the time).
20 years can add a lot of distance between what was considered the direction for a series at the time of inception to now. As I played through I was surprised to discover that Instead of starting over with only the core concept of the pit character and mythic world intact, Producer Masahiro Sakurai and Project Sora made the brave step to actually make this a narrative sequel to the last game - from 2 decades ago.
Wisely, the key intended audience is a new one and a young one. Within the game itself lies the assertion that 2 games had come before this and that the battle with Medusa carries on from there (particular emphasis is given to the NES game). The player may be encouraged to seek out those games and discover them for themselves. This is an incredibly good platform fro Nintendo’s Virtual Console service (which is readily available on the 3DS store and Wii shop channel) to garner new customers. Early orders of the game worldwide came with a download of the original NES Kid Icarus
. The ability to sell something old as new, a marketing masterstroke for Nintendo.
Sakurai has accomplished this difficult approach to narrative continuity incredibly well and I can talk at length about just how fun and immersive the game is. Marrying an airborne shooter (slightly reminiscent of games like Space Harrier
and Sin and Punishment
) with an on-rails combat element gives the game play the much needed reinvention from the dated side scrolling plat former arrangement. I am mostly surprised that the step to continue the franchise as a series was undertaken because when someone new steps onto the flight deck of a major series and takes over, they usually don’t just change the direction, they change the very ship the franchise is sailing on.
As soon as a game becomes a hit for a publisher, sequels will inevitably crop up. Sequels that over time span into a series. Now with a fan base and critical reception to uphold, the challenge lies with keeping the franchise alive. One way to do this, rather ironically - is to kill it.
Reinventing the Franchise.
Finishing off a franchise for the purpose of reincarnating it in an alternate guise has always been a familiar practice in Comics and Films. However, this polarising approach has in recent years really began to emerge as a more standard practice in games.
Reboots evoke anything from excited to jarring reactions from a largely web based fanbase that has made a lot of financial as well as emotional investment into the property over the years. The bitter-sweet feelings of entitlement and property are understandable.
As Square-Enix give Tomb Raider
a face-lift and Capcom’s Devil May Cry
series gets re-spawned as Ninja Theory's DmC
it’s worth taking a look at what is fast becoming the shape of things to come.
With the case of Devil May Cry
in particular, it is easy to argue that this is Capcom’s attempt to make a significant breakaway from series auteur Hideki Kamiya and producer Shinji Mikami‘s visionary influence (before they broke away to studios like Clover and Platinum Games). The series’ easily identifiable stylisation and prototype gameplay which owe much to their initial creators still hold a key element which has more or less remained prominent despite them not directly becoming involved any of the sequels. The first game in the series was initially intended to be a spin off of Resident Evil
, another property which since the departure of key contributors has undergone a dramatic reinvention from a fairly unique survival horror game built on suspense to a more familiar trend befitting action based first person shooter.
It is more in the business interest of any studio (not just Capcom) to approach a series as an accessible revolving door for contributing producers and outsourced devs that publishing bosses have a greater commissioning control over. it’s far more damage limiting than being a studio reliant on indispensable creative minds that can jump ship out of contract, taking their ingenuity with them. This does however put the visionary direction of the series in the hands of the studio heads who are essentially business men. Making assertions based on profitability and trends, unlike producers who are effectively artists making art, taking the risks to create the new trends.
My difficulty with this is that too many cooks can spoil the broth.
Although in the case of film franchises hits and misses are commonplace, games are a more expensive consumer product. A customer buying a game as a result will be less flippant on what there money is spent on than a film goer. The risk of continuing a series can mean the artistic difference of getting Picasso to paint the rest of a Michelangelo painting. Rather than bring the franchise to new heights it can just as easily ruin it, a feat almost realised already with Devil May Cry
when Devil May Cry 2
(bizarrely created by a completely different development team from the smash hit original) was universally panned and nearly killed off the series there and then. It is however important for Studios and Publishers to take risks, just as developers and producers are paid to do, after all the Studios and Publishers have more to lose. If change isn’t invited you end up playing the same game forever and any chance at a new gaming experience or new market is quashed. Progress is a gamble.
Ninten-dos and and don’ts: Owning Property.
Seems a strange practice in an industry of fervent rivalries between developers. Sharing Franchises, or rather, outsourcing them.
Often an outsourced developer can take the reigns and rejuvenate a franchise while the original licence holder collaborates or oversees. They can even shrug off the bulk of the work or not get their hands dirty at all. In this way, the outsourced developer acts like a 'Ghost' Developer.
It's not always for the best. The more Nightmarish outcomes can leave beloved franchises dragged backwards through the dirt. Anyone that played the notoriously heinous Phillips licensed Zelda and Mario games can attest to that traumatic episode.
Nintendo however are a good example of how a publisher uses developers effectively, both their own and others. They have a long history of letting other creative minds steer the ship of their heavy hitters;
Nintendo benefits from having subsidiary studios with very distinct styles and direction. Internally, Nintendo EAD/ SPD (former R&D1&R&D2) and Hardware developers RED and NTD teams handle their systems along with Mario
and other recognisable core franchises exclusively. The rest is created through internal subsidiaries:
Intelligent Systems Co for instance will handle second tier franchises such as Paper Mario and Wario
as well as strategy games like the Wars
series and the Fire Emblem
series among others.
Hal Labs (where Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata started his carer in 1983) handle the Kirby
and Smash Bros
Monolith Soft are a relatively new Nintendo property famed for their Xenosaga
series. Since parting with NamcoBandai, they have co developed The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on Wii and the forthcoming Animal Crossing: New Leaf
for 3DS .Multi property collaboration Project X Zone
is also one of theirs.
Retro Studios most recently put Mario Kart 7
onto 3DS but are more famed for the Metroid Prime
All games developed by outside parties are overseen by the Nintendo Business Technology Development team, or BTD for short. They work as an air traffic control making sure the brand and quality is represented well.
The Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime Series was followed by Metroid Other M
. A Co-development between Nintendo EAD and Team Ninja, the TecmoKoei owned combat game developer responsible for the Dead or Alive
and Ninja Gaiden
Landmark Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country
was developed by UK based developer Rare as was Donkey Kong 64
among others before the studio eventually became a primarily Microsoft affiliated studio in the early 2000’s. They also had a hand developing StarFox
sequel Star Fox Adventures
. This series especially has seen a lot of outside creative input. Namco and Q-Games among others have also had a hand in the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Oracle of Ages
and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures
series as well as The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
have Capcom to thank for their hand in making those games so successful and memorable.
Nintendo still create a lot of landmark works through smaller development studios. Grezzo is a relatively new studio known for there creative teams’ former involvement in Square-Enix branded fantasy games, which makes them perfectly suited to handle the remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
for the Nintendo 3DS and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition
Nintendo’s franchises continue to uphold a high level of quality and presence in the industry despite much of the work being created outside of Nintendo. This is due to Nintendo learning lessons early on and understanding the invaluable practice of controlling the creative direction of each property themselves. This is also of key importance if they then later want to transfer a franchise to a completely different developer. It also helps that a lot of Nintendo’s franchises aren’t heavily narrative driven along a series and so wouldn’t require any sort of drastic action such as a series reboot. You can argue that most if not all Zelda and Fire Emblem
games are a reboot, in fact (with a few exceptions) they don’t follow an explicitly heavy continuous story or design structure between games and so offer a new narrative experience with each game while retaining the same key game play.
Taking The Baton: Migrating Franchises.
Inconspicuous third party developers can sustain a publishers precious flagship behind the scenes.
A fairly innocuous developer; ‘Dimps’ is responsible for keeping Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog franchise alive. Each of their handheld Sonic Advance
and Sonic Rush
games generated solid reviews while Sega’s core developer ‘Sonic Team’ had flop after flop on home consoles in the corresponding years of release.
Dimps also helped enliven the Street Fighter brand as it co-developed Street Fighter IV
. A game the made the series relevant again. Helpfully, Dimps was co-founded by former Street Fighter co-creators Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto among others.
is one such series to benefit from outsourced developer direction. The subject of a lot of stylistic remodelling in recent years.
Above; protagonaist Major Nathan "RAD" Spencer has almost seen a redesign per year.
L to R Bionic Commando Rearmed 2008
, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2
2011, Bionic Commando 2009
(design also featured in Marvel Vs Capcom 3
and Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3
Success in carrying a brand on your shoulders doesn’t always guarantee sustainability for the outsourced dev team. A prolific ‘ghost’ developer of recent times; Grin inadvertently became defunct, despite a string of triple A affiliated projects. Grin developed Bionic Commando Rearmed for Capcom. This was a download play spin off . They also developed a Bionic Commando reboot in 2009. The developer worked with numerous high profile publishers. Citing an unworkable cash flow issues due to publisher’s delayed payments killed the studio in 2009, the peak of the global recession. Duties moved to Fatshark for BCR2.
Conspicuously, to have high profile reboots of Capcom’s Strider
and Sega’s Streets of Rage
(reportedly) series’ in the pipeline as well a Final Fantasy
Spin-off (code named Fortress) at the time of termination hints that being a co-op or third party dev, means working at the whim of the Publisher. Whether it’s the paltry returns in comparison or being the compliant party in deadlines and communications, (the publisher pays the developer rather than split’s a percentage of profits in some cases) outsourced devs are on the back foot in any business co-allition.
It’s clear that big name franchise games rule the game charts. They demand high profile advertising slots in print and on screen and enjoy product tie-ins just as movie blockbusters do. There’s more to be said about how franchises come about and more notably how they are maintained and by who. How they can go from cash cows to cash outs. I’ll be exploring this further later on in Part 2. Tune in next time!