Gaming has been a huge part of my life for more than 20 years now, and during that time I’ve seen many series and franchises come and go. Among them there are those I hold near and dear to my heart but there are also the cases where I enjoyed the heck out of the initial game(s) but then, for some reason or another, the follow-up didn’t hold up to my expectations or to how the first one(s) resonated with me.
Sure, in some cases the graphics may have gotten better, the controls tighter and the mechanics more innovative, but in the end they just somehow didn’t have the same shine I saw in the original. And so, I decided to share some of those games that, as se series continued on, couldn’t keep up the charm and love I felt for the initial titles. And there are spoilers to be found ahead, just in case.
I decided to write this piece as I am nearing the end of Mario&Luigi: Paper Jam, yet I can’t help but find myself reminiscing a lot about Superstar Saga – the first game in the M&L series. It is such a top notch experience and the follow-up has been rather lackluster for me.
What I remember most about Superstar Saga is how it feels so immensely jam-packed, so consistent in terms of making it feel like everything flows as it should from beginning to end: from the first moment when we see Mario taking a shower and Luigi hanging the laundry up until the final moments, this is a game that celebrates the entire Super Mario canon with a lot of funny and well-inserted callbacks, while putting its own spin on the combat mechanics introduced in the other Mario RPGs with the Bros. moves (which also aided in exploring the world).
It’s also the one I remember the best, with the Hammer Bros. challenges, fixing the sewage pipes, the side-characters, the Yoshi eggs, the decoy princess…oh the memories! It’s also one of those cases where it may not have the biggest world when compared to its sequels, but to me it feels like the most expansive and where the zones are more smoothly interconnected.
Then Partners in Time happened. While story-wise I dug the interplay between the adult and baby versions and Luigi’s continued development, I wasn’t too fond of the new sprites – found them to be too thin and not as good-looking – and would’ve like for there to be a bit more of congruence with the Bros. attacks in SS (an issue that would persist with the next entries in the series). After that is the one most consider the best of the five, Bowser’s Inside Story. And I do agree that it looks great, the mechanics are as tight as they can be, Bowser’s integration in the narrative and gameplay just works, really making use of the DS’ particular features. Buuut it just didn’t manage the same wonder and feeling of consistency the first one had for me. Oh, and it introduced Starlow, which brings it all down a notch.
My loathing for this creature is such that I’ll devote an entire paragraph to it. For those that may not know, Starlow was a companion of sorts introduced in the 3rd game to accompany our heroes during their travels. Now, the real reason it exists is for expository reasons. Mario and Luigi speak in ridiculous Italian gibberish you see, so in order for us to finally understand what they mean to say after three games, we need an interpreter because their interactions with other characters wasn’t enough. Admittedly, this wouldn’t be so bad if Starlow was also an interesting and/or funny character by herself, but nope – about 90% of the dialogue is obnoxious exposition. In Paper Jam there’ve been exactly 2 moments where she had a funny line. The only obvious conclusion, since it ads so much to the experience, was to bring it back again and again. Thanks.
Besides the aforementioned negative point, overall I enjoyed Dream Team. I’m a big fan of this new 2D shading style – the forest area is beautiful, both in its visual and sound design – and the team-up moves are as imaginative as ever. Despite that, the focus on hand-holding is indeed a bit egregious, since about 25 hours a tutorial popped-up for an action I had been using for the whole game. The writing also seems to be lacking when the rest is taken into account, as the whole “hey, let’s treat Luigi like shit” keeps on being a recurrent theme in Dream Team and Paper Jam, ignoring all that previous development. Oh, and the gyro control implementation is almost non-functional, which certainly doesn’t help.
In the end, I wouldn’t say that any of these games are anything less than good games, with some being really great, but alas Superstar Saga is still the one that keeps my heart in wonderful captivity. Although the gibberish doesn’t cease to be hilarious and there’s one thing that manages to always get to me, and that’s when Mario and Luigi hug. Bro love for the win!
Metal Gear Solid
Way back in 1998, when the first MGS was released and I was around 9 years old – the recommended age for playing it, of course. My brother (around 6 at the time) and I would get together with one of my best friends since forever during consecutive afternoons to watch him play through it. He was, and still is, one of the biggest Metal Gear fans I know so he was the one who introduced us to all the cool Psycho Mantis, alternative ending stuff. It’s actually one of my most cherished childhood memories, watching in awe as the initial cutscene with an amazing score unfolds like nothing we’d ever seen before in a game.
And then I skipped MGS2. Much too focused on my GameCube at the time, there were some PS2 games from that 2001-2004 that I only got to later. My brother did play it though, so I was still on the know in regard to the general events. Afterwards, as I went to that friend’s house one day I saw him playing a little of Snake Eater, revitalizing my interest. It looked so outstandingly good, the jungle setting looked so interesting and the 3rd person camera was intriguing, to say the least. MGS3 ended up being my favorite in the series on every front, with the sewer section being so damn enjoyable to me for some reason, and practically every location a blast to go through. And it took me some time to stop calling that giant-ass vehicle the Shadow God instead of Shagohod (almost the same, I say!). I’d also argue this is the peak of the Kojima’s writing prowess and narrative consistency, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Following that, the hype for MGS4 was so real! I had the game pre-ordered – something I wasn’t used to doing at the time – and went to the store at the mall for like 3 straight days because they weren’t sure if they were getting it on that day or the next one. When I finally got to play it I finished the story while my brother watched me play it, then we switched, then we switched again and then we switched yet again! We played the crap out of that game, it’s absurd. As we did so, while the awesome, cool moments didn’t lose those qualities (Raiden’s badassness, the final fistfight, Big Boss), many of its issues became more and more apparent; from the nanomachines and Ocelot’s plan to the approach taken with the BB unit’s backgrounds and the barrage of exposition at the end. At the end of the day, I did have a great playing through it but, alas, the more I think about it the less I think of it.
Kojima’s intention of ending the series after each installment is well documented, but by the interviews leading up to Peace Walker he seemed to be somewhat more motivated, this one almost being the 5th numbered MGS game; well, it still is the fifth game, even if the number is not there. As I said in another occasion, I refused to play it on the PSP. I tried to, but I hated the limitations on the control options and I didn’t want that to ruin my overall perception of the game so I only got to it when the PS3 version became available. It was certainly a lot more playable than when I tried it on the PSP. I did enjoy Kaz’ introduction, his relationship with Snake, as well as some of the secondary characters like Amanda and Strangelove. The Mother Base management played really well into the mythos of Big Boss and there’s something about humming robots that I really like.
But it does so many things that I just downright disliked…the lack of consistency rears its ugly head, with those same robots feeling so out of place in relation to the MGS canon, Huey’s role only served to mirror Snake and Otacon’s relationship and added nothing to this game, and the “mandatory sidequests” to get the last chapter is BS. This is mainly a matter of expectation: as I see it, sidequests should not be mandatory as that’s where much of their appeal come to. Relevant, yes, but not obligatory. Adding to that the need for unclear requirements for the MB to achieve a certain rank and you get an experience the feels confusing, that I just now realized I could’ve written for the Thankful It’s Over topic. Damn it.
My brother bought Ground Zeroes, I watched him play through it, and I just didn’t have the motivation to do so. The lack of David Hayter did play a role in my disinterest, but that’s for another article down the line. I wanted to know where this story was heading, but my belief in Kojima’s abilities had wavered a lot. I know he is a guy who’s able to do amazing stuff, but he’s certainly not foolproof; especially when he wants to do other stuff and finds himself coming back over and over again to the same series over the course of over 20 years. Following Peace Walker and GZ, I was expecting Kojima to not really deliver a satisfying experience, all the while hoping that I was blissfully wrong.
Nonetheless, though my hyper was low I did intend to play The Phantom Pain. And I’m glad I did because that game’s stealth mechanics are outstanding, with a very organic way to adjust the difficulty, thanks to the variety of weapons and the buddy system. Unfortunately, as many of you probably already know, structure and narrative-wise it’s a mess. Holograms and Mechas in 1984 aren’t, by itself, an issue but in MGS’ 1984 they are, because we’ve got 3 games that follow it up with somehow less advanced devices. I couldn’t get through the Sahelanthropus fights without a conflict inside me going “this is so great/this doesn’t fit this game at all!”. The Mother Base felt ridiculously empty, especially because we have the Paz missions that just highlight that even more. And honestly, I don’t have a problem with the big twist itself, I just didn’t like that there was no previous build-up, with the only real explanation for why we should believe it being because Big Boss tells us “he’s one of the very best we have”. Rather weak.
But it has other things I do enjoy. Miller’s arc is very well done; his development and actions make sense (that final conversation is a great setup for the events to follow). Huey’s character and value to the plot is redeemed in my eyes due to him being almost irredeemable: he ends up being one of those examples that I just want to explore and dissect almost. We also got a bit of Silent Hills through the Devil’s House, which is one of the most daunting and oppressive locations I’ve ever seen in a game. And the Shining Lights mission was one of my most emotional moments of last year, truly showing what Kojima is able to do. I’ll also say this: I’d have absolutely no problem believing that the letdown that was Chapter 2 was an intentional way of giving the player phantom pain (like Quiet clearly is) if: (a) it wasn’t full of higher difficulty versions of past missions; (b) we didn’t get an exact repeat of the first mission, with controller prompts and all and (c) if we never knew about mission 51. So yeah, it was most definitely butchered.
All in all, I am glad Kojima is able to move on, try new things and leave this series to rest. He gave us the first three so even if just for that he should be proud.
Speaking of giving us three great games, as far as trilogies go The Curious Village, Pandora’s Box and Lost Future (using EU region titles here folks) are as close to perfect as one can get. They’re probably not your cup of tea (get it?) if you don’t enjoy puzzle games, but in terms of how each games relates to the next, it all works wonderfully. The stakes get raised only so slightly, in a manner that suggests urgency but gives room for the follow-ups to breathe; each situation is set in a somewhat realistic tone, with only a hint of supernatural possibilities; the puzzles go from “hey, how about you solve this that’s totally unrelated to me or my situation” to, well, being more related to the character and/or their circumstances; and it manages all of this while making each game a viable entry point that is perfectly good on its own but gets more interesting when you play the others.
We also have two delightful leads that move it all along and get their own development over the course of these games, leading to one of the most beautiful endings I’ve experienced in a game in Lost Future. Given the success of the series, the idea about doing more games wasn’t farfetched at all, especially when there were stories and relationships to explore: namely how Professor Layton and Luke first met. That’s where the second trilogy (quadrilogy if you consider the movie as well) starts off, giving us both a very good origin story and a lackluster plot, showing many of the issues prequels have to deal with which kept on plaguing the following games.
While plans may have been made for the first games to have sequels and such, these next three really show that they had an overarching plot in mind, which in turn shows that some of the flaws I find with them to be even more flagrant. In Spectre’s Call the plot centers around Luke’s town, where Layton is asked to go solve a mystery. That’s all well and good, until the twist that involves a dinosaur and a last-minute nothing villain that is only relevant after 2 games and a movie. It’s a rather weak resolution, in my opinion, as the previous games seemed to have tried harder to come up with something somewhat sensible for such insane situations (a town under another town is not commonplace, I know) but here the “welp, dinosaurs” didn’t sit well with me. The game did give us a fine telling of the meeting of Layton and Luke, which to me was the most important anyway., even if the rest doesn’t hold up.
With Miracle Mask the series makes its not so smooth transition to 3D with ok-looking models and we another masked villain whose identity had only one possible resolution that anyone could see a mile away but didn’t make sense to be anyone else, although it did have a better setup than Descole, who was back to remember us that he even existed. We also get deeper into Layton’s past, another selling point of the prequel trilogy, finally finding out how he got into archaeology and solving. It’s interesting how he did mostly in memory of his friend and then becomes a complete puzzle addict. I like the story more overall in relation to the Specter’s Call, but besides Layton’s youth and the Azran setup it didn’t feel as relevant.
Speaking of the Azran, time for Level 5 to get the visuals and the graphics perfectly right with the Azran Legacy, along with an unnecessarily convoluted and ludicrous plot. This game takes us all around the world as we try to find the mystery of the Azran civilization the previous two games kept mentioning. I did enjoy this setup, as the variety of environments and possibilities for interactions was handled pretty well. But the payoffs…oh the payoffs. The game ends with a freaking sanctuary floating around, with robots, lasers, life-sucking beams and such. All the realism with a hint of supernatural I enjoyed so much, shot in the face and pushed out of the window.
We also find out Layton’s lineage in full: Descole is actually his brother, Emmy (his new/old assistant is big bad Bronev’s spy, and he is his biological father. My problem with this is that it feels like too much. Since Descole had to have some significance to the entire thing, maybe I’d leave the whole “I’m your father” thing out, for example. Because I like to know character’s backstories but sometimes people just feel the need to leaving nothing to the imagination. Layton is adopted, sure, his brother became an asshole because they got estranged after their parents were abducted, sure. His father going insane after the death of his wife at the hands of the secret agency that he wound up leading is not bad by itself, but just seems too much.
Many of the issues I had with second set of games seem to stem from a sense of trying too hard, doing too much and affecting the quality of the writing. One common problem with prequels has to do with how to make these events seem relevant, without rendering almost meaningless the magnitude of the events to follow. We get dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, flying cities…and it ends up not feeling as tight as what came before.
But I’ll give them this: Layton and Luke are consistently well-written throughout all the games. Like Kazuma Kiryu, Hershel Layton is a character that is, in every aspect of his being, just superbly created, written, designed and acted. And that shows when he faces up with old friends and family turned assholes. Just because these people were once in his life and meant something to him, that doesn’t excuse their actions and certainly doesn’t put them above the people that actually care and mean something to him at the moment, like Luke and his parents. The way he tells Bronev that he is not his father but that maybe they could be colleagues in the field of archaeology, or conversing with Randall about how he must atone for what he had done is simply phenomenal. It’s easy to think of this as Layton being cold or uncaring but it’s the exact opposite – as a true gentleman he knows his priorities, is compassionate towards others but won’t let them harm what matters most to him. So I’ll give you that prequels.
I should thank you for getting this far! There are definitely other series that (unfortunately) fit this bill that I could write about, but I’d say these are the ones that mean the most to me in terms of how I was introduced to them and where they’ve ended up. Maybe I could tell you more some other time, but what about you guys and gals? Are there cases where some series went on too long or in directions where they became something you didn’t enjoy as much? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Thank you for reading and keep being great.