Right now, somewhere in the world, a Sony fan is telling his 360-loving friend, “God of War: Ascension looks awesome! Best game of 2013, guaranteed!”. In fact, I was told something to this effect just the other day. From what I’ve heard of the game, it sounds pretty good, and why wouldn’t it be? After all, the original was one of the finest games on PS2, and the sequel was probably the aging console’s last big hit after the launch of PS3. Even the PSP’s Chains of Olympus was superb, bringing all the action to the small screen with controls that were, in some ways, better than it’s large screen counterparts. Yes, each game in the franchise has been an improvement over the one that came before it. Or have they?
You see, God of War was fairly original when it launched back in 2005. Sure, we had seen modern 3D action games before, like Devil May Cry, and Ninja Gaiden, but Sony’s game combined a good story with some kick-ass action and great cinematic gameplay elements, ending up with a something that felt unique. Discovering how to effectively use Kratos’ Blades of Chaos took time to learn and produced great satisfaction every time you unlocked something new or mastered another of his deadly combos. By the end of the game you had evolved into a whirling dervish of bad-guy decimation, not just because you had powered up your character, but because of all the tricks and techniques you had picked up along the journey.
God of War 2 came out in 2007. By all accounts it was better than the original. It had new magic, more combos, and a greater number of big boss fights, adding to the cinematic elements of the game. There was just one thing: It felt very familiar to me, having played the first one so much, so the thrill of discovering something new and slowly mastering it was gone. Right from the start I knew how to use Kratos’ weapons, and which combos were effective in which situations. There may have been a few more of them now, but the basic fighting techniques remained the same. Therefore, God of War 2 didn’t provide nearly as much fun as the original, despite its improvements.
The point I’m trying to make really has nothing to do with God of War; I just used that as an example. It applies to every game franchise out there. I’ve noticed, over the years, that sequels are rarely among my favorite games, and I get a lot more excited to read about a brand new title than the follow-up to another. The reason for this should be fairly obvious: I find that the biggest thrill of playing video games comes from getting better at something I’ve never done before, whether that be mastering new fighting techniques, discovering how to effectively carve down a mountain, or learning how to play virtual guitar. Doing any of these things a second time around is never as much fun as the first time, as I know what to expect, and I’m already fairly good at it.
There’s an age-old argument about which game is better: Streets of Rage 1 or 2. I’ve heard this debate many times over the years, in person, and on podcasts. Let’s put this argument to bed right now. Everyone who said SOR2 was better, you’re right. It had more characters to choose from, better level design, and vastly-improved special moves. However, for anyone who played the games when they first came out (like me), SOR1 will always be the best, as it was a unique console experience at the time. Maybe some of this is tied to nostalgia, but what’s wrong with that? I think this is the same reason so many people claim that Final Fantasy VII is the best title in that series, as for those who didn’t grow up with Nintendo consoles, it was their first experience with Japanese RPGs, so can’t be topped.
It’s only when a company decides to completely re-start a franchise, such as with Resident Evil 4, that a sequel can truly rise above the original. Because this game was so far removed from those that came before, it required learning entirely new techniques, and wasn’t simply a case of carrying over skills from earlier titles. This is the reason why so many people were a bit disappointed when they first saw RE5: It may have had better graphics than RE4 and could be played in co-op, but it still looked like something we’d done before, so wasn’t as classic as it’s predecessor, in the long run.
So what this all comes down to is: Sequels may often be better than the originals, but not to those who played the first ones when they were new. I’ve heard plenty of cool things about God of War: Ascension, and I’m sure that it will be the ultimate game in the series so far, but unless they completely change the gameplay (which I doubt), I just don’t think it will be quite as amazing as some people are imagining. Swinging around Kratos’ Blades of Chaos in full stereoscopic 3D, with an improved combat and weapon system sounds great, but in the end, I have a feeling that much of the game will feel very familiar. Maybe I’ll get a little more excited as the release draws closer, but I still don’t think I’d be looking forward to it as much as some of the completely new games that are scheduled this year, such as Sound Shapes or Dishonored.
In the end, the question of sequels’ superiority of inferiority comes partly down to individual preference, and can’t be answered definitively. We shouldn’t expect developers to re-invent franchises every couple of years, and fans of the series probably wouldn’t like it if they did, but for me, the thrill of discovering something new will always beat the old and familiar. I still look forward to follow-ups when a great game comes out, but the original is usually the one I remember with the most fondness.