How do you make a sequel that’s not a sequel? Easy, you “reboot” the franchise. Reboots offer you the chance to draw in a new audience while at the same time still cashing-in on the existing reputation of the brand. Within the next few months, we’re going to see iconic gaming franchises like Devil May Cry and Tomb Raider get reboots, and while it’s debatable whether these series’ needed reboots, they’re happening whether you like them or not, and companies will probably continue to reboot old series’ until they run out of franchises (at which point, they’ll start rebooting their reboots.) Personally, I think DmC and the new Tomb Raider could go either way, and despite what some fanboys on the internet may tell you, reboots aren’t always a bad thing.
If there’s one thing nerds don’t handle well, it’s change. Even if those changes result in an arguably better game: just check the internet and you’ll still find fanboys complaining about the changes that Resident Evil 4 made to the series, or people that refuse to play any new Halo or Street Fighter games because they’re not exactly the same as the games that they grew up with. Reboots, by their very nature, bring a lot of change to their franchises, and obviously, a lot of fanboys aren’t going to be okay with that.
But let’s ignore those people for a second and look at things objectively: different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I mean, if every series stuck to the formula established by it’s earliest releases, we would’ve never seen innovative sequels like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I’ve already posted a few rants about this subject, but here’s the tl;dr version: there’s a big difference between “bad” and “different, but still good.” Change is exactly what a lot of long running series’ need in order to stay fresh and relevant.
As with anything else, there are good and bad reboots. The good ones always manage to do two things: they introduce new ideas and changes to the series that make it feel new again, while at the same time retaining the key elements that made the original games worth playing. It’s a hard balance to achieve, and only a few franchises have successfully pulled it off. With that idea in mind, I thought I’d highlight 5 games which provide a good template for how to judge a successful reboot:
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
The original 2D Prince of Persia came out when I was just a kid, so my memories of it are kind of hazy, but there are two elements of it that I remember distinctly: the game’s incredibly smooth rotoscoped animation was one of the most amazing things I had seen at the time, and the game also involved dying. A lot. The dungeon the Prince was trapped in was filled with lots of instant kill traps and tough jumps, so my grade-school self didn’t do much in the game besides watch the Prince get killed a dozen different ways.
The 2003 PoP reboot may not have anything to do with the original games in terms of story, but it certainly retains those two key aspects of the original game: the Prince in Sands of Time animates with a level of fluidity and grace that was unheard of in 2003, and like his 2D predecessor, this Prince spends a lot of his time dying. Thankfully, the Sands of Time added a new innovation to the series: instead of just simply dying and restarting every time you missed a jump or fell prey to some trap that you didn’t see coming, the Prince could rewind time by a few seconds at a time and change his fate. The Prince’s ability to alter time made avoiding the castle’s traps and surmounting it’s obstacles more of a clever puzzle rather than a test of patience that relied on trial-and-error. It was a brilliant change that made what could have been a frustrating game into a fun challenge that rewarded experimentation and out-of-the-box thinking.
Punishing difficulty aside, the original 2D Prince of Persia was one of the best platformers of its day, and likewise, the rebooted Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was one of the best games of its generation as well. It translated all the key elements of the original while introducing new ideas and changes that made the overall experience better, and even today, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stands as an example of how to properly modernize a classic franchise.
Tomb Raider: Legend
I never really got into the classic Tomb Raider games. They came out at a time when I was just starting my awkward teenage years, so you’d think puberty would’ve motivated me to spend more time with Lara Croft (god knows every guy my age spent an inordinate amount of time trying to snag the camera is a position that would give them a perfect view of Lara’s low-poly ta-ta’s,) but the game’s awkward controls and claustrophobic environments just never clicked with me.
While the original game and it’s first sequel were something of a media phenomenon when they were originally released, the series quickly spiraled into obsolescence as Eidos and developer Core Design quickly pumped out a number of samey, forgettable sequels on a nearly yearly basis. While other 3D games were evolving thanks to innovations like analog controls, smarter camera systems, and bigger worlds, Tomb Raider stayed the same, and after awhile, people got tired of it. By the time the final game in the original Tomb Raider continuity, 2003’s Angel of Darkness, came out, the series was generally regarded as pure, undiluted crap by many jaded critics and gamers alike.
Eventually, Eidos made the wise decision to take Tomb Raider away from Core Design and give the folks at Crystal Dynamics (then best known for their work on the Gex and Legacy of Kain series’,) a shot at making Lara relevant again. The team at Crystal Dynamics made a game that had the same premise as the original games — a hot girl spelunking her way through a number of dangerous ruins and natural settings — but abandoned the archaic, tired gameplay of the old games. Lara now moved with the grace and agility that she was always supposed to have, combat was quicker, and the environments were larger, more detailed, and had a bigger emphasis on exploration.
Crystal Dynamics managed to pull off quite the feat when they rebooted Tomb Raider: the new game felt true to the themes of the original game while at the same time possessing gameplay that felt completely mechanically different (and better) from the games that came before it. It set a formula for “realistic” platforming and action that later games like Uncharted would co-opt with aplomb, and it made Lara Croft relevant again.
Of course, Square-Enix (who purchased Eidos a few years back,) is planning to reboot Tomb Raider once again early next year. It’s arguable whether the series really needed to be rebooted twice within the same decade, but the new game does look like it has the potential to revolutionize the series the way that Tomb Raider Legend did.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
A lot of hardcore Castlevania fanboys seem to hate this game, and I can’t really think of any legitimate reasons why. Sure, it’s not developed by the traditional Castlevania team headed up by veteran producer Koji Igarashi, and the game does away with the non-linear, Metroid style progression, but despite all that, it’s a very polished, very fun action game in its own right.
Before Symphony of the Night, Castlevania games were pretty much linear action games with light platforming elements, and that’s exactly what Lords of Shadow is, albeit in 3D. It almost feels like a 3D translation of the original 8 and 16 bit Castlevanias, and if you look at it that way, it’s almost more true to the classic spirit of the series than some of the more recent, Japanese developed entries in the series were.
Of course, Lords of Shadows borrows a lot from God of War and Devil May Cry, but hey, if you’re going to create a third person action game, those aren’t bad places to draw inspiration from. It’s unique Light/Dark magic system gave Castlevania a unique risk/reward system that helped it differentiate itself from GoW, and the game’s brutal difficulty definitely made me recall how difficult the original Castlevania felt when I first I played it as a kid. Lords of Shadow may not look or sound like previous Castlevania games, but look past its western veneer and you’ll find plenty of the same old-school challenge and hardcore appeal that made the original 2D games classics.
Speaking of hard games, here’s one of the most unapologetically hard (some would say cheap) games of all time: Ninja Gaiden. The original 2D platformer for NES was one of the hardest games on that system (and that’s actually saying something,) and I know more than one kid who broke his NES controller after attempting the infamous Stage 6-2 for the billionth time:
In many ways, Ninja Gaiden was sort of the Dark Souls of its day: if you were good at this game, that meant you were truly hardcore (well, as hardcore as a grade-schooler in the late 80’s could be, anyway.) Ninja Gaiden was one of the 8-bit era’s most beloved games, but for some reason Tecmo decided to neglect the series as the industry transitioned into the 16-bit generation.
For awhile, it seemed like Ninja Gaiden fans would simply have to make due with NG protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s cameo appearances in Dead or Alive, but thankfully, DoA developer Team Ninja finally gave Ryu a second chance to play the lead when they decided to reboot Ninja Gaiden in 2004. The new Ninja Gaiden reboot sported fancy new graphics (the original Xbox version of the game is still pretty impressive, even to this day,) and added in some of Team Ninja’s trademark style (read: boobs, everywhere,) but it retained the old school challenge level that made the original games so infamous.
Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden built off of the action formula that Capcom’s Devil May Cry established, blending that game’s trademark stylish action with the brutal, unforgiving difficulty of the original NES game. Every enemy, even the basic cannon-fodder ninjas you meet during the game’s tutorial level, are capable of taking down Ryu within a few hits. On both NES and Xbox, Ninja Gaiden is a game where you have to be at the top of your game from beginning to end. With Ninja Gaiden, Team Ninja showed that it’s possible to blend modern aesthetics with old-school game design.
That “3” at the end of the title might lead you to believe that Doom 3 is a sequel, but make no mistake, this is a complete and total reboot of the Doom franchise. The story was reset (not that anyone really cared about the Doom story line in the first place,) and the gameplay evolved beyond the simple corridor-shooter formula of the original Doom games.
Like the original games, Doom 3 is set on a demon-infested base on Mars. Now, the first person genre had evolved a lot in the time between Doom 2 and 3, and iD’s reboot incorporates a lot of the innovations that Half-Life brought to genre: the way the game’s story is presented takes a lot of obvious cues from Valve’s revolutionary adventure, and the game shifts focus away from the mindless, arcadey action of the original Doom games (not that there’s anything wrong with mindless, arcadey action,) towards something closer to Half-Life’s quiet, moody tension and creepy atmosphere.
Still, despite the shift in tone and the increased focus on story, there are still plenty of elements that still make Doom 3 feel like a proper Doom game: the game (at least in it’s first half) isn’t as focused on balls-to-the-wall action as the original game was, but when the demons start appearing en masse, the game’s combat still has the quick, brutal pace of the original games: enemies always go down with an intensely satisfying “crunch,” and the BFG is just as impressive as it always was. Doom 3 spends a lot of its time trying to scare you and immerse you into it’s hard sci-fi/horror story, but at the end of the day, it still delivers on giving you the simple satisfaction of blowing something up really good.