Throughout gaming history, sequels have been a controversial constant. Ever since the countless variations of Pong were released on the first generation of consoles, every game with any sort of success or quality had\s either received a sequel or has a fanbase that desperately wants one. Despite their omnipresence in the lists of the best-selling and highest-rated games, there is a sense of bitterness towards sequels in the gaming community.
The domination of sequels is treated as an inherently bad thing. Sequels are expected to jump through hoops just to be appreciated as much as new IPs and even the sequels that meet those higher goals are viewed on some level as part of the problem. I think this is completely unfair and a serious problem in the gaming community that is hurting good developers and ultimately reducing the quality of the games we receive. In this article, I am going to do my best to defend both the concept and execution of video game sequels.
To appreciate video game sequels, we must first separate them from the preconceived notions that equate them with sequels in other mediums. The medium people most often compare them to is film; there are many reasons why this is a bad idea and should be stopped. Movies are story-based; stories tend to have endings and trying to continue a story after it has reached its end often means contradicting and trivializing the original ending. Even if the first movie in a series leaves an opening to continue, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and there are few advantages from a quality perspective.
Video game sequels are completely different. The emphasis on gameplay means that there is no defined end to the series. Mario appearing in games consistently for decades on end is nothing like trying to make Citizen Kane 25. It is instead closer to characters like Mickey Mouse and Superman continuing to appear in episodic formats, free to reinvent themselves whenever needed. Gameplay is also something that is much easier to decisively improve. Making a story that is objectively better than another is nearly impossible, but improving a game’s interface, controls, or length is as close to objective as anything relating to quality can be. The restrictions in storytelling can be a strength, allowing the developers to focus on making the gameplay the best it can be.
Defending video game sequels may not be something that will rally the entire gaming community behind me, but I don’t believe it’s an explosively controversial opinion. I’m not going to yell at readers about their personal opinions, but I believe that there is a bias in video game journalism. Marking games down solely for being sequels is unethical and practically lying to readers, especially when admitting that it’s better than its predecessor or simply punishing its developer for making a game that is felt to be “beneath” them.
This isn’t just unfair to the developers — it is unfair to the public, who are at the disadvantage of being unable to play the game as the same time as reviewers. That opportunity is a responsibility, as well as a privilege; reviewers’ statements regarding a game’s quality before their audience can form a solid opinion mean that reviewers should not let personal grievances affect their judgment. They may certainly mention if they feel a game is unusually similar to its predecessor, but it should remain up to the reader if that is a bad thing. Carving a game’s supposed inferiority into stone — or Metacritic — due to it being better than its predecessor isn’t right.
I’m not saying that every sequel that surpasses its predecessor deserves a 10, but if a reviewer dislikes a popular game, it should be because of the game itself, not the sole fact that it resembles its predecessor. Even if the score for the original is higher than its superior sequel due to its innovation, making the reviewer overlook flaws in the series at the time, I can live with it, as long as the reviewer is honest about the original score being too high rather than blaming the sequel for simply being a sequel.
There are also a few arguments used against sequels within the gaming community that I feel have to stop. The one I find the most annoying and hypocritical is when they’re derided for being “safe.” Now, the problem should be obvious with a newly revealed game — such as Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze — being torn to shreds if it isn’t in the series in demand or doesn’t demonstrate enough innovation in a ninety-second trailer. It could be argued that it’s actually safer to announce a game with a vaguely pre-rendered trailer and promises of new features that might not be realized in the final product. However, choosing to focus on improving an existing formula is a valid choice and, even if you disagree with that, it absolutely cannot be called playing it safe these days.
Another argument that is very closely tied to the “safe” debate is the ever popular accusation of rehashing. They are so similar that I’m not certain there is even a need to separate them, but I believe that reviews should make their best effort to distance themselves from the context surrounding a game’s release. Review scores are almost always permanent and, with the Internet, finding older reviews is very easy. When you look back on a series in hindsight, the rehash factor fades away almost completely and all that really matters is how fun a game is and how well it is designed.
While requesting that a new release’s review be completely removed from the gaming climate it is written in isn’t reasonable, I think not being quick to label sequels as rehashes would be a good step in the right direction. A claim typically attached to this one is that a sequel doesn’t have the same “feel” or “magic” as previous games in the series isn’t taken very seriously by me, since they’re vaguely defined concepts. The “magic” or “soul” form a catch-22 with the “playing it safe” criticism and therefore, should never factor in to how a sequel is rated by a reviewer.
I would like to clarify that I am not suggesting that sequels are automatically better than new IPs. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and game development is far too complex for either scenario to be an automatic benefit or insurmountable obstacle. I have minimized the mention of specific games that I feel have been treated unfairly because it is very easy for arguments about quality to overwhelm any discussion about judging games in general.
Despite how easy it is to accuse a complaint of just being angry that the game they liked wasn’t praised enough, I do not think it is beneficial to deny the possibility of bias in reviews or the gaming community. I have done my best to explain why sequels are currently treated unfairly on an individual and conceptual basis and, while you are free to disagree, I ask that people do not begin with an assumption that a complaint is petty or itself biased. Being unfairly dismissive does not just hurt developers — it hurts gamers in both what they play and what is made available to them in the future.