The Series

The Series: Pokemon

Seems like I've been talking about Pokemon a lot lately. "Pokemania" came at a very formative time for me. I'd given up on Power Rangers and Super Hero cartoons and other things that were "for kids" and was trying to get into the things that were popular with my peers. I had a very very sports focused group of peers from kindergarten to 6th grade, many of which ended up being on the varsity teams when I got to high school, and very few who were willing to talk about Batman or Spider-Man since they were for nerds. But when Pokemon hit it was all encompassing, and I was right at the forefront of it, with the cards the cartoon and everything. After a year or two though, Pokemania started to die down. The cartoon was always stupid, but I realized how stupid as I got older, and Wizard of the Coast, responsible for publishing the Pokemon Card Game, hit a bit of a snag with the Japanese publisher, causing the 4th set to be long delayed. The huge fad that was Pokemon slowly started to die, and it took me with it. However, there is one part of Pokemon that has always been near and dear to my heart. The games.
The video I've spoken of that got me into Pokemon in the first place was sure to extol every virtue the series had.  Including of course, the games that started the franchise in the first place.  I was so hooked I started saving up for a Gameboy right away.  Luckily for me, one of my neighbors was selling his old beat up brick of a Gameboy at a garage sale, and after some more saving, Pokemon Red and Blue were mine.  I had the Blue version, but for Christmas that year my brother got a Gameboy Pocket and Red.

I talk about my own experience a lot on this blog, but I find with the Pokemon games, its hard to say what's great about them that I haven't talked about in my bigger posts about Pokemon already.  It appeals to gamers that want to collect, to gamers that want to level up, and to gamers that just want to complete a game.  The combat if incredibly slow by modern standards, and the user interface has issues, but both are still serviceable today.  It's very important to note how much what makes the Pokemon games what they are was there at the beginning, learning new moves as you level up, items that let a Pokemon learn new moves, moves that can be used both in combat and to interact with the environment, an "evil" team of Pokemon trainers to serve as antagonists, very powerful Pokemon that are unique in the game and must be found by solving some sort of puzzle, it's all there.  That they fit all of that on a single little Gameboy cart still astounds me, but it couldn't be done perfectly, and one of the most interesting parts of Red/Blue to me is the number of glitches.

For those of you that never played the original Pokemon games, there were a huge number of glitches, some of which were only discovered years after the games were released and people had moved on.  Two things stand out about these glitches.  First of all, they were relatively benign.  While reports exist of Save Files being deleted by them, that never happened to me or anyone I knew, and some minor data did get corrupted, but nothing useful, just some of the records.  Second, you had to go out of your way to encounter them.  Most of them were easy to replicate, but the steps required would almost never be taken by mistake.  They were more like complicated cheat codes than real glitches in some cases, allowing for infinite items and to copy Pokemon and they added some mystery to the game.  Something you could share with friends that might not know, to give them a little edge.

It was a mere two years before Pokemon got a proper sequel in Pokemon Gold and Silver.  Today that might actually seem like a short time frame, but as a kid, seeing little things leaked like Togepi on the cartoon and "Pikablue" sometimes made it seem like the game was in development for decades.  When it finally did come out though, it was the perfect sequel.  100 new Pokemon, most of which were designed just as well as the originals, two new types of Pokemon to help reign in the dominance of the psychic type, tons of new moves, gender, breeding, the list of features added was huge.  The glitches were tightened as well, though a couple still existed, they were much harder to preform, and caused no problems with data loss.  I think the most impressive thing however was the games reverse compatibility.  You could trade your old Pokemon from the older games forward to the new version, and in fact some Pokemon could only be obtained in this way, adding to their uniqueness.  In addition, once the first part of the game was complete, you unlocked the old island of Pokemon Red and Blue, which had advanced in interesting ways, and made the game more than twice as long as the older version.  Pokemon Gold held the distinction of the game I'd spent the most time in from the time I was 12 until I was 17, and I still don't feel like I got everything I could out of it.  It's a rare example of a sequel that added everything you could want and more, without messing anything up.

While people were clamoring for a "real" console release from Pokemon, Nintendo didn't go that way for their next release, deciding to keep Pokemon where it had always been successful, on their handheld consoles.  So with the Game Boy Advance came two more Pokemon games Ruby and Sapphire.  Unfortunately, these games had a huge hill to climb.  Gold and Silver had perfected the User Interface, added more features then anyone could have expected and doubled the length of the game.  Ruby and Sapphire took advantage of the GBA's greater power to improve the graphics quite a bit, but Nintendo games and Pokemon have always been about game play.  Pokemon Contests were added as an alternate way to compete in the games, but they were optional and battles were still the game's center point.

So what did they add besides pretty graphics?  Well, they completely redid the way Pokemon are coded.  This let them add in things like "natures" personalities for Pokemon that effected their stats, as well as adding "Abilities" passive powers individual Pokemon had to give them a bit more personality.  While a neat idea this came at a cost, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire were not compatible with previous versions.  In addition, in order to spotlight the new Pokemon, the developers decided not to include the majority of the older Pokemon, introducing only a handful.  While it was a bold idea, it made the game feel smaller over all.  They only had one are to explore and a fraction of the Pokemon.  While Ruby and Sapphire are great games, they don't have the grandeur of Pokemon Gold and Silver, and I can't help but feel it was a step back.  While I've said I still feel there's plenty for me to find in Pokemon Gold, I've completed Sapphire twice and I pretty much feel done with it.

If Ruby and Sapphire were a step back, then the next installment was a step to the side.  With a huge number of beloved Pokemon removed from the games and the catch phrase "Gotta Catch 'em All" made impossible rumors began to circulate about remade versions of the classic games.  Rumors that proved true when Fire Red and Leaf Green were announced.  Remakes of Red and Blue, FR and LG had the various glitches removed, the Pokemon reworked to match those in Ruby and Sapphire, and some new content added to go through after the game was completed, along with the much needed User Interface improvements that Gold and Silver got and a spattering of new Pokemon from the games released sense.  While it's easy to critique anything for being a simple remake, Red and Blue really show their age, and I'm quite glad to have updated versions.  If you've never played a Pokemon game, I sincerely recommend you start here, the games have everything that made Pokemon great with most of what made it frustrating stripped out.

They couldn't do simple remakes forever however, and soon after the Nintendo DS was released, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl followed.  To be honest however, I've never completed either game, never even got more than about half way through before completing one of them.  They continue to be great games, and I like to think I'm saving Pearl, Black, and Black 2 for a rainy day when I've got nothing to do, a treat on the horizon.  However, new Pokemon have seem a little uninspired since Ruby and Sapphire.  That's not universally true, every generation has a couple of standouts, but most animals and legends have already been adapted at least once.  The first 151 Pokemon all seemed unique and interesting, and the next 100 were a great expansion upon them, but every gen since has had filler, and Pokemon that seem to just be there to feel roles like "Bird" or "Vermin" or "Starters".  At the same time, no Pokemon game has seen the shear number of improvements that Pokemon Gold and Silver saw, and the series has stagnated a bit.

One of Nintendo's big upcoming games for the year is Pokemon X and Y.  I havn't been paying too much attention to it, since I still have three generations of Pokemon games to go through first, but what do they need to do in order to recapture my interest?  I think going to 3d environments is actually a big step forward.  People have always wanted a "true console Pokemon game" and that's a big part of what they want.  I think the two major keys however are in the Pokemon and the singe player experience.  I've only seen the three starters so far, which look passable, the fox starter stands out, since there are plenty of kitsune legends to draw inspiration from.  Sure, Ninetails fills that already, but that's a Pokemon from the original days and there's plenty of room for a new spin on that theme.  Time will tell if the new Pokemon can capture the imagination the same way the originals did.  Second, they need to take a page from Pokemon Gold and add more to do in the single player stuff.  Optional stuff like contests are cool, but they're nothing compared to the whole extra world that Gold let you explore.  Something beyond battling Gym Leaders and gangsters is what the game really needs.

Still, despite my advice, I think the biggest problem with new Pokemon games is how great the old ones still are.  Every time I go to play my copy of Pearl, I ask myself why I don't just fire up Fire Red or Heart Gold instead.  It's always a question I have trouble answering, not because Pearl is worse then those old games, but because they've truly stood the test of time.  If I have kids, there are certain things important enough to me that I want them shared with him, and Pokemon Fire Red is at the top of the list, as far as video games are concerned.

The Series: Sequels

Videogame sequels are ubiquitous in our day and age.  Honestly, their ubiquity is almost as old as I am.  In my initial video game collection, gained entirely from my aunt in one large chunk, I had Super Mario Bros. 3, GI Joe 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and 2 different Batman games. Three of those admittedly are parts of multimedia franchises.  The Batman games weren’t related to each other at all, and both GI Joe and TMNT were sequels made by different companies than the originals, with a much higher level of quality.  Higher quality is the key there; sometimes a sequel can far outshine the original, but today they're seen by some as artless cash ins, attempts to remake the same game over and over.  So today I ask, why do we have so many sequels, and is this really a bad thing?

Super Mario, to me and I’m sure many other people in the 80s and 90s, and maybe even today, was the video game character.  He was the franchise.  And when I started playing video games, he already had three games out, with a fourth out quickly after.  In the case of Mario, Mega Man and Sonic though, it could be said that companies were trying to take the games and make a multibillion dollar crossmedia franchise.  Sonic and Mario both had multiple cartoons, and Mario even had a live action movie it was so popular.  There are other advantages to sequels as well though.  An audience for the first game is already there, and if they’re loyal, eager for more game to play.  It lets programmers take the lessons they learned making the first game, and do a second one better.  It lets level designers be a bit more creative, since they have an audience that might forgive them for a few odd ideas.  It also might give artists a break, Mega Man didn’t really change in appearance for his first five games, though there were plenty of robot masters and backgrounds to draw.

As technology started to advance though, and more and more videogames flooded the market, standards became higher.  Super Mario may have been a trend setter in this regard, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a completely different game than the first one, and 3 really upped the ante with better graphics, new power ups and a map screen that let you see the world and levels to come.  Super Mario Bros. 4, released as Super Mario World in North America leveraged the power of the Super Nintendo, and while it didn’t add anything to three that was revolutionary, the revised look combined with all the little things 16 bits could do made the game seem amazing.

Thus games became more spread out.  There was only one other “true” Mario game on the Super Nintendo, which featured you playing as Yoshi.  Instead, many spin offs were made, including Mario Kart, which was good enough it became a series on its own.  The Nintendo 64 had only one real Mario game, and the spin offs dominated, bringing us such great games as Mario Party and Mario Tennis.  For a while there, franchises really died down.  Final Fantasy got to absurd numbers, and none of them really died, but a lot like Metroid sort of relapsed.  This is in part due to 3D, some games like Mario adapted brilliantly, others like Mega Man were good, but lost a lot of core fans, and others like Sonic just couldn’t seem to get it right.  Also, 3D graphics are a lot more expensive and time consuming then 2D graphics, which meant that games took longer to develop, and needed to make more money in order to be profitable.

3D sure as hell sold games though.  It’s funny, going back to early Nintendo 64 games, the graphics are terrible, to the point where they can be some times hard to play.  The first time I went back to play Ocarina of Time after I’d played Game Cube games, I couldn’t believe how poor the graphics were in comparison to my memory of them.  “Better graphics” became an easy way to compete though, after all, you didn’t need good ideas for them, just talented artists and time to let them draw pretty things.  If Mortal Kombat proved anything, it was that a game's look could sell just fine even if quality game play wasn’t quite there.  So as hardware became capable of running better and better looking games, more and more money was spent to make them.  At the same time, these games started to get shorter, less game meant less art, which meant the time and money could be spent on making the current art assets better.

The problems with this model are many.  For one thing, you’re paying the same amount of money for “less” game.  You can argue that the game is more dense, artistically speaking, but whether or not it's more dense game play wise can often vary wildly.  Second, you hit a point where you can’t make the game any shorter, and the price to develop the game just keeps going up and up.  Since the price of videogames is already very high, you can’t raise that, and have to sell more and more copies in order to make a game profitable.  This heavily limits the risks you can take.  Which is why we have things like Call of Duty coming out every year.  Call of Duty was a popular game, CoD 4 had new and interesting mechanics, a multiplayer mode that was good enough to make it almost infinitely replayable, and word of mouth that made it sell well.  Upping the schedule to making one a year was like printing money.  Unfortunately, this means there’s more crunch on things, developers don’t have the time to think up new ideas, let alone test them to see if they work.  And implementing new things has the risk of scaring off customers, which makes the money not worth it from a business perspective.

Unfortunately, we’re hitting the point where even this is costing too much money.  Tomb Raider (2013) sold more copies than any other Tomb Raider game in history.  But it didn’t make the money back that was spent on development.  The obvious problem here, is why would anyone give a game a budget that was in excess of previous games' total income?  But if you think about it a little more, if you don’t give a game more money, how is it supposed to improve?  It’s sort of a catch 22, where we can either have safe business models (which get less safe every release) or innovative new games that may not sell even as well as the first.

The obvious exception to this problem is indie games, and while whatever points you have about them are probably right, they’re out of the scope of this article.  The ultimate question is, are video game sequels bad?  And the answer is, of course not.  It’s just easy to slap together an artless sequel to something that’s made a lot of money and rely on the fans to continue supporting it.  While I hope every Call of Duty game will result in plummeting sales, the audience that wants more of them is obviously there, just like I’m there every launch day for Zelda and Mario.  Is there really a difference?  Well, while lots of people complain about Zelda and Mario being the same game over and over again since 1985, I’ve never really seen the fans complaining.  Usually, we either are happy with what we get, or complain they’re not enough like older games.  I have seen some CoD fans starting to grate at the release schedule though, so maybe?

After all this negativity and doom and gloom speak, I think I need to write something that will make me happy, so next time on The Series, I’ll take on a game franchise that I think I’ve spent more hours in then any other, and can never remember complaining about.  Next month, Pokemon.

The Series: Navalgazing about what a Series is

Unlike my cohort’s ramblings, I intend to write monthly columns, and post each one on Friday afternoon.  While the first column of every month will be The Ratings, a deeper look back on the games we played the month before.  The second Friday of every week will be a column called The Series.  What will I be posting on other Fridays?  Well you’ll have to read and find out!

The Series will be about a particular series of videogames, chosen by me, which may relate to something we’ve played on the podcast, like Super Mario Bros., or it may be something much newer I feel like talking about like Naruto Ultimate Ninja.  I’ll take a look at the various games within the series I’ve played, admit to the ones I’ve missed, and try to make excuses for that, and talk about the changes made to each game, which ones worked, which ones didn’t which were genius, and which killed the franchise.  For series I’ve followed along with such as The Legend of Zelda, I’ll also talk about the changes going on in gaming around the time, and why certain ones were likely made.  For series I’m just now coming to and observing from the outside, like Mega Man, I’ll speculate wildly about why decisions were made, and merely focus on whether they worked or not.

Since this is the first week, I’m going to instead talk about what makes a series, and why sequels are so prevalent in Video Games, even compared to industries like movies.  First and foremost, for the purposes of this article, I’m defining a series as any sequence of games with similar titles and intents with at least three games in it.  That’s perhaps a little vague, so I’ll go a bit more in depth.  Obviously, I want there to be at least three games within the series.  A series is different then a game that has a sequel.  Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are both great games, but there are only two of them, so I don’t count them.  You could argue that there are many older Batman games to connect them to, but they clearly differ in intent, being old side scrollers and fighting games. 

That said I don’t want a change in developers to “Break” the streak of a series.  The Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons were both produced by Capcom instead of Nintendo, but the intent of the games is clearly the same.  On the other hand, while Mario Kart and Mario Party share Mario in the title, the intent of those games is clearly different, and separate from the Mario franchise as a whole.  I also don’t want storyline to be a factor, as Final Fantasy II is clearly in the same series as Final Fantasy X, despite the stories having almost nothing to do with each other.  Title is also insufficient, since Naruto: Clash of Ninja and Naruto: Ultimate Ninja, while both fighting games based on the popular Naruto anime series, have very different mechanics and were made to be competing games.

So now that we’ve equivocated on a term for two whole paragraphs, why are series so frequent in videogames?  Before the Nintendo Entertainment System, they were actually pretty rare.  Ms. Pacman is sort of a sequel to Pacman, obviously they were made to appeal to the same people, but it’s almost just an update to the original Pacman rule set.  This began to change with the NES.  Super Mario was not only a video game character; he became a marketing platform, with a cartoon and everything.  The same happened to Mega Man.  Suddenly you had lunch boxes, action figures, and in Mario’s case even a (terrible) live action movie.  But the thing that started it was a videogame, making more seemed obvious.

While Nintendo of Japan was quick to bring out Super Mario Bros. 2, less then one year after the first, Nintendo of America hesitated.  The common legend is that they felt the game was “too hard” for a American audiences, and if you’ve ever played Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels you can’t help but imagine that was a factor.  But more then that, as videogames were becoming more and more complex; Nintendo of America felt that people wanted more from the next Mario game then just more levels.  In addition, they had a game called Doki Doki Panic that they simply did not know how to market.  The solution?  Paint over the sprites in that game with Mario sprites and sell it as Super Mario Bros. 2.  While in the modern era, they’d be billed as charlatans trying to cash in on a successful brand, in a world without the internet, Super Mario Bros. 2 looked more vibrant and colorful then the original, with more playable characters and new enemies, and while it’s sometimes seen as the black sheep of the family, it’s still one of the most popular games in the franchise today, and elements such as the Shy Guys and Birdo have migrated over to the series proper. 

After that, the Mario series proper became an innovator with its games.  Super Mario Bros. 3 brought us the map screen, as well as adding some inventory options to Mario, though it was hardly the first game with these, as well as the Raccoon suit, which allowed you to fly over the entire level.  Super Mario World can in some ways be seen as just a more colorful remake of Super Mario Bros. 3, but added in Yoshi and some of the series best enemies.  Super Mario 64 is the first truly great game to use 3d, and many of the subtle things it did are still found in games today.  The marketing side of Mario was spun off into great games like Mario Kart and Mario Tennis, and while they’re sometimes decried as a cash in, they’re clearly made with love. 

That doesn’t explain why sequels are so popular now though.  Clearly Call of Duty doesn’t have a cartoon, and I’ll shoot myself if I find they’re making a live action movie.  Well, in the old days, a video game could be made by a single guy given enough time.  As technology improved, it became reasonable to hire a guy to do all the art, and another to do music, while you had two or three programmers and a “director” to make sure everything was coming together nicely.  As graphics got better, you needed more artists and more coders.  As levels got bigger and expectations grew you needed more.  As story started to become more important, you needed a few writers.  As dialog grew in importance, you needed more, and with voice acting, you of course needed actors.  The price of the average videogame has simply spiraled out of control.  You need to sell a ton of units to make back what you put into a game.  Trying something new is risky.  Trying to sell a sequel is quite safe.

This is starting to run long, and thus I’ll end things here.  Next month, I’ll continue to talk about why sequels are safe, why we see so many of them, and ultimately if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the industry.