Design Issues in Games: Sequels


Video games have for a long time have had sequels to successful games. If the first game was popular enough, there frequently are sequels to continue the series in order to add more to the story and/or continue the adventures of our favorite video game characters. However, not all games in the same series are created equal. In many cases, sequels are worse than their predecessors. Unlike movie sequels, however, a fair number of video game sequels are better than the original. What allows this to happen? Today, I will look at the many facets of video game sequels, and go over why one might like one iteration over another within the same game series.

The first thing to go over with video game sequels, (or perhaps, sequels in general) are expectations. Players know what they expect in a sequel after playing the first game. Here are the main expectations from a sequel a player may have:

  • Players, for the most part, expect the game’s sequel to play in a similar fashion to the original game.
  • That the next game is as good as or ideally better than the first game.
  • Lastly, players expect something to be different or new in the sequel, so they aren’t playing the same exact game over and over, especially in a long series of games.

These expectations can sometimes be unrealistic, and are often something the player isn’t actively aware of until the sequel breaks these expectations, either in a good way, or in a bad way. For example, the expectation that the sequel plays the same as the first game and the expectation that something is new or different in the sequel may clash with each other. How can the next game be familiar enough that players know they will like the game before purchasing, but be different enough that the experience isn’t stale?

There isn’t a completely universal answer to this question. It may be better to go over some examples before covering a general way to make a good sequel. There are many examples of good and bad sequels in games. Some early video game sequels actually struggled with early expectations from players, and created something that wasn’t liked by most fans, at least in comparison to other installments in a series of games. Here are a few examples:

  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Zelda II: The Adventures of Link
  • Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest

Each of the above played differently from their predecessors, and weren’t appreciated as much as other games in the series. (I haven’t played Castlevania 2, but have heard much about its obscure puzzles and game play changes that didn’t sit well with players).

Super Mario Bros. 2 was an odd case, though. The game that was originally going to be Super Mario Bros. 2 was later renamed Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels, a game that played almost identically to Super Mario Bros., but was much harder. The Lost Levels was more of a level design experiment using Super Mario Bros’s game assets. After seeing that The Lost Levels was too hard for an american audience, Nintendo decided to change another game into a Mario game.

This game became Super Mario Bros. 2, and looked and played quite differently from the first Super Mario Bros. Instead of jumping on enemies to defeat them like in Super Mario Bros., the player has to pick up enemies or vegetables and throw them at enemies to get rid of them. Super Mario Bros. 2 also had a health meter instead of basing the number of hits Mario has left on what power up Mario has. The enemies and scenery had a different look to them too. Super Mario Bros. 2 also allows you to choose from 4 characters to play as before entering each level.

The end result was a game different from its predecessor, and even though it was a relatively fun game in its own right, Super Mario Bros. 2 was thought of as the black sheep of the series, at least at the time. (I personally like the game, and think that despite its differences, it has aged reasonably well.) This is an example of one sequel that broke player expectations, and it didn’t quite pay off. It was considered too different, and wasn’t what many thought of as being what a Mario game should be.

Zelda II was an odd installment in the Zelda series. It wasn’t what fans wanted, and doesn’t hold up too well today either.

Zelda II had similar issues. The game was top down, but turned into a 2D sidescroller when encountering enemies. There were also experience points and magic spells to learn. In addition, that player had three lives to complete the game with. These changes also made players feel that the game wasn’t quite a Legend of Zelda game, and is many player’s least favorite entry in the series (not counting the Philips CD-i games). My personal opinion here is that Zelda II suffers from a lot of issues that a lot of challenging Nintendo Entertainment System game had at the time, and the changes mean it doesn’t fit with the rest of the series. With some improvements, it could have been a good game, just not a familiar style of Zelda game.

Now for some examples of good sequels in gaming:

  • Mega Man 2
  • Sonic 2
  • Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Mega Man 2 was a case of a similar game to the original but it added more content, and had more refined game play and level design. Instead of having six bosses to fight, there were eight. There were more power ups, and the scoring system was removed, plus there were the normal and hard difficulties to play the game in. Mega Man 2 is still a favorite game in the Mega Man series, despite its similarities to the original. Actually, it should be noted that most Mega Man games play too similarly to the first game, and the series got old for following the same formula. Only a few Mega Man games stand out in a sea of similar games, and Mega Man 2 was among them.

Sonic 2 was also similar to the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, but felt better than the original. There was a new spin dash that made it easier to move through the game, and the introduction of Tails kept things interesting. The game was somewhat easier in a good way (I haven’t had the chance to finish Sonic 2 by the way, but got to the final boss, yet didn’t beat him. I couldn’t get that far in first Sonic game). Most of the rest of Sonic 2 built up from the original. It should be noted that many sonic games released after the Sega Genesis games were considered bad games, possibly due to there being too many games, or for Sonic games not translating well in his 3D games. Many Sonic games also had strange game play experiments, such as making Sonic become a “werehog” in night levels in Sonic Unleashed.

Donkey Kong Country 2 was also similar to the previous game. The most notable difference was that Donkey Kong wasn’t playable, but most of the game had a good blend of new level design, and some new game play additions.

I would also like to mention sequels in RPGs. RPGs have their own issues that make direct sequels hard to make. Here are some common issues with using the same characters in an RPG sequel:

  • Characters grow stronger in a concrete way in RPGs. Levels, equipment, items, spells and so forth can vary by the end of the game.
  • If you use the same characters, how do you accommodate the player variation in the power and items acquired in the first game?
  • Will enemies have to be stronger?
  • Will the level cap be higher?
  • Will new powers be added so there is something new to gain through the game?
  • After defeating one world threatening monster at the end of the first game, where does the story go to introduce a new yet equal (or stronger) threat?

A common solution to this is to create an RPG sequel that has much of the same game play as the first, and to feature different characters, and often different worlds (or a different continent in the same world that was inaccessible in the first game). It may even be the same world, but in a different era. This way there can be changes to the formula, without having to address the above issues that continuing the story may bring.

Here are some RPGs series whose sequels have no (or limited) continuity with each other:

  • Final Fantasy (there are a few direct sequels in this series, including Final Fantasy X-2).
  • Dragon Quest (some games feature some connections to each other, often being in the same world, but different era).
  • Breath of Fire
  • Shining Force
  • Fire Emblem (this series has a fair number of games in the same world, and a few games with the same characters. There usually aren’t more than two games related to each other in this series. Sometimes, it is done in a subtle way too.)

Then there are some RPGs that do have continuity with each other, with varying results:

  • Golden Sun
  • Final Fantasy IV (The direct sequel was Final Fantasy IV: The After Years)
  • Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn

Golden Sun features both good ways and bad ways to create direct RPG sequels. Golden Sun: The Lost Age allowed you to transfer data from the first game, including levels and inventory for when the characters in the first game join the characters in the second. This occurs late in the game, so if the player over leveled in the first game, it wouldn’t make most of the second game too easy. The story also continued where the first one left off, so it didn’t take long to get up to speed.

This game is a good example of a direct sequel for and RPG.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, (the third game in the series) on the other hand, had more game design issues that got in the way of it being a good game. It takes place 30 years in the future, and stars new characters (some of them children of the first two games’ heroes). The world’s landscape changed in that time due to the events of the previous game, so that the game world wasn’t just a recreation of the first two games. Unfortunately, the game’s story interfered with its game play, and wasn’t all that good, which would ruin a game, regardless of whether it was a sequel or not.

I didn’t like Final Fantasy IV: The After Years or Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn either, mostly due to game play issues. Final Fantasy IV: The After Years had a convoluted plot, and had episodic content (in its original version). Meanwhile, Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn had a confusing plot, and forced the player to switch between three armies (one being a little too weak for the tasks at hand). There were some continuity issues here too, such as why could certain characters use different weapons in the new game.

It seems that most good sequels add some new content, (in many cases, new actions) on the foundation of the previous game. At the same time, sequels shouldn’t be too similar to each other, especially if they are released too closely to each other. The key is to add improvements that increase player engagement. There isn’t a magic solution for this for every type of game. For RPGs, making a completely new game with some similarities to its predecessors seems optimal. For many other sequels adding features and modifying the level design if the sequel is meant be the same genre as the earlier games is the way to go.

In the end, sequels are inevitable in the realm of video games. They help to sustain the game industry and build customer loyalty. Each good sequel gives an example of how a game can change (or improve) without discarding too many familiar elements. Each bad sequel can be a lesson of what shouldn’t be done when continuing a series. Not all games in a series are as fun as the next, but some new ideas still come from these experiences, adding to the developer’s toolkit and enables them to learn what works, and what doesn’t.

This concludes my analysis on video game sequels. What is your favorite sequel? Least favorite? What did these games do right or wrong? Is there a sequel you liked that others didn’t? Let me know all this and why in the comments below!



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