Sequels used to mean something. They were the promise of a genuinely fresh re-imagining of my dearest gaming experiences. Now they feel more like a chance to tinker with marketing and demographics, rather than something to stretch mind and dexterity in unexpected directions.
It's no bad thing that successful games win bigger-budget renderings of their ideas. But I wonder if the pressure of establishing a franchise means that opportunities are being missed. This up-scaling of ideas, by its nature, doesn't allow space to take risks with divergent ideas.
Of course, this has been precipitated by the recent Crackdown sequel. The first game took me completely by surprise. I simply hadn't expected there to be such a pulsating sense of imagination and fun beneath the cel shaded veneer. Sure, at times it felt cobbled together with string and brown paper, but the creativity shone through. And I was more than happy to forgive the bugs for all the opportunistic fun. It was a game with real heart.
Crackdown 2 is a chance to revisit all of this, but without the spark of imagination that made the original so appealing. It's a good, solid game, an adequate sequel by most standards, but there are no surprises. Playing the game for the first time with friends, I felt a bit stupid for pinning so much hope on what Crackdown 2 could be. My fantastical imaginings of an experience that embraced the co-op horseplay and self imposed challenges outstripped what the game delivered.
I accept that iteration rather than invention is not always a bad thing. I can appreciate how much grander Assassin's Creed II is compared to the first game. The cinematic moments made my spine tingle, and its scope was awe inspiring. And each iteration of Halo brought enough to the table to make the experience feel fresh again.
But if you come to these experiences shortly after finishing the previous games, there aren't many surprises here. Sequels used to be a glory box of previously unimaginable encounters in a world where you had spent plenty of time before. I miss the moment of coming back to a familiar game, to be floored by new ideas that make me re-evaluate how to play the game and even what sort of game it is. I know that this is all part of the gaming ecosystem. It's the nature of the mass market. But when games were more of a niche pursuit we expected much more from a sequel.
I played Bubble Bobble to death. Something about the platforming simplicity of the chain reactions, air currents and intricately triggered bonuses created an experience for me unlike any other. There was a world of tricks and secrets to learn as people established their pecking order on the machine at our local arcade.
Then, much to my horror, one day the machine was wheeled away. In its place was Rainbow Islands. Sure, this was obviously still a platform game, but it was so different to the first game it took me a while to realize it was a sequel. Levels were now traversed from top to bottom. The aim was to get to the goal rather than kill all the enemies. But perhaps most confusing was the entirely new weapon at Bob and Bub's disposal.
This risky new play mechanic worked, and I took the leap into this new world. As I played the family heritage was clear. The same structured Rainbow enhancements matched the distance, speed and multiple Bubble power-ups. The same cavernous world of bonuses lay in wait to be discovered by conscientious players. And the same steady creep of difficulty kept us coming back again and again.