The first time I felt this dizzy, uncertain panic was with Ultima VIII. I was then, and remain still, an unabashed Ultima whore. The series had its own wobbly missteps before this point (dinosaurs in Savage Empire, "plantamals" in Martian Dreams), but it wasn't until the seventh official sequel to the series that I felt like I was lost in the throes of some sour fever dream. "Where's my party?" I thought. No Iolo? Shamino? Dupre? Nary a glimpse of Britannia? The game had changed so much and disposed of so many of the series' staples that it was barely recognizable as an Ultima game at all.
A game sequel like Ultima VIII feels like a kind of intimate betrayal, a treachery against you personally. The twist-of-the-knife in terms of Ultima VIII (and its even more confusing follow-up, Ultima IX) is that the whole thing was festooned with bugs and, frankly, not very good when it was working correctly.
Thing is, a game doesn't need to be bad for it to still feel like a betrayal. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a critically-acclaimed best-selling iteration in the series, yet its departure from the main character of Solid Snake raised a lot of hackles (and the game still ends up on a lot of "Most Disappointing Sequels" lists). Deus Ex: Invisible War practically defined the phrase "dumbing down for consoles," and yet still works as a pretty great game in and of itself. Yet both of these games feel somehow disloyal, both to the games that preceded them and to the players that bought them.
In this author's not-so-humble opinion, the recently-released Dragon Age 2 is a game so worth loving that to be caught cradling the disc with one's pants down would not earn shame but rather, the understanding nods of passersby. And yet, many negative reviews cite the lack of a consistent set of characters between games as well as the far more personal and ultimately less epic storyline. With Dragon Age 2, BioWare chose not to go with a "more of the same" approach and, as a result, some fans cocked a suspicious eyebrow.
So, what to do? How to avoid the feelings of treachery and instability? Is there a way to do "different" that doesn't lead into "danger?" Or is that a path that leads inevitably toward Sonic the Hedgehog syndrome, where the original magic is forever lost beneath the stampeding blue feet of a thousand bizarre-o sequels?
It's totally possible. Of course it is. We all know that it is.
We know it because we've seen it. Fallout 3 barely resembles its predecessors, what with the first-person perspective and the transition from the dusty browns of Western America to the moldy greens and grays of the Eastern seaboard Capitol Wasteland. Metroid Prime is miles apart from the side-scrolling shooter it once was, yet still remains a vaunted and beloved entry into the canon. And ye gods and little fishes, how many times has Mario reinvented himself? Paper Mario? Super Mario Galaxy? Mario Kart? Star Nipples III: Mario's Revenge?
Mmmokay, yeah, maybe not that last one.