We're probably all familiar with the fact that, sometimes, two games can differ tremendously in quality, yet both be of the same series. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is monstrously frustrating and has a yawn-tastic story for the first 75% of it, while the rest of the games in the KH series (thus far) are terrific fun to play and have gripping and intriguing plots just about from start to finish. Phantasy Star 3 is the gaming equivalent to self-mutilation, while the rest of the series is engaging and original. Wild Arms 3 is a great game in the midst of a series of sorta-kinda-maybe-okay-perhaps-I-guess RPGs. And of course, the Final Fantasy series has its games going all across the board--horrible, incredible, and everything inbetween.
But I don't think I've ever seen quite as stark a contrast between 2 related games as with Lufia and the Fotress of Doom and Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals (1 and 2, respectively). Now, true, I think there is actually one example with an even wider gap in actual game quality, that being the horrendous Grandia 3 when compared to Grandia 1 and 2, but the difference between the Lufias still seems the most pronounced to me.
First of all, the second game just looks and feels a LOT more crisp and clean. Everything is more defined, the general gameplay is a little more streamlined and fast, the music seems to have more effort put into it, and the battle system, while still a far cry from "fun," is at least not nearly so dull, repetitive, sloppy, and demonically frustrating as Lufia 1's. With Lufia 1, the bosses were so stupidly hard that you could not possibly avoid long level-whoring sessions about half a dozen times or more through the game. With Lufia 2, everything is set up efficiently--as long as you battle and kill most or all of the enemies you encounter while just progressing through dungeons and such normally, you should just about always be strong enough to take on the next boss (though there usually is still a decent challenge involved, but that's a good thing). With the exception of optional bosses, like Gades the first time around or the Egg Dragon, I can't think of any point in the game where you're forced to spend hours seeking out random monsters (who in Lufia 1 would often be tough enough to kill you themselves anyway) just to struggle your way to a few extra levels so you can withstand your next boss encounter.
But of course, this isn't something too shocking. I mean, a sequel cleaning up the general grubbiness of the original game is nothing new to video games. What really sets them apart are the plot and characters.
Now, the plot for Lufia 1 basically goes as follows: Unnamed Hero (for this rant, we shall refer to him by the name of Turd) sets out to stop superbeings (Sinistrals) from taking over planet, helped by his magically-inclined petal-plucking obsessive-compulsive tea-making girlfriend Lufia. They do nice things and join up with both canon-fodder (Aguro) and the pedo-tastic half-elf half-Lolita Jerin. Eventually Lufia remembers she's Erim, a bad guy. Later she decides not to be. They kill the Sinistrals and save the world. Lufia has to make some sort of sacrifice, but it apparently only actually involves giving up all her memories besides those of how to make a mean cup of darjeeling. But that's okay, Turd is perfectly willing to settle for a witless girlfriend; surely those memories will grow back someday, like a cancer, right? And if they don't, it's not like he had to work very hard to win her infatuation the first time anyway.
So it's your basic cookie-cutter save-the-world deal with a small additional subplot of a cookie-cutter anime guy-falls-in-love-with-amnesiac-girl-who's-forgotten-that-she's-Satan romance. Neither something new nor interesting.
Lufia 2, on the other hand, adds a little more flavor to your gaming experience. Now, yes, it's still a save-the-world game as before, with the same grumpy deities taking the villain's position. This time around, however, the game adds a little flavor to the plot, making it a more epic battle of not between good and evil, but also free will and destiny, Man against God, that sort of neat philosophical thing. Everything about the game’s events just feels a lot more like a legendary quest of heroism and virtue. Not to mention that the romantic subplot this time around is much, much better, not only in simple terms of the characters interacting better, but also in showing a glimpse at a relationship AFTER the characters hook up, through marriage and childbirth--quite a rarity in an RPG. It’s solid and a welcome way to watch the characters grow and develop.
Speaking of which, the characters also really set the second game apart from the first just as much as the plot. Where Lufia 1 gives you a cast rank with uninteresting mediocrity, Lufia 2 gives you a cast of realistic, unique individuals teaming up for the greater good and actually interacting with each other as friends and sometimes rivals. They’ve all got good personality traits that set them apart from your average breed of questing bums, be it Dekar’s goofy attitude, Selan’s faithful strength, or even just Maxim’s ability to have fun while adventuring without losing his overall serious and strong demeanor. They’re all good characters, and they mesh well with the story, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
So in just about all ways, Lufia 2 is greatly superior to Lufia 1. But what really makes the gap so memorable to me is the length that Lufia 2 goes to in order to connect itself flawlessly to the first game as a prequel. It’s not just a case of one sequel doing its own thing and kinda sorta trying to tie itself to the previous game enough to call itself a sequel, like with Chrono Cross, nor is it just a game in the series completely separate from the previous one(s), like Grandia 3. Lufia 2 plants itself firmly in the same place and timeline as the first game, and actually defines its world, explaining the origins and expanding the knowledge of a ton of details from Lufia 1, from giving a little more explanation to the Sinistrals’ existence, to showing the origins of the flower that Lufia loves so much, to better understanding the nature of the legendary Dual Blade. Lufia 2 does such a complete job of setting up even minute details of its predecessor that it’s almost even worth it to play Lufia 1 just to see all the big and little connections. That, I think, is what really makes these 2 games stand out as being so different from one another--the fact that they’re so strongly connected, with more care than nearly any other RPG series you can find.