Friday, December 8, 2017

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels

You know something? The RPG genre has an unusual lucky streak when it comes to sequels, when you think about it. I mean, with most mediums of expression, the first sequel is a tricky business. Sure, sometimes you pull off a Catching Fire, and your second book’s just as good as your first. Sure, sometimes you pull off an Empire Strikes Back, and your second movie’s not only a perfect continuation of your first, but even, arguably, a little better. And sure, sometimes you even pull off a Terminator 2, and your second movie’s actually really fucking incredible even though its predecessor was only so-so.*

But for every Catching Fire, there’s a Purgatorio.** For every Empire Strikes Back, there’s 5 Pirates of the Caribbean 2s. And, sadly, for every Terminator 2, there’s like, I dunno, at least 20 The Rats of Nimh 2s.*** While some sequels can live up to expectations or even rise above, more of them end up being superfluous, or disappointing, or a truly horrible black stain on a once laudable and beloved name.

Except, it seems to me, in the world of RPGs. Oh, sure, there are plenty of cases with this genre in which the sequel was a bad idea (Valkyrie Profile 2), or a fine (perhaps even necessary) idea that’s just not handled well (Xenosaga 2), or a godawful abomination which proves that we went wrong somewhere as a species (Final Fantasy 10-2). By no means am I saying that bad RPG sequels don’t exist. Hell, I'm not sure you could even have SquareEnix if bad RPG sequels weren't a thing; they may just be the most signature trait of the company. But I am saying that there seems to be a much higher rate of success for direct sequels in the RPG world than in most other genres and art forms. More often, it seems, you get a game that fully lives up to its predecessor’s expectations (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2), improves upon the source material (Arc the Lad 2), or even just wildly exceeds expectations (Grandia 2). Hell, even some of the disappointing sequels in RPG Land sort of don’t even qualify as bad sequels--I maintain that though Deus Ex 2 and Alundra 2 don’t compare to the originals, they’re nonetheless still decent RPGs when judged strictly by their own merits, for example.

And that’s just talking about direct sequels. When you look at franchises which last 3 installments or longer...well, sometimes you get lucky, and you get a Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and all 3 (or more) movies are worth seeing. But most often, series can’t sustain themselves for long past the second installment (if they can even manage that), and the longer they go, the less chance that they’ll pull off something particularly good in a later title. Unless the madman at the helm finally sells his franchise that he’s completely sunk to someone who can actually manage to do something decent with it *PRETEND-COUGH-BECAUSE-IT- DOESN’T-ACTUALLY-WORK-IN-TEXT* George Lucas *COUGH*.

But with RPGs? You can have be like 15 installments into a franchise and still have a good chance of finding a gem like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hell, the best games of the Legend of Zelda series are all later titles in its history! Yeah, sometimes the third game in an RPG series will crash and burn in a horrible spectacle, like Grandia 3 or Shadow Hearts 3...but then again, the third title in an RPG series has a pretty decent chance of being the best of the franchise yet, like Star Ocean 3 and Wild Arms 3. I mean, I want you to just think for a moment, think really hard, and answer me this: what other form of entertainment media can you think of in which it’s not unusual for the best installment in a series to be its seventh title, like with RPGs’ Pokemon Moon and Sun? Its eighth (Dragon Quest)? Its ninth (Final Fantasy)?

And for that matter, how many non-RPG series are there to be found in which the quality can stay pretty consistently high for so many titles? Fire Emblem’s had 14 numbered titles, and having played FE games from a spattering of places in its lifetime (1, 4, 7, 9, and 14, so far), I’m led to believe that it’s stayed pretty decent from start to current day. Fallout’s on its fifth main, canon title now, and each canon part of the series has been just plain excellent, and so consistently so that 3 of its titles occupy the same area of my Greatest RPG list, with the other 2 titles only barely having missed making the list as well. And hell, you want consistent quality over a ridiculous number of different titles, you need look no further than Shin Megami Tensei. It’s, what, the second biggest RPG series on the planet now? Well over 30 titles, still frequently churning them out, and Atlus is managing to nonetheless keep the quality high--SMT4-2 was a strong RPG, and I hear almost nothing but great things about this year’s SMT Persona 5. You let me know what other genre of entertainment can show an example that’s 30+ installments into its series and still manage to be intellectually gripping, philosophically significant, and emotionally compelling.

Lastly, I feel like RPGs also have an above-average tendency to have a shitty start to their series, which is then turned around by a great sequel. Sure, it happens outside of RPGs, too--I was very excited by the prospect of DC actually turning their shit-show around and building a proper cinematic universe after Wonder Woman proved that they can make a movie that isn’t the film equivalent of rectal cancer (too bad we instead got the Justice League movie that's currently violating theaters)--but again, I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it does with RPGs. Star Ocean 1 and 2 were crap, but Star Ocean 3 was actually pretty darned decent. Lufia 1 is excessively boring, while Lufia 2 is an absolute classic. Tales of Phantasia was pretty dull and generic in spite of having some promising plot foundations, but later installments like Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss**** are terrific.

At any rate, I suppose I could be wrong, and my perspective is skewed on the matter. I do eat, breathe, and crap RPGs,***** after all. I may be a leeeeettle bit biased on this. Still, looking over all the RPG sequels and franchises I’ve played, I can’t help but feel that the whole sequel experience has been unusually positive for the genre.

* Come at me, fanboys.

** Come at me, lit professors.

*** Come at me, absolutely no one in the entire fucking world.

**** Come at me, Ecclesiastes. Er, again.

***** Hey, Kemco! I'm still waiting for the royalty check for all the times you fished something out of my toilet and published it, you know!


  1. Sequels and further follow-ups allow for refinement and escalation of ideas that were rough in the initial game, so I'd expect subsequent games to usually be of higher quality. Usually when a sequel has problems, it's because it features ideas that were held back to the game's benefit, or rough enough to be interpreted more charitably.

    Valkyrie Profile 2 is weird in that it's a direct sequel that takes place in a time before the first game. It raises the question of whether this undoes the first game, but seeing as the final state of VP2's world can't exist without VP1 happening(time travel is generally a troublesome idea for fiction), I doubt revisionism was the intent. More like they wanted to go balls to the wall ambitious with the setting like Chrono Cross, albeit with less cocaine. Plus, VP1 had already set up some things happening in Dipan's past with the gods.

    Honestly, Tales of the Abyss may have a supremely idiotic plot and some of the worst in-game justifications I've ever seen in a game(I can't maneuver troops, I'm just a General, tee hee), but considering the franchise it's in, it's not bad at all, moreso if you can accept that there are a lot of people who are paid to do things they aren't good at, like writing for RPGs. Just look at Tales of Filler Arc Symphonia and its religious adherence to being an anime. The villain faction is pretty much Spastic Pokémon Villain Team plus 4000 years of death camps because you're still salty you were oppressed 4000 years ago. Wouldn't be surprised if some prophet foretold the Desians and just said "fuck it, kill 'em all". Abyss also doesn't have the reality-warping problem that is Kratos. He took 4000 years to decide not to be Himmler. My problem with TotA also ends with the storyline. The gameplay is amazing, and this is a game first and foremost.

    I will say Tales of Xillia is a better game, and that's with Xillia being literally two thirds of a game.

    Anime was still a mistake. I'm digging a trench on that point.

  2. How different is the Catching Fire book from the movie? All I remember from the movie was that almost every scene consisted of people crying. Naturally I never watched the third movie. Some other examples of perfect movie sequels include The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Toy Story 2, both of which I would consider just as amazing as the first movies if not even more so. And then there's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is light-years ahead of The Motionless Picture.

    I'd also like to add DBZ Legacy of Goku 1 being one of the worst games I've ever played, and Legacy of Goku 2 being a stark improvement in literally every area. And to a lesser extent, Kingdom Hearts 2 is better than the first game (especially if we're talking Final Mix versions) too bad the series fell off a cliff afterwards.

  3. Pretty much no one would say Purgatorio (or Paradiso, for that matter) is better than Inferno, but my issue with what you said is that Purgatorio isn't a sequel. Dante wrote a single poem, the Divine Comedy, that has three parts, none of which was originally printed (or written, to be more accurate, since the oldest edition is a manuscript) as individual parts, the way Lord of the Rings was, for example. The poem is more of a case of an individual work where the first third is much better than the later two thirds; I can't think of a good RPG equivalent for this.

    1. Hm. Yeah, I do suppose you're right on that. Although I did specifically contrast it to Catching Fire, which is also less a sequel than a continuation...but that's kinda quibbling over details and a flimsy excuse even in its own right; the fact is that the overall generalization that it's a sequel is implied by the rant, and it's a mistake on my part. I concede my error.

      Well, I can sure as hell think of an equivalent: Xenosaga. Xenosaga 1 was an actually good sci-fi RPG that created huge narrative potential for a series, and the series as a whole was always planned to be a complete, multi-part entity, drafted up and ready for print from Day 1. But Xenosaga 2 was a garbage-carrying train wreck, and Xenosaga 3 was a garbage-carrying train wreck in the midst of a meteor shower. So there is something.