One of my fondest childhood memories occurred on May 24, 1980, when my father took me and my brother to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was the first weekend of its release, and to claim that the theater was packed is like saying that Donald Trump has a few bucks lying around; entertainment wasn’t as ubiquitous back then as it is today, so if you were too young to remember, or simply weren’t around yet, permit me to testify that Empire wasn’t just a movie — it was a big-huge effin’ cultural event, amplified by the fact that there were no advance ticket sales, no Fandango, no Passbook, and no midnight screenings. There wasn’t even Moviefone; if you wanted to see a movie with the social clout of The Empire Strikes Back, you bought a newspaper, looked up the starting times, got in line early (which wrapped twice around the theater that Saturday in Levittown), and took your chances. Hey, there might still be tickets available by the time you dragged your tired ass to the window, and there might not — life right on the edge, that’s just how we rolled in the early eight-ohs.
While the memory of that afternoon has stayed with me for thirty-three years, and the cumulative experience was wonderful, there was one element of the whole affair that left me slightly dissatisfied: the movie itself. Now, before you blow a gungan and have me excommunicated from the holy whatever, realize that today I consider Empire the best of both trilogies, but what my ten-year-old self couldn’t appreciate at the time was how bad the other four movies were going to be. (Hindsight. How you doin‘?) When compared to A New Hope, Empire had little going for it in terms of story structure — there’s no real plot to speak of, and the ending is steeped in the worst kind of manipulative ambiguity, which might have been just fine for the weekly serials of the ’30s and ’40s, but which sucked sweaty bantha balls when you had to wait three years for any kind of resolution. Sure, I was captivated by the action, the imagery, and even the score, but I couldn’t shake the (at the time) undefinable notion that there was something missing; as such, Empire served as my introduction to the concept that sequels in any medium rarely measure up to the standards set by their predecessors.
Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes a sequel smacks the original material about the head and body with heavy Force-tossed objects until said material is sucked out a window, lands on a gantry, and wails like a dying tauntaun when it hears the truth about its paternal lineage. The following games are prime examples of this principle at work.
Behold, five sequels that have learned much, and are indeed full of surprises:
Fable II (Xbox 360, 2008) The original Fable was a good game with some drawbacks, chief among which were the inability to choose the player character’s gender at the outset of the adventure, the claustrophobic level design, and the somewhat clumsy combat. Fable II changed all of that; the player character was fully customizable, right down to the equipment inside the pants, for which you could now choose the color. (Of the pants. Not the equipment.) The levels were larger, the combat was much more fluid, and it introduced an in-game economy that paid you even while you weren’t playing. Many of the improvements can be attributed to the fact that Fable II appeared on the Xbox 360 instead of the original Xbox, but others — like the combat and the gender issue — were console-independent design decisions.
Fable II remains the best RPG that I’ve played in terms of investing players in their own personal narrative within the game’s story, including decisions ranging in scope from metaphysics (sword, magic, or ranged weapons); politics (how much do you charge for rent, you cad?); aesthetics (purple bell-bottoms with a lime-green peasant blouse? Why not!); and ethics (live and let live, or kill ’em all, let Dog sort ’em out). Also, the fact that I can play as a buxom, axe-wielding female blacksmith with sky-blue thigh-high boots doesn’t hurt one bit.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, PC, 2005) Wow. You, sir, are a mouthful. Not only is Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory the only game on my list that isn’t the second in a series or pair, it’s also the only game on the list for which the title is almost a story in itself. While Chaos Theory shares its nomenclatural verbosity with its immediate predecessor — Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow — that’s about all it shares; Chaos Theory was the first game in the series to eschew the dictatorial tendencies of its ancestors and give players a much wider array of options in dealing with objectives and enemy encounters.
Gone are the elements of forced repetition that plagued the first two games, as accidentally setting off an alarm in Chaos Theory no longer results in a “mission failed” notice. (There’s even a tongue-in-cheek reference to this maddening practice early in the game.) As a result of this design change, the gameplay is much more open in terms of player agency and control than it ever was before, therefore it never feels as though the game is playing you, instead of the other way around, as was the case with the previous games. Also, the fact that Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory is by far the best-looking game on the original Xbox doesn’t hurt one bit.
Spider-Man 2 (Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, 2004) Certainly the question on everyone’s mind at this point must be “Is Spider-Man 2 (the game) a sequel to Spider-Man (the game), which was released in April of 2002 on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube as a tie-in to Spider-Man (the movie)? Or is it merely a tie-in to Spider-Man 2 (the movie), which was released in the summer of 2004, which would make Spider-Man 2 (the game) a sequel only by association with Spider-Man 2 (the movie), which turns out to be a movie that is, in fact, a sequel?” And of course the answer is yes!
Spider-Man 2 was frequently referred to as “Grand Theft Auto meets Spider-Man” or some other inane nonsense — at the time, any game that took place in an open world and offered activities outside the main quest was inevitably and nauseatingly compared to GTA III and Vice City, and with Spider-Man 2 that’s kind of a shame — as if its greatest achievement is a nonessential similarity to two games with which it has absolutely nothing else in common. Spider-Man 2 remains the best example of what a movie tie-in and/or sequel should be able to accomplish; as a tie-in it could stand firmly on its own, without the movie, and as a sequel it improved on its predecessor in every possible way. The annoying camera from Spider-Man: The Movie: The Game? Gone. The indoor levels that were impossible to navigate because of said camera? Gone. Miles of simulated Manhattan skyline from which to initiate loads of web-slinging, crook-bashing, balloon-retrieving wholesomeness? You know it. Also, the fact that Spider-Man 2 sports gallons more Bruce Campbell than the previous game doesn’t hurt one bit.
Assassin’s Creed II (XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, 2009) Sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly what makes a sequel better than its predecessor, but with Assassin’s Creed 2, it’s easy: the setting. Choosing between Italy during the Renaissance or the Middle East during the Crusades comes down to a check-please, I’ll-have-what-she’s-having, no-brainer for me, thanks very much — I’ve been to both Italy and the Middle East, so once again please accept my testimony; Assassin’s Creed II was so effective at depicting the imagery of southern Italy that it evoked the scent of stone pines and cypresses fifteen years after I’d last been there, a feat which no other game — including the original Assassin’s Creed — has accomplished with its setting.
It’s not merely a matter of naturalism trumping gameplay in Assassin’s Creed II, because the entire game could serve as an exercise in how to make a sequel BSF than its progenitor — the levels are larger, with more activities and side-quests; once mastered, the combat mechanics are intuitive and bracingly effective; it uses historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Lucrezia Borgia as both sympathetic and antagonistic characters to broaden the scope and scale of the narrative; and it offers a hearty amount of character customization. Also, the fact that Assassin’s Creed II puts you inside (and outside, and on top of) landmarks such as il Colosseo doesn’t hurt one bit.
Dark Cloud 2 (PlayStation 2, 2003) In May of 2001, Dark Cloud became the PlayStation 2’s first ray of sunshine in its dark winter of post-launch discontent, which lasted from October of 2000 until June of 2001. Dark Cloud was a quirky hack-and-slash action-RPG with a frustrating-as-hell weapon maintenance system that, if you weren’t careful, could render your favorite sword permanently broken. As in, forever. Thank you, no.
Much like Fable II, Dark Cloud 2 kept everything that worked in the original game, tossed everything that didn’t, then threw in some new stuff like cel-shaded textures, upgraded polygon counts, a moving score, a playable companion character, an upgradeable mech named Steve, and fishing. Developer Level-5 changed the weapon maintenance system so that broken weapons simply no longer function instead of disappearing altogether, making them fully repairable with the proper resources. Since the game’s role-playing elements revolve entirely around the weapons instead of the characters, this change more than any other is responsible for making Dark Cloud 2 so compulsively playable, as hours upon hours of careful weapon development are never wasted by a momentary lapse in attention to a sword or wrench’s condition gauge. Also, the fact that Dark Cloud 2 is intimidatingly large, with my first full playthrough clocking in at just over 100 hours, doesn’t hurt one bit.
It Is the Future You See
By the time that Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, the Star Wars furor had died down a bit; sure, Jedi was still a fairly big deal, but most kids my age had found various distractions in the intervening three years, so it grew more and more difficult with each passing moment to care about what happened to Han Solo or who was whose father. (And to be perfectly honest, the gold bikini did little for me.)
While the prequel trilogy didn’t alter my long-standing semi-axiom that sequels will ultimately disappoint, with the examples of the aforementioned games as a precedent, and with the next Star Wars movie being directed by J. J. Abrams, you might say that I’ve got…well, you know.