What’s more difficult than successfully rebooting a game franchise? Keeping it successfully rebooted.
The reboot: Spy Hunter (2002)
The disappointing follow-ups: Spy Hunter 2 (2003) and Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run
Remaking simplistic 80’s arcade hits as full-blown AAA games is a hit or miss endeavor that tends to miss far more than it hits. However, one of the most surprising reboots of all time was the 2002 version of Spy Hunter. It wisely stuck with a very streamlined approach to its gameplay, which had you constantly moving forward and trying to accomplish various objectives, never backtracking or trying to over-complicate things with a big open world. It was a really enjoyable game and easily one of the most pleasant surprises of its generation, and it felt exactly the way it should have: like playing the original games, only in 3D.
Then they went and made things too complicated for the follow-up, not to mention way too difficult. The first game’s car only had three modes – standard Interceptor, boat, and a motorcycle that you changed into when you were getting low on health. This kept things nice and simple. The sequel added an offroad 4×4 mode and a jetski, the former in particular which just felt out of place. Rather than keeping things moving by only having you worry about going forward, the sequel placed an unnecessary amount of emphasis on enemies attacking you from behind, which just added frustration rather than depth. The game itself also just lacked the polish of its predecessor, with handling issues, AI quirks, and odd glitches like enemies disappearing but continuing to fire at you. I realize the sequel had a new developer and therefore a new engine, but if they had kept things simple and not tried so hard to up an ante that didn’t need upping, they might’ve been able to have a better handle on the final product.
Then The Rock smelled what Spy Hunter was cooking and tried to turn the franchise into a blockbuster movie with game to match, and things really went off the rails. Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run took the action out of the car (groan) for third-person action levels, and the less said about those the better. The actual car sections of the game weren’t much better, either, and that’s the one part of the game they absolutely needed to get right – look how long the Grand Theft Auto series got away with sluggish on-foot sections because the driving portions were fun at least. Movie audiences at least got spared as the film got stuck in a development hell from which it never escaped. If only the same had mercifully happened to the game.
The reboot: Bionic Commando Rearmed
The disappointing follow-ups: Bionic Commando (2009) and Bionic Commando Rearmed 2
So I’m playing a little loose with the rules on this one, as technically the 2009 Bionic Commando game is the “reboot” and Rearmed is essentially just a remake of the original game. But Rearmed did come out first, and it was such a great game that was so undeserving of what its two follow-ups did to tarnish it that it was worth fudging things a bit to mention them all. Rearmed is basically the poster child for the right way to remake a classic game, staying true to much of what made the original great – even keeping the protagonist’s inability to jump defiantly intact – while covering it with beautiful modern-day graphics and just the right amount of self-referential humor. Like with Shadow Complex, it looked the way I used to imagine as a kid that games were going to look in 20 years (before I could conceive of 3D gameplay).
And it was precisely because the game was so good that we all had high hopes for the actual Bionic Commando reboot that was to follow the following year, made by the same team. What we got was overly serious, not particularly fun (which was unforgivable as being “fun” to play has always defined the series), and had a plot twist that was mocked on the level of later M. Night Shyamalan films. Oh, and of course it’s an X360/PS3 game so there’s a completely unnecessary online multiplayer mode that nobody even bothered with and surely took up precious development time and money that would’ve been better spent on the single-player game. How the same developer who so clearly got it with Rearmed yet missed the mark so badly with the reboot is utterly confounding.
Two years later, Capcom tried to redeem the franchise (via a different developer, not surprisingly) with a direct follow-up to Rearmed, which should’ve been a slam-dunk. But Rearmed 2 also missed the mark, first and foremost by letting you jump, which just made the game feel like another standard platformer. Inferior level design, framerate issues, and boss battles that didn’t capitalize on the swing mechanic as effectively as the original just further separated the game from its far better predecessor. A step back in the right direction at least, but still a disappointment, and one that was the last straw for sending the Bionic Commando franchise back into indefinite hibernation.
The reboot: Metroid Prime
The disappointing follow-ups: Metroid Prime 2 and Metroid Prime 3
Nobody thought Metroid was going to work as a “first person shooter,” which we all assumed is what it would be given the game’s perspective. Of course, it ended up working exceedingly well, and Metroid Prime went on to be – and still is – one of the best-reviewed games of all time (and this humble blogger’s personal favorite GameCube title). Despite the POV, the game still felt very much like a true Metroid game, with you – as Samus – navigating desolate alien worlds, only encountering the occasional enemy threat, and keeping the actual mechanics of the game very simple and highly playable, leaving most of the “depth” to just how you use your wits to get around and stay alive.
Then Metroid Prime 2: Echoes went and complicated things (I’m sensing a trend here). Having a light and dark world is a very tricky thing to do effectively in a game, and far too often – as is the case with Echoes – it just ends up making navigating the world needlessly cumbersome as you try and go back and forth between the dimensions – and cumbersome navigation is one thing a Metroid game should definitely lack. That dreaded feeling of hitting a metaphorical wall and not knowing where to go or how to get there happened far too often in Echoes, and that is lethal poison for this type of game. The fact that your health steadily drains in the dark world unless you find and stand in certain designated spots added another unnecessary layer of difficulty to the game, as did finding the game’s Sky Temple Keys, a task which was made far too challenging and only seemed to exist to pad the game’s overall length. There also didn’t seem to be nearly as many save points as the previous game, another thing that felt like a cheap attempt at added difficulty. All that said, Metroid Prime 2 is still a really solid game, easily the best of all of the “disappointing” games on this list, but this isn’t strictly a list of “bad” games; it’s a list of games that felt like a letdown compared to a very strong reboot, and Echoes fits that description despite actually being a solid title overall.
In much the same way, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption isn’t a bad game either by any stretch. It just continued to stray further from what made the first Prime so great, and what had always made the Metroid series in general stand out from most other generic space sci-fi video game fare. Forgiving the overuse of “waggle” and tacked on motion gimmicks since it was an early Wii game after all, Corruption simply went far too heavy on the action and the chatty NPCs. The latter feels like The Last of Us when compared to the embarrassing dialogue and voice acting of Metroid: Other M, but we won’t get into all that now.
The reboot: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
The disappointing follow-up: Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within
Prince of Perisa: The Sands of Time is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, it was that rare game that I knew was going to end up being one of my favorite games of all time while I was still in the middle of playing it. It looked amazing, it played flawlessly, and the rewind mechanic alleviated one of the biggest issues with Tomb Raider-style games of the time: having to restart and replay large chunks of the game because you just barely misjudged a jump. It was a satisfying experience from start to finish, and one that I had almost zero complaints about.
Alas, it didn’t sell very well. And Ubisoft decided that in order to make sure its sequel was a better financial success, they had to make the game darker and grittier. Make the Prince a smug jerk rather than an honorable warrior. Make the levels dank and ugly rather than bright and majestic. Make the music nu-metal, complete with a Godsmack song (not even one of the more tolerable bands of that forgettable genre). Make the battles bloodier and more brutal. Make the main villains sultry women with boobs and asses as big as their clothing is small. Also, just for good measure, make the game less polished and far more glitchy. I can only hope that Ubisoft promptly fired the team of 14 year old boys that they called upon to help design Warrior Within. I’m sure they found a home at Team Ninja.
The reboot: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
The disappointing follow-up: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2
While one can definitely make the case that Lords of Shadow isn’t the evolution of the classic Castlevania formula that they truly wanted, most people agree that it’s a very enjoyable game when judged on its own merits. It is a really well-done hack and slash game with just a bit of Castlevania exploration, outstanding graphics, and a really satisfying atmosphere. And that plot twist! (Spoilers ahead!!) At the end of the game, it is revealed that the character you had been playing as for the entire game is actually Dracula, and you have basically just played his origin story. Pretty damn cool, right? The game also ends with Dracula and Death in modern day, which is where the sequel picks up…and where things fall apart.
Lords of Shadow 2 just seems to do everything wrong. The template was already there to do a really great sequel, even if it would’ve just been more of the same. But for starters, the modern day setting is completely boring, especially for a series that is known for taking place in beautiful Gothic castles and mansions and the like. Second, they decided to incorporate a heavy stealth element to the game, which is already a red flag for 90% of games that try to have a stealth element, but, um…you’re supposed to be friggin’ Dracula. The most badass vampire of them all, and one of the nastiest antagonists in the history of fiction in general. And you’re sneaking around avoiding your enemies? Not only that, but if you get jammed up you can also transform into a rat – no, that’s not a typo that should’ve read “bat,” your primary animal transformation is as a rat – and sneak around as the lowliest of rodents. The issues don’t end there, though. What little bit of exploration – another Castlevania hallmark – exists is rendered completely meaningless by the fact that the next place you have to go is always marked by a screeching ball of bats (oh, there’s the bats), that you can both see and hear, like an arrow pointed at your destination that not only flashes, but loudly yells “over here! over here!” repeatedly. Perhaps worst of all, they managed the rare feat of actually making the game look worse than its predecessor – something that almost never happens in video game sequels and is usually the one thing you can count in as a game series goes on: the games look progressively better – which is made even harder to forgive when considered how late in the PS3/X360’s lifespan this game came, when AAA games should be looking as impressive as ever.
It’s hard to imagine things going this badly for a series in just a single installment, especially one where such solid groundwork was already laid, but such is the story with LoS2. And I won’t even get into the spin-off game Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate, which promised a new 2D Castlevania – rejoice! – but ended up giving us basically a watered down Lords of Shadow that forces you into an awkward side-scrolling perspective. No no no no no. Come back, Iga. We need you.