By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
There have been a lot of franchise rivalries in video game history, where entire series go head-to-head for many installments/years–sometimes decades. In most cases, the better franchise also contains the best overall game, as Mario does over Sonic, Final Fantasy does over Dragon Quest, and Halo does over Killzone. However, there are times when one series may be better than another as a whole, even though the “lesser” series happens to have the best overall game between the two franchises. Here are ten such examples of such an anomaly.
Lifetime achievement: Forza
There is no denying Gran Turismo‘s contributions to the genre of racing sims. But the high barrier of entry doesn’t make GT the most accessible series around, which isn’t helped by the franchise’s rather cold, clinical presentation. Forza proved that a series can be both highly technical and absurdly realistic, but also still be approachable by more than just the hardest of the hardcore racing enthusiasts. Forza doesn’t mind actually teaching you how to drive better, rather than GT which basically just assumes you’re already a pro. And GT, while certainly not a boring series, tends to take itself a little too seriously, whereas Forza just feels a bit more warm and fun. It’s debatable whether it is fair to include the Forza Horizon games in this match up, but if they are fair game, then there is certainly no contest as to which is the better franchise.
Best solo performance: Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec
With all that being said, Gran Turismo 3, the franchise’s PS2 debut, remains the pinnacle of console racing sims. It isn’t quite as pretty as modern HD racers, but that’s about the only major criticism of the game. GT3 is so good that the franchise has struggled to top it, and still hasn’t come remotely close to doing so–nor have any of the Forza games.
Lifetime achievement: Virtua Fighter
Tekken has outlasted Virtua Fighter and been much more prolific, but the five core VF games and their various spin-offs represent the purest, most satisfying (non-weapons-based) 3D fighting in video game history. Emphasizing largely realistic martial artistry over fireballs, and not resorting to the stunt casting of robots, pandas, and tree people, VF has resisted giving into flash and stayed focused on substance. Had VF not been tied to the weaker-selling Saturn in the franchise’s crucial early years while Tekken got the benefit of the PS1’s much larger user base, there’s no telling whether VF would’ve reached more people and been a bigger hit. But even though VF only barely limps along these days via mobile games and its characters appearing in recent Dead or Alive installments, its legacy will never be forgotten by those who actually stepped into the ring with it. There is very little that any 3D fighting game does these days that wasn’t done by VF first in some capacity–in fact, the aforementioned DOA even got its start being built on Virtua Fighter 2‘s arcade board, so one of the current hottest and longest-running 3D fighting game series wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Virtua Fighter.
Best solo performance: Tekken 3
3D fighting games have become something of a niche genre, with only a few major players left to battle for the relative scraps. It doesn’t take much for a 3D fighting game to stand out these days, which is why we all play DOA5 way more than we probably should (well, it’s the less-embarrassing reason why we play DOA5 more than we probably should, anyway). But Tekken 3 was so great that it rose to the top of the ladder even when that ladder was as crowded as it ever was. Tekken 3 was one of the last fighting games to rule our lives just because it was that good, and not because we had millions of online players to prove ourselves against, and not because there was money to be made and fame to be had from tournaments and Twitch streams.
Lifetime achievement: Madden
After years of consistent 80-yard rushes with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, when the 16-bit era came along, gamers finally graduated to a (slightly) more realistic football experience with the Madden series. The franchise slowly evolved over the course of the next couple of generations into one of gaming’s biggest and most reliable powerhouses, not just in terms of sports, but video games in general. Just like the list of most-watched TV shows each year is always full of NFL broadcasts, Madden has always among the top-selling games just about every year it has existed. It has its creative ups and downs, but it always tends to come back around, and fans come back season after season. NFL 2K was the only competitor to ever give it a run for its money for more than just a couple of seasons, and while people tend to blame the NFL exclusivity deal that EA signed for Madden as the sole reason NFL 2K retired, 2K‘s quality–and sales–had already begun to dip a bit before that deal anyway (hence the 2K games doing that desperate $20 stunt in 2005). No, it’s never good for a company to have a monopoly on something as big as the NFL and not have any competition. But for what it’s worth, that hasn’t stopped EA from still delivering a solid football experience, each and every year.
Best solo performance: NFL 2K1
The final Dreamcast-exclusive NFL 2K game remains the best football game of all time. NFL 2K1 just hit all the right notes, and felt like the ultimate evolution of a decade of NFL video games, only with a fresh new approach (and without the stale, repetitive commentary from John Madden). Sure, most of the innovations introduced by NFL 2K1 have since been implemented in Madden. But they’ve never all come together in such a perfect way, and without the many steps back that Madden games tend to take along with their advances. The NFL 2K games continued fairly strong for 4 more years, but for whatever reason, they just never quite recaptured the magic of 2K1. And, fair or not, the series just felt a little less special once it came to PS2 and Xbox.
Lifetime achievement: Resident Evil
The Resident Evil series showed up in 1996 to scare the pants off of us, and has continued to do so for over 20 years. With one solid sequel after another, culminating in one of the greatest games ever made (Resident Evil 4) and one of the greatest remakes ever made (Resident Evil for GameCube), the RE series put many of its peers to shame with its ability to stay not only relevant, but cutting edge. Silent Hill definitely looked like it was poised to dethrone the horror game genre, but that franchise unfortunately fell apart following a solid initial trilogy, struggling to regain its glory with one disappointing sequel after another (with the unique adventure game-esque Shattered Memories being the sole bright spot in the series’ legacy after Silent Hill 3). Meanwhile, despite a few missteps, RE continues to be one of video game’s top franchises, successfully proving itself yet again with the recently released Resident Evil 7. Hideo Kojima’s P.T. looked like it was poised to bring Silent Hill back in a huge way, but as we all know, that had a more tragic ending than James Sunderland’s wife (well, almost).
Best solo performance: Silent Hill 2
To be fair, Resident Evil 4 is one of the best games of all time. Purely as a game, it tops Silent Hill 2. But as a horror game, which at the time is what both franchises banked themselves on (and what RE is now returning to), Silent Hill 2 remains an untouched masterwork of not only video game horror, but horror in general. And SH2 antagonist Pyramid Head remains one of the most terrifying villains in the entire history of video games. Whereas RE4 represents a series–and an entire genre–completely reinventing itself, SH2 represents a series and genre being at its absolute best. It is for that reason that SH2 is justified in taking this title over RE4.
Lifetime achievement: Unreal
While both Quake and Unreal largely abandoned their earlier attempts at having stories and just went full-on fragfest, Unreal at least attempted to keep a compelling universe intact. Unreal was also willing to play with its formula a bit more, culminating in some interesting creative left turns like the melee focus and third-person camera option of Xbox exclusive Unreal Championship 2 (Quake Wars doesn’t really count). To that end, Unreal definitely was much better about actually bothering to create compelling console-focused, console-specific entries, while Quake mostly just settled for having its PC games ported to consoles and calling it a day. And Unreal actually kept making new games and tweaking its formula in more meaningful ways, while Quake largely relied on mission packs for longevity. Plus, there is a reason that 99% of all games made in the last 20 years have been built on the Unreal Engine and not the one that powers any of the Quake games…it’s just a damn fine foundation.
Best solo performance: Quake III Arena
When it comes to this particular style of multiplayer FPS, Quake III Arena remains the best of its kind. Fans continue to upgrade and port it to every platform imaginable, making it look almost as good as a modern game, and it remains one of the oldest games still being used in current tournament play. The same can’t be said of even the most recent Unreal Tournaments.
Lifetime achievement: Ninja Gaiden
No matter how you slice it–pun intended–Ninja Gaiden has just been the better overall presence in the world of ninja-based video games. While the two franchises have fairly equal presences in the 8- and 16-bit eras, once things moved beyond that, NG handily overtook its former rival. Even if the modern interpretation of Ninja Gaiden isn’t your thing, there’s no denying its popularity and its role in keeping the franchise name current. Shinobi‘s post-16-bit transition has been much rockier, and Sega certainly hasn’t put in the time or effort to keep Joe Musashi as active of a video game star as Tecmo has with Ryu Hayabusa.
Best solo performance: The Revenge of Shinobi
There is no better ninja video game, 2D or otherwise, than 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi. There are few better side-scrolling action games, period. Everything that makes for a great Shinobi game–with none of the excess and silliness that plagued later titles–is firing on all cylinders here, and depending on which version of the game you played, you might encounter such legendary characters as Batman, Spider-Man, Rambo, The Terminator, and Godzilla, making for one of the most star-studded games ever made.
Lifetime achievement: Tomb Raider
Both of these Indiana Jones-meets-Prince of Persia action/adventure franchises have had their ups and downs. And truthfully, Tomb Raider has had some of the lowest downs of any successful franchise in video game history, while Uncharted at its absolute “worst” has still been pretty great. But Tomb Raider and its star simply have a much deeper legacy behind them, with far more classic titles and great adventures than Nathan Drake and company. There also wouldn’t be Uncharted without Tomb Raider, so it’s hard not to take that into consideration when comparing the two. And when Lara Croft tried to play Nathan Drake’s game with the Uncharted-flavored 2013 TR reboot, she proved that she could do set piece-based spelunking about as well as he could (and better, in some ways). We’ll avoid resorting to comparing the physical attributes of the main protagonists of the two franchises, but if we were to do so, it would only further strengthen the current winner’s position anyway.
Best solo performance: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
While there are far more great TR games than Uncharted ones in terms of sheer volume–and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon–Uncharted 2 is simply the best game ever made of that type. It has one of the best stories in video game history, and certainly some of the best acting and dialogue. And it takes set pieces that most other games would only dare attempt for a huge game-ending climax and throws about a dozen at you over the course of the game, while still managing to have compelling “standard” gameplay in between. Nathan Drake may never be as all-time iconic as Lara Croft, but Ms. Croft will likely never have an adventure greater than Uncharted 2.
Lifetime achievement: Mortal Kombat
Yes, you read that right: Mortal Kombat took the prize over Street Fighter. It’s no spoiler alert that this means a Street Fighter game is going to take the “best solo performance” title, and it’s probably not a big surprise which one that is. So when you start looking at the other installments in the series, and comparing them to the complete MK series, it isn’t such an obvious pummeling. MK came into its own as a legitimate fighting game franchise with MK2, and continued to be a fan favorite with subsequently solid sequels as SF struggled to find its identity with the divisive SFIII. Somewhere along the way, Capcom decided that the SF series should be made by hardcore fighting game fans, for hardcore fighting game fans, and largely left behind the millions of more casual players who helped to make SFII such a phenomenon. Meanwhile, MK was always there to provide games that anyone could pick up and have fun with–and spill some blood and take off some heads in the meantime–but still have enough depth for the people who wanted to put in the time. And certainly, when it comes to 3D entries (3D gameplay, not just 3D backgrounds), there is no contest–any 3D MK handily beats anything in the weak Street Fighter EX series. MK9 and MK10 both served as a fantastic reboot of that franchise, while SFIV struggled to sustain its initial popularity, and SFV has been a critical and commercial disappointment thus far. Make no mistake: the best SF games absolutely destroy the best MK games. But when taken as a whole, MK has just handled being an actual franchise far better than SF has.
Best solo performance: Street Fighter II (pick a version)
I mean…it’s Street Fighter II. What else is there to say? For anything other than this unique premise for a feature, having Street Fighter II in its stable makes anything good you could say about MK almost irrelevant.