papermario.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch exclusive column from Connor Cleary that explores the wide arena of gamer culture – where it's been, where it is now, and where it might be going. This week, he discusses the strengths and weaknesses of games that have a lofty title to live up to, and the emotional impact these games can have on gamers.]

Your shiny game mag of choice shows up in your mailbox, you flip through and find a preview for, let's say, Zelda: The Skyward Sword. Your brain quickly skims through the hours and hours that you've spent in your lifetime playing various other Zelda games. Understandably, you become giddy with anticipation.

What is it about a new installment from a beloved series that makes our hearts beat a little faster? That makes us feel like a little kid again, running down to the game store with a pre-order receipt and butterflies in our stomach? There are many legacies in the video game world, some have retained their status as juggernauts, while some have fallen from grace and continue to limp along in the periphery. But in either case, we often still feel a surge of emotional nostalgia when we hear about a new title from one of these legacy series.

But as much as a legacy title can be a huge cash-cow for developers, it must also be handled with care. Because of gamers' highly emotional attachment, a disappointing iteration can cause gamers to become extremely bitter, as if the developer has just profaned a sacred memory. In other words, its greatest strength – the emotional attachment of gamers – is also its greatest potential weakness.

This poses an interesting challenge for developers. They must find a way to keep a series interesting and original, while simultaneously remaining true to the series' traditions. If the new installments lack any innovation gamers might feel ripped off, like the same game was thrown in a new package and sold to them a second time. On the other hand, if the studio strays too far from tradition they risk losing the essential elements of nostalgia and familiarity.

It seems that when it comes to the game series there are two poles on either end of the development philosophy. On one hand, you have games that adhere very tightly to their canon and mechanics that evolve very very slowly – and are sometimes forced to make a leap due to advances in gaming technologies – this is a pole that I will call the “Direct Descendant.”

Meanwhile, the polar opposite to this theory is the nearly complete reinvention of a game series with each installment – which I will call the “Spiritual Successor.” To further explore this spectrum we will look at examples from each extreme. Needless to say, there are too many legacy franchises in gaming to address them all, and what follows will be a necessarily and admittedly incomplete analysis of only a handful of juggernauts.

megaman.jpgOur first example remained squarely seated for a long time on the “Direct Descendant” pole before slowly starting to branch out: This is, of course, everyone's favorite blue robot, Mega Man.

This is a series that, with barely any alterations or additions, managed to remain extremely fun through its first ten installments. Of course things like the Rush Jump and Rush Jet were slowly added in, and each game included a new set of bosses and respective weapons, but the overall experience was still nearly identical.

Even through the next evolutionary leap in the series, the Mega Man X titles still relied on the same basic framework, adding somewhat minor elements like permanent upgrades beyond those acquired through boss fights, and occasionally large additions like new playable characters to choose from. The repetitive nature of the early chapters in the Mega Man series were not a hindrance because – much like the Mario games – the mechanics were so undeniably enjoyable that they didn't require much tweaking to remain relevant and fun.

Slightly further down the spectrum we find the quintessential poster-child for the video game legacy, the ubiquitous Mario Mario from gaming legend Shigeru Miyamoto. Taking spin-offs like Yoshi and Wario games into consideration, the humble Mario Bros. was the progenitor for over 200 games. (Accepting, of course, Mario's first incarnation as Jumpman opposite the fierce title villain Donkey Kong.)

To this day, a new Mario game will be invariably met with extreme anticipation, and decent sales figures are essentially assured. The most recent incarnations of the mustachioed plumber being Super Mario Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the latter of which seems to have outsold the former in its first few days on sale. These numbers are especially interesting because the larger sales went to the more traditional, retro-style title.

The Mario games have continued to be successful despite often repetitive mechanics and almost invariably similar storylines for a few reasons. Nintendo has skillfully retained strong ties to the Mario canon by never brushing aside fixtures like Peach, Bowser, Toadstool, Stars, Goombas, Koopas, and so on, these assure the gamer will have a positive association with the game world. They have managed to balance perpetual evolution of gameplay with retention of trademark mechanics. But most importantly, they are always fun.

windwakerlink.jpgOur next example also comes from Mr. Miyamoto: The iconic hero-in-green, Link and his perpetually distressed damsel, the princess Zelda. Much like Mario, The Legend of Zelda games set gamer hearts aflutter the world over. It is series which manages to be simultaneously fiercely adherent to its predecessors and completely innovative and unexpected with each installment.

With the exception of the N64 duo, each adventure has set players in a brand new world with an original storyline. (However, the argument can and has been made that there is a persistent world and timeline underlying Link and Zelda's many incarnations.)

Whether you suddenly find yourself running around as a deku scrub, or a wolf, or jumping through time and dimensions, or sailing over a water-covered world on a talking boat, you can never quite be sure what to expect from a new Zelda game. But much like our next example, you can always expect great music, great gameplay, and an engaging story.

Leaping now to the most extreme tip of the “Spiritual Successor” pole, we find the beloved Final Fantasy series. The unusual formula that defines the FF series was, oddly enough, the product of a fortuitous fluke. The original Final Fantasy was a last-ditch effort by creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to save the budding game studio Square that was facing potential bankruptcy.

The success of the title saved the company, and led to the decision to create a sequel. However, because of the very real prospect that Final Fantasy would in fact be the final game for the studio, the storyline had not left itself open to a sequel. So Square decided to take a risk that would come to define the massively successful series: They created an entirely new game, with a new storyline, new characters, new mechanics – new everything – it was connected to its predecessor essentially in name only.

The ties between the initial FF games were extremely tenuous, as they shared only a handful of traits. Similar classes (white and black mage/wizard, thief, warrior, etc) similar magic systems (fire/ice/lightning 1, 2, and 3, bio, cure, etc), and similar status effects (poison, darkness, petrify, etc) were some of the only things one could point to that united the first few installments. Of course things like Moogles, Chocobos and Cactuars eventually became staples as well. However, they also shared similar themes and settings – usually a fantasy-influenced setting, and themes involving elements and crystals and prophecies. In this way, they managed to evoke a sense of familiarity in the gamer without creating a Direct Descendant.

More recent installments, of course, have broken from even those small traditions. But it must be noted that the series has also retained a fairly consistent group of creative leads, which contributes to a feeling of cohesion throughout the various worlds the games explore.

moogle.jpgThese days, Square Enix is able to boost sales of entirely new games based solely on the renown associated with the name. One could argue that what unites the games nowadays is that gamers can count on a game named ”Final Fantasy [Roman Numeral]” to include great music, great storytelling, and lovable, dynamic characters – in essence, the name has become synonymous with “High-quality RPG.” Final Fantasy is a great example of how studios can gradually evolve a series, and the traits we associate with them as well – as in “Fire 2” becoming “Fira,” or summons becoming “Espers” then “Guardian Forces” then “Eidolons” then “Aeons” etc. – without losing the emotional attachment of their consumers.

However, the giant scope of the Final Fantasy series also includes several cautionary tales for anyone bold enough to follow in those massive footsteps. Through extended-universe installments like the ill-received theatrical release of Square's first movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, or the much-lamented PS2 title, Final Fantasy: Dirge of Cerberus we see that there are limits to even the most malleable name in gaming.

Finally, the numerical installment Final Fantasy XI – the infamous attempt at a MMORPG – we see that developers must fulfill the expectations they have set for themselves in the minds of their consumers, to assign the lofty badge of a roman numeral on this game was a big mistake in the eyes of many. There is little doubt in my mind that there would have been significantly less nerd-rage flying around if they decided to make XI a side project named Final Fantasy Online instead. Only time will tell if Final Fantasy XIV is a repeat of the XI fiasco. Additionally, The Spirits Within was not a terrible movie, but managed to infuriate FF loyalists because it felt like a shameless attempt to cash in on the name without providing any modicum of Final Fantasy-ness.

There are lessons and cautionary tales for developers to take away from each of these legendary series. But the most important thing is that studios understand that a new legacy title can have a powerful effect on the emotions of veteran gamers – even if many of them won't admit the truth of this – and as such should be approached with extra care. Attempts at evolutionary leaps and experimentation should probably remain in the realm of the new title, because a poor attempt to cash in on a name has the potential to turn away otherwise loyal fans.

[Author's Note: Clearly there are more gaming legacies that deserve to be plotted on this spectrum and have their lessons or tales of warning heard, so feel free to comment on any you feel would make a good addition to the discussion.]