Return Of The Sequel

Daxter, in my opinion is one of the funniest video game characters. Funny games, and I mean the ones that make you laugh out loud as opposed to the ones that make you feel a bit awkward whilst you poop out another sheep shortly after eating a man (I’m looking at you Noby) are few and far between.

As some of you may know, Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier is due to hit both the PSP and PS2 later this year. It’s not being coded by Sony darlings Naughty Dog, who I’m hoping have their hands full with Uncharted 2, but by High Impact games, the guys behind the PSP versions of Sony’s other comic duo, Ratchet and Clank. Whilst I’m sure they’ll do a great job I have some issues with way developers keep bringing back old and beloved franchises only for them to be steered away from their former glory and drained of originality.

When I first saw the fluid, cartoon-like moves of Jak and his odd little furry sidekick I was sold. The cut scenes amazed me along with the voice acting, characters, landscapes, baddies, this game had the whole package. Justifiably J&D was a hit. The sequel, Jak II took things a bit darker and for some reason Jak learned to talk which, for me, was the first sign of a downwards slope. Jak 3 along with most triple A games around that time ventured in to open world territory. Whilst I enjoyed the sequels I felt they lacked the wide eyed optimism of the original, something that still bugs me to this day.

This was at a time when developers started to drag their protagonists through some nasty situations. Many great franchises lost themselves in the push to make games grittier, darker and moodier. It was a rather obvious step to cater for a demographic that was suddenly growing up albeit one that would’ve benefited from a bit more subtlety or at least a bit more respect to the fans.

We are now in a period where developers and publishers recognise the need to cater for many ages, demographics and tastes. Analysing sales, focus groups and popular trends are all things studied by big wigs and publishers that go along way to deciding what must go into the next sequel. Naughty Dog have been guilty of this in the past as have most developers with a franchise but making the intelligent choice is never as easy as ‘bigger, better, shinier, more.

Even outside of video games popular franchises that retain the quality of the original are thin on the ground. So many of them become bound and driven by money that the creativity and love that was poured into the original is lost. How can developers keep these almost unquantifiable factors in check?

Some games thrive on what seem like complete overhauls yet when you look closely the major changes happen outside of the basic gamplay elements. Take the sublime Metal Gear Solid series and you’ll see a common strand running through it whist many features change from one sequel to the next. The main theme of the control scheme and objectives remain relatively untouched but the story, location, situations and characters drive the franchise into new and unexplored territory.

Hideo Kojima, director of the series, recognised the importance of not just a tight control method but also a solid back bone to his grand tale. By forcing the story to the forefront of the experience creating the spectacle and focus, the motive of getting from one area to the next holds more weight than in most games. MGS4 provides such a complete package that initially it can seem daunting. But by creating a fine balance and giving the player the choice of going as deep as they want a huge difference in play styles is catered for

This kind of expansion is huge when laid next to other franchises. The last full Ratchet and Clank game fell foul of the ‘new hardware’ trap. It clearly had ambitions beyond the final product which was little more than a highly polished upgrade but, due to the game’s history picked up healthy sales. Personally I expected to see the kind of progression similar to that of GTA IV. I know it’s still a bugbear for a lot of people but Rockstar not only managed to evolve the series and shed the technical limitations that the previous games were bound by but also delivered a compelling and mature experience.

Of course, all of this is very specific to each series. There is no winning formula behind a better sequel but there is room for a bit more thought. For games that haven’t yet reached their potential, the path will be clear: refine and address the flaws, but for those successful debuts the task is all the more challenging. I think, for me, the main reason behind this concern is that although these games were perfect for me at that specific point in time I now seek a more mature side to my games and whilst can hold on to those memories and revisit the games I’d rather they weren’t trying to grow up with me.