Nostalgia is as important a part of playing video games as the thrill of defeating your foes or the frustration of a level you just can’t overcome. Anyone who’s ever owned a game console has at least one series they look back on with warm fuzzies, regardless of how rough it looks compared to modern games.
Even if you haven’t played your favourite classic in years, a new sequel might tempt you to shell out cash just to briefly recapture that joy of first discovery. And many game players do more than wait around for those sequels.
They write letters, create memes, and build cult followings around games that never got the follow-ups that fans feel they deserve. (It’s a cliché to even bring up the ever-imminent, but never-any-closer, “Half-Life 3,” although that doesn’t stop anyone from talking about it like its around the corner.) Sometimes they even go so far as to build new games themselves — the fan-made “Black Mesa” patch for the original “Half Life” transforms gameplay to produce an all-new experience. “Fallout” fans also released software to transform the “New Vegas” title into a prequel: “Project Brazil.”
Recently, game developers have gone out of their way to reward that loyalty. Long dead franchises from the ’90s and ’00s are springing to life all over the place.
In the video game industry, like in the games themselves, death is but a prelude to re-birth.
Series revival can be a beautiful thing. I grin ear-to-ear whenever I see video from the upcoming reboot of my old favourite franchise, “Star Wars Battlefront”:
The “Battlefront” series was as important a part of my childhood as “Harry Potter,” or being desperately untalented at any sport that involved depth perception. My friends and I would gather in the basement for hours, crowing whenever we successfully sniped each other’s helmeted stormtrooper heads from across the battlefield. Now, a decade after the last instalment, the series is on its way back (courtesy of EA Games).
Look at this beautiful gameplay footage!
I’ll shell out for that on day one.
But rebooting “Battlefront” makes good business sense for EA. Fans have called for a third game for years. More importantly, the game will arrive at retail in November — just ahead of the next “Star Wars” film in December.
In other words, a new “Battlefront” means the potential for boatloads of cash to one of the biggest companies in gaming. Of course its coming out soon.
Sometimes less lucrative franchises make their way back from oblivion along more creative routes. “Shenmue III” broke Kickstarter when die-hard fans jumped to fund a series that saw its last release over 10 years ago (in 2001). It raised over $US6.3 million when all was said and done.
Games like “Elite: Dangerous” and “Wasteland 2” accomplished similar feats of reincarnation. The original “Mega Man” creator is even bringing back his series under the new name “Mighty No. 9,” despite owning none of the rights to the original work.
Here’s “Mega Man”:
And here’s “Mighty No. 9”:
“Mighty No. 9” is, officially, an entirely separate title from “Mega Man,” but the visuals and gameplay are a direct evolution of the Blue Bomber’s classic franchise — its “spiritual predecessor.” In other words, committed developers can — in the right circumstances — cast aside industry apathy to bring back beloved games.
But some games are really truly never ever coming back, no matter how much love their fans show. Un-burying a series from a mound of legal and financial obstacles takes a generous cult fandom and dedicated developers.
Many beloved series just don’t have that. These are their stories.
“Midnight Club” was Rockstar’s answer to the wildly successful “Need for Speed” racing series from Electronic Arts. Rockstar — an edgier publisher than Electronic Arts, with releases like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Bully” — stuffed the game with police chases, customisable cars, and globe-trotting night races. It also featured an endless supply of electronic pedestrians who seemed to throw themselves under your wheels without the minor consequences of the “Grand Theft Auto” universe.
At 14, I loved that game. And many players on Steam and elsewhere still do. Like “Battlefront” and “Shenmue” players, they make their wishes for a new title known. But the series is almost certainly never coming back.
Where “Battlefront” had big money (and a major brand in “Star Wars”) behind it, and “Shenmue” had a persistent developer, “Midnight Club” has only online circles of fandom. Rockstar employees claimed the company mistreated and dismantled the “Midnight Club” team, firing longtime developers after the final instalment was finished in 2009. Things got so bad a group of developer spouses wrote an open letter threatening legal action against the company.
With that much bad blood between the copyright holders and the developers, and “Need for Speed” sitting like a leviathan on top of the genre, there is little-to-no chance of a series comeback. We asked Rockstar, but never received a response.
The open-world series “Mercenaries” took players to the war-torn Korean peninsula in 2005, and Venezuela in 2008, putting the open-world gaming style pioneered by “Grand Theft Auto” in a military context.
The concept — blending the popularity of war games and fans’ love of virtual mayhem — was strong, and the games were tremendously fun. Fans looks back fondly on brutal battles between factions like the Russian Mafia and the North Korean army. “Mercenaries” deserves to still be a hit series.
Sadly, the rights to the game lie deep in the bowels of EA, which shut down the studio charged with its second sequel back in 2013. Even if a rogue developer wanted to make like “Mighty No. 9” and produce an off-brand sequel, its similarity to the far-more-popular “GTA” franchise would the potential for profit. A developer taking up the “Mercenaries” banner under a new name would invite bankruptcy.
We asked EA for a statement about the future of “Mercenaries” and were told only, “‘Mercenaries’ remains part of EA’s IP portfolio, but it’s not a franchise that is in active development.”
The series is another work of art lost to the realities of the market.
‘Black and White’
The oddball real-time strategy series from British game development house Lionhead Studios and developer Peter Molyneux upended genre conventions when it landed in 2001. Players were gods in the game world, and chose titanic creatures to do their bidding. Unlike the morally neutral competition of most strategy games, “Black and White” gave players a choice: do the good thing and prosper your way to victory, or do evil and battle your enemies. Each choice shaped your creature, your town, and your progress through the game.
Some people loved the new take on the genre, despite buggy coding and redundant gameplay. But the game just does not hold up by modern standards. Raising the creature feels a bit like “Tamagotchi.” Even worse, the central choice of the game — to be good or evil — has mostly superficial impact on the story. The 2005 sequel failed to substantively improve matters.
Critics came to see “Black and White” as one of the most overrated series of all time.
Molyneux took his god-game building talents to Kickstarter in 2012. The result was “Godus,” released to even more miserable reviews. With that kind of critical reception and a limited fanbase, the game’s original developer and the publisher who owns the rights to the game have shown no desire to drag this particular skeleton out of their closet.
If they’re smart, they never will. We asked both Microsoft (which owns Lionhead Studios) and EA (which published “Black and White”) for comment; neither company responded as of publishing.
What’s your favourite first-person shooter (FPS)? Nearly every major title of the genre — from “Deus Ex” to the latest “Tomb Raider” — owes its life to the common ancestor of all shoot-’em-up adventure games.
Before “System Shock” role-playing games (RPGs) and and FPS were distinct genres. Story-driven adventuring meant diving into top-down worlds like “Legend of Zelda,” or the “Pokemon” series. FPSes like “Wolfenstein” rolled through gun battles with scant to no plot and minimal strategy.
The first game in the series came out in 1994, bringing the two concepts together for action-packed real-time storytelling. It chronicled a hacker’s battle with an evil artificial intelligence on a space station (“Shodan”), as it transformed humans into mutants and set about destroying Earth. In 1999, “System Shock 2” took that immersion to the far, horrific reaches of space and set players against the parasitic alien race known as the Many. As players stumbled through drifting interstellar spacecraft, they encountered the worst of humanity and space-manity alike — setting a dark tone familiar to players of the “BioShock” series.
That familiarity has a lot to do with why this classic series will never come back. Ken Levine (who worked on “System Shock 2”) took the gameplay and horror that made the series great to a new project: 2007’s widely-acclaimed “BioShock.” Following in the “System Shock” tradition and with an homage in its title, “BioShock” reigns supreme over the genre. With the “System Shock” tradition alive and well in a new series, and key developers still involved, there’s no reason for anyone to mount the effort of a comeback.
The lesson here
If you love something enough, and that thing happens to be a video game series, you just might be able to bring it back from the dead. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
It takes money and will from the industry — money and will that won’t exist if there’s already a competitor or spiritual successor like “BioShock” dominating the market. Move on, “Mercenaries” fans. There’s a whole wide “GTA” world out there just waiting to be explored.
And hey, if nothing else, there’s always “Saint’s Row.”
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