10 franchises overdue a sequel
18th May 2012 | 16:00
The 21st-century world of videogames may seem to be obsessed with franchises -- but here are ten reasons to believe that isn't actually the case.
For a glorious period, EA's sorely lamented, chain-wielding, bad-attitude motorbike racer was a franchise. And it remains one of our favourite ones ever. I t made its debut in 1991 on Sega's Mega Drive, instantly feeling ahead of its time - thanks to stuff that now sounds laughable but was then revolutionary, like gradients which affected the handling of your bike and basic physics that let you indulge in gloriously spectacular wipeouts. But it had two key features: the ability to grab weapons, mid-race, from the Hell's Angels you were racing against, then set about them in the hope of taking them down; and incredibly long stages which gave you a chance to catch up after tasting the tarmac.
Three iterations of the game appeared on the 16-bit consoles, before 1994's fully 3D Road Rash for the 3DO. Which, in our opinion, remains the best motorbike-racing game ever, and felt about ten years ahead of its time. EA fiddled around porting it to various subsequent consoles before pulling the plug in 1998. Quite why it persisted with the vastly inferior Need For Speed - or why it still refuses to resurrect Road Rash when motorbike-racers are all but non-existent - remains a mystery.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more influential game than David Braben's sprawling space-trading, wireframe-3D effort from 1984. It invented the space-sim genre, and as the first open-ended game, you could argue that the likes of World of Warcraft and Eve Online would never have existed without it.
Sadly, though, it was never followed up by anything remotely satisfying. Braben's company, Frontier Developments, took off, which sidetracked him; two putative sequels - Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters - arrived in 1993 and 1995, but weren't a patch on the original. Braben, still as active as ever, has spoken about making a true, modern-technology sequel to Elite for decades now. Perhaps some day, somebody will shove a huge pile of money in his direction and tell him to abandon everything else.
If you can remember the 80s, then there's a good chance you'll remember Choplifter. After making its first appearance on the Apple II as far back as 1982, the original and two further iterations found a place in just about every arcade then in existence (and there used to be a hell of a lot of 'em).
Choplifter's premise was simple - you pilot a helicopter rescuing laughably-drawn stick-men from behind enemy lines in various war-zones, armed with horizontal-firing bullets and vertically dropping bombs. But what made it so great was its refusal to compromise - if you lost more than your permitted quota of stick-men (having, say, crammed five in your chopper only to be shot down by a missile), you would have to restart the stage. Again, Choplifter was, briefly, a franchise, but it disappeared permanently when publisher Broderbund went bust in 1999. Although Ubisoft does own the rights to the name these days.
Oh dear: where to start? Yu Suzuki's 1999 magnum opus for the Dreamcast was, famously, the most expensively created game ever at the time. And miraculously - considering that it sold about three copies - it did spawn a sequel, Shenmue II. But by the time that arrived in 2001, the Dreamcast, regardless of its merits, was dead in the water, leaving such deep scars that Sega would subsequently withdraw from making consoles. Even in this day and age, you would be amazed by how good Shenmue is to play - it lets you free-roam to your heart's content, and essentially replicates everyday life in a big Japanese city (with added brawling).
The fact that Shenmue II ended on such a cliff-hanger has led entire generations of gamers to go all misty-eyed at the prospect of a third iteration, and every so often, hopes of Shenmue III are raised before, inevitably, being cruelly dashed shortly afterwards. However, you could argue that the franchise carries on in the form of Sega's best-kept secret: Yakuza. Much of the Shenmue team now works on the Yakuza titles (now up to their fourth iteration), and the Yakuza games feel nigh-identical to Shenmue in terms of gameplay.
Truly original games are rare enough, but when they happen to be published by corporate mega-giant Electronic Arts, one feels obliged to scan the horizon in search of a squadron of flying pigs. But Mirror's Edge, developed by DICE and published in 2008, remains a one-off that feels like no other game. Blessed with a bright, distinctive art-style, a dystopian, futuristic storyline and unusual free-running-style gameplay - not to mention a hot protagonist - Mirror's Edge was undoubtedly flawed: the gameplay often involved trial and error, and it was unsatisfyingly short. But all the more reason for EA to resurrect it, keeping the good bits and ironing out the mediocre elements. That doesn't feel likely, though: DICE, it seems, is now focused solely on Battlefield, while EA has previous as a serial abandoner of great franchises.
Tim Schafer clearly isn't a man who likes to rest on his laurels - we'd like to see sequels to pretty much every game he has ever made, but he doesn't seem to be interested in franchises. Undoubtedly, the Schafer game we'd most like to see followed up is 1998's Grim Fandango - quite simply the finest point-and-click adventure ever (although Schafer's own Full Throttle ran it close).
Grim Fandango, as much as it's possible to describe it, mashes up Mexico's Day of the Dead and Humphrey Bogart's entire oeuvre of films. It looks amazing, has a deliciously wacky and convoluted plot and is hilariously funny. Point-and-clicks have enjoyed something of a comeback recently, thanks to mobile phone games and Steam's rising popularity - so how about it, Tim?
Despite seeing the light of day as early as 1987, Atari's RoadBlasters remains the best driving-and-shooting game ever made. Sorry, but we'll brook no argument on that. Given that in order to finish it, all you had to do was negotiate its 50 stages without running out of fuel, you'd think it would be more relevant today than ever. However, it wasn't exactly a case of pottering about in a Toyota Prius. Rather, you were at the helm of a red sportscar powered by a nuclear reactor, and fitted with a gun.
Twice on each stage, a plane would fly overhead, and you would have to manoeuvre your car - avoiding mines, other traffic and countless obstacles - to catch whatever it dropped on your roof. At which point, you might be able to available yourself of an unlimited-ammo machine-gun or a nuclear bomb which destroyed everything on screen (leaving politically incorrect nuclear shadows that you could safely drive through). Factor in a ridiculous nitrous boost that would leave you attempting to negotiate hairpin bends at over 200mph, and the result was a delicious adrenaline overdose.
This 2007 launch title for the PlayStation 3 put Cambridge's Ninja Theory on the map as a top developer - and given that the company is making the next Devil May Cry, you could say that it's currently reaping the rewards for that. A sort of action-adventure-hack-n-slash, it put you at the controls of Nariko who, frankly, made Lara Croft look as attractive as Susan Boyle.
Gameplay-wise, it was great, with a cleverly thought-out swordfighting engine, some glorious special moves and ranged interludes. All of which was married to a great story and some truly memorable characterisations. You could argue that it did acquire a spiritual successor in the form of 2010's thoroughly underrated Enslaved, but the latter was very different. And we're still slightly in love with Nariko.
What more could you ask for from a game than the opportunity to deliver newspapers to people's houses? This much-revered 1984 arcade favourite from Atari was surely based on the unlikeliest subject matter ever in the history of the games industry. But its most amazing aspect was how incredibly addictive it was. It more or less did exactly what it says on the tin: you cycled around various neighbourhoods, delivering newspapers to subscribing households with as much precision as possible, gathering bonus points by doing things like throwing papers through the windows of non-subscribers' houses and running over flowers.
Naturally, there were countless obstructions to avoid (skateboarders and cats were the peskiest). And if things didn't go according to plan, you could still derive vast amounts of satisfaction by smashing as many windows as possible. Atari did make Paperboy 2, but it never felt like an essential purchase - perhaps because the original was so perfect. Which may explain why it never developed into a franchise.
Valve: what number comes after two? Pull your goddamned fingers out...