Maybe it’s time to stop
One of the nice things about games is that really, there’s nothing that automatically says that the fifth installment of a given franchise is going to be bad. Heck, if a franchise makes it to five installments that’s kind of heartening. You don’t get that many games on the shelf if the first one was a complete train wreck, after all; I might not like the Call of Duty games, but I can at least recognize that they scratched an itch. Sequels for a game franchise can keep going for a very long time.
However, while games don’t suffer from the same issues that you see in movie sequels, you still hit a certain point where the well is dry. If you’re lucky, the series turns into clones of itself; if you’re unlucky, it becomes a shambling undead husk, like the Saw franchise but on your game device of choice. All of these franchises have been around for more than two decades, and they’ve got a lot of goodwill behind them… but it might be time to just give up the ghost and say good night.
Sonic the Hedgehog
The last game featuring Sonic will not be hailed as a triumph; it will read more like the end of Of Mice and Men, with whoever pulls the trigger serving as our stand-in for poor George. To its credit, the franchise has never stopped trying to reinvent itself since the first title came out in 1991; to its detriment, it hasn’t successfully done so in many years, to the point where you can pretty much point to all of the great games in the franchise without ever leaving a single console.
Sonic’s largely unintentional skip of a console generation somehow morphed into a long procession of games in the franchise wherein you played almost everyone other than the title character, as well as exploring open free-roaming environments at sedate speed. If you’re wondering how this relates to a series whose entire tagline involved the velocity of its protagonist, well, you’re not alone. Subsequent installments have most involved Sega bumping around blindly, trying to remember how to make this franchise work. The past couple of releases have gotten fairly positive reviews partly because reviewers are just shocked that they aren’t awful, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 turned into an aborted episodic experiment.
There’s no shame in admitting that you don’t know how to make a current game that both features this character and feels like a sequel to the old games, people. It would sort of be charmingly honest. Yes, I’d be sad that the prospect of another good game in the series would go down to nil, but let’s face it, we’re there now. All that this would change is whether or not we’re being up-front about that fact.
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda was a masterpiece; there’s no arguing that. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a rare example of a developer making a sequel that completely jumps formats while still being true to its roots, and it deserves its classic status. The problem is that the games have pretty much stopped there, and we’re here still getting sequels to the same thing on a new day.
At this point, The Legend of Zelda is the obsessive fantasy series for people who are scared by actual obsessive fantasy series. It’s not willing to go the Final Fantasy route of just throwing continuity out the window, but it also isn’t willing to actually have a timeline or a conclusion or anything building toward larger themes, a goal not helped substantially by the fact that the core story of ever single game is identical to every previous one. Heck, your gameplay goals don’t even vary – find MacGuffins, save Zelda, don’t hit chickens with your sword. It’s all about finding new and interesting ways to combine those elements, which is laudable, but at some point you have to admit there’s no more blood coming out of the stone.
I respect that the developers are trying to do new things with the game – there are hints that the next game might not feature Link, for instance – but it may be time to put this particular franchise down and start doing new things rather than trying to work all of the existing tropes into yet another game. There’s a certain point when you can just break out of the mold and make something new.
My friends know that the Blue Bomber is one of my favorite game characters of all time. I love the little guy to death. But I’ve also talked about how difficult it is to make a new Mega Man game, and that might be as good a sign as any that it’s time to put this particular name to bed.
Rather than continual reinvention, the franchise tends to come up with a gimmick for a given line and then run that gimmick into the ground with the force of a 747 in a crash dive. Those gimmicks, for reasons lost to time, rapidly moved away from the defining gimmick of the original games, which was that you killed a boss and then gained access to his weapon, opening up new routes and new options as a result of your newfound power. Subsequent gimmicks have focused around being a slightly weaksauce attempt at duplicating Pokémon, being in 3D, or just somehow spinning off from the Mega Man Zero series which kept the gameplay but avoided the actual connection to the series mechanic for no real reason whatsoever.
In short, they’re kind of tied to the original only because of the name on the box. When you can’t be bothered to actually move forward at all with the original, it might be time to give up the ghost. We’ll always have the classics, but it’s all right to admit that you’re just not interested in making any more of these games.
On some level, I think the series that have managed to last for quite some time have broken our ability to accept that nothing lasts forever. Every so often it’s time to take a break and stop doing the same old games over and over, just to bring out some new ideas. I don’t have any animosity for these series, nor the other series that have lasted for a while longer than they should; there just comes a point when it’s time to admit that you’re out of ideas. Better four games that rock followed by silence than four good games, eight decent ones, twelve mediocre ones, and so forth.