Waypoint Weeklies: Your Favorite Sequels

One of the hardest things to do is to top yourself. When you put all you’ve got into something, to go on and then make something even better takes a lot of effort and a lot of ingenuity. Video games, which are littered with both long and short-running franchises, are loaded with sequels. There’s no shortage of bad sequels. But every once and a while, a game is followed up with an absolute masterpiece.

What are your favorite sequels? What games matched their predecessors, or even exceeded expectations and made a game even better than the first? And what do you think makes a good sequel? What do you want from a follow-up?

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So, I know among Ratchet & Clank fans that most people think Up Your Arsenal is the big winner, but I’m a big fan of Going Commando. They added RPG mechanics and the Arena and the ship mechanics all in the space of a year, which is insane. I beat that game at least 10 times.

More broadly, I find (paradoxically) that the more space there is between a game and its sequel, the less I feel like things need to change. Ratchet & Clank is a game that comes around about every 5-7 years or so - by the time it comes back around again, I will be ready for Another One Of Those. I don’t really need them to mess with the formula too much; there aren’t a lot of character action platformers done on that scale anymore, so I’m just happy to be playing one. Something more annual like Assassin’s Creed, though, I want to see take some risks or try some stuff. Call of Duty’s campaign mode needs a vacation and a rethink.

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crashing in from another room yelling "DEAD SPACE 2"

… by which I mean, it built on just about everything from the original Dead Space, but I believe the best thing it did for the narrative was give Isaac Clarke a voice and inner monologue.

I also love God of War (2018) for reinventing a series that I did not believe could carry a more mature, emotional storyline. I think it’s a great example of an artistic work that kind of only works because it has a bunch of predecessors, even if those predecessors themselves are not that great (I feel similarly about the movie Logan, which I guess might have worked if it was a standalone film, but really worked for me because of the history Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart had with their characters).

I could keep going - I think videogames are kind of a unique medium for sequels because unlike books, films, comics, etc there are often technological advances that meaningfully advance what a game can do, show, enable (beyond just the George Lucas sense of being able to do more with CGI or whatever). While there are plenty of examples of game sequels that fail to recapture the magic of the original, I actually believe it’s common for them to exceed the preceding game.

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I’m currently playing through Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin in anticipation of Elden Ring, and y’all, that’s a damn good sequel. Not only does it improve on the systems and mechanics laid out in Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls), it also messes with your series knowledge going in. It alternates between not giving a damn of what the first game did, to presenting subversive callbacks, and then finally tying it all together once you get to the endgame and DLCs. The game is so exceptionally designed to be a brave new step forward into the unknown, that I can’t help but be a little disappointed that Dark Souls III goes right back to the same beats as the first game.

Like, I get it that most game development is iterative, and so sequels generally have to be similar to their predecessors. But DS2 shows that you can keep the mechanics and shake everything else up, it becomes a lot more interesting than just increasing the feature set on your sequel.

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Assassin’s Creed II is a great example. The original AC was a very interesting game that wasn’t particularly fun to play. ACII refined all of those systems, made the gameplay much more exciting, and centered around a great main character. Also it had one of the best final boss battles in games: A fistfight with the pope.

Then Brotherhood, which is somehow a sequel to a sequel as well as the third game in the series and the middle game of a trilogy, refined those systems even further.

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Does it count if you never played the first one? If so Just Cause 2 I have yet to play a game with as fun of an open world to just faff around in. the 3rd game had better locomotion with the introduction of the wingsuit, but 2 was more fun for me generally.

The Hitman series has been steadily improving since the first one, aside from absolution. I have loved the renaissance that the new trilogy has brought to the series. The first game was much more restrictive, its really interesting to see how the games evolved into what we have now.

Over quarantine I played through a few game series that I started playing midway through. Going back to the first Burnout was really interesting. It was surprising to see how many of the mechanics had their roots in the first two games. Burnout Revenge remains my favorite racing game.

Ace Combat is another series that has seen steady improvement since the first game, especially around games 3&4 when it was able to make a truly 3D game.

Shout outs to Watch Dogs 2, Assassins Creed 2, Stalker Call of Pripyat, Sniper Elite 4, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Rainbow Six Vegas 2.

P.S. If spiritual successors count then Supreme Commander is up there for me, still my favorite RTS.

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Battlefront II (the original) really nails being bigger and better than the first. You do sometimes miss having flying vehicles on infantry maps, but there are now the full space battles and a lot more movement options on the whole. Hell, it’s probably a better game than its two much newer pseudo-sequels. Watch out for those wrist rockets!

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Quite a few games with 2s in the tile have been important to me over my gaming lifetime. Half-Life 2, Titanfall 2, Dark Souls 2, Portal 2, Rune Factory 2, XCOM 2 — and if I open that up to just numbered entries in a series the list would probably get too unwieldy. But if I’m picking one, let me tell you about this little-known indie game called checks notes The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

But jokes aside, if you don’t know the development history of the game, here’s the quick version. After the runaway success of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo laid out plans for its development team for a remixed spinoff called Master Quest — the same game, but with different dungeons, to be developed in less time and released more quickly. Eiji Aonuma, the game’s director, balked at that idea because he already felt like OOT’s dungeons had been his best work, and so he was told by Miyamoto that if he could lead a team to develop a new Zelda game in one year, he wouldn’t have to make the spinoff. (The full version of this is in a really interesting old Iwata Asks.)

And so that time limit necessitated certain design decisions — mainly reusing a bunch of assets, including all the characters, from Ocarina of Time. It meant a game with a smaller scope and more compact world, fewer dungeons, a story that would justify all the same art assets being used, and a mechanic that would allow that smaller world to still drive up tension. And the result is a capital-S Sequel that both deepens the original game and does entirely its own thing at the same time. Something I teach my creative writing students is that sometimes limitations can be surprisingly generative — and while I generally think telling someone that they have a year to make a full-fledged video game is a terrible idea, this is maybe the one case where everything went right.

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Kane & Lynch 2 used the foundation of an okay, but ultimately mediocre, crime story to present this post-modern nightmare of repulsive and brutal hyper-masculinity, set in a world that’s literally degrading before the player’s eyes in a mess of dead pixels and digital artefacting. There’s no resolution here, no hope, not even a clear motive by the end, just an unquenchable fucking death-drive

K&L 2 is like the very last day on planet video game, in all its horrifying splendor; a mountain of bodies, bullets and blood, finally buckling under the sheer weight of entropy. I love it so much, and I honestly hope it never gets a sequel. Just let it sit on its own. There’s no more insight to be gained anyway

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Super Metroid improves on the original in basically every possible way it can.

I would argue that most of the mainline series Resident Evil sequels are better than the original.
Re2 - definitely
Re3 - maybe?
Re Code Veronica - worse only because of its stubborn refusal to evolve
ReMake - is this even a sequel? Inarguably better
Re4 - masterpiece
Re5 - no, but make it racist
Re6 - fuck no
Re7 - 3/4 masterpiece that stumbles at the end
Re2remake - another masterpiece
Re3remake - didn’t play it
Re8 - super masterpiece gimme dat delicious garbage nom nom nom

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It’s the early 00’s post-modernist pantheon of player-hating sequels!

It’s a legend and a classic for a reason: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is still one of the coolest games to currently exist. The sheer audacity of this game to construct a game-long retread of Metal Gear Solid just to frustrate and confound the player, before pulling the rug out from under them to say, in no uncertain terms: “go outside, nerd”.

You also can’t forget Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. Probably Obsidian’s most edgy and nihilistic RPG until Tyranny, and also vehement rejection of both Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the ideology of the jedi that Lucas cribbed from it. There are few games more uncomfortable and unhappy about their own setting. KOTOR 2 hates Star Wars, which is a wild thing for a sequel to one of the most beloved Star Wars games of all time to be. It’s a buggy, unfinished mess but it’s a pantheon game for me.

Less beloved, but still deserving of a spot in this canon is Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, a game that is about the fact that it’s a game, and sequel to a game at that. A literal ‘linear sequence of scares’ prompts Max to meditate on the notion of free will. “Did I even have a choice?” Max Payne 2 is the skeleton key to understanding the Remedy special sauce. All of their games going forward (excluding Quantum Break obviously) have the same arch relationship to the player. None of this really matters because it’s all just good fun. A video game. But is it? Sam Lake just digs Brecht, I know that much.

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It’s interesting to consider how video games do differ from literature, film, and other storytelling mediums when it comes to sequels. Good film sequels are an anomaly, but video game sequels… well, there’s plenty of terrible ones, certainly, but mechanical improvements often mean even a disappointing story can be mitigated with gameplay. I love Dragon Age II’s characters and setting, and I think the writing in Inquisition is quite dreadful and lifeless, but by god is Inquisition much more enjoyable to actually play than II.

I think my favorite game that is a sequel, regardless of its merits as a sequel, is Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. It’s very different from its predecessors, in some ways I even find myself wishing we had a branching timeline to peak into of an Elder Scrolls series that stuck more to the first two’s style, but as its own thing? Morrowind is a pretty near perfect game. Absolutely adore it.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Fallout: New Vegas, Final Fantasy IX, Mother 3, Kirby: Planet Robobot, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Dark Cloud 2, Crusader Kings II, Knights of the Old Republic II, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night also all deserve big shout-outs for that category. And since the series came up earlier in the thread, I will always have a fondness for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, honestly, might be my favorite sequel that is entirely, narratively a sequel to its predecessor. Great development for BJ and some of the recurring characters, plus several stellar additions to the cast - Horton and Grace, especially. Kingdom Hearts II definitely deserves a nod for being one of the best follow-ups to its predecessor both narratively and mechanically.

And it’s not done enough to know how, exactly, it is a sequel to Undertale, but I suspect deltarune is going to be a contender one day.

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I think one of the weirder sequels that gets forgotten in this lineage is Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. I think a lot of people hated it, but I liked it quite a bit at the time. It’s an incredibly messy and weird and kind of ugly game, but it’s kind of entirely focused on how people responded to the first game.

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Lol Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number rules. Better soundtrack than the original and it’s fucking mean as hell. It’s also banned here in Australia so owning it makes me cool. I’m sensing a pattern here in myself…

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I think this one might be a bit controversial around here, but DOOM:Eternal is the ultimate sequel on the metric of “I can never go back to the predecessor”. I felt differently at first, chaffing against the many additional abilities to balance, the stylistic changes, and the live-game trappings. I remember thinking outright during my first playthrough that DOOM 2016 was the stronger overall package. But once I settled in I found that Eternal takes the best late-game, high octane encounters from DOOM 2016, cranks them up an extra 3 notches and makes that the baseline. It’s everything I wanted and more.

All of the initial complaints either faded from view or turned out to be pretty great: balancing the new abilities is extremely fun and rewarding; the live-game stuff is hardly intrusive apart from the cluttered main menu, and new cosmetics are welcome; the arcadey visual style is a charming throwback that helps with visual intelligibility; and enemies like the Marauder that people complained about are a wonderful way for the game to alter the rhythm of certain encounters without totally disrupting the flow.

I’ve said this before on here, but DOOM: Eternal has become my Souls game as I cannot wait to beat my head against harder and harder challenges over and over. It’s the ultimate adrenaline rush and even the hardest Master Levels somehow manage to feel like fair challenges to overcome, insanely hard as they may be. I simply cannot imagine going back to DOOM 2016.

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Since there’s so many franchises in gaming, I could list off every game in the Zelda series or Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. So I’ll limit myself to franchises that have gotten one proper sequel and I doubt they’ll get another.

NEO: TWEWY was a fantastic game from last year, builds well on the first one by combining great new characters with old ones. The new combat where every party member is mapped to one button each is a clever system.

Chrono Cross, tragically the only sequel to one of the best games of all time, goes from time travel to a multiverse. Love the tropical island vibe, one of the most beautiful PlayStation games ever. The battle system is crap and the party members forgettable and the story seems like it ran of space so crams all the exposition in at the end. But that’s what’s great about late 90s Square games, they’re too ambitious so become unique messes.

Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 (which I say counts since RCT3 is a completely different kind of park sim, made by a different team, in 3D, and it sucks). RCT 2 is still something more like an extremely big expansion pack of the first game. This one comes with small changes that make a ton of differences, like being able to raise and lower scenery. Or having scenery options to actually be able to build proper buildings and architecture. RCT1 was a great ride builder, RCT2 makes it a great theme park builder. There’s a reason this game is still played and very active decades later.

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Just going to shout out Ace Attorney 3: Trials and Tribulations here. It ties up most loose ends of the trilogy and successfully completes the character arcs of most of the major cast: plus, it’s a great story on its own. It’s an astonishing script. The cases are (at least mostly) sharper than ever and the team has gotten better at the logic structure of when you should present what.

Plus Godot absolutely rules as an opponent. What a character.

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Have you by chance seen this video essay? Because it articulates a lot of what I love about HLM2 and even clarifies that the increase in difficulty and seemingly impossible odds are thematically resonant. Which is something that I know people take issue with. I’ve genuinely come around on HLM2 in recent years. I think it’s great.

Related: I still think it’s genuinely funny that Jacob Geller made a video about how he doesn’t get Hotline Miami 2 and then just points people to the video essay I linked. I don’t know if making a whole video is a better signal boost than just tweeting a link to what is clearly a better analysis, but here we are. This is, to my knowledge, the ONLY time Jacob Geller has ever missed lol.

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