With the upcoming Toaru Majutsu no Virtual On and whatever writeups I’ll end up doing on the VO series, I had to stop for a moment and consider how I should approach this whole deal. This is because of the major preconception about Marz and Force that are about, especially in the core fandom that refuse to play the games without a Twin Stick. I haven’t had a chance to ever play Force, something that should change relatively soon, but the memories what I have of Marz have been coloured by time and other sources. That isn’t good, and would keep me form properly viewing the series as a whole while still trying to view the games as individuals.
That led me to the question What is a good game sequel? There are probably as many answers to this as there are people, and I recall making a post about this very subject years back. I tried to look it up (in terror) but found nothing. Either my search-fu is too weak, or I’m remembering things wrong.
I can pick up the usual example I use about a good sequel and a bad sequel for the same game; Super Mario Bros. The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is known as The Lost Levels in the West, and for a good reason; it’s a terrible sequel. It doesn’t change the formula one bit or makes additional tweaks to make the game play smoother. It simply is more stages, just loads harder for those who found the first the game too easy. Titles like this would become expansions down the line, additional bits bolted to make further use of the core game while keeping from expanding in any significant way.
The good example, as you might’ve already guessed it, is Super Mario Bros 2, or USA if you’re a moonlander. Sure, it’s a graphics swap of Doki Doki Panic, and whatever fake outrage the Internet may have about it, it really shows how Nintendo made good use of the game. As said, the Japanese SMB2 isn’t anything special, and didn’t push the envelope. The Western SMB2 on the other hand did, upgrading the engine, additional playable characters with different properties, new usable skills, vast large new world with all new enemies to jump on. It’s a terrific sequel, albeit a bit too long at times. Its music is still memorable, with remixes of it still appearing in modern titles alongside Birdo.
The emphasize for the world up there is important, because SMB3 further expanded on everything, and we got to see the world outside Mushroom Kingdom. No Mario game has felt this grand, not even Galaxy.
The NES Mario Trilogy has three games, all of which stand alone as fine examples of 2D action games, while as a whole they showcase the evolution of the NES games throughout the system’s age. I tend to gravitate towards this example, because it would seem the best way for a sequel to strike through is to follow this example. A sequel needs to keep the core game play idea intact without compromising in expanding them as well as expanding the rest of the game. This doesn’t necessarily translate into larger game per se, or into bigger story, but rather into a game that doesn’t just stick new content unto old base directly.
How would this thinking fit something like Virtual On? Super Mario Bros. 2 can’t be directly used as a comparison point, but Street Fighter series can be, and they’ve stuck to these principles pretty much all the way through, for better or worse. With pretty much the whole series at our hands, with video footage, reviews and most of the games easily available in a way or another, we should be able to make proper heads and tails how the series has progressed, what has gone wrong and what are sort of value each game in the series has. Value in this context would mean both perceived value and proper value, which often gets mucked down by the fact that we’re subjective. As said, we can always aim for the ideal objectivity.
And this is why I won’t hold my breath doing this short series, an entry per game. Without a doubt these entries will become reviews on their own, because that’s the kind of thing that just naturally happens when you’re trying to make a relatively complete overview on a series of games. However, they need to be reviews from two angles; a review from the angle of the game being a standalone, and one from a series perspective. This is essentially long form to say that I’m giving the benefit of the doubt and straying away from preconceptions. Though I can’t really deny my intuition (which is why I’m not paying 50€ for a used copy of VO Force when I can grab it for a thousand yen.)
Virtual On‘s gameplay and design doesn’t really allow too much leeway to muck with its formula, so it’s not surprise that the game play would be polished and tweaked to high levels relatively soon. Then again, a straight-up arcade game rarely survives this day and age on home systems, especially if its a full-fledged entry with high production values rather than another pixel-based indie throwback.
Perhaps this approach is a wrong, but I hope to see the forest from the trees and vice versa. Maybe it’s been coloured by personal views a bit too much, but I’d rather try to look a mediating middle ground of things when it comes to games rather than judging stuff outright. You can’t judge a book by its cover (though sometimes, you damn well can), and the same applies to games. Even then, entertainment pieces tend to gain their fame for good reasons. Which is funny, because whenever you hear someone mentioning Virtual On, you mostly hear only about Oratorio Tangram, the second game in the series, and the first one kind of left in its shadow despite having surprisingly hefty underground fanbase within the overall VO fandom.
Just like certain 80’s series still have a small but strong fandom going on.