Blog: Learning to Let Go

Blog: Learning to Let Go

Will all long-running game series eventually run out of steam? And is that really all bad?

Originally published April 2015.

With the recent overnight success of Axiom Verge, a popular anecdote from last year's E3 has begun making the rounds again.

Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime spotted the game on the show floor and remarked that the game — meticulously and deliberately crafted in the image of Metroid and other 8-bit Nintendo classics — looked somewhat familiar. Radio Free Nintendo host Jonathan Metts happened to be within earshot at the time and retorted, "Somebody needs to make Metroid, it might as well be him!"

While amusing, this little exchange also highlights a truth about games and fandom. The Metroid series has been effectively missing in action for half a decade now, ever since Metroid: Other M landed on Wii with a dull thud of disappointment. Aside from Virtual Console reissues and the occasional sideways reference or bit of merchandise (most recently the Samus Aran Amiibo, which was promptly discontinued), Metroid has been conspicuous in its absence from Nintendo's lineup for years now.

But fans haven't given up on Metroid. Some fans, including Axiom Verge designer Tom Happ, have taken matters into their own hands and simply created their own Metroid-inspired games. Others have breathed new life into Nintendo's existing Metroid titles (among others), with hardcore ROM hacks and dynamic route randomizers providing a literally endless array of replay options for diehard fans to re-experience their favorite games in perpetually new and unexpected ways.

But what these things aren't is a new Metroid, developed internally at Nintendo or even externally under the supervision of long-time series director Yoshi Sakamoto.

"We've secretly replaced fans' Metroid series with Axiom Verge. Let's see if they notice."

Metroid's hardly alone. These days, the durable classics of the '80s lie strewn in various states of disrepair or abandonment. Capcom appears to have abandoned the Mega Man franchise, once a multi-headed hydra of sub-brands, along with many of its old peers such as Ghosts 'N Goblins and Breath of Fire (now an ugly-looking social game with little apparent connection to the classic RPGs of the 16- and 32-bit eras). Activision hasn't produced a Pitfall! game in years. Electronic Arts has shut down more franchises through acquisitions than most publishers even own. Konami seems to have all but abandoned video games, leaving such favorites as Contra and Castlevania as little more than fond memories. And so on, and so forth.

None of this is news, exactly, but between Axiom Verge's extraordinary recreation of Metroid's essence and the apparent departure (or firing) of Hideo Kojima from Konami, it's been on my mind a lot. The old giants are falling, and with Kojima's departure from Metal Gear, gaming's last hands-on creator of a long-running game franchise will be separated from his legacy. Yes, Nintendo mainstays like Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka still oversee the likes of Mario and Zelda, but in a strictly supervisory capacity; the nuts-and-bolts development of those franchises has long since passed to new blood like Eiji Aonuma and Yoshiaki Koizumi. Kojima was the last of the key designers from the '80s to continue wading hip-deep in the series he created, and after Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain launches, that one last thread connecting present to past will have been severed.

Even Big Boss looks bummed out about it.

There's something slightly heartbreaking about the games industry's dogged determination to throw its own heritage by the wayside. This week, the Electronic Freedom Foundation reported that the Electronic Software Association (the closest thing the games industry has to a governing body) has declared the concept of end-user game preservation and maintaining inactive services such as abandoned MMO worlds an act of piracy. While the ESA's actual statement was far less hostile than the EFF's characterization of it, the simple fact that so many game enthusiasts were quick to believe that the people behind their favorite medium were openly hostile to their interests speaks volumes about the wild disparity in perceptions, intentions, and values between the people who love games and the companies that own them.

In that light, is it really so bad a thing that many classic franchises have fallen by the wayside? If the stewards of an industry can't see the value in its heritage, how can those people ever hope to keep those legacies alive in a worthwhile form?

The realization that all these series I'd taken for granted over the past few decades were by no means a permanent fixture of video games, or of my life, hit me with a dismay and frustration. But eventually I came to realize that it's not really a problem after all. Perhaps it's better to put a fading franchise out to pasture than to keep it on life support well beyond the point at which it has any worthwhile ideas left to offer.

Even Mario has his Hotel Marios.

And really, how many great games have been able to sustain sequels of similar quality for very long? When I look back at my favorite 8-bit games, none of them batted 1.000 across their follow-ups — even those stalwarts Metal Gear and Mario have had their ups and downs. It's long been taken as gospel that game franchises should evolve with and adapt to changes in the industry as a whole, leaping across technologies and platforms to remain fresh and timely. But why should that be the case? Why shouldn't a game concept thrive in a specific time and place, then be allowed to retire when it's run its course?

Take the Mega Man series as an example. The series' absence since 2010's Mega Man 10 has been lamented loudly and at length by fans. It seems bizarre that we went from as many as five or six Mega Man releases in a single year to zero. But consider how many of the hundred-plus games to bear the name Mega Man were truly great. Maybe 10, if we're being generous? Plenty of them were good, yes, but few were truly transcendent... and given the sheer number of releases built around the same handful of mechanics and concepts, the name "Mega Man" is more or less synonymous with the idea of diminishing returns. I mentioned in my recent look back at the best NES games that Mega Man 6 was perhaps unfairly overlooked... but can you really fault anyone for lacking enthusiasm for the sixth largely identical work on a single platform?

Not all Mega Man games were created equally, and not all Mega Man creators approached the series with equal enthusiasm. In the hands of developers who didn't "get" the series, Mega Man could be downright dreadful. Even Mega Man's long-time designers at IntiCreates seemed to have mixed results; their return to the classic 8-bit style in Mega Man 9 was one of the great platformers of the past decade, but that game's follow-up (the aforementioned Mega Man 10) lacked the spark of enthusiasm that powered Mega Man 9, despite having been produced by many of the same staff.

Mega Man 9: Amazing! Mega Man 10: Pretty good! Despite being made by the same folks who made MM9 amazing.

While publishers tend to treat games as franchised products — a salable name sitting atop creations by a revolving cast of creators — the reality is that individual talent makes a difference. Again, consider Mega Man: The first two games were overseen by Akira Kitamura, who soon departed Capcom for a design gig at Takeru. The tone and style of Mega Man changed in the wake of Kitamura's departure, despite those sequels being built around the same mechanics and principles as Kitamura's games. The series also largely stagnated, while the games Kitamura oversaw at Takeru — Cocoron and Little Samson — retained a similar play style to Mega Man while venturing beyond that series' finite boundaries into more creative territory.

What good does it do for anyone to pour time and resources into familiar names if all those beloved properties are good for is propping up tired game mechanics and hackneyed story concepts? Why not yield the floor to other creators who have something fresh to say with their own ventures? Much as it pains me to admit it, I have a hard time mustering enthusiasm for a new Metroid game after Other M; while it made for an interesting design exercise (how do we turn Metroid into a Ninja Gaiden-style action game?), it did little mechanically to advance the series and represented a massive step backward for the series' overarching narrative and the integrity of its lead character. And that was a game overseen by the series' original designer, someone with a personal connection to and stake in the games.

Meanwhile, you have something like Axiom Verge — something that, witty E3 rejoinders aside, demonstrates precisely why it might be good to let go of beloved brands if all they've really become is, in fact, brands. Axiom Verge borrows liberally from Metroid, but at the same time it isn't bound by all the rules and expectations attached to Metroid. Someone like Tom Happ was free to experiment with new ideas and mechanics in a way that someone like Yoshio Sakamoto can't.

Other M: Big on brutal kills, less big on Metroid trademarks like exploration and character empowerment.

Is Metroid really Metroid if it doesn't dutifully trudge through the same predictable power-up sequence established in Super Metroid? Does Pac-Man have value as a character, or is he only suited to exist as a twitch arcade avatar? Can someone other than Hideo Kojima create a satisfying Metal Gear game? Are classic trapped by their own legacies? Can they move beyond those limitations yet still retain their essence? Or are these games best left to memories and rereleases?

Personally, I find myself more and more inclined toward the latter philosophy. Will it kill me if I never play another new Castlevania game? No, especially if they play like the awful sequels to Lords of Shadow. And there are still plenty of great Castlevania games of the past for me to dig up and experience — I've never played all the way through Bloodlines, Belmont's Revenge, or Order of Ecclesia. And the lack of current follow-ups certainly doesn't prevent me from revisiting old favorites like Dracula's Curse and Symphony of the Night: Games that will remain entertaining on their own merits.

I'd be especially happy for these classics to pass the proverbial torch to spiritual successors. If Metroid gave way to Axiom Verge, would that be such a crime? Do we need to see more Spelunker games when we have Spelunky? Mighty No. 9 looks likely to scratch my Mega Man itch, so why shouldn't Capcom let the character retire to a comfortable life of merchandise and Smash Bros. cameos?

From David Crane to Akira Kitamura to Hideo Kojima, creators move along. It's not always easy, but I'm learning to do likewise.

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