Taking old game series and dropping another sequel into them is becoming almost as commonplace as rebooting old movies. In the case of retro video game series, studios see the potential to leverage nostalgia for dollars or (rarely) add a meaningful entry into the series.
Yet, these game studios and producers don’t always realize that names have power. A series name can raise sales and excitement, but gamers expect high quality games in return.
While bringing an old series back can be done, like in the case of Killer Instinct, more often than not, companies are just taking a dead or dying franchise and disgracing it. In my opinion, an entry that takes place many years later should at least offer more to the overarching story of the series, provide gameplay on par with older versions, and simply be as good or better overall than the last game made.
If the game studio can’t do that, then leave the series alone. They don’t, though, and the series suffer for it. That’s why I’m going to run through four retro game series that were dragged from the grave for no good reason, as a reminder that sometimes a dead series is better.
Duke Nukem: No, the Forever Isn’t Tongue-in-Cheek
I barely wanted to include this one, so I’ll get it out of the way quickly. Everyone beats up on Duke Nukem Forever because it’s a bit of an easy target.
Personally, I enjoyed parts of the single-player campaign like the weapons and the ridiculousness of the story, but Duke Nukem Forever failed in so many ways. That hurts to say because I played the hell out of Duke Nukem II and Duke Nukem: 3D. So, when I picked up the game, I thought I was going to get a game that was funny, had a story that was convoluted yet intriguing, and tried to be better than the game that preceded it.
That’s not what we got, though. The multiplayer was a travesty, the graphics were rough, the enemy AI was confusing, and there’s the simple fact that we waited for it to come out for 15 years. Playing this game will give you all the proof you need that some games series really shouldn’t be picked up again.
Star Ocean: When What-Ifs Become Video Games
The Star Ocean series suffered from game studios not knowing when to move on to different ideas. Instead, they stuck with the same tired concept and drove it into the ground.
Some hallmarks of the Star Ocean series include a plot where the hero crash-lands on a new planet, explore the planet or planets while recruiting locals, find the supposed evil, and then discover there is something even more dastardly to fight. That second or third act reveal of the true evil is usually pretty spectacular.
Star Ocean (1996), Star Ocean: The Second Story (1998), and Star Ocean: Blue Sphere (2001) share some of the same characters along with both gameplay story elements. They were really innovative and fun RPGs that were exceptionally character-driven. They each possessed all of the hallmarks mentioned above, but the games were still very unique.
Afterward, the studio made a fourth game Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (2003). The game took place in the future of the original timeline and had a plot that was almost too similar to the first three entries. However, I forgave it because it was a good RPG overall. I loved all the cool call-backs to the original games. The only thing was that the story went absolutely crazy at the end. It was so far gone that I thought that it would be impossible to continue the series.
Tri-Ace plucked the flies off Star Ocean in 2009, 6 years after the last entry. We got Star Ocean: The Last Hope which went back in time, had you crash-land on a planet and contained a barely passable story. Again, the combat was pretty neat but I wanted better characters.
This game was a great indication that the series needed to stay down for the count or go in a completely different direction. Innovations were small, the games were becoming less unique, and the story had been stretched forward and backward.
The true grave robbery of Star Ocean happened in 2016 when we got two entries into the series in a single year, one a console RPG and the other a mobile game. Both games competed to see which could have the most ridiculous tag line on their name: Integrity and Faithlessness and Anamnesis, which is the sound you make when trying to talk with a mouthful of raw cookie dough.
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness had the same plot, but different. This time you’re already on the planet and the spaceship crashes onto it. The game crashed and burned. So did the mobile game, which ended in 2019, a year after it’s worldwide release.
It was a slow and torturous death that might have been avoided if they didn’t just slap the Star Ocean names onto games and try to work around the same story elements.
Golden Axe: A Retro Series That Needed to Be 2D Forever
Sometimes, a game series just needs to end, even if it does have innovation. In some cases, the company lacks the skill to make another entry. That seems to be the case with Golden Axe.
Golden Axe is an amazing side-scrolling, chop-em-up game on arcade and Sega Genesis. You played the role of three characters that used swords, axes, and magic to cut through swaths of enemies and kill the evil Death Adder and Death Bringer. You restore the kingdom, get the titular axe, and celebrate.
Golden Axe II followed the winning formula to great success. The game series introduced new magic, updated the weapons, and included normal play mode and “duel” mode. It was a great entry onto the Sega Genesis.
An arcade sequel to Golden Axe II came out months after the former’s release, titled Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder. This was well-received, too, even though my local arcade never carried it so I could try.
Then, Golden Axe III tried to do too much with too little time. The studio added in new characters and animations, changed combat, and overhauled the magic system. Yet, the drop in graphics quality, the loss of some progress from Golden Axe II, and the rushed feeling of the whole game put an end to the series.
It would be 15 years before Golden Axe: Beast Rider would be picked up, reimagined, and tossed at consumers with the haste of a fast-food sandwich. I’m bitter about this one because it had the potential to be really cool.
They brought back a character from the original series, put the game into the 3D world, and had you hack, slash, and breathe fire all over people while you went after Death Adder.
The story was a rehash, but that was the least of the problems. The combat was clunky, the art style was repetitive, and the music was just plain awful. They had a great idea but executed it so badly that they were better off not making the game. The series was dead after the third console entry, but they went ahead and yanked it from the grave anyways.
Breath of Fire: Give Ryu a Rest
Don’t get me wrong, I believe new directions in video games are good. Yet, it’s also a good idea to gauge the market and see if anyone wants what you’re selling. That’s kinda what happened with Breath of Fire, where players wanted a quality entry into the series and got a chimera of a game instead.
The Breath of Fire series, starting in 1993, never got the recognition or respect like the Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior series. Yet, Breath of Fire still deserves a lot of credit because the games were solid, fun RPGs that thrived in a time when the market was flooded with amazing games by more experienced studios. In particular, the games from this series had interesting stories, cool combat abilities (like turning into a dragon), great music, and were pretty long but exciting.
Breath of Fire I, II, and III were all above-average RPGs at worst and they didn’t do a lot to change or subvert the RPG genre, and that worked great. By the time I finished Breath of Fire IV, I was begging for V. The graphics were not incredible, but they worked very well for that game. The music was great, the world was engrossing, the writing was very good, and I loved the characters.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter not only flopped with me but also with critics. I’m not one to oppose changes in a game series. Yet, after playing several entries in a fantasy world, it was quite jarring to be in a steampunk-ish world as a Ryu that isn’t truly a dragon, and without so many of the things that made the other games enjoyable.
The series could have come back, tinkered with the formula, and made a splash but they didn’t try. The series was dead for 14 years when Breath of Fire VI was revealed to be in development as a web-based, multiplayer game for 2016. It was panned so hard that it never released in the U.S. and had online operation ceased in 2017.
Ryu was brought back for no reason, just like his fellow dragon, Jon Snow.
Nostalgia’s a hell of a drug.
It’s true. Yet, there are limits to how rosy our glasses can get. No matter how much you strain your eyes to look at some of these entries, it’s tough to see a whole lot of good.
Video games are like movies, TV shows, and books. When your story is done or when you’ve said everything you can about a topic or character, pack it up. Otherwise, it just drags on and on, lessening the impact of the original material.
If game companies are going to take a favored game series and make a sequel, they have to realize it’s going to be critiqued more severely than it would as any other game. Also, if they’re not able to live up to the series and make a worthy addition, sometimes it’s better to leave it behind and start fresh.
(Check out Kyle’s molten hot-take on Sega Genesis RPGs while you’re here.)