At the fast rate video games are changing these days to the slow (becoming slower) wait between sequels, it’s a wonder that developers are able to keep us coming back for more fun with whatever set of characters to which we’ve become attached. Consider the Uncharted series. There was a mere two-year span between the releases of the first three games, and here we are waiting for Uncharted 4 to be unleashed next year, five years after Uncharted 3. (Granted, the first three games didn’t have to deal with the release of a new console.) Also consider titles like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed where you get a new game every year or two that essentially follow the model of “same game, different place.” Then you have games series that follow their own rules, like anything that might involve Mario. He’s got a whole empire of various games series bearing his name, some of which are related (Mario Party), some of which are revamps (nearly anything Mario Bros.), and others of which are complete one-offs (Mario Paint). And what about series like Final Fantasy? This year (July 12th) marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Final Fantasy on the NES in the United States, and fans were treated to the recent announcement of a Final Fantasy VII remake. Like, in a sense, the Legend of Zelda series, these games offer unique experience under the same brand. You get to spend time in somewhat familiar places with mostly familiar (and sometimes the same) people playing with familiar mechanics. But I’m not sure we’d agree upon whether or not everything that came after Final Fantasy (1990) or The Legend of Zelda (1986) were true sequels to those originals.
But my thoughts here don’t lie in semantics. Instead, I’m wondering about introducing new players to new series and if it ever makes sense to start at the very beginning? Are there game series that benefit new players, especially, when they are played sequentially? And these questions come from a couple different points of view. The first is that of me as an old gamer with new interests in playing older games. The second is that of me as someone who able to introduce young people (i.e. those in my family) to gaming.
Let’s take the last point first, because I imagine that it affects a wide swath of gamers today. Maybe you have kids of your own in whom you’d like to develop gaming tolerances. Maybe you have nieces or nephews who gravitate towards your game systems whenever they visit. Whatever the case may be, you have a niche in your life that involved kids and gaming. Does it even matter where that starts? Using Mario as a starting point – he’s served as the gateway for so many of us after all – which game would you say is the best on to start with? For the sake of argument, let’s narrow it down to the five big, mainstream Mario platformer games: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64. Is there any good reason to start with the original Super Mario Bros.? Because I’m thinking not really. Though it may have been where I started with the series, it’s a hard game. I’d be more prone to start with Super Mario World. Yes, it’s also hard (by any standards, let’s face it.), but it’s also a very inviting and engaging game. Plus, it’s got Yoshi, which kicks the game up a notch over my close number two, Super Mario Bros. 3. But say your young people don’t want to play Mario. What if they want to play Rayman or Rachet and Clank or Little Big Planet or Pokémon? So you automatically seek out the newest game in any given series, or do you start the journey in the past and hope to work forward?
Questions, questions, too many questions…right? Well, it’s only going to get worse because eventually the young gamers grow up to be old gamers, and then the real question-asking and decision–making starts, because nobody has time to play ALL the games! So circling back to my first point of view – that of me playing older games. When it comes to my general entertainments, I like to start at the beginning of things. This is true for books, movies, TV shows, at least, music less so, and…video games? Probably not true at all. I mean, sometimes I happen to start with a game that becomes a series, like Mass Effect or Portal. Other times, I’ll have a full series at my disposal and it simply makes sense to start at the beginning, such as The Walking Dead or Bayonetta. Most of the time, of the time, if I pick up a new games series it’s often in the middle, like with Uncharted 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV. And I never start in the middle without harboring at least a little anxiety over not playing whatever came before. But in the cases with some series, developers do a really decent job of educating new players who happen to start somewhere other than the beginning. I never felt confused about Nathan Drake’s purpose even though I hadn’t played the original Uncharted. And I never lost in my round of GTA IV either. And if someone asked me where would be a good place to start with those series, or Mass Effect, or Fable, or Portal, or Little Big Planet, I don’t know that I’d automatically pick the first games.
Thanks in large part to Xenoblade Chronicles (by no means an “old” game, but still), my interests in playing more JRPGs has been rekindled some. Long on my radar in that regard has been the Shin Megami Tensei series. Years ago I played, or rather tried to play its PC port. Though I liked the game’s strange simplicity and its combination of text-based and turn-based play, I struggled with enemy strategies (the alignment system seems so simple now…) and didn’t fully understand the game’s story, so I let it go. I remained on the sidelines when two sequels, Shin Megami Tensei II and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne were released. And then, a couple years ago, along came Shin Megami Tensei IV….and I seriously considered get a 3DS just for it. Despite having only the most tenuous history with the series, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching the fourth installment, and I simply wanted to play it for myself. But then my old “playing sequels first” anxiety kicked in, and I really couldn’t ignore that little voice in the back of my head berating me for never completing the first game. You have to finish the first game, it said. You’ll never understand the demons if you don’t, it said. Then the send and third games, and eventually the fourth game will make so much more sense, it said. Recently, I relented and picked up the original Shin Megami Tensei. It is as strange as I remember it, if not stranger, especially in comparison to what the games look and play like now. I’m not sure if I know the extent of what I’ve gotten myself into, but in this case, starting at the beginning simply feels like the right thing to do.
What’s your take on starting a game series? Do you prefer to start at the beginning or the most recent entry? Are there series that you think work better when played sequentially?