Sequels aren’t just commonplace in video games; they’re practically the standard. More now than ever, new ideas are risky so developers stick to well-worn themes and franchises to give them the best chance at keeping the lights on. The results are often disappointing, however. Going to the well multiple times, one may find the well dried up. At times, new teams are brought in who struggle to keep up with the vision of previous games, much less surpass them.
However, there are some games that completely overshadow their predecessors. They fix whatever was wrong or add tweaks to perfect the formula. These are the games I want to shine light on in this article. These are some of my all-time favorites, which are sequels to games I played but didn’t get into for whatever reason – be it design flaws or my impatience.
Please chime in with titles you feel qualify for the list. I’m interested to hear your thoughts. I obviously haven’t played everything; I’m bound to have missed some.
I’m going to disqualify a few games right off the bat, however. Metal Gear Solid and GTA 3 are two all-time classics that crush their forebears. However, they’re such a leap – especially technologically – that they barely resemble the entries that came before.
10. Saints Row 2 (2006, Xbox 360)
“An unapologetic Grand Theft Auto clone.” That’s an apt description for the first Saints Row, which THQ and Volition put out in 2006 on Xbox 360. But since there was no GTA on that generation of consoles at the time, people didn’t complain much. After all, it was open-world urban warfare. And it was…okay.
Saints Row 2, however, came out the same year as Grand Theft Auto IV. Thus, it had to step its game up. Or intentionally step in dog shit and pratfall hilariously. Saints Row 2 took a turn for the absurd that few could have predicted. While GTA IV had a fleshed-out main character with complex (annoying) relationships in a realistic world, Saints Row 2 aimed for over the top. Your player-character could look like a 400-pound opera singer in a tuxedo. Missions include covering a neighborhood with raw sewage and diving in front of cars for the insurance money.
Saints Row 2 was designed for fun first and foremost. It was the open-world alternative we didn’t know we wanted. In subsequent releases, Volition turned up the crazy even further and the results were mostly positive. As I haven’t played Saints Row 3 or 4, I can’t really speak on them. But Saints Row 3 has been on my to-play pile for quite a while.
Buy Saints Row 2
9. Destruction Derby 2 (1996, PlayStation)
PlayStation was such a technological leap forward for console gaming. If you weren’t around, it’s hard to explain the significance. Sure, polygons had been used in games before; but Star Fox looked like a cardboard craft project. Sure, CD-ROM was a standard for computers; but Myst and Warcraft put a lot of us to sleep.
I remember being blown away by Destruction Derby 1 on a demo PlayStation unit at Kohl’s department store. A bunch of cars were in a bowl, smashing into each other. The results were beautiful: polygons flying everywhere, cars getting dented beyond recognition.
Of course, getting past the tech-demo aspect, the game itself was a little thin on content. But that’s what sequels are for, right? Destruction Derby 2 actually played awesome as well. The demo-derby arena – which was still well done enough that my non-gaming stepdad kicked ass at it – now played second fiddle to stock-car racing. DD2 gave us a circuit with a bunch of tracks to either straight race for first place or to get bonus points for smashing our rivals. And the AI was no joke: You needed to be on point to proceed.
Destruction Derby 2 is not a beloved game for most. It received a lukewarm critical reception. My guess is reviewers didn’t have the time and patience like I did to overcome the difficult drivers and embrace the strategy. And I’d like to mention Burnout 3: Takedown, another favorite racer of mine where almost everything I said above applies. However, I feel the first two Burnout titles were also really good games, thus keeping 3 from making my list.
Buy Destruction Derby 2
8. Metal Gear Ac!d 2 (2006, PlayStation Portable)
While I mentioned Metal Gear Solid is disqualified from the list, Ac!d 2 fits perfectly. You see, Konami wanted to put Metal Gear on the promising PlayStation Portable, but a lengthy stealth game was both a financial risk and possibly not conducive to the format. Enter Metal Gear Ac!d – which took the characters and concepts of Metal Gear and put them in a turn-based, card-centric game.
It was an intriguing concept, but a few things held it back. The story was not up to par with Hideo Kojima‘s espionage opuses, and the storytelling itself featured static images and text boxes as opposed to beautiful cutscenes. Even the level length seemed an odd choice for portable.
Ac!d 2, conversely, really spoke to me. The control was more real-time, the cards more exciting and the graphics had style. Perhaps the fact that I knew what to expect going in made me more receptive to what it had to offer. It’s one of the few games I beat then immediately (and gleefully) played through again. The story was still a bit of a letdown, but it was just such a balanced, well playing title.
Buy Metal Gear Ac!d 2
7. Tekken 2 (1996, PlayStation)
3D fighting games were novel. You had realistic looking characters brawling in realistic stages. It was worth plopping some quarters into an arcade machine, even though to me the shine died down when you actually played them. Street Fighter II they were not, though that was an impossible and unfair comparison.
Tekken 1 looked and played better than most (Virtua Fighter, Toshinden) but that still wasn’t enough to get me excited. Perhaps polygon fighters were a fad that would go away quickly, I thought. Then I saw Tekken 2 at the Wisconsin State Fair. It was just about the most awesome spectacle I’d ever laid eyes on – akin to the first time you see a sunset or watch the Death Star explode.
I had to have it. And PlayStation was the only way I could, so I had to have a PlayStation. Echoing me buying a SNES to play Street Fighter II, I went out and bought Sony’s new console. Except I hadn’t bothered to check the release date for Tekken 2; I was a month or two early. You’d think with all the video-game mags I bought, I would have done my research.
But when I finally got it home, I played through every character’s story. The CG cutscenes for the intro and the endings was captivating. Some were funny; others were bad-ass or sexy. The amount of unlockable fighters was insane. Sure, it was still more button-mashy than Street Fighter, but I loved my time with it. I still look back on it fondly.
Buy Tekken 2 (PSone Classic for PS3/Vita)
6. Halo 2 (2004, Xbox)
It is well know that Halo 1 was revolutionary for console first-person shooters. To me, it was pretty meh. Sure, I bought it along with my launch-day Xbox (along with Project Gotham Racing). But after the newness wore off, I moved on. It wasn’t until much later when I went back and finished it. And man, were the final stages a slog. Talk about padding a campaign! It was no GoldenEye.
Still, I was amped for Halo 2. There was so much hype, how could you not be? It was akin to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 back in the Genesis days. I was a game journalist, and I was one of the first to play Halo 2 multiplayer – at a house in the Hollywood hills that’s appeared in, among many others, The Big Lewbowski.
And Halo 2 delivered! Yes, it can be said that its campaign left on a cliffhanger, but I prefer that to endless repeating rooms. The dual wielding and vehicle-jacking weren’t massive enhancements, but they were surely cool additions. The laser sword was great, and playing as dual protagonists was a mature narrative device.
But the multiplayer was the star! And this is coming from someone who really doesn’t play video games well with others. The suite of tools, stats and match options was unlike anything I’d ever played before. I’m fairly certain I’ve played more Halo titles online than all other games put together, and it began with Halo 2.
Buy Halo 2
5. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009, PlayStation 3)
I’m a big Tomb Raider fan. I like the exploration, puzzle-solving and platforming. Uncharted 1 looked to me to be a derivative of this, releasing when Lara Croft was on a Pamela Anderson-style down-slope, so I couldn’t be happier. Naughty Dog had done great things with Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, and Sony was putting its full muscle behind this new franchise.
I got so damn mad at Uncharted! Part of it was because the game threw chokepoints of fights at you with some unfair odds and a grenade-throwing mechanic that sucked. But part of it was that it wasn’t the game I was expecting it to be. About 4 hours in, I shelved it and have yet to pick it up – even when they patched it and added trophy support.
Uncharted 2 was getting great hype coming up on release. I think this was a time when Amazon was giving big credit bonuses for preorders, so I decided to give protagonist Nathan Drake another chance. I’m certain glad I did!
This was really the first summer blockbuster-style video game. It was fast and furious. Maybe not the brightest, but it kept you engaged and on the edge of your seat. You gave a damn about the characters, soaked up the eye-popping graphics and experienced tight gameplay mechanics.
I even put Uncharted 2 in the Top 100 Games list I made later that year. Maybe some day I’ll try Uncharted 1 again. Or I’ll remember not being too into Uncharted 3 and keep letting it collect dust.
Buy Uncharted 2
4. Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (2006, Xbox 360)
I’m an RPG lover. JRPG, strategy/RPG… I love them all. So I was intrigued when I was assigned to review Elder Scrolls: Morrowind on Xbox. I saw what they were trying to do, but I was not buying what they were selling. I thought a lot of the mechanics were clunky and the game lacked direction. It takes more than being dropped into a giant world to get me interested.
I think it was a case of ambition over execution. Maybe the PC version was better; our PC editor sure liked it. I even gave it a second shot on my own years later, but my original feelings were confirmed.
So imagine my shock when its sequel, the early 360 title Oblivion, became one of my favorite games ever! It was as if Bethesda listened to and addressed every gripe I had about Morrowind. It helped that the 360 could handle the scope a lot better. But fast travel, a handier map, and more intuitive combat contributed to making a near-ideal game. Add in a world that reminded me of being a child in the fields of Upper Michigan in the summer and near-endless dungeons to explore, and Oblivion is still very high on my list. But does it top its own sequel, Skyrim? Hmmmm…
3. Final Fantasy VI (1994, Super Nintendo)
Back in the day, RPGs were like this: You got some medieval characters, you battled endless random enemy encounters, and you would grind your way to higher levels to get further. It sounds pretty abysmal, but we didn’t know much better.
Final Fantasy 1 on NES definitely fit the criteria. I got it for $10 at Toys R Us, and while I got my money’s worth it wasn’t necessarily much fun. I let my girlfriend borrow it and overwrite the lone save file because she was interested. She never played it again, but it wasn’t a big loss.
Final Fantasy VI (called Final Fantasy 3 when it came out in the US) blew all other RPGs out of the water. It used every drop of Super Nintendo’s power to offer stunning graphics and even better music. The game gave you over a dozen unique playable characters along with enough reasons to care about each of them. Tough-guy Sabin used fighting-game style inputs for his special moves; young artist Relm drew portraits of enemies to capture their essence; loyal knight Cyan had powerful attacks that took an agonizingly long time to charge. You also have powerful relics, an airship, the opera scene, the mid-game ending of the world…
I spent 84 hours beating the game. Then I spent another 68 immediately playing through it a second time. I’ve since played it on PSone (Final Fantasy Anthology) and Game Boy Advance. I also have it on iPad, though the new art style kinda bums me out to the point I haven’t fired it up. Final Fantasy kept going (I even liked FF XIII) and JRPGs have changed with the times and tech, but Final Fantasy VI is still tough to beat.
Buy Final Fantasy VI (PSone Final Fantasy Anthology)
2. Dark Souls (2011, PlayStation 3)
If you’ve followed games at all the past five years, you know Dark Souls. It’s difficult; it’s dark; it’s a throwback; it’s an innovator in the field of online interaction. It started with Demon’s Souls, launched exclusively for PS3. Sony published it in Japan and Atlus in the US. Then Bandai Namco stepped in. But it’s always been from From Software, makers of the hardcore series King’s Field and Armored Core.
I wasn’t quite cool enough to get in on the ground floor of the series, but I did pick up Demon’s Souls before Dark Souls came out. I played about an hour of it. It seemed cool, but at the time I didn’t have the patience. I think I fell off the side of a normal stairway and died – something that wouldn’t be allowed in 99% of action games – and shelved it. I wasn’t mad and I didn’t hate it. It just wasn’t for me at the time.
Once Dark Souls got its acclaim and I read up on it, I bought it and went in knowing what to expect. I also kept an online FAQ close at hand because I was kind of a wuss. But I enjoyed the hell out of it, eventually beating it. If I’m allowed to brag, I even beat the final boss on my first try.
I got Dark Souls II day one, and this time only turned to a guide in extreme frustration. Now I’m playing through Bloodborne – basically Dark Souls with a gothic/horror motif and a gun instead of a shield. Demon’s Souls is a bit of unfinished business that I intend to return to – if From would stop putting out similar games with such quality and regularity.
Buy Dark Souls
1. Super Metroid (1994, Super Nintendo)
I was in 5th grade, hanging out with a guy a year older than me. Geoff Hill. I don’t even remember how I came to be at his house; we weren’t super close and he lived in the opposite direction of school. But there I was, tagging along as he tried to work his way through Metroid on his NES. It was definitely a cool game, very atmospheric and sci-fi. And difficult. It didn’t do you any favors. Enemies would endlessly respawn and you could fall into pools of life-sucking liquid that weren’t easy to escape.
Later, I got a good deal on a used Metroid for my used NES. I think maybe I had more fun watching Geoff than playing myself. Unlike Super Mario or Mega Man 2, nothing was straightforward. There was no map, no guidance – just Samus alone on a hostile world. Here’s a 16-character password to sort of continue where you left off!
So, when Super Metroid came out, I wasn’t paying it much mind. After all, it was the year of Final Fantasy III! Not to mention, Super Punch Out and Super Street Fighter II both came out in ’94, and were follow-ups to games I loved. But I wasn’t blind; I read the reviews. Super Metroid was scoring almost as well as Final Fantasy VI. I couldn’t ignore that.
Both games made this list, and both games made the top 5 of my Top 100 Games list from 2009. Super Metroid enhanced the atmosphere even further with an eerie prologue. Samus had a lot more tricks to even the odds. The map was extremely helpful, but still allowed for lots of exploration. I can’t overstate what a perfect 2D action game this is. Nintendo later did right by the original by remixing it into Metroid: Zero Mission on Game Boy Advance.
I stupidly traded in my original Super Metroid long ago, but stumbled across a box, near-mint copy in Japan back in 2002, which I bought for 800 yen (about $9 at the time). I’ve since beaten it several times. Every time, I am enthralled by its quality.
Buy Super Metroid (Wii-U virtual console)
Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires (2004, PS2) – Most Dynasty Warriors games are all the same, with endless hacking and slashing of comatose enemies. However, this one’s inclusion of empire-building in this one hooked me for a while.
TMNT: The Arcade Game (1990, NES) – an excellent port of an excellent game. Even though it’s on the same console, it’s almost too different to be consider the sequel to the awful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Time Splitters 2 (2002, GameCube) – The original treated single-player as an afterthought, but Time Splitters 2 had a great campaign reminiscent of GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64.
Half-Life 2 (2004, PC) – This innovative and masterful FPS is a consensus all-time classic. It nearly made the list, but the original Half-Life was too good for it to qualify.
Bioshock Infinite (2013, PS3) – My wife and I were really into this game. I am almost ashamed to admit I didn’t play through the original Bioshock. 6 hours in, a Big Daddy pissed me off to the point of shelving. I shall return to Rapture…
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997, PSone) – This game and Super Metroid are eternally linked, and more so for me. Everything I say in the Super Metroid entry applies EXCEPT that I didn’t really play enough of the earlier Castelvania games for this to qualify.