Have you ever picked up a new game in one of your favorite franchises, only to find yourself falling back on its predecessors to supply your series fix? I know for a lot of fans of Super Mario Bros. the fall-back game is Super Mario Bros. 3 or World (and this is true for me as well). I’ve been wondering why this might be for some time, and I think I’ve found an explanation that does a good job summing it up.
When we buy new games in an existing series, it’s because we want the new game to recreate the feeling of excitement that drew us to its predecessor. To use a personal example, with every new Zelda game, I always hope that I’ll become as head-over-heels obsessed as I was over Ocarina of Time. That’s why often when a new game in the series is announced, people will ask the question: “Can this new game top Ocarina of Time?” There’s a clear interest in seeing new experiences surpass previous ones.
Even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of the games that have come and gone since, I still don’t think I’ve quite experienced that sensation with the Zelda franchise. I still find myself going back to Ocarina of Time when I’m bored and want to play some Zelda. That doesn’t mean I don’t replay the other games from time to time, just that there’s something about Ocarina of Time that keeps drawing me back over and over and over again.
I’ve had a different experience with 3D Mario. Even though Super Mario 64 was the first Nintendo game I ever owned, the first game I couldn’t help but replay, I’ve since become a diehard Super Mario Galaxy fan. It has replaced the 64 game as my go-to for 3D Super Mario. The older game just feels obsolete in comparison, while Galaxy is fresher and more enjoyable, with a greater wealth of content, and for me constituted a strong step forward.
It’s not just a matter of me favoring older or more modern games in general. My preferences depend on whether newer games can satisfy my desire for more and better content. Super Mario Sunshine was a step up from 64 in a number of ways, too, such as graphical detail, level complexity, platforming, and so on, but it didn’t really feel like a true successor or replacement. It felt more like a mash-up between Mario elements and a different kind of gameplay that seems like it might have belonged in a new IP. I know a lot of people felt the same way about Super Mario Galaxy, too. Because it was more linear, it didn’t fulfill their need for more of the open-world adventure fields they enjoyed in Super Mario 64. You may have seen a lot of clamor for a new Mario that fulfills that hunger - that’s because such a game simply hasn’t been made yet.
I think part of evaluating a new game’s success involves looking at the way it changes the relationship between gamers and their games. Does it seize the spotlight and become the new big game that players keep going back to over the years to feed their fix? Or do we see players get over it quickly and revert back to playing stuff from their back catalog? I think most truly “great” games lean more towards the former category and certainly stay far away from the latter - and the best ones eventually become part of that revered library of older games that people just can’t help but hold onto.
While I think in general this theory of “the best games make older games seem obsolete” is a good working model, I also don’t think it’s totally absolute. Sometimes different fans fall back on different games: some people favor A Link to the Past over Ocarina of Time; there’s a pretty close split between Mario 3 and Mario World; and as I’ve mentioned before you have a good number of diehard Mario 64 fans as well as a decent population of Galaxy enthusiasts.
To use another example, Galaxy 2 seems like an extension of the first rather than a gigantic improvement. Some way enjoy its content more, but it didn’t set any new standards or anything.
But I don’t think that splitting hairs is going to lead us much closer to the answer, either. The general point here is that some games - like Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, or Mario 3 - get embedded into the general gaming consciousness on a much deeper level than others, managing to keep their place of prestige even among more recent, more “advanced,” more innovative games. And I think that has to do with some games managing to gain a foothold as mainstays for the franchise by working to create more lasting satisfaction for the same hungers that drew people to their predecessors.
Ocarina of Time is innovative, yes, but not so much “innovative” as in “doing totally unexpected things” as it is “innovative” in terms of “doing things in a better, more satisfying way.” The world, the items, and the gameplay were all very familiar, especially to fans of A Link to the Past, but there was a certain sense of scale and substance that Ocarina offered that boosted it to ultra-popularity. It was not seen so much as totally different from A Link to the Past as it was seen as a modern improvement, a better version of “Zelda” as a whole.
But has any other game really replaced it as the mainstay for the series, the new “definitive” Zelda game? Not quite yet. I don’t think this will require the “revolution” many people believe it will so much as a game that really nails a sense of superiority in the same way that Super Mario Bros. 3 is so widely seen as surpassing the original Super Mario Bros. in basically every way.