It’s no secret that producers and publishers in the triple-A gaming industry treat new intellectual property like a contagious disease, their preferred vaccine being to steer as far away from creativity as possible by re-releasing the same games every year with new numbers and suffixes tacked onto the end, with assorted reboots, remasters, and remakes to fill the gaps between the big releases. Yet despite this sad state of affairs, there are numerous examples of successful franchises that have managed to remain fresh over the years, changing and adapting to the times while still keeping the “soul” of what made that franchise great in the first place.
The Legend of Zelda
Though few series have remained so successful for as long as Zelda has, criticisms have been levied at the series in recent years, with many beginning to feel that Nintendo have been essentially re-releasing Ocarina of Time over and over again, each time with a fresh coat of paint and a new gimmick. Recently, however, we’ve seen what could be described as one of the greatest transformations a series has ever made successfully. The latest instalment, Breath of the Wild, throws the traditional linear Zelda formula out the window in favour of a huge and absorbing open world. Considering the praise the game has been drowned in, no real review is needed; suffice to say that despite issues with the story content and the fact that the entire Hylian guard appears to have been armed with papier-mâché, it’s a very good game.
However, what makes it interesting from a franchise evolution perspective is that it bears little resemblance to other Zelda games at all. It can be said to borrow heavily from the very first game and perhaps Wind Waker, but what struck me while playing it is that while it does feel like Zelda, the game cheats by having little structural or mechanical resemblance to previous games, instead using familiar stylistic trappings to convince players they’re playing Zelda. Change the names of the characters and places and redo the UI of previous games, and they’d still be quite obviously Zelda, yet Breath of the Wild’s similarity to the other games largely begins and ends with those things being the same. Fortunately Zelda is so stylistically rich that having those trappings in a game with Ganon, Link, Zelda, and some puzzles is, frankly, enough, even if it does feel like cheating.
Mario, the most famous gaming mascot there has ever been, was harder to transform; recognisable though he is, Mario is all about jumping on things, and if the jumping doesn’t feel right, then all the stylistic trappings the series has established won’t help Mario feel like Mario. This is the challenge that faced the developers of Super Mario 64. As most of us were introduced to Mario through that game, it’s easy to forget that prior to it, Mario was exclusively 2D, à la the more recent Super Mario Bros. entries, and transforming from 2D to 3D while keeping the core gameplay feeling right was a colossal challenge.
It’s easy to miss all the intelligent design that went into helping Mario fans transition from one form of game to the other, from the way the opening level gives you so much freedom to run around safely to learn the controls without heavy-handed tutorialising, to the way the camera (and note, at this time a freely moveable camera was highly unusual and unfamiliar) was actually contextualised in the world via a flying Lakitu to make changing perspective more intuitive.
What makes this case interesting is how much it was focused on the specific mechanical aspect of movement, as opposed to Zelda where the necessary elements were slightly more abstract (certain story elements, stylistic elements, and puzzles solved with fancy items and powers). The incredible amount of effort went into making sure the controls felt right, and felt like Mario, is the reason the game is still relevant today.
While Breath of the Wild represents a transformative strategy that relies on recognisable stylistic elements, and Super Mario 64 represents a strategy based on building an entirely new suite of mechanics that feels the same as previous entries, Resident Evil never really had singularly defining elements. The games feature obtuse puzzles, awkward writing, and random zombie and monsters pretty consistently, but none of these really feel unique.
Despite this, Resident Evil has successfully reinvented itself numerous times; after the first couple of games, the most fondly received and remembered games were 4 and 7, both of which were partially defined by being huge departures from their immediate predecessors.
In this sense, the Resident Evil strategy can be said to work precisely because there are few defining elements. As long as it’s at the very least pseudo-horror and has weird monsters, a Resident Evil game can be whatever it likes. Usually after a success, the franchise seems to try and replicate that, and when that doesn’t work, it just does something entirely new. While this does feel like cheating in its own way, the fact remains that Resident Evil has been around for 20 years and is still relevant, so maybe Capcom has a thing or two to teach us; although considering their strategy does seem to rely on screwing up colossally following each success, I wouldn’t be too hasty to sign up for lessons.