Inferiority Complex - Series comparison should not make a game worse
Please read first: The point of the game comparisons used in this blog post is not to argue whether one of the games is better than the other, as that is partly subjective. Instead, I'm trying to focus on varied examples where some people solely label a franchise game as bad primarily due to it being considered not as good as, or because it's notably different than, another title already existing within the game's own series.
This game is bad because it's not as good as an earlier entry in the series. That title stinks because they changed this character from an earlier game to something else. Well it's got some pretty strong gameplay but it's a bad game because this other game did it better. The genre changed! They used a different story! His hair is a different color! If a game in a franchise isn't as strong a title as an older entry, then that by itself justifies calling the game bad even if the technical aspects of the game itself by themselves would be considered good, right?
Because when you look at that alright game by comparison-
I have some problems with this logic used to call a later game bad, and I'll explain why shortly.
Ordinarily I would try to have a fun analysis as the subject of my blog post, or generally talk about something that wouldn't be controversial, but there's a particular issue that I've been noticing with some technically strong video games as of recently that I want to address. Specifically, I want to address the notion that a game can be called bad not because it's a bad game by itself, but instead that it's not considered good if an earlier entry in the game's series was executed better. Note that this is not an analysis of games which are legitimately bad on a technical level, but games that would otherwise be considered good until playing a different game retroactively changes that opinion, or considered bad because they're not as good as a previously played title.
I see this happen on many areas around the internet. A strong title gets released that on a technical level is very strong. The game typically receives relatively good scores by most critics on the internet, and this is often due to a combination of fun gameplay, mostly tight controls, an interesting narrative, and some sort of a positive presentation amongst other things. Yet for some titles that exist as part of a franchise, there is sometimes a vocal group of people that say the game is a bad title not because of serious in-game flaws, that is problems with the game itself such as with the programming, but because it does a number of things differently than the presentation of a previous game, or because the actual game is good but at a lower level than the predecessor; it then gets labeled as a "bad game" by a notably large number of people. Things were changed around but are still technically good by gaming standards, yet this above average or good title is thrown into the bad or abysmal category because it's not as "awesome" as the first game? Here's my simple question: Why?
When you watch a film and you enjoy it without having seen a different movie of that same series, you judge it based on its own presentation and how it made you feel overall. Let's say the ways you responded to that movie were generally positive, that despite maybe some small flaws you thought it was a very entertaining watch. Now you find out that what you just watched was a reboot or sequel of an older film in the series, so after having enjoyed your movie you decide to explore that older movie. It ends up being much better overall, so you end up liking it more than the first film you watched. But this doesn't make the first movie bad by any means; it's still very good overall, just the second one is even more impressive. All this also applies to video games.
An interactive video game does not retroactively become worse by itself if you suddenly play a better game in the series, even if it released earlier. Likewise, playing a great older entry in a video game series and then playing a later entry that is a little less impressive does not mean the later entry is necessarily bad. If it is considered bad, emphasis on the word bad, then it should be due to the new game legitimately having a low quality in overall presentation and technical execution, not just because the old one's slightly better.
Many people will agree that both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are fantastic games, or at least that they're generally impressive titles with a lot of substance to them. The platformers both make unique innovations to the genre through their gameplay, each has a memorable presentation which is assisted with detailed graphics and audio, and of course, both games have some generally impressive level design coupled. Now in the name of subjectivity, people are most likely going to prefer one game to the other, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact some people may like one game yet dislike the other, and without judging it based on the other, that's okay. But then there some are user reviews like this that appear.
Some people dislike Super Mario Sunshine yet like Super Mario 64, and this wouldn't necessarily be bad on its own if the problems lied within the games being reviewed. But a problem I have is with the vocal minority that primarily tries to claim a very negative quality about the game just because it does some things differently or the level design is slightly less impressive. Changing items or game mechanics isn't necessarily a bad thing, and a different presentation on its own would not immediately mean the game is poor either. There is a notable difference between flaws by comparison and actual flaws by technical execution.
A similar behavior happens with some user reviews regarding The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. On rare occasion, negative reviews may show up with its primary argument being that the game is a downgrade from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But if the title is still generally strong with its overall presentation, then why should a slightly worse quality by comparison translate to being a bad game? (This may not necessarily apply to every single person by the way as to which one is the better game, but I'm using it as an example.)
Likewise, just because the game is different would not also mean it's necessarily bad by that logic alone. Twilight Princess introduces a wolf mechanic to the series, a different dark story focusing on the interaction of a light world with a realm of corrupted shadow, a more intentionally realistic visual style, and there is also a unique cast of developed characters like Midna. Ganondorf is also not the primary villain, motion controls are mixed into the combat, and the item selection is notably different than previous games. These features are different from Ocarina of Time, and a few people may not have a good reaction to them on their own, but the game is certainly not anywhere near the level of abysmal status that is attached with games like X-Blades and Sonic 2006. In fact, I personally think the game is still a very overall high quality title by its own standards.
Negative reviews for Super Mario Sunshine and Twilight Princess whose arguments are based primarily on whether the games are better than predecessors are fortunately a lower amount than the number of negative reviews that feature actual in-game analysis for their arguments; these two were smaller examples I wanted to use to prepare for the larger ones. Now said reviews based solely off comparison are less frequent for these two titles... but what about games where this form of connection impact appears much more frequently?
Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie were two excellent platformers which were originally created by Rare for the Nintendo 64 system. Both games are almost universally loved for their expansive worlds which encourage exploration, massive gameplay which regularly adds new mechanics to the controls over time, comedic presentation involving characters with a large variety of personality, graphics that are visually colorful, and lovely audio which smoothly blends as different environmental land areas are transitioned between. There have been numerous reviews praising the two games for their large entertainment and exploration factors, and I would encourage you to check out these two videos if you want to learn more about the fun adventures.
But what I want to briefly talk about is a later sequel known as Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Much to everyone's surprise, the long-awaited sequel dramatically changes the central gameplay by making it largely vehicle-focused. Instead of having most of the platformer moves from previous games, there are instead fully customizable engines such as cars and airplanes for doing races, traversals of large worlds, and a variety of vehicle-based missions. In a nutshell, the central gameplay changes almost completely apart from a few number of similarities with the older titles. The graphics and audio are still fantastic, more so with the high-definition hardware, but to many people this game is considered bad due to the change in gameplay.
And what I want to know is why would that alone necessarily make the game a bad title. The genre change might be a disappoint to some longtime fans, but that doesn't mean the new gameplay is bad, just different. Maybe even then the gameplay isn't quite as good as the older Nintendo 64 entries, but that still alone doesn't make the game bad outside of in-series comparison. If there are any legitimate technical problems like a weak presentation, bad controls, glitches, or boring gameplay, then feel free to let those affect the quality status as such, but a genre change alone no matter how dramatic is not a strong enough argument as to why a game would be bad. Again, I'm sure there are people who dislike the game for legitimate in-game reasons that don't have to do with the change in gameplay, but a large number of dislikes for the game come from people who hate the genre change. Would there have been a difference to those people if the characters became a weasel and bluebird with the game name being changed to say Blue Weasel Racing Extraordinaire? Stupid name, yes, but apart from some intellectual property differences, it would be the same game with some review differences.
Let me say something right away. I am not saying this game is necessarily great nor that all people who dislike it are instantly wrong. Sonic Labyrinth is a handheld entry in the popular Sonic the Hedgehog series which is notable for having largely different main game mechanics than other in-series entries. It's a game with mixed opinions; some people enjoy the puzzle aspect that the game offers in addition to the emphasis placed on the spin dash, while others claim the game is slow to the point of being boring or that the levels don't leave a lasting impression. Now points on both sides are fair subjective opinions, but here are two specific arguments from some negative reviews that I think may have a few argument problems: "It's not like the other Sonic games so it stinks" and "Sonic can't run so the game is bad". That alone isn't a sufficient enough argument for mediocrity.
So what exactly does Sonic Labyrinth do differently that has some people upset? Well the main thing is that the previously speedy hedgehog now has his running speed taken away due to a plot device, although the spin dash still works fine and is emphasized as the primary method of movement. The game now focuses on collecting keys and fighting enemies from an isometric point of view. Rings can still be collected, although the stage layout is notably different, focusing on an action-puzzle type of presentation; the layout is admittedly simple at times but it's not particularly game breaking. There is a time limit incorporated into most levels, although these are usually high and can be extended with various in-game actions. Looking at Sonic Labyrinth overall, the main complaint seems to be the slower movement, which of course wouldn't be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a Sonic the Hedgehog game. But I have to ask: Why does an in-series genre change have to imply bad individual quality? It's fine if you dislike the game, but if your main reason is simply that the game is different than other entries in the series, then that isn't a strong enough argument.
Black sheep titles refer to franchise games which have dramatically different gameplay than other entries in its own series, and these games often have mixed reaction as to whether or not the games are actually fun. But the problems have to lie in the game when only looking at that game; the argument that Sonic Labyrinth should be considered a bad game should be based on if the quality is poor independent of other franchise titles, not if it has a different gameplay style than say Sonic the Hedgehog 2. A black sheep title from another franchise, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, is disliked by some people for pursuing a sidescroller style of gameplay that differs from the first Legend of Zelda, yet the actual game itself is often considered to be fun, innovative, and generally expansive. Super Mario Bros. 2, that is the American version, is disliked by some people because it's basically a translation of a game that initially existed outside of the Mario franchise, but the game is still an overall strong sidescroller. Again, it's important to note that being different does not always imply also being bad.
If Sonic in Sonic Labyrinth was replaced by some unrelated mouse character, and therefore the game would not exist in the same franchise anymore, then would the same exact number of people still dislike Sonic Labyrinth as much on the same level? Some people would still dislike the gameplay, and that would be an acceptable opinion to have due to subjective diversity, but I can guarantee that at least a few people would probably judge the game differently (no in-series comparison). And if that is the case, then that proves comparative influence.
It isn't fair to negatively judge a game purely based on its predecessors; in my personal opinion a game should not necessarily be labeled as bad just because it's not as great as an earlier franchise entry. A video game can still be a strong title even if another title is later played, and I imagine it would be rare for an opinion about a game to retroactively become far worse upon playing a different title. Like enjoying a movie sequel and then later watching a superior original, doing the same thing with a game series does not mean one of the two has to suddenly become worse than it previously was. Video games should be judged by the quality on those individual titles on an individual level; making comparisons can create bias that spreads outside of just the game being looked at. To summarize, a strong argument can be made for a game being bad, but it needs to be due to technical or serious presentation problems within that game outside of comparisons to another entry.
In addition, a video game is not necessarily bad just because it does a number of things different than an older franchise entry. A number of black sheep titles for instance have been considered high quality games despite their sudden changes. Differences are not necessarily bad, and the idea that a sudden change in gameplay immediately results in a bad game is not a sufficient argument on its own unless the problems lie with the in-game execution itself. Change is not necessarily a bad thing, and there are many great different spin-off games throughout video game history that prove this. Hostility should not usually be the answer to innovation.
In addition to the arguments I made across this blog post, I propose this question to see if comparison bias is getting in the way of fairly judging a game's individual quality: If someone hates a game because it's not as good as an earlier franchise entry, or because it's notably different than another in-series title, would they share that same quality opinion if they never played the other franchise game? Really think about this question if you will.