It didn’t take long into the lifespan of video games for the first sequel to hit. As with a lot of early gaming history, exact dates and “firsts” can be tricky to pin down, but there is definite evidence of numbered video game sequels going back to the early 1970s. Even the concept of video game “franchises” came pretty early on, with PC series like Ultima and Wizardry already on their fifth installments by the mid-80s.
The NES in particular was as much a platform for exciting new properties as it was a place for companies to lay the foundation for franchises that would go on for years, if not decades, eventually hitting sequel counts in the double digits. Today, we have franchises that are hitting their 10th, 15th, even their 20th installments.
But what about those first franchise entries– do they always hit it out of the park on the first try, or does it take a sequel or two for a new series to find its groove? Some series were definitely killing it from the get-go, while others had a first installment that worked well as a trial run or proof of concept that wouldn’t come together until subsequent entries. The latter camp is what this list is all about; series that had weak first installments before becoming strong overall franchises.
Here are 15 Video Game Franchises That Got So Much Better After The First Game.
15. Mario Bros.
Nintendo has become so synonymous with home gaming consoles that it’s easy to forget that the company had some huge golden-era arcade hits. In fact, Donkey Kong remains one of the most profitable video games of all time, having grossed nearly $4.5 billion for Nintendo since its release.
In one of the earliest examples of a video game spin-off, DK protagonist Mario got his own separate arcade game two years later with the original Mario Bros.— also marking the debut of his brother, Luigi. For its time, Mario Bros. was one of the more enjoyable single-screen arcade action games, and it laid a lot of the early groundwork for the Mario franchise: the brothers’ profession as plumbers, their ability to punch surfaces from below, kicking downed enemies, the Koopa Troopas, coin collecting, and more.
Mario Bros.‘ follow-up was the absolute game-changing Super Mario Bros., which took players on an adventure whose scope was previously unheard of. The series only got bigger and more ambitious as the years went on, leaving the quaint, static-screened original as little more than a teaser for things to come.
14. The Witcher
When people talk about The Witcher these days, it’s often in discussions of some of the best games of a given year, if not of a generation. The second and third Witcher games have been among the most popular and critically-acclaimed open-world action/RPGs of all time, praised for their stellar visuals, strong writing, compelling gameplay, fully-realized worlds… and yes, their ridiculous softcore sex scenes.
However, before becoming a universally beloved series, The Witcher was just a pretty good 2007 RPG based on a series of fantasy books most popular in their native Poland. One of the biggest issues of the game, especially compared to is successors, is the battle system, which was clunky, confusing, and overall not particularly enjoyable. The story is strong, and laid the necessary groundwork for the epic tale that the franchise would go on to weave, but it doesn’t have the same quality of writing or pacing that the sequels got better at. And the aforementioned copulation, while remaining absurd throughout the series, felt especially tacked-on in the first game– less Game of Thrones and more late-night Cinemax.
A lot of people feel that the story in the Halo games has gotten way too bogged down in galactic spiritualism and a forced relationship between Master Chief and Cortana, and there is certainly a lot of merit to that line of thinking. But having a game that is mostly just a fairly by-the-numbers sci-fi tale– as Halo: Combat Evolved is– about space marines battling aliens isn’t necessarily better than one that swings for the fences, flaws and all. Really, the story of the first Halo, while good, is pretty thin compared to how much deeper and more complex the franchise got, beginning with Halo 2.
The other big problem with the first Halo is that it didn’t have online multiplayer. That wasn’t the game’s fault necessarily, as online functionality on consoles still wasn’t the norm in 2001. Still, when Halo went online beginning with the sequel, it took the game’s multiplayer to a whole new level. Sure, the people who had LAN parties with Halo: CE had a blast, but getting four non-flatscreen TVs, four Xboxes, 16 corded controllers, and 16 people all in a room together with any sort of regularity just wasn’t realistic for most.
The original Fallout was a highly-lauded, award-winning game. So what’s it doing here? The point of the list isn’t that the first games were necessarily bad, just that the series got a whole lot better afterward– and that most certainly applies to the jump from Fallout to Fallout 2 and beyond.
The original Fallout‘s faults become much more glaring when compared to its much-improved sequel. The game world is relatively small, which the franchise would soon make a name for itself with the immense size of the worlds of each game. The ever-ticking clock that was meant to ratchet up tension was mostly just an annoyance that forced you to speed through the game rather than savoring it. You couldn’t equip your allies with armor, making them easy fodder in battles. And it was far too easy to go straight from knives to rocket launchers without having to take a more gradual, satisfying progression.
There’s also the matter of how much bigger and more epic Fallout got when the series went 3D beginning with the third installment, with huge worlds to match. It all combines to make a once-groundbreaking game feel more like a rough draft.
11. Saints Row
Grand Theft Auto IV wouldn’t be released until 2008, leaving the “HD generation” of video games without a GTA title for nearly three years. Among the games to fill that void was developer Volition’s Saints Row, which didn’t bother trying anything different like Crackdown or Just Cause and was essentially a straight-up GTA clone– a well-made one, but a clone nonetheless.
Once Rockstar made up for its late arrival with Grand Theft Auto IV and the incredible Red Dead Redemption, and other games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 2 started taking open-world games in unique new directions, a “good GTA clone” wasn’t really going to cut it anymore. Volition realized this, and began to take the silly elements that were only slightly present in the first Saints Row and blow them up to ridiculous proportions.
Soon, the Saints Row series became a welcome counterpart to GTA, playing out like a Michael Bay movie on steroids and going from one over-the-top setpiece to another, fully aware of its own absurdity and frequently poking fun at itself. The bland, copycat original barely even feels like it’s part of the same series.
Back before every other game was powered by Unreal Engine, there was another engine that a lot of gamers might have seen in the opening credits of a lot of games they played in the 2000s: Renderware. Among the more notable and technologically-impressive games built using RenderWare are Battlefield 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4, and GTAIII through San Andreas. And like Unreal, the company behind RenderWare, Criterion Games, also developed their own games, with their most famous in-house creation being the Burnout series.
The first Burnout game was a visual marvel– hardly surprising coming from a company that built its own popular middleware engine that powered some great-looking games. It also had the most realistic crashes ever seen in a racing game up to that point. Beyond that, Burnout wasn’t anything remarkable, a fairly standard racer that did little to stand out from its superior competitors like Need for Speed and Ridge Racer.
It didn’t even have a crash mode, which would become a staple of the series. That, and just about everything else that would soon make Burnout a top-tier racing franchise, wouldn’t be introduced until follow-up Point of Impact and third installment, Takedown.
9. Mortal Kombat
It was inevitable that a rivalry would spring up between Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Inevitable, but not entirely fair, as Street Fighter was on its second installment and it was MK‘s first time out. Most first entries in fighting game franchises are inherently flawed, as it takes some time to figure out balance issues, build up a cast of characters, and figure out what players like and don’t like about a new series.
Mortal Kombat especially had growing pains because of its novel use of digitized footage of real actors for its characters, which was a technology that still had some kinks to be worked out. As such, MK1 has stilted controls, awkward animation, and little gameplay flexibility due to the limitations of the technology at the time. If it wasn’t for the unique visuals and the game’s violent finishing moves, MK would’ve likely been a one-off novelty title that was quickly forgotten– as the developers assumed would be the case.
Fortunately, they were up to the task when popularity demanded a sequel, and MKII was a legitimate contender in the fighting game genre and marked the beginning of a great franchise that’s still going strong.
Modern-day Sega doesn’t have the output that it had in its ’90s heyday, but the company does have a few gems in its much smaller portfolio. While Sonic is the company’s big money-maker and continued connection to a more mainstream crowd, Sega keeps the hardcore side of its history alive with the Yakuza series. The series, which is an open-world action game set in Japan, is currently at seven core installments and five spin-off games– impressive for games of such scope and budget from a company that many people assume is constantly on the verge of shutting down.
The mainline Yakuza series tells a continuing, overarching story that has spanned thirty years within the game’s universe. As such, the first installment had the job of setting up a lot of exposition as well as introducing the game’s mechanics and vibe, which makes for a rough, muddled experience. It was also a bit too ambitious for the then-aging PlayStation 2.
The game’s North American localization didn’t do it any favors, with overly vulgar American voice acting that tried too hard to be edgy and didn’t include the option for the original Japanese dialogue, a mistake which Sega never repeated.
7. Dead or Alive
It took 3D fighting games a few years to find their footing and become more than just slow-paced, boxy counterparts to the faster, prettier 2D fighters. Virtua Fighter was the genre’s first big hit, spawning a number of imitators of varying quality over the next couple of years after its 1993 debut. One such newcomer smartly used VF2‘s already established engine to build itself, and thus, Dead or Alive was born.
In order to stand out from its competitors, DOA featured a more streamlined control scheme that emphasized speed and fast-paced countering over complex button configurations. The game was also one of the pioneers of “breast physics”, having the female fighters’ chests exaggeratedly heave up and down with every punch, step, and especially jump. The provocative nature of the game definitely garnered the rather mediocre game more attention than it might’ve otherwise gotten.
While the sexual aspects of the DOA series have only gotten more explicit as it has rolled along, the gameplay has fortunately improved greatly as well. The games have gotten dirtier, but they’ve also gotten a whole lot better, and are equally appreciated by fans of true fighting games and fans of breast physics.
6. Assassin’s Creed
Most of what makes the Assassin’s Creed series great was present in the first installment: plain-sight stealth gameplay, complex swordfighting, fast-paced environmental traversal, a period assassin with a modern-day descendant counterpart, climbing towers to reveal the map, leaps of faith off of said towers, a detailed open world full of side missions, and so on.
The problem was, none of it quite felt fully realized in the original Assassin’s Creed. The whole thing felt like the developers working to build a foundation for a blockbuster franchise, getting all of the components into working order, putting it into a playable build to test it all out, and then releasing that proof of concept as a commercial game rather than just tinkering with it until it was a fully fleshed-out game. We’d have to wait until the phenomenal Assassin’s Creed II— and its own trilogy sub-series– to get to that point.
Assassin’s Creed mostly felt like a training ground to play in before the “real” series began. Even AC1 protagonist Altaïr was quickly abandoned and all but forgotten after his sole mainline outing, further solidifying the somewhat disposable nature of the game.
The Persona games, initially considered a sub-series of the Megami Tensei franchise, have arguably surpassed their umbrella series to be the more popular brand. It wasn’t until Persona 3 that the series really broke big worldwide, and with its subsequent two highly-acclaimed installments has become one of the most popular RPG franchises today. But Persona 2 is where the first seeds of greatness were truly laid, with the original feeling more like the lesser spin-off of a better franchise than the first part of a new, awesome series.
Some of the issue with Revelations: Persona is its shoddy localization, which perhaps shouldn’t be held against it but is impossible to completely overlook. It also had weird, unremarkable visuals, being released in 1996 when RPGs were still stuck between 16- and 32-bit visuals and seemed to therefore take on the worst of both eras. Like other RPGs of that transition period, the gameplay and combat felt dated and unexciting for what was supposed to be a new generation for the genre.
4. Metal Gear
The first Metal Gear game was no doubt unique for its time. Few games up to that point had emphasized stealth over run-and-gun combat, and even fewer had attempted to tell such a deep, layered story of political espionage and betrayal. But there’s no question that, compared to where the series would soon go, the original Metal Gear was an ambitious but still fairly simple action/adventure game.
Leaving out Snake’s Revenge– the North American-developed follow up that isn’t considered an official part of the Metal Gear series– the franchise would first explore much of the territory it became famous for with Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. From the lengthy conversations to the ingenious boss battles with outrageous enemies and the much better-realized stealth mechanics, the gameplay and vibe that would first make the franchise a worldwide blockbuster with Metal Gear Solid truly got its start with Metal Gear 2.
In fact, not unlike Zelda: Ocarina of Time being something of a 3D remake of Link to the Past, Metal Gear Solid feels like a 3D remake to Metal Gear 2, further proving that the true Metal Gear we know and love didn’t start until the second game.
3. Dragon Quest/Warrior
There is a popular urban legend that Square-Enix isn’t allowed to release new Dragon Quest games on weekdays because too many kids will call off school and adults off work in order to buy and play it on the first day. While that isn’t entirely true, the reason such a rumor exists is because the franchise really is that popular in Japan.
Much of what makes the Dragon Quest— once called Dragon Warrior in North America– series so beloved is their well-realized worlds, endearing characters, goofy humor, and fantastic music. The thing is, it took a couple of games for the series to get that way, and only traces of it were present in the first game.
In fact, the version of “Dragon Warrior” that we got was actually greatly tweaked over the Japanese original, and our game was already a bit cumbersome to play. The lone-wolf nature of the game, where you only ever play a single protagonist, also loses much of the charm of the great ensembles present in most Dragon Quest games.
2. The Elder Scrolls
It’s tough to say for certain when The Elder Scrolls first broke through to massive mainstream recognition beyond its relatively niche beginnings. Was it Morrorwind, when the series went to a more modern 3D engine and made its console debut? Was it Oblivion, the franchise’s HD breakthrough and marquee game for the Xbox 360? Or was it 2011’s epic Skyrim, one of the most acclaimed games of all time? Either way, there were several games that came before any of the franchise’s turning points that helped to build it into the AAA success it would become. And most of that heavy lifting was done after the buggy, barely-recognizable first installment, Arena.
Beyond having a more generic fantasy story than the more original universe that began with with the second installment, Arena was just a mess all around. Much of that was due to it being far too ambitious for its small team, and it was commendable what they were able to pull off. It still doesn’t make it a good game. Luckily, it gained a cult following strong enough to be worthy of a sequel, because it didn’t really deserve one.
1. Street Fighter
Street Fighter, sometimes known as Fighting Street, is the generally forgotten predecessor to Street Fighter II. The game is so obscure and forgettable that most of us would’ve just assumed Street Fighter II was the start of a brand new series if it weren’t for the number in its title. Yes, Fighting Street introduced a lot of the elements that SFII would perfect: a six-button control scheme, a diverse roster of fighters, and unique joystick movements that produce special moves like fireballs and hurricane kicks. And Ryu and Ken are present and accounted for.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Ryu and Ken play identically and are more or less just 1P and 2P versions of the same character– the only two characters that are playable. The animation is decent for 1988, but not noteworthy. And the gameplay is slow and unresponsive.
It’s puzzling that Fighting Street evolved into Street Fighter II, but they did spend a whopping four years on the sequel. That was time well spent, and this seeming risk of a sequel was definitely worth taking. It’s a good thing companies were more willing to give unremarkable games a second chance in 1988 than they are these days.
Which games do you think have improved so much since their first releases? Let us know in the comments!