Once upon a time, a creative spark gave birth to a franchise. One that you, Mr. Major Video Game Publisher, have been milking for years on behalf of an audience that’s been happily drinking it up for almost that long, but has begun to sour. Your franchise, under the weight of rapid expansion, market saturation, fan backlash and its own tangled mythology has become unmarketable. Too many structural variations from what made the original title great, too many roman numerals at the end scaring off a new generation of gaming consumers and that kart racer spin-off devastated your credibility as the franchise’s steward.
So what do you do? You reboot. You jam on that franchise’s reset button as if your NES was blinking blue. That is what Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment is doing with Mortal Kombat, a reboot of the eponymous franchise that they picked up at the Midway Games fire sale. In conjunction with MK creator Ed Boon’s new NetherRealm Studios, Warner Brothers hopes to breathe new life in a game series that desperately needed it.
However, Mortal Kombat isn’t alone in needing the back-to-basics reboot treatment. Here are a few more game franchises in crisis and how they could be so much more with so much less.
Age: 23 Years
# of Titles in Franchise: 45
Low Point: Final Fantasy XIII. Thirteen’s infamous twenty-plus hour “tutorial” robbed gamers of even the illusion of open-ended gameplay that’s otherwise become a hallmark of modern Role Playing Games. Coupled with the frustratingly limited combat options and characters that feel warmed over, Final Fantasy XIII tarnished the image of a legendary franchise.
The Reboot: In its early years, one of the key aspects of the Final Fantasy franchise was how each new title was completely separate from the pervious in setting and story. As the series grew, cross-title inside jokes became cameos, cameos became recurring characters and recurring characters became tired routines and creative crutches. The new Final Fantasy would be a complete break from all its history, from A to Zeromus, and would have to tell the story of a world on the brink of destruction in an entirely new and original way. A risky endeavor not too far removed from the desperate move that gave birth to the series to begin with.
Age: 14 Years
# of Titles in Franchise: 47
Low Point: Pokemon Dash. For a franchise organized around a form of animal combat that would be plainly illegal in reality, the racing gameplay that makes up Pokemon Dash seems extra cruel. Not only to the little monsters participating, but also to the one who must constantly scrape the stylus over their DS’ touch screen to play. Add to that the fact that even though by the time of its release the number of Pokemon had swelled to well over 200, you could only control one, the ubiquitous Pikachu, and you have a game that did everything wrong for a franchise.
The Reboot: When once it was the clever child who could recall all of the 151 original characters in order, the recitation of the now five hundred such names from memory would generate only concern among parents and child psychologists. First thing first, a dialback is in order. The new Pokemon game would then retain the successful monster hunting/collecting formula but up the stakes of battles to include player combat, permanent character death and a mature tone that would explore the implications of powerful creatures lurking in every environment and the bands of youth endlessly caught up in battles that blur the line between man and Pokemon.
Age: 21 Years
# of Titles in Franchise: 37
Low Point: The Sims 2: IKEA Home Stuff. Exactly what it sounds likes, this $20 expansion pack/commercial could have your Sim family living the life, as nerd singer Jonathan Coulton put it, of college kids and divorced men.
The Reboot: Now more than ever people are living lives parallel to their own online: negotiating social media, generating nebulous ‘content’ in pursuit of fleeting notoriety, and exploring their varied fantasies. A new Sim-SimLife that blends gaming and reality, would not only be terribly meta, but could expand the definition of what a game could be, just as SimCity did decades ago.
Madden NFL Football
Age: 22 Years
# of Titles in Franchise: 26
Low Point: Madden NFL 09. Brett Favre was on the cover.
The Reboot: It’s a testament to the popularity of the series that the name “Madden” now all but means virtual football, like Kleenex, Frisbee or other generalized trademarks. Success and the relentless pressure to release a new title in time for each season only allows for small changes, leaving the core structure of the franchise almost unchanged since the beginning. A new Madden would have to bring the real football experience, from crowd noise to an unchangeable first person perspective. This year's edition does promise to make it a football experience for fans of all knowledge and skill levels, so that's a start.
Age: 24 Years
# of Titles in Franchise: 31
Low Point: Castlevania Judgment. This ill-conceived title for the Wii brought 3D fighting into the franchise that not only nobody needed, but also nobody wanted, or even thought to ask for. The fact that it wasn’t any good didn’t help either.
The Reboot: In the beginning, Castlevania was more about mood than monsters, a darker themed game in the early days of the NES could rarely be found. Change the classical depiction of core villain Dracula into something more amorphous and have the game be more about the darkness in the hero…there also has to be a castle. (Note: It appears that E3 2010 might show off last year's promise of a revitalized Castlevania, so stay tuned and check out our coverage of that and other E3 games next week).
What other game franchises could use a back-to-basics approach?