In the world of video games, it’s tough to be a sequel, especially to beloved franchises. Gamers protect favourites with fanatical fervour. Brutal flame wars and dissertations masquerading as Reddit comments have been made arguing for or against a sequel.
Few parts 2s are universally loved today. Fans expect greater and greater returns when many developers find themselves straining against competition, the industry’s innovation problem, and demanding release schedules.
But during the time of arcade games, the sandbox was much larger for developers. Everything was new and exciting because everything was new and exciting. Advancements in hardware and development software meant improvements always looked impressive. Many sequels leapfrogged over their predecessors, taking play to the next level.
Here are some of the greatest arcade game sequels that established their legend in the retro hall of fame.
Ask any gamer what they first think about when you say Street Fighter, and you’ll probably get one of these: sick combos, a colourful roster of fighters, and the distinct anime art style of the 90s.
SF II introducing gamers to a whole new world of fighting games
While these traits all do describe Street Fighter, they describe a very specific title, and it’s not the first one. That’s not because the original was horrible, per se. Street Fighter, released in 1987, found critical success in Japan and the UK, eventually becoming the number one top-grossing game in the latter.
But Street Fighter II was better, louder, and faster in just about every aspect - so much so that people treat it as the first SF game. Many probably think it is the first game, unaware of its more humble, muted ancestor from 1987.
Unlike some good sequels, Mortal Kombat II wasn’t better because it had a low bar to hurdle. The first Mortal Kombat was a resounding success, the controversy of its ultraviolence driving even more players to the arcade. Ultimately, the 1991 original managed to gross higher than Jurassic Park, which was released in the same year. Not an easy achievement to defeat.
But Mortal Kombat II proved that Midway was a shark who had smelled blood in the water. There was no way they were letting the momentum wane. Fights were made faster and more dynamic with the introduction of new moves that made chaining combos easier. And acknowledging their fan base’s bloodlust, Mortal Kombat II also introduced new fatality animations, as well as location-based fatalities with dedicated cut scenes.
Mortal Kombat II also debuted Babality and Friendship finishers, showing that it’s not all about blood and gore. Sometimes there’s an infant Scorpion in yellow nappies, or Kung Lao pulling a rabbit out of a hat instead of using it to lop someone’s head off.
When Ghosts ‘n Goblins haunted arcades in 1985, it introduced gamers to a frustration on a new level. Considered one of the most difficult platformers of its time, Capcom’s side scroller was so hard IGN’s Lucas Thomas called it a “waste of time” for most players. So, of course, the logical thing for developers to do is make its sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, even more hellish.
The uphill battle to reclaim princess and trousers begins
Released in 1988, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts quickly rose through the charts with more macabre graphics and a ton of new enemies. The terrain had more variety, rising and dipping unevenly as you progressed. It also introduced more verticality. “Up” was no longer limited by ladders and higher platforms, but structured through the creative use of assets like bridges, branches, and in one level, gargoyle tongues.
The environment itself was an enemy. Earthquakes and thunderstorms periodically shake the screen. Jagged ceilings and spikes lie in wait for overly enthusiastic jumpers. It was as if the developers looked at the original and decided one way to make hell even more hellish was to actively pit it against you.
Pac-Man made chomps heard ‘round the world. The game’s enduring legacy persists to this day. Gamers who have never even touched an arcade cabinet know Pac-Man. The little yellow ball is a veritable movie star, appearing in films alongside Adam Sandler and Marvel’s Starlord.
Ms. Pac-Man chasin’ the cherry
But while Pac-Man may get all the praise and recognition, it wasn’t until the missus came along that the game itself really came into its own. Ms. Pac-Man improved and made the gameplay more challenging in a number of ways.
Fruit power-ups are no longer static, giving you another thing to chase after other than panicking ghosts. The ghosts themselves moved semi-randomly, which made movement patterns unpredictable and threw the established meta-game out the window. The sequel also introduced mazes into the mix. That, along with the randomised enemy AI, meant there was always more than one way to play the level.
Released in 1983, Elevator Action’s original premise set it floors above the space shooters and side-scrollers that dominated the arcade gaming space. Instead of shooting aliens, gamers play as Agent 17, a spy fighting through a building with a disconcerting number of doors and elevators.
Going up, going down, and stopping nukes
Gameplay was addictive, although story wasn’t the game’s strong suit. And for its premise–you’re basically 007 infiltrating the enemy hive–the graphics were relatively tame and cheerful.
That all changed with Elevator Action Returns. The sequel retained everything that made the original a hit–the unique theme and addictive gameplay–and added a lot more of the action and narrative depth that it was missing. The graphics are grittier, closer to Contra than Kong. Instead of a spy, you now control one of three characters fighting against a terrorist organisation who wants to nuke the world.
Initially created as a spin-off to classic Donkey Kong, everyone’s favourite intrepid plumber began his own franchise in 1983’s Mario Bros. Fans who were expecting another Donkey Kong game were pleasantly surprised with new game mechanics. Instead of knuckling and hopping to the top, players have to defeat all enemies, all of which need to be “stunned” under certain conditions before Mario and Luigi could punt them away.
Mario riding high on cloud nine
It was great fun. But it was fun confined under the sewers of New York. Super Mario Bros. took the Mario franchise from the underground and expanded it into an entire kingdom. Everything about the sequel became iconic, from the variety of enemies to the sound the game makes when you collect coins. The game is also considered one of the greatest platformers of all time, thanks to precise controls and the depth of the design of every level.
Surprise elements made play exciting. Some pipes hid piranha plants, but others took you to hidden bonus rooms. Brick blocks can contain useful power-ups, but you have to hit them to find out. Super Mario Bros. invited players to explore and interact with the world–and subsequently, fall in love with it.
Today, it’s very hard to live up to the original. But back in the 80s and 90s, developers had nowhere to go but forward, and many created sequels that turned already fun originals into hall of fame worthy classics that changed the very way games were made.