The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

  • Post last modified:Saturday, March 27th, 2021
  • Reading time:23 mins read

by [name redacted]

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see. If the series continues, it will tend to keep vamping on the third and most well-received chapter, meaning from there on the series is pretty much just spinning its wheels. It’s that second game, that tries not for perfection but to find something new and valuable to say about a now-familiar topic, that exposes the real potential of the series. It may take skill to polish a good idea, but it takes brains and bravery to come at that idea from a completely new perspective.

Spanning about a decade, here are five of those tenuous twos — not all of them so unappreciated, but all of them anomalies in one way or another. Beautiful anomalies. Each of these games has much to teach us.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1988)

A few people will say this set the precedent for Symphony of the Night and all its GBA and DS rehashes. Sort of, not really; not really the point. If only Igarashi’s games were so ambitious.

The original Castlevania was a stripped-down, focused port of an MSX action-adventure called Vampire Killer. With a mind to the early limitations of Nintendo’s system, they took out the exploration, barriers, and inventory items, to mold a crunchy action game, all about timing and forward momentum.

This was in the early days of the Famicom Disk System — a sort of floppy drive for the Japanese NES. That is to say, the media was rewritable. Which meant, for the first time on a game console, players could save their games. Once that concept sank in, the design ramifications were pretty clear: developers could design larger, more intricate, more ponderous worlds, meant to be explored rather than defeated. That in itself is an extension of what Super Mario Bros. brought to game design, but this time it was tangible.

So in the wake of Zelda, when that language was out there for the grabbing, Konami’s next step was to adapt and expand all the ideas they had cut out of Castlevania the first time around. The sequel carried on the story and basic premise of the original, but brought it to a new place and a scale never repeated.

Simon’s Quest breaks the player out of the castle — not just into a courtyard or a Venice level, but into the Transylvanian countryside. There are no real bosses, and there is no pressure except time and the player’s own drive. Castlevania (that is, Castle Dracula) is only a tiny part of the game, right at the end. Most of the game consists of wandering the paths, searching for clues, as the days tick by and Simon’s life drains away. Villagers are unfriendly; nighttime is dangerous. The visuals, in their simplicity, are blasted and grim. The music gives a nervous sense of purpose: you will beat this curse. You must, somehow. And if you don’t, well, there’s an ending for that too.

The world and structure of this game are complex. You have a huge, sidescrolling “overworld”, if you will, dotted with towns, swamps, forests, caves, and rivers, each with a proper name. Everything looks and sounds and behaves differently at night. You earn money to buy whip upgrades, and you find or buy secondary items, all of which you keep in an inventory. And then there are the mansions — rather like Zelda dungeons, they are your targets. You dip in, play something a little more recognizable as Castlevania, find your artifact, and you leave.

So okay. The Zelda influence is none too subtle — yet that influence is infused with ideas and a sensibility that were already in place back on the MSX, and in application Simon’s Quest is something else. Something novel, and immense.

Some of the design choices are, to a modern eye, a bit clumsy. Unless you already know where to go and what to do, good luck to you in figuring it out. It’s not that the game doesn’t hand out any clues; it’s that it actively misleads the player. The game doesn’t ever pat the player on the head, which can make it hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere important. I would flip that around and say that the game gives the player an unusual and refreshing freedom to read in his own meaning to his actions — which is exactly what a videogame should do.

As a result, the play experience is unusually nuanced and dignified. Where most games are like bad action movies, paranoid of losing your attention, playing Simon’s Quest is rather like reading a 19th century novel. Not bad for 1988.

And of course, it’s the third game that gets all the attention — the one with the glitter and the sloppy level design. If you want an action game, play the first Castlevania; it’s more compact, more focused, more visceral. If you want pure inspiration, go with Simon’s Quest.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)

Metroid came out alongside The Legend of Zelda and Kid Icarus, to demonstrate the early potential of the Disk System. The three games were kind of cheapo, using programming tricks, palette swaps, and repeated rooms to create bigger worlds using smaller disk space and less memory overhead. If you look at the original Japanese versions, the three almost seem stamped out of a template. Same name registration screen and everything.

Then in 1989, with his traditional cross of frugality and ingenuity, Gunpei Yokoi came up with the Game Boy: already dated, black-and-white, blurry — yet fairly inexpensive, flexible, and portable. It was like the Disk System (or indeed the Famicom) all over again. In its gratitude, Nintendo told Yokoi “you break it, you bought it,” and shifted both him and his R&D#1 studio exclusively to Game Boy development.

So Yokoi’s guys sighed and resigned themselves to producing stripped-down remakes of Miyamoto’s greatest hits. Some of them (Super Mario Land) were, and are, wonderfully subversive if you know what you’re looking at. Still, maybe that wasn’t the best choice for Nintendo in the long run…

For R&D#1, Metroid had been as pragmatic a development as it was a creative one: a new kind of hardware suggests a new kind of game design. And now, hey, here was another new piece of hardware, with all its own brand new design implications.

For one thing, you’re either going to be playing a portable game in short bursts or for hours in the back of a car — so that suggests a sprawling experience, but one that you need to be able to save frequently and jump right back to where you left off. Rather like putting a bookmark in a novel. For another, the game isn’t on a TV across the room; it’s right up in your personal space. Instead of looking out a window, you’re physically holding the game a few inches from your face, again like a book. So there’s a kind of introverted, intimate quality to play.

And then there are the tangible limitations, or I guess I should say qualities. The screen is only so large, and it’s blurry, and small objects get lost on it. There are only four shades of gray (well, green) to work with, and only so much ROM space and memory. All of this suggests new visual and structural techniques, if you want to make anything interesting. Yet you do have multi-channel stereo sound! Which, yes, if you use the included headphones, increases the intimacy and the immersion.

Metroid II uses all these limitations as strengths to do what a good portable game needs to do: it reinterprets the basic premise and format of the original game as a more subjective, intimate experience.

The game is darker, scarier; you start at the surface of a planet, and then delve deeper and deeper into a hole, away from the safety of your space ship. As you progress, you start to notice that everything looks the same: a rock is a rock, and it’s all dark down here.

Dark, and claustrophobic. Samus’s well-animated sprite now fills the screen, probably to avoid losing her when the screen scrolls. The effect is that you feel the oppression of the situation bearing down on you. It’s easy to become lost and anxious. It’s like you have only this small circle of light, and then beyond that… well, who knows what you might stumble into unprepared.

Except in the exit corridor, the upbeat anthems of the original are replaced with discordant, vaguely distressing, ambient ambient soundscapes. And just for fun, your mission is technically genocide.

Samus’s sprite, incidentally, has seen some significant changes. Since they can’t just swap her palette when you arm her missiles or find her Varia suit, they had to find some other tells: her gun arm opens, and with her new Varia suit, we have the orb-shouldered huntress we now know so well. Everything has been rethought, including the way the player interacts with the scenery.

Since her sprite is so big, Samus has a bit more mobility: she can duck, and shoot in all four directions. More significant is the Spider Ball — which shrinks Samus’s screen footprint to an orb actually smaller than her standard Morph Ball, and allows her to roll along any solid surface in the game world. The ramifications are tremendous, and intricate enough that aside from a neutered version in the Prime games, it has never returned.

If you’re holding the game world only inches from your face, and you’ve only got so much of the map on your screen at any moment, you’re going to want to comb every inch of it — and so, in this case, you can. It’s no accident that the game hands you the Morph Ball only minutes into your exploration; it’s what the game is built around, technically and philosophically.

As with Simon’s Quest, there aren’t really the overt bosses or maps or hints. There aren’t even any doors or barriers; you just keep wandering, and try to remember where you’ve been, and try not to freak out. Generally you bide your own time, and soak in the atmosphere. In this game, you are right there with Samus, tangibly, emotionally, as you are in few videogames on any platform.

The only game that R&D#1 ever made for the Super NES was, yes, a third Metroid. Which, as with the earlier chapters, may be the only game that really used the SNES the way it was meant to be used. Still, as with so many SNES games, the title says it all: it’s Metroid again, except Super. Which is nice, I guess, if a bit obvious.

Riven: The Sequel to Myst (1997)

This is maybe a more subtle example of the trope, in that in story and design Riven is a direct follow-up to the original. It looks similar, it plays broadly the same. It begins at the exact moment that Myst leaves off. At a glance it looks like the same thing, only bigger. Once you get into the design, though, and you place it within the rest of the series, you will see that its mind is in a completely different place.

Though Myst was gorgeous and innovative and charming and often rather clever, it was a bit disjointed. It was like a theme park full of random brain teasers, loosely justified by a tacked-on story of family intrigue and betrayal. Although it sold gangbusters, the game’s incoherence was a joke that the series has never completely lived down. With Riven, the Millers tried to respond to this criticism — and boy did they ever take it to heart. The result is perhaps the richest, most coherent game world ever painted.

The world of Riven is of one culture, one society, twisted and broken into five pieces by what might best be termed an imperialist overlord. Unlike Myst, there are no puzzles as such. Instead the player is faced with logistical problems: how do I get over there, how do I open this, how do I get this running? In themselves these tasks are fairly simple — once you understand what you’re doing, and why. Yet that, there, is the hitch.

Instead of discrete, orderly logic problems, Riven is built around abstract understanding. The player is cast as one part anthropologist, one part archaeologist, and one part detective: a visitor, an outsider, an observer, thrust suddenly and fairly realistically into this culture, with all the alienation you might expect. It is up to the player to explore, study, research, and interrelate, to understand why things are as they are.

No one detail makes sense in isolation; you need to pay attention, poke around, and establish a context. There is, for instance, a schoolhouse, to teach the native children of Riven. In that schoolhouse you will find a wooden toy — a little man dangles from a string. You spin a dial, it lands on an obscure symbol, and the man is lowered by so many clicks. When he reaches the bottom, a monstrous fish closes its jaws around the man. There is no immediate point to the game, yet it serves to teach at least two lessons — one functional, one a bit more abstract — about the culture of Riven.

There is another problem, relying on some really creative pattern-matching, that the player can solve in several ways, depending on how her mind retains and processes information. There are visual, auditory, and purely logical clues, any of which are sufficient to very nearly solve the problem. The imperfection of the last step is in itself a bit brilliant. Unlike so many other games, this world has not been set out for the player’s benefit; it exists for its own sake, and for the convenience of the people who live there. The player is an interloper, and so must manage with what she is dealt.

Although this holistic approach elevates Riven to the point of literature — it is easily one of the most perfect videogames ever made — fans of the first game were bewildered at the lack of discrete puzzles. They found the game frustrating, pointless, and obtuse: all you do is wander around and look at things. Well, yes. That’s life. So with the third game and with much relief, the puzzles returned. Again, that’s life. And if you like puzzles, Exile is okay. It’s got some good ones.

Silent Hill 2 (2001)

And here’s another odd example, as Silent Hill 2 is widely recognized as the best in the series. I think the only party that fails to understand why this is so is Konami corporate, which subsequently sidelined its creator Takayoshi Sato (also an important figure in the original Silent Hill). You see, now that Sato had made the series so successful, he could no longer be trusted with such an important franchise. Corporations, I tell you. Oh, well. He seems to be doing okay.

Instead of directly continuing the original story, Sato instead chose to do what at first almost seems like a remake — another unremarkable schlub with an unremarkable name loses a family member, and trudges through Silent Hill to find her, flashlight and radio in hand. Instead, this sequel is a variation on a theme — the second story in an anthology series, in which the town of Silent Hill works as a sort of Twilight Zone. Whatever demons a person carries in with him, they become real. In a sense, the town is an individualized purgatory for every man and his sins. Either a visitor confronts and overcomes his demons, or they will consume him.

Our hero this time is James Sunderland, a terminally depressed, probably alcoholic, widower. There is something distinctly wrong with the man, and through the course of the game the Freudian symbols he projects into the world around him are frankly more disturbing for what they say about him than for their immediate creep factor.

What is kind of brilliant about the game is that far from diverging dramatically from the original, the game uses almost the exact same template to do something far more nuanced and, frankly, adult. And Silent Hill was already pretty sophisticated; it was probably the first game to really understand and master psychological horror.

It’s not that the game is traumatic in the way of the original; it’s more that it numbs, smothers,  imparting on the player James’s own state of mind. How the player responds to this stimulation speaks volumes, and the game is listening. All the little things the player unconsciously does, or does without understanding why, the game records. Somewhere down the line, it may do much to explain James’s motivation.

Since it’s based on a technically clumsy game design, and does nothing to improve on it, the game is itself less than perfect. There are huge inconsistencies in the game’s mechanics and logic and pacing. The radio screeches when monsters are near, except when the game wants to throw a dumb shock at you. James can climb through a fence, yet can’t lift his knees to step over some police tape. These problems can be infuriating, and often threaten to pull the player out of the experience. But, really, so what. This may be the most adult videogame ever made, and the way things are going I imagine it will retain that award for a while to come.

Although the third game is little more than continuity wank for fans of the first one, and the later games are stamped out of a template, Silent Hill 4: The Room is actually really strange and interesting. It’s a smaller and even more awkward game than this, and at the time neither the press nor the public knew what to make of it, but if you’re looking for literature, it’s also worth a shot.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1988)

Here’s the big one, the one that typifies this trope. Over the last decade or so I have seen more, and more thoughtful, reappraisals of the game, and its reputation has improved. In 1988? Boy, did it upset people.

The Legend of Zelda was the phenomenon it had every right to be. It was huge, it was epic. It changed what it meant to make a home console game. It inspired games like Simon’s Quest to up their scale and ambition over their predecessors. So how do you follow up a phenomenon? By ramping up the scale even further. Link is grown up. His journey is grander, the threat darker.

There are actually a bunch of parallels to Simon’s Quest, not the least of which is the hero’s curse. As sprawling as each game is, they’re both curiously intimate: in each game, the immediate goal is not so much that you’re trying to save the world as that you’re trying to save yourself.

Not everyone notices this, and I sure didn’t until a friend pointed it out — pull out a map of the Zelda II overworld. Look closely at the lower-left corner. Does it look at all familiar? That handful of map tiles, there, maybe about 1% of the total map area? That’s The Legend of Zelda. That’s the first game. Roughly each screen is represented by a single tile. That’s how epic they went with The Adventure of Link. That’s how much more immense it is than the earlier game.

Problem is, how do you manage such an ambitious design? Zelda‘s design was pretty straightforward: waddle around, stab things, collect stuff. It’s just the implications of all this waddling and stabbing and collecting that made it so immense. Taking a hint from the phenomenon that was Dragon Quest (and maybe from a few Falcom adventures), Nintendo’s answer was to go more abstract.

Dragon Quest is a very simple game — curiously so by modern standards — because everything in the game is representative. Later Japanese RPGs, would take these representative elements literally, leading to convoluted abstractions of abstractions. Dragon Quest, though, tries to keep the metaphors clear. It’s about journey, growth, experience.

Instead of tracing our hero’s every step across a luxuriously detailed world, we move a man-shaped token around a map. Sometimes, when we move to a new space, we hit a random battle. That battle stands in for all the tiny accidents, scuffles, and discoveries that would make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. When you kill a slime and earn two gold pieces, it’s not that you’re ridding the realm of treacherous piñatas; it’s that the game is retaining is larger focus by boiling down all your minor misadventures to one regular, easily processed mechanism.

Zelda II uses that structure as a blueprint, then adapts it to its own needs. Instead of truly random battles, the player encounters shadowy monster shapes that he can actively avoid — retaining some of the dynamism and dodging skills of the original game. Yet those shapes only appear when the player strays from the path and into the wild, where adversity is more likely. As in Zelda or indeed Dragon Quest, the farther one strays, the more chance of getting into trouble.

So generally the game saves its close-up view for key events. If there’s action, it’s immediate, it’s tangible, it’s important. It’s also much more action-oriented than the first game, drawing a further contrast between the journey and the destination. Whereas the big picture is small and uneventful sketch, the important moments — the towns and dungeons and battles — are writ large. Link and his surroundings are big on the screen and intricately drawn, and the mechanics owe more to Super Mario Bros. or even Castlevania than to The Legend of Zelda.

Which is to say, aside from the setting and characters and some of the melodies (if not their arrangements), almost nothing of the original game is retained. All of the mechanics are different, the tone is different — nervous, a bit imposing, very detached. The pacing comes from a different planet entirely.

In everything but its actual goal, Zelda II might as well be an unrelated game. Yet that is exactly what makes it poignant; it changes everything in pursuit of that goal of showing what happens next. Remember, The Lord of the Rings doesn’t read anything like The Hobbit either. Where The Hobbit was a fairly simple adventure, its sequel was a complex coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence epic. The Adventure of Link is overtly the same. Remember, this is the game in which Link first grows up.

There is something melancholy about the game — to Link as to us all, adulthood comes reluctantly and hard. The world is harsh and unwelcoming. The old playground we love, which was once a world unto itself, becomes just a few dusty rocks in the corner, too small and irrelevant to play in anymore. There isn’t much playing around in this game at all; it’s all too serious, too busy musing on the task at hand, leaving the childhood lost, the contrasting simplicity of the original game, as an implicit lingering thought. With the storyline focused on Link himself, and his own personal problems, everything has become a bit less safe and romantic. Zelda II isn’t about the moment; it is about your goals, and the things that stand in their way.

Perhaps it’s a bit cynical, perhaps a little angsty, but Link’s second adventure is the boldest and most difficult of them all. Not difficult in terms of being hard to complete; difficult in that it’s hard to accept. Although it’s a grand game in its own right, after the joy of the original it comes as a very deliberate slap in the face. Nothing in the game caters to the audience, yet never does it take the audience for granted. Take it or leave it, the game means to say what it will. And for that, after the original it is perhaps the most relevant game in the series.

If there is any successor, it would be not another Zelda game but rather Shadow of the Colossus. Thematically, tonally, Ueda got things right in a way that Nintendo never quite did again.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Original platform: NES

Also available/playable on: Wii Virtual Console, PC

Notes: Although the Japanese Disk System version lets you save your game, the cartridge has no battery back-up and therefore relies on passwords.

Metroid II: Return of Samus

Original platform: Game Boy

Also available/playable on: Game Boy Color, Advance

Notes: Of the games on this list, this is the only one that may be a little tricky to pick up and play without some older hardware. There are some fan remakes out there which, though impressive in their own right, kind of miss the point.

Riven: The Sequel to Myst

Original platform: PC, Mac

Also available/playable on: Sega Saturn, PlayStation

Notes: Best deal is the DVD version in the “Ages of Myst” collection.

Silent Hill 2

Original platform: PlayStation 2

Also available/playable on: Xbox Classic, PC

Notes: The Xbox port is superior to the PS2 one, both technically and in the addition of a new scenario. It works on Xbox 360, with some bugs.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Original platform: NES

Also available/playable on: Game Boy Advance, Wii Virtual Console

Notes: If you buy the NES cartridge, mind the battery and know that there are two different cartridges: gold and plain gray.