Reboots exist in comics and film franchises because eventually a storyline completely arcs and there is nothing left that can be done with it. Stories and characters eventually as a part of how storytelling works, generally need to reach some type of catharsis in everything but an episodic format without significant character or plot development. Eventually Spiderman gets married to Mary Jane, and everything is working out fine, and you can’t really do much else with the character, so either you retcon something or you reboot. Or have the devil undo it. Alternatively, sometimes there are just so many restrictive elements in the canon of a story that it’s just plain difficult to write anything new without contradicting something that’s already happened and the franchise needs a reboot so that new ground can be tread at all.
Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of reboots of video games in a similar fashion to all the recent reboots of film franchises and the question that nobody has really considered is do video games need to be rebooted? Unlike film franchises, video games aren’t based on stories. Sure, video games have stories in them, much in the same way films have soundtracks in them, but it’s rare that films are made to be about soundtracks. Stories, by their nature, need to come to a type of catharsis eventually. They need to reach a resolution where the dramas of the story are set to rest and sometimes you have room to make a sequel, but frequently it’s just odd to drag characters that have reached fulfillment, or are dead, out of retirement like that. Games don’t really have that limitation because that need to come to a resolution isn’t a part of game mechanics. So do we really need reboots of games? Can the mechanics of a game ever reach a type of complete that prevents new iterations on them without tearing down the previous formula completely and starting from scratch?
One example of a series that never seems to die is Mario, specifically, 2D Mario. Mario has been trotted out with roughly the same mechanics in 2D for over 25 years. It’s received some revisions over the years, such as the ability to carry shells or other objects around and some changes in powerups, but for the most part, the Mario we have today is the same Mario we met in 1985. The closest thing to a reboot Mario ever received was Mario 64 in 1996, and again in 2006 with New Super Mario Bros. This is a long stretch of time, but 2D Mario was still being kept alive on the handheld systems with updated rereleases of previous titles, such asSuper Mario Bros Deluxe andSuper Mario Advance. For the closest thing that could beinterpretedas a reboot, New Super Mario Bros didn’t try to get away from the foundations of the series much at all, rather bringing them back just how they always were with a few new features, like the mega and mini mushrooms, wall jumping, and triple jumping.Despite the New in front of New Super Mario Bros, it’s hard to say that much had changed in it from previous Mario titles apart from the visual style.
Street Fighter is a series with upwards of 20 games in it and several subseries, with every numbered release (and whatever you’d call Alpha, EX, and some of their Versus games) being closer to a completely new take on the series rather than an update on what came before. Since Street Fighter II: The World Warrior Capcom has released about 6 titles all sporting the Street Fighter II name, depending on whether you’d include some of the updated rereleases and collections or not. By about Super Turbo, it’s arguable that Capcom really had nothing left they could do with SFII. New characters just wouldn’t fit the cast they had developed, with combinations of rushdown, keepout, grapplers, and a good mix inbetween. New mechanics probably wouldn’t be supported by the architecture they had programmed and wouldn’t mesh with the system they had already established. In 1996 Capcom rebooted with Street Fighter Alpha in a style similar to their more cartoon-like and cel shaded Darkstalkers games. Street Fighter Alpha introduced air blocking, multiple supers, tiered levels of supers, each with more power, carry over of meter from round to round, chain combos of moves from weaker to stronger in strength, alpha counters, and a few new characters (a lot of these new characters being carryovers from previous Capcom franchises and the original street fighter). The Alpha series went on to develop completely differently from Street Fighter II in style. Alpha 2 introduced custom combos, and set a very different pace for the game from other street fighter titles with its fast normals. Alpha 3 then introduced -isms, and the guard gauge and had maybe the most robust air combo system of any Street Fighter to date. Street Fighter 3 set out to redefine street fighter with beautifully animated characters, a new parry system that allowed hits to be completely blocked with good timing, attacks that all contrasted in timing to cut down on button mashing, a new dash system, EX attacks, very few normals that linked or chained, 3 different supers, and a whole new cast of characters unlike any seen before, or after, in the series. Street Fighter 4 then set out to try to try to distill the roots of the series and iterate on it with its own take. Street Fighter 4 featured focus attacks, which worked like parries from SF3, except with regenerating white health, and the ability to cancel special attacks with them. It also brought back dashes and EX attacks from SF3, but instead of selectable supers, it now has 2 ultra attacks, powered by the revenge meter. The current iteration of Street Fighter 4 has the largest selection of characters from across the franchise ever, and adds a couple new characters of its own. On top of that, SF4 is the definitively most balanced game in the franchise. To say the least, Street Fighter across its various subseries, has handled rebooting itself really well. Every version reaches a point where it’s eventually really distinct from all that follow it, and pretty much feature complete, then they start it over again with a new series. I’ve left out some of the weirder Street Fighter versions, like EX and the versus games, which are odd compared to the main series in their own right.
The Penny Arcade RPG, On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness, is a title I figure few have actually tried, but was actually really enjoyable in its own way. The first game set up a simple combat system which was rather dull until I discovered action queuing, which made the whole thing explode with vibrancy. During animations for damn near anything, you still had complete control over the menus, and any action queued up would execute after the current one completed, without allowing the enemies a chance to act even if they were ready to. This mechanic ended up creating a tremendously cool system of trying to judge timings for attacks, waste time with actions that had long animations to build up meter for stronger attacks, factoring in what the enemies were weak and resistant against, and tons of fun realtime evaluations of circumstances and frantically hitting buttons all over the menu, trying to completely choke the enemy out of all attacks. After a few trips around youtube, I don’t think anyone other than me discovered this rather basic trick. In any case, after 2 episodes worth of this, it seemed a lot like they had pushed the system they made to its limits and tried basically every possible combination on the theme in terms of enemy and attack variations, so naturally they switched over to a completely different format by teaming up with the Cthulhu Saves the World developers. I kinda regret that there wasn’t another one in the original style, but there just wasn’t any room to expand I believe.
A recent reboot on everyone’s minds is the new Devil May Cry game, DmC. It’s here where it is hard to hard to argue that a reboot was really necessary, or that the series needed it. Every iteration of Devil May Cry continually set up larger and larger expectations, with a greater feature set than the previous games. The original game had basic attacks and jump canceling, DMC2 had aerial raves and gun switching, DMC3 had a way more developed combat system, styles, tons of weapons, and DMC4 had style switching, a whole new character, new enemies and new weapons. DmC removed lockon, had way less technical combat, and a ton of other bad business that I’m sure you’re already aware of. Was this reboot really necessary? Devil May Cry 4 was the best selling game in the franchise, despite the killer deadlines that required them to reuse tons and tons of content. They were on the track to make a better DMC game after it, but instead they decided to reboot something that still had room to grow. They could have integrated the aspects lost of DMC3’s combat system. They could have expanded on Nero’s. They could have implemented more weapons and styles. There were a lot of things they could have expanded on.
The big conclusion here is, sometimes reboots do make sense for games. Sometimes games reach a level of finished where there isn’t much left to explore with them and your only choice is to define something new from scratch. However, sometimes a series is perfectly in its stride. Sometimes it just needs to grow a bit more and still try new things, even if it’s just new level designs like from Super Mario Bros to The Lost Levels. If this is the case, then a reboot can risk seriously alienating the fans, especially if it’s aimed at a broader audience and doesn’t respect the soul of the series, like so many modern reboots seem to do.