Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.
If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.
This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.
Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?
A similar thing happened with Doom (2016). Many people criticized it for its arena level design; not because arenas didn’t serve the gameplay well, but because they believe arena level design is not what the Doom franchise is about, and that they’re inherently bad for shooters. This sets a false premise: arena level design is only detrimental in the context of the original Doom’s gameplay (broadly speaking). When arena level design is brought up as a flaw, people are judging 2016 by how well it fares as what they think a Doom game (or an FPS in general) should be–not whether it’s a good game on its own. Since Doom (2016) isn’t trying to play like the original to begin with, it having arena level design at all says nothing about the quality of the game. You can make the case that Doom 2016 is a worse FPS than the originals based on their individual merits, but when you’re talking to a group of fans of the old games who share similar expectations, it’s easier to just appeal to those. And it happened again with Doom Eternal. People criticized the aggressive resource management and the low ammo caps for getting in the way of slaying demons; criticism which has more to do with Eternal not meeting expectations of being a simple power fantasy. Which is what Doom is all about, supposedly.
Similarly, Street Fighter fans have an idea of the Ur-Street Fighter game, a Street Fighter that would capture the essence of what Street Fighter is really about. Each entry in the series tried to capture this essence, but each has something holding it back (SF2’s incredible jank, SFA’s custom combos and V-ism, SF4’s option selects and FADC, SFV’s high-commit tuning decisions). At its core, people say Street Fighter is about having fireballs that cannot be avoided except by jumping or blocking, and having anti-air that cannot be defended against. There’s a lot of other smaller factors too, like link combos instead of chains, plus frames on block, short-to-medium combo length, unsafe, uncancellable sweeps, and hard knockdowns, but above all it’s about the fireball and the anti-air. Of course, the game that violated all of these principles, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, was the black sheep of the series for a long time. 3rd Strike added Parries, which let you negate fireballs without taking chip damage or pushback, and it let you parry anti-airs, so anti-air was less guaranteed. Yet unlike a lot of others in this article, 3rd Strike eventually came to be appreciated and redeemed by its own fanbase, even if it never lived up to the Ur-Street Fighter ideal that the rest of the series strives for.
A change in directors allowed Breath of the Wild to significantly deviate from the Zelda formula, enabling more creative freedom for the direction of the franchise. 3D Zelda games have previously focused on puzzles, dungeons, and a wasteful approach to system design, where new mechanics are used only once and then forgotten. Breath of the Wild instead decided to introduce all the powers from the start, so they could be reused across the game. The game primarily focuses on traversal and combat instead of puzzle solving. Where puzzles did pop up, they were made into physics puzzles with multiple solutions. The new “chemistry engine” allows for different elements, such as wind, fire, and water to mix and interact in emergent ways, producing a variety of physics effects. The game’s core philosophy changed significantly from the rest of the franchise, as everything that was included was done so while thinking about how many other things it could interact with. This left the game without a lot of the aforementioned 3D Zelda staples, but it showed us a new way to design open world games (BOTW is the best immersive sim ever made, don’t @ me) that wouldn’t be possible if it stayed in the confines of the old formula.
God of War (2018) was a tough pill to swallow for many fans of the franchise. It strayed from the standard stylish action game template of a panning wide-angle third-person camera, jumping, and combo strings, to make a game with a behind-the-shoulders camera, no jumping, and only a few attacks; without the advanced combo system of prior games. It was also a big cinematic production with unskippable cutscenes, a more mature story about Sad Murder Dad fatherhood, and slow walkie talkie segments. Despite its surface presentation, GoW 2018 delivered a combat system that had a strong emphasis on micropositioning, good aim, timing, and enemy variety, with a decent enough combo system and moveset variety to be mildly interesting. Most encounters mixed enemy types between enemies that had different types of attacks (standard, projectile, guard breaking, and unblockable), different juggle rules (light, light flying, heavy, unjuggleable), and different attack zones (far reaching overhead melee, wide sweeping across melee, bullrushing melee, projectile, tracking ground AOEs, AOE burst). It also had a Nioh-esque dodge system with a directional block/parry, and a poise system on par with Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3. GoW 2018 managed to pick up the mantle of God Hand in having a middling amount of viable combat options (for a stylish action game), and really strong reactive combat with enemies. It treads the middle line between being a combo-fest and being a Souls-like. This created a lot of complex moment-to-moment choices during combat about maximizing damage output versus surviving. The polished AAA exterior of the game and the poorly tuned difficulty modes (only ‘Give Me a Challenge’ had well-tuned combat, where normal mode was too easy and ‘Give Me God of War’ mode too grindy) sadly kept most players from really engaging with the combat system, leading them to write it off as just another soulless AAA cinematic experience.
Of course, new isn’t always innovative and better. Despite being a reboot, DmC largely played in the same style as the original DMC, but did a worse job at it and got rightfully criticized for it. The Thief reboot similarly shared most of the same approaches to systems with its predecessors, and got rightfully criticized for being more watered down. It’s only when a new game doesn’t even try to play like the old ones that there’s little value in comparing them.
Modern expectations can also lead to poor criticism of older games. In almost every modern review of arcade(-style) games, an almost universal criticism is that they are too short or don’t have enough content to warrant their price, even though they’re designed to be highly replayable and beaten in one credit (the only way for them to take more than one credit to beat is to make it impossible to avoid losing once, which invalidates player skill and isn’t very fun). The time it takes to practice being able to consistently beat a 20-60 minute game with one credit can take days, sometimes even months, which sidesteps the need for “lots of content”. But many arcade(-style) games on home systems allow players to continue after losing all their lives (to simulate inserting another credit in an arcade machine). As the idea of one-credit clearing arcade games isn’t as common in Western gaming culture as it is in Japan, many players will just keep continuing to the end with little effort, and then call the game too easy or too short. And if the game does not allow continues and/or forces to player to restart the game on game over, most complaints will be along the lines of the game being too hard or that losing all your progress on game over is an outdated practice (even though most modern arcade ports come with practice modes that let you practice stages individually, which emulators also allow through savestates). Unfortunately most reviewers are too accustomed to modern games not setting you back more than a minute on game over, and so are unable to judge arcade(-style) games by what they’re actually designed around, leading to criticism that mostly misses the point.
Dark Souls 2 was in many ways a step down from its colleagues, coupled with the disappointment over a clear downgrade compared to the playable demos. It implemented a new animation and control system that didn’t feel as good as the other games, and made a number of other blunders, such as Soul Memory, erasing enemies that have been killed too often, bad lore, Lifegems, no interconnected world design, and just being uninspired in general. Despite this, it still has good level design, good enemy design and good enemy placement. It avoids the pitfalls of gimmick bosses that have plagued the series (though it still suffers from many bosses just being big humanoids). Dark Souls 2 even experimented in using enemies with longer aggro ranges, enemies that would chase you for longer, pairing more enemies up together so you can’t cheese individual encounters, and NG+ cycles that actually introduced new enemies, items, and enemy compositions, and almost none of these elements would return for the rest of the series. Unfortunately many of the good twists Dark Souls 2 brought to the Souls formula went unnoticed because of its problems and unmet expectations, leading to Dark Souls 3 playing it safe and forgoing everything good and bad that 2 did.
The problem with deferring to expectations for critique is that games that experiment and manage to successfully create new depth can be unfairly stigmatized for not being like previous games (to say nothing of games that experiment and fail). This can make developers hesitant to experiment again in the near future (as with Dark Souls 3), which in the worst case scenario leads to the stagnation of a genre/franchise.
One example being arena shooters, where any major deviation of the formula is met with outcry of it not being a real arena shooter, resulting in new entries being mostly Quake clones with some minor tweaks. Quake Champions tried to shake things up by introducing unique playable characters with different abilities and stats (and questionable execution), but instead of criticizing the execution, a lot of criticism centered around arena shooters having to be about players starting on equal footing–regardless if it’s good for gameplay depth. Fighting games have shown that 1v1 games where both players pick different characters can still be (competitively viable) tests of skill and not result in hard counter picks as seen in hero/team shooters. But a lot of criticism of different characters in QC has more to do with protecting the perceived identity of the franchise instead of its quality.
So there’s ‘euroshmups’, shmups for home systems that mostly originated from Europe, which included mechanics you would almost never see in an arcade shmup: inertia, ship customization and RPG-like systems, and greater leniency in taking damage (as opposed to the traditional one-hit death), while also having a larger hitbox (as opposed to the traditional 1×1-pixel hitbox). None of these are necessarily bad on their own, but they were haphazardly slapped on top of the foundation of arcade shmups with little consideration for balance. Forgiving life systems, inertia, and large hitboxes allowed designers to get away with stages where you can’t reliably avoid damage, or stages that are too easy. Progression systems often resulted in overly tanky regular enemies that didn’t feel satisfying to shoot. Put everything together, and you’ve got games that suck both as shmups and as games judged on their own merits. So euroshmups became shorthand for shitty European shmups (even when they don’t have the aforementioned mechanics), a sentiment which was proven time and time again. The unfortunate consequence here is that most mechanics associated with euroshmups then got stigmatized, even though they can be good with some tuning or a different foundation. Luftrausers proved that inertia in shmups can be good, but it had to take a radically different approach to everything for inertia to work. Ship customization and progression systems can be good, but they either need to be streamlined like in Fantasy Zone or Dezatopia to fit the arcade template, or be there to allow for a variety of playstyles like in Ginga Force, instead of being there just to provide a linear progression in power.
It’s not just the new Doom games that get compared to the old ones where it makes no sense, but singleplayer FPS games in general too. The level design philosophy realized by Doom/Quake/the Build Engine games has, in the absence of an alternative FPS level design philosophy that’s proven its worth, become The Golden Standard of FPS level design. Meaning if your levels don’t have intricate layouts and non-linearity and exploration and secrets (even if they wouldn’t gel with the gameplay), it’s probably shit. So Serious Sam and Devil Daggers receive undue flak because their combat usually takes place on a flat plane against enormous amounts of enemies, which when judged by The Golden Standard comes off as lazy and thoughtless slaughtermap design (yet the combat in both games is designed to work around massive enemy hordes, which can only work in open spaces with nothing obstructing the view between you and the enemy).
An indirect consequence of this Golden Standard is the boomer shooter revival, where as a reaction against years of bad console shooters, most of the new singleplayer FPS games to be any decent was this wave of shooters going back to the roots, like DUSK, AMID EVIL, Ion Fury, Prodeus, WRATH, and Overload. However, most of these games just ended up reinventing the wheel and not being as good as their source material. That’s not to say the old formula can’t be refined (Overload is one of the best shooters of this decade and a huge improvement over the Descent games it’s a spiritual successor to), but it’s bizarre that after 25 years the genre hasn’t moved on that much from Doom when there’s still so much unexplored potential. We still have to see a FPS with actually good boss fights, for one.
The rise of roguelites has drawn some ire from hardcore roguelike fans. The latter ascribe to the Berlin Interpretation of the “roguelike” definition, so any game that doesn’t strictly adhere to most of the criteria is often condemned for not being a real roguelike. As roguelikes are mostly played by a small audience with specific tastes and any deviation from the formula would be shunned by the community, it seemed preferable to follow the definition to the letter if you want your game to be played at all. Only being so strict with the definition and one’s expectations limits the creative potential of the genre. It wasn’t until Rogue Legacy broke the mold by dubbing itself a “rogue-LITE” and treating the roguelike definition as more of a suggestion, that it inspired other developers to experiment with roguelike elements in other genres and the idea of roguelike itself, resulting in games like Monolith, FTL, Dead Cells, and Risk of Rain. This wouldn’t have been possible in an environment with strict expectations of what a roguelike should be.
Expectations vary wildly from person to person, and genres/franchises can have many camps of people with different expectations. Knowing this, trying to get any consistent insight on the quality of a game’s design from them is next to impossible. Expectations have a place in consumer advice (a type of review that aims to tell you whether this game is worth your time and money depending on your preferences), and disregarding expectations is a good way for a developer to lose fans. But expectations are misleading and can prevent you from seeing a game for what it really is, possibly leading to the stagnation of a genre if held by an entire community. If branding a game a spin-off is all it takes to absolve it from most expectations, then unmet expectations are a marketing issue–not a game design issue. Reviews can acknowledge where there is a mismatch, but they shouldn’t make unmet expectations the core behind their criticism.