So last week on Puncher Extruation I ran my big fat mouth off saying that there has never been a sequel to a self-contained game story that has been regarded as being better than the original, unless the sequel has completely new characters. Well, a lot of my correspondents took issue with this claim, which, in retrospect, may have been a little hasty. I definitely think it applies to traditional storytelling media like films and novels, but videogame sequels can be a different kettle of fish. More often a videogame sequel comes about from technological or mechanical developments, so the story improves just because the means by which the story is told has improved. Although less often now that the rise of processing power has slowed almost to a halt of late.
Some people mentioned Monkey Island 2, and I'll give them that one, but I insist this falls under the category of "technologically upgraded sequel" since it took up more disks (I had the Amiga version of both games, and I thought Monkey Island 1 being on four 3.5" floppies made for pretty obnoxious disk swapping, but then Monkey Island 2 came on twelve of the motherfuckers). Another one was Resident Evil 4, the head-and-shoulders standout best of an otherwise terribly overrated series, and which featured the same protagonist as Resident Evil 2. But the plot as a whole is so utterly tangential to the poor excuse for a canon the rest of the series has that the identity of the main character was almost irrelevant, and I classify this with the "total re-jigger" category. The various latter incarnations of Mario you could also argue fit into my criteria, but no one really plays those games for the story, do they.
And you know what, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is definitely better than its predecessors. The Castlevania series existed for the longest time in that Mario/Zelda position of churning out essentially the same game with somewhat improved graphics every time someone figured out how to crowbar more pixels onto a cartridge, but Symphony of the Night led the way by eschewing the traditional level-based structure in favour of open-ended exploration platforming. Although future instalments sort of missed the point by ripping off Symphony of the Night instead. To all those people who say that every Mario is the beta for the Mario that comes after it, I would point out Symphony of the Night and ask if it isn't better to spread out into new ideas than concentrate eternally on spinning the same straw into gold.
I really think SOTN still holds up today. What I admire most is that it resisted temptation. Despite being on the then-spectacular new technology of the Playstation 1 it stuck with being a 2D game while everything else was trying out the brand new polygons. And from an enlightened modern standpoint, absolutely nothing looks worse than PS1-generation polygon graphics, not even photos of dying children. SOTN was happy to stay on the 2D pile with the previous generation and become their leper king, with ridiculous numbers of art assets and detailing. Better to rule in 16-bit than serve in 32, right? I admire that because it's exactly the same philosophy - of elevating an old but reliable system just by making it look as nice as possible - that makes me like Painkiller so slobberingly much.