Beloved gaming franchises never really die. Sometimes they go away for a bit, only to be revived via remastered collections. We’ve seen Activision do this plenty of times in recent years, bringing back Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for modern audiences. Individual masterpieces like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s Souls, and Final Fantasy VII have been remade in the past few years, in very different but equally successful translations. And through it all, we hold out hope that beloved classics like Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, and Chrono Trigger might find a way to see a resurgence on new consoles.
But sometimes, the road to bringing back a beloved game is a bit more twisty. Maybe the rights to a series are in limbo. Perhaps the original publisher has no interest in revisiting a certain property. Or, in many cases, much of the original creative team has gone on to form a completely different studio. It’s in these situations that we’ve seen the rise of the spiritual successor, a way of making what’s old feel new again, that’s showing no signs of stopping in the coming years.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen quite a bit from two high-profile spiritual successors. At The Game Awards, we saw the reveal of The Callisto Protocol, the first game from a new developer called Striking Distance Studios. Right from the get-go, everything about the reveal trailer screamed Dead Space — derelict space stations, colored lights on the back of a prisoner’s neck that seemed to display in-world information, and a reanimated corpse that mutated into a hellish creature that strongly resembled a necromorph.
But once you dig a bit deeper, the game’s Dead Space similarities start making complete sense, despite not being affiliated with EA. Striking Distance is led by former Visceral Games vice-president and Dead Space co-creator Glen Schofield. While we know that The Callisto Protocol is somehow set in the universe of PUBG, the trailer is filled with a ton of Easter eggs that point to its being a sci-fi survival horror experience cut from the same cloth as Dead Space, which is excellent news to me.
Another upcoming game we’ve seen quite a bit from in recent weeks is Back 4 Blood, Turtle Rock’s four-player cooperative zombie shooter that is Left 4 Dead in everything but name. Again, that makes complete sense given that Turtle Rock was the developer of Left 4 Dead 2. While this new game doesn’t have Valve’s backing or use of its IP, it’s clear that Back 4 Blood has all of the elements of L4D that truly matter.
Our recent hands-on impressions confirmed that it has the same nail-biting pacing, creative use of an AI director that makes every session feel uniquely dramatic, and perfect balance of enemy types, enemy quantities, and resource scarcity that keeps the tension at its peak. It even goes as far as to add the kinds of new and exciting elements that we’d expert from a true sequel, like a deck-building mechanic that modifies the kinds of weapons, perks, and obstacles you and your teammates will face throughout the campaign.
While The Callisto Protocol is a few years away from being released, Back 4 Blood is already in alpha, with the final game coming this June. And while both of these games are high-budget spectacles coming from AAA studios, that’s not the only way to birth a spiritual successor. Looking at the upcoming pipeline, there’s Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, a game very much carrying the Jet Set Radio torch, right down to original music by Hideki Naganuma. Sticking with Sega classics is Taxi Chaos, an indie game coming to consoles in February that channels the spirit of the arcade and Dreamcast classic, Crazy Taxi. And oddly enough, Sega is even distributing the game in Japan and throughout Asia.
Of course, perhaps the biggest spiritual successor announced in 2020 was Eiyuden Chronicles: Hundred Heroes, essentially a new Suikoden game under another name from Rabbit & Bear Studios, which is made up of a lot of folks who worked on Konami’s classic RPG series. The game was revealed in July, with a Kickstarter campaign that shortly followed. It was far and away the biggest video game Kickstarter of 2020 and the third highest-grossing video game campaign in the crowdfunding platform’s history. It made $4.6 million from over 46,000 backers, with an expected release date of fall 2022.
These types of spiritual successors by some of the original creators aren’t new in video games. We’ve seen a trend in recent years, particularly in the form of crowdfunded projects that have capitalized on some of the most popular franchises of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of them have been ultimately disappointing, like Keiji Inafune’s Mighty No. 9, which never managed to capture the magic of its classic Mega Man inspirations. There were good successors that might’ve lacked some of the charm of their predecessors, like Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee, which managed to weave in some, if not all, of what made games like Banjo-Kazooie special. And then there’ve been genuinely great games, like Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, which is the best Castlevania game we’ve seen in quite some time. That game’s even getting a free Classic Mode DLC in January that will transform it into something more similar to the 8- and 16-bit versions of Konami’s series.
In thinking about where these upcoming successors fit in the modern breadth of video games, it’s clear that there’s a deep desire for both experiences that are familiar and that are new. Some of my favorite games of 2020 were completely original, like Spiritfarer, The Pathless, and Paradise Killer. Others felt like the natural progressions of their developers, like Hades, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, and Astro’s Playroom. And then there were the straight-up sequels and remakes, like Final Fantasy VII Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and The Last of Us Part II. There’s no one right way to make a great game, and if it’s clear that there’s still interest in a franchise or idea from both fans and the original developers themselves, then I’m all for teams going back to the well and trying to find that old magic once again.