American business mogul Jeff Bezos once said “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”
The easiest way to increase the success of any product in any industry is to build upon a recognizable name that has already performed its job well. Where businesses create partnerships, the entertainment industries create spinoffs, ripoffs, and sequels. However, the success of the initial product increases expectations for any redelivery, and not every successor can live up to the hype. Many video game franchises have received premature burials as the result of an ill fated sequel. Several, however, we’re able to rebound from mediocrity, resurrecting stronger than before. I’d like to highlight what are arguably the three most notable series to overcome the curse of the sequel. The holy trilogy of the sophomore slump: Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros.
Exhibit A: Castlevania
In 1987, Konami graced NES owners with the action platformer Castlevania. The mystery of wall meat aside, Castlevania provided players with the fascinating tale of Simon Belmont, and the nefarious castle that only appeared every 100 years, on his quest to find and defeat Dracula. By injecting classic horror into an interactive gaming experience, Castlevania appealed to often overlooked potential consumers in the game industry. In a daring act that paid off, the narrative of Castlevania was kept simple, with the bulk of the focus instead on gameplay.
Fueled by the success of this classic, Konami wasted no time in producing the sequel Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Abandoning the successful design of the earlier linear platformer, Simon’s Quest offered an open-ended landscape with the passage of time marked by more difficult enemies at night. Reviews were mixed, with a decent portion of the negative reception stemming from the storyline. Simon Belmont, shortly after the events of the original title, sets out to find 5 pieces of Dracula, so he can rebuild the famed monster… in order to kill him… again. Even factoring in the curse made it a difficult plot for many to embrace. Additionally, the text was poorly translated from Japanese to English, leaving many speakers of the latter language wondering what the hell they were doing on Deborah’s Cliff.
A vast improvement came when 1989 delivered to fans Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Serving as a prequel to the original, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse abandoned the layout and design of the prior title, instead returning to the successful previous platform design and above-average storytelling experience we saw in the original. It is 100 years before the birth of Simon Belmont. Despite his family being exiled, Trevor C. Belmont, the current wielder of the Vampire Killer Whip, has been called upon. The fearsome vampire Count Dracula has enlisted a horde of savage monsters to aid in his takeover of Europe, threatening to bury the entire continent in a tomb of perpetual darkness. Belmont embarks on an arduous trek through Transylvania, in an effort to spare the cursed land from the clutches of evil and restore peace to its inhabitants.
Castlevania III also introduced us to three additional characters: Alucard, son of Dracula, Grant Danasty, the wall-climbing pirate, and Sypha Belnades, a magical sorceress. The player could choose one of these companions, depending on their chosen route to Dracula’s castle, each of which have notable strengths and weaknesses. By re-focusing on a simple yet cohesive storyline, Konami established the Castlevania franchise as a serious industry contender, instead of a one hit wonder.
Exhibit B: The Legend of Zelda
In addition to introducing the world to the most revolutionary technological advancement in the history of the video game industry – the ability to save progress at any point via internal battery and RAM chip – The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986, provided players with a sensational feeling of wonder, excitement, and eagerness to embrace the unknown. The environment is designed in such a way that encourages exploration, with most areas – and dungeons – being fully accessible from the moment you first blow off the bottom of your cartridge (joking aside, seriously do NOT blow on the cartridge). The player assumes the role of the young hero Link, who navigates a vast overworld while gathering 8 fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom, split by the kidnapped Princess Zelda, in the effort to defeat the evil pig-like villain Ganon.
Less than one year later, players eagerly embraced the release of The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Where the first game produced characters who offered clues to navigating the adventure, the sequel gave very little as far as storyline or progression. Princess Zelda is in a coma, and if it weren’t for the included manual you would have absolutely no clue why. When following what was arguably the most spectacular interactive coming of age tale of all time, it fell flat.
Lucky for game enthusiasts across the globe, it was not yet time to say goodbye to our beloved hero. Taking more time than before, 1991 arrived alongside the monumental The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past. Learning from the mistakes of the past, an impressive prologue was added, establishing the backstory of the game. Link awakens in his bed, hearing telepathic messages from Princess Zelda, who is being held in the castle prison. He navigates Hyrule through different realms, on a mission to save the 7 descendents of the Sages, defeat Ganon, and once again save the day. A Link To The Past introduced players to items such as the Master Sword, Ocarina, Hookshot, and greatest of all, alternate dimensions, all of which would be used in many future titles.
A Link To The Past provided not one expansive land to explore, but two. The detail-packed light and dark worlds, both mirror images of one another, allowed each world to influence the other and encouraged exploration in one of the most magical titles of all time. Thanks to The Legend of Zelda, a game no longer had to be completed in a single sitting. And thanks to time spent developing a more cohesive storyline, A Link To The Past added flesh to the solid skeleton delivered by the original title, propelling the franchise further towards the status of “legendary.” The nearly flawless combination of action, adventure, and fantasy cemented A Link To The Past as one of the most beloved games in the industry’s history.
Exhibit C: Super Mario Brothers
Following the 1981 arcade release of Donkey Kong, the world found itself instantly enamored with the game’s unlikely hero, who was at the time referred to as “jumpman.” Before long, developers capitalized on the massive success and delivered to us the Mario Brothers. And we were all better for it. The 1985 Super Mario Brothers was the first Mario title ported to home systems, and instantly seduced players and the industry alike. Assuming the role of the primary series protagonist Mario, the player navigates through the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, which has been overrun by the dastardly King Bowser Koopa and his minions of turtles and mushrooms, on a quest to save the kidnapped Princess Toadstool and eliminate Bowser from his peaceful land. Players ran, jumped, pretended, threw controllers then promptly picked them up again and continued. The world was whole.
Production on the second Mario title of the series picked up quickly, with Super Mario Bros 2 releasing in Japan in 1986. However, this game was determined to be too difficult for American gamers, and its release in North America was stalled. When Super Mario Bros 2 finally did grace the shelves of American stores, it was much different than what was initially designed. In the place of the original game was a redesigned Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. The days of head-stomping and kicking shells were gone, replaced with Birdos and vegetable tossing. On its own, Super Mario Bros 2 was a fun and challenging game. As successor to one of the most significant titles of all time, it was a spectacular disappointment. Luckily, North American gamers were able to test their skills in 1993 with the release of Super Mario All-Stars, where the original SMB2 was included under the title of Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels.
In 1988 (1990 for North American players), Nintendo waved their magic wand and produced the pinnacle of gaming perfection: Super Mario Bros 3. SMB 3 not only set the bar, it became the bar by establishing what video games of the late 80’s and early 90’s could – and should – produce. Super Mario Bros 3 was a challenging game, but it was fair in its challenge – I’m looking at you, Ghosts ‘n Goblins. From the lush Grass Land to the arid Desert Land, the levels in the game were some of the most magical of all time. Super Mario Brothers 3 introduced players to the joy of riding in a shoe, kings turned into dogs, and the beloved Raccoon Tail. While Mario flew, so did the game – right off the shelves and onto the list of top grossing games of all time. Super Mario Bros 3 has been with me for 25 years, and even after all this time, I struggle to locate any true flaws with the game outside of the inability to save progress.