Looking Back While Moving Forward

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Illustration of classic Sonic the Hedgehog

Almost in defiance of everything else happening in the world, video games were amazing in 2017… especially the sequels! The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Persona 5, Sonic Mania, Super Mario Odyssey… it was almost overwhelming to continually see a new standard set for so many of my favorite gaming franchises!

Something all these titles have in common (aside from being great games) is a clear understanding of what made their predecessors work. But it’s fascinating to observe the clear differences in how each title incorporates and acknowledges that history.

Persona 5: An Evolution

Screenshot from Persona 5 on PlayStation 4

Of the sequels I’ve highlighted here, Persona 5 is perhaps the most direct iteration on its forebear. While the story, characters, presentation and even the game’s engine are all new, the core mechanics are largely a refinement of what worked in Persona 4. The result is an unmatched experience that justifies its excruciating five-year development time, a triumphant and stylish culmination of the series’ 23-year history.

But not every series has a recent success to draw from.

Sonic Mania: An Alternate Reality

Screenshot from Sonic Mania on Nintendo Switch

After an incredible streak of five amazing platformers released between 1991 to 1994, the Sonic franchise began to flounder. Sega struggled to bring the high-octane hedgehog to the third dimension, releasing only spin-offs and compilations until 1999’s Sonic Adventure. Since the death of the Dreamcast and Sega’s transition to third-party software developer in 2001, the quality of Sonic games has trended toward the subpar.

Sonic Mania bucks that trend by answering a simple question: What if the golden age of Sonic had continued into the 32-bit era, uninterrupted?

The game’s developers (notably not Sonic Team) built upon this more solid foundation by improving level layouts, animation, boss battles and special stages, delivering perhaps the definitive classic Sonic game but with modern affordances. It manages to surpass even our rosiest memories of the blue blur racing across our TV.

This technique of “design time travel” to right old wrongs was clearly the right choice for a series that long ago lost its way. But franchises with more hits than misses face a completely different challenge.

Super Mario Odyssey: All the Hits, Remixed

Screenshot from Super Mario Odyssey on Nintendo Switch

Since Jumpman Mario debuted in the original Donkey Kong 36 years ago, he’s starred in dozens of incredible games with dizzying variety. This makes simple iteration less straightforward: There are many potential starting points, and too much history for any one title to contain.

Super Mario Odyssey references a ton of Mario’s past while still managing to feel remarkably fresh.

Nintendo’s designers smartly chose Super Mario 64’s open-ended gameplay style, absent from the series since 2010’s Super Mario Galaxy 2. Today’s technology allowed them to execute this vision on a much grander scale.

Cappy, the sentient hat-creature that helps Mario possess enemies and objects, is an amalgam of Mario 64’s various caps, Sunshine’s F.L.U.D.D., Galaxy’s Luma, and NES-era power-ups like the Tanooki, Hammer and Frog Suits. Consolidating all of these abilities into a single character that can possess other characters lessens the player’s cognitive load while encouraging exploration.

There are several sections of 2-D gameplay that rely heavily on NES-era iconography but avoid feeling dated by occurring within murals embedded in the larger, 3-D environment (perhaps a nod to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).

There are many more examples, from Mario’s ship (an echo of Galaxy 2’s Starship Mario) to his newly-expanded wardrobe (with many outfits referencing decades of series ephemera) to several of the game’s themes and locales. But it’s the frequency of these remixed elements, combined with the game’s consistently high degree of polish and its willingness to abandon a few series anachronisms (good riddance, 1-ups!), that makes it all come together like the coziest patchwork quilt.

But cozy doesn’t suit every series.

Breath of the Wild: A Fresh Start

Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch

For a few years, it seemed as if The Legend of Zelda franchise might finally show hints of diminishing returns. Skyward Sword, their most recent game designed in the tradition of Ocarina of Time, was financially successful and critically acclaimed, but many players were troubled by its linearity and the frequency with which it held the player’s hand.

Nintendo’s designers could have pursued another direct iteration, improving upon Skyward Sword the same way Persona 5 improved upon Persona 4. Or they could have picked up from an earlier chapter, a la Sonic Mania. Perhaps incorporating and refining many of the series’ best ideas into a single title might have been as successful for Zelda as it would end up being for Mario.

Instead, Eiji Aonuma and his team tackled a different challenge: How might they design the very first Zelda game today?

Their strategy was risky. The Legend of Zelda was a classic, but many of its defining traits… its openness, its difficulty, its absence of civilization… could have easily alienated modern players.

Happily, Aonuma’s team pulled it off. Breath of the Wild can be difficult, but it is always forgiving. Your lives are not limited, and checkpoints are abundant. The game masterfully executes the vision of the original, but with the benefit of three decades’ worth of design lessons and technological advancements. It will almost certainly be regarded as one of Nintendo’s finest releases.

Iteration Isn’t Always Linear

I’m a big believer in the value of iterative design and applying the principles of remixing to one’s own work. But even the most careful iterative process can potentially lead a project down the wrong path. These games remind me that forward is just one of a few possible directions.

(They’re also really fun to play! 😄)