Editorial: On Innovation and Stagnation

Hello readers! A few days ago, I finally began playing the copy of Super Mario Galaxy 2 that I got for Christmas last year, and like so many other games, SMG2 got me thinking about gaming as a whole. I really like what I have played so far of SMG2, but the game is very much just more of the first with a couple new powers. One thought kept coming into my mind as I considered this about Mario Galaxy 2: is this a bad thing? Should there have been more innovation in the second game, or was more of the same with a few updates the better option? In the case of Super Mario Galaxy 2, the game has been exactly what I wanted – more of the first game. But what about other games? How much innovation is too much? How much is too little?

What a horrible night to have a curse.
Castlevania II tried to innovate. It…wasn’t great.

Innovation is a necessary part of any medium; after all, without new ideas and new mechanics, gaming would rapidly become stale and boring. The downside, though, is that too much experimentation can create bizarre and altogether unlikeable games. For example, consider a trio of games I call “The NES Terrible Twos”: Final Fantasy II, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. All three of these were games that sought to escape their predecessors by doing something completely different (though perhaps less so in the case of FF2), and all three of these are games that are remembered poorly as a result. It seems, then, that there is certainly a such thing as too much innovation or at least too much experimentation.

There is, of course, the possibility of too little innovation. A lack of innovation is one of the things that killed Guitar Hero, and “every game is the same” is by far the most common criticism of the Call of Duty series. If too much experimentation is dangerous, then too little is almost worse. Without at least trying to something new, games can become very stale, very quickly.

Let us now consider the three franchises I consider to be the JRPG genre’s big three: Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Pokemon. These three games are interesting to look at in the context of innovation because each falls somewhere completely different on the innovation versus stagnation spectrum. One common complaint leveled against Final Fantasy is that the series just is not what it used to be…but is that a bad thing? The decision to give Final Fantasy VII a somewhat more modern setting was part of what led to the creation of one of the most popular games of all time, after all. Final Fantasy XII is radically different from its predecessors, but manages to create a massive and interesting world to explore. While the series’ willingness to experiment and try new things has not always proven successful, part of what makes Final Fantasy so successful is its innovation and its radically different gameplay experiences.

Comparing, Final Fantasy with Dragon Quest, one can easily see the differences in mentality between the two franchises. The main series DQ games are all incredibly similar, but this seems to be exactly what its fans want in a game. While the Dragon Quest games do appeal to a narrower niche than Final Fantasy, the games are still very successful. A common criticism against the DQ games are that their lack of innovation means the games have gotten incredibly stale over their more than twenty year history, but the series does not seem to be ending soon. What effect the decision to make Dragon Quest X an MMORPG will have on the series as a whole remains to be seen, but up until this point Dragon Quest has always been a series that has thrived on tradition rather than innovation.

WITH THE POKEY AND THE MON
I’m super excited for B2/W2.

And it just would not be Lusipurr.com if I did not talk about the dead horse that is the Pokemon games. Now, I have already written about the franchise’s successes before, but part of what makes Pokemon work is its balance between traditions and novelty. A person who has skipped a few games could easily pick up and learn a newer game, since the core mechanics are similar, but even veterans of the franchise have new mechanics to pick up with newer generations. There are many who accuse the series of not being innovative enough, but as far as I am concerned, the Pokemon games have reached a perfect balance. There have been enough changes, like the physical/special split and the addition of Dark and Steel types, that there is always something new to learn in each game, but the games are similar enough that it is never overwhelming and never too bizarre. I know that Pokemon is talked to death here at Lusipurr.com, and that I am by far the worst offender in this regard, but there is good reason for that.

Innovation and novelty are dangerous things; too much and a game can become too weird, too little and a game can be too uninteresting. What do you think, readers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

2 comments

  1. I actually don’t think that “more of the same” fits SMG2 the same way it fits a series like Modern Warfare. Obviously, it IS the case with Galaxy 2, but I think the changes it makes are significant enough that it’s actually difficult to go back to the first game. Sure, it’s only a few new powers, but there hasn’t been such a skill-based suit as the Cloud Suit in ages. Also, making the change to have fewer missions on more levels is far better suited to the series and made a significant difference to me.

    It’s not the same drastic changes that Pokémon games will make behind the scenes, but I do feel that it was one of those sequels that was significantly better in subtle ways. I liked the first Galaxy fine but I consider the second one to be one of the better games of this entire generation. And it’s a Wii game.

    I think innovation is needed in cases of broken mechanics. I think that’s largely the case in Dragon Quest. I’m not too bothered that the series is not interested in changing in theory. But when not changing includes keeping purely inconvenient and counter-intuitive elements like bad menus, hiding exp needed to level up and not being able to quicksave in dungeons on the handheld “remakes”, then that’s a problem.

    Or the case of the blue shell in Mario Kart. That’s actually worse because it gets progressively more broken in every iteration. It wasn’t bad in Mario Kart 64, it was a pretty bad but not completely broken in Mario Kart DS, it was close to broken in Mario Kart Wii and it literally renders the game void in Mario Kart 3DS.

    Stagnation is also a problem I feel when it doesn’t embrace obvious technological improvements. Look at Animal Crossing. Fun little game, but it’s 2012, why does the series still barely recognize what the internet is when those titles are practically SCREAMING to be properly online?

    Anyway, because we all must always talk about Pokémon, I really like its way of doing it. If the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality applies as vigorously to a series like it does to Pokémon, then find creative ways to progress the series that doesn’t appear to do anything on the surface. Keep the core mechanics, but advance things behind the scenes. Sure, it doesn’t look as good on a PR sheets, but you have “x number of new Pokémon!” to fill that void.

    I like innovation in new IPs, but I think it makes sense to keep a series within a set of restrictions. And like Pokémon proves, there’s lots you can do behind the scenes.

    /endrant

  2. “I think innovation is needed in cases of broken mechanics. I think that’s largely the case in Dragon Quest. I’m not too bothered that the series is not interested in changing in theory. But when not changing includes keeping purely inconvenient and counter-intuitive elements like bad menus, hiding exp needed to level up and not being able to quicksave in dungeons on the handheld “remakes”, then that’s a problem.”

    This was EXACTLY my problem with Dragon Quest IX. I’ve said this before, but save points with quicksaving is a shitty mechanic and I really don’t care for it. Save-anywhere is really how portable games should be.

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