Black Sheep: Why Do We Shun Them?
by FreezingInferno

Let's talk for a bit, you and I. Let's talk about 20-year old video games getting somewhat unjust hate. We're going to try a little word association here, crossing the void of writing and reading, if you will. I'm going to recite the name of an old 8-bit game and your job, Readerizer, is simply to see what the first thing you think of is. Ready? OK, here we go.




Castlevania II: Simon's Quest




























Okay, we had a nice pause for effect there due to me pressing Enter a bunch, I wonder what you thought of? I'm not a mind reader, but I am kind of clever. You probably thought something about it being a bad game. Be it through personal experience or watching a certain upset video game Youtube superstar rant about it, the jury is in; Castlevania II was pretty shoddy. Thank god for Castlevania III, right? This was actually an interesting phenomenon that occured with a handful of game series back in the late 80's; let's call it "Trilogy Syndrome" for the sake of simplicity and me being oh so creative. Trilogy Syndrome most notably crops up in three popular 8-bit franchises (how about that, Trilogy Syndrome struck three times): Mario, Zelda, and Castlevania. How it works is fairly simple. The first game of the trilogy sets the groundwork for the series to follow, and is generally regarded as an 8-bit classic. Super Mario Bros. set the standard for platformers, Zelda was one of the groundbreaking action/adventure games, and Castlevania was pure refined action/platforming. Fan expectations are high for the sequels to this classic games, but dreams are dashed when they arrive. The second games try to break new ground, and while innovative, aren't well-received for it. "What heathen game is this, it's not what I loved!" the gamers say. "Give me IMPROVEMENT!" they demand. The developers cave to fan demand, and then create the third game in their series. Good LORD! It plays exactly the same as the first game did, but there's so much more to do! Longer levels, new enemies, new powerups, new characters, everything is new but familiar! I realize that technically Zelda doesn't count for this since Link To The Past was on the SNES, but the point of Trilogy Syndrome seems fairly straightforward. First game= good, second= not liked, third= breakout hit. It's not just these three series affected by the Syndrome, though; Final Fantasy suffered the same fate, though North America would be unaware of it for about 15 years. Despite Metroid's sequels being on two different platforms, it too has the same fate; Metroid II is regarded as one of the worst ones, and Super Metroid as one of the finest.

But why does this happen? Why are gamers so fearing of new things that they shun the innovations of these second installments, prompting a return to roots? Isn't innovation one of the driving forces behind all creative media? To be completely fair, the complaints against these games aren't entirely without merit. Final Fantasy II, for example? There's no real way to defend that one. The developers get points for innovation, but their experience system is buggy and ridiculous; the only effecient way to get stronger is repetitively cheating the system. Then you have cases like Metroid II, which gets hate for sectioning off parts of the world until you kill X amounts of Metroids. Metroid Fusion is set up much the same way, and gets the same sort of criticism for being "too linear". The linearity doesn't ruin the games, though; Metroid II gives you focus and keeps you from getting TOO lost, but at the same time maintains the almost survival horror aspect of being in a Very Bad Place surrounded by danger and death. As for Super Mario Bros. 2? It's GOOD that we got a Doki Doki Panic clone. If "Lost Levels" had come out in SMB2USA's place, people would probably have stopped playing Mario games. LL is nothing more than Super Mario Brothers: Fuck You Edition. In this case, the "different" version is arguably BETTER than the "same" second game most Mario fans wanted.

Now let's try another association-type thing here. I'm going to summarize the mechanics of an 8-bit game, and you folks at home think of just what game that is. You all set? Here it comes:

In this game, you wander around a multi-screened world, killing enemies to collect currency in order to buy items. Your main goal is to find hidden dungeons to get a special item needed to advance through the game. Inside these lairs are skeletons and other assorted monsters. You may find NPCs who say garbled nonsensical things as you go along. Later dungeons are hidden and can only be accessed by doing things that nobody should ever be expected to figure out without a guide or FAQ. Once you find and beat all the dungeons, you gain access to the final dungeon, which you must search the world to find.

Now, what was I summarizing? I'd wager that most of you were thinking of the original Zelda. But, surprise surprise! This quick little summary also fits neatly with the gameplay of Castlevania II! Isn't it odd? These two games are so similar, and yet Zelda is a "first game" and beloved, while Castlevania II is hated upon for being so cryptic and tricky. The original Zelda is arguably just as obtuse as Castlevania II when it comes to finding hidden things. Getting through the Lost Woods or finding all the dungeons without a guide seems just as ridiculous as the damn cliff in Castlevania II. Well now, surely a game exists that fixes this problem! A game that plays like Castlevania II, except it gets rid of the Engrish and outright lying, and gives (mostly) decipherable clues on how to find hidden items and dungeons, and progress through the game? There does indeed exist a game like that. It must be pretty good, right? Get ready for this one, the game I speak of is....


























Zelda II? But, that game's a black sheep too! It's totally different from Zelda the first, and changes things far too much! This is indeed a truly frustrating conundrum. Castlevania II is a decent adventure/platformer, but it's too different from the first game's action/platformer style, and too cryptic, to be well-recieved. The original Zelda is a good action/adventure, and while cryptic at times, is still well-liked. Zelda II is an improvement of Castlevania II's ideals, but falls into a trap of being hated because it's too different from the original Zelda! What a fine mess this is, indeed.

Being different isn't a bad thing at all. Innovation is quite good, when done right. That's not to say that these "black sheep" games are perfect and not completely deserving of criticism. One needs to look at the bigger picture, though, and try a new thing every once in a while. Just because it's different doesn't make it a waste of time. You could do far worse when it comes to the NES, and many half-rate developers did just that. As it stands, these games are still actually quite worth it. Despite the flaws, they're admirable attempts by developers to try something new.






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