How does one improve on a near-perfect game? Is it really possible, or is another game that’s equally as good the best that any developer or fan could hope for? While there is no such thing as the perfect game, there are many games out there that would be quite difficult to meaningfully improve upon. Red Dead Redemption is one. The Last of Us is another, and Psychonauts is yet another still. They’re all excellent games that would be perfectly fine if left alone, yet our rampant sequelitis demands that even these classics are in need of sequels. This isn’t to say that sequels are a bad thing, and I’m certainly not here to complain about the fact that these sequels are being made. I’d just like to take a look at what it takes to follow up a classic when that classic doesn’t have many (if any) major flaws to address. Let’s keep it simple though and focus entirely on another game that was excellent and thus got several sequels: Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga.
Mario and Luigi: SuperStar Saga is a fun little turn-based RPG that initially launched for the GameBoy Advance in 2003. It follows both Mario and Luigi as they strive to first save Princess Peach from yet another Bowser kidnapping and then escalates to saving the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom’s neighboring country, the BeanBean Kingdom. It’s a game that’s major break from Mario game norms just like Paper Mario and Super Mario RPG before it. It’s the first time players are given a view into the established world surrounding the Mushroom Kingdom and is also the first time players are given the chance to play as both Mario brothers simultaneously. The world is engaging thanks to the alien landscape, landmarks, locations and the unique way Mario and Luigi can interact with it. The battle system is simple but engaging, and the RPG elements give players a surprising amount of leeway in terms of building their most effective pair of brothers. The game is a classic and would definitely be difficult to surpass with a sequel. Yet, a sequel did indeed come 2 years later in the form Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time. Did it work? Well, yes and no.
Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time launched for the Nintendo DS in 2005 and was a”build and expand”-type of sequel. The game’s main addition to the Mario and Luigi formula was to add two more simultaneously playable characters into the mix. The extra characters are Baby Mario and Baby Luigi (justified through a plot filled with time travel), and while they’re integrated well enough, using them along with the normal brothers never quite stops feeling awkward. The plot is also all over the place thanks to its time travel elements (seriously, adding time travel into anything is almost guaranteed to mess it up). It’s a decent game, but unfortunately using the “build and expand” method did not yield a superior game.
Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is another matter though. While this game also tries to expand upon its predecessors, it mostly tries to be the “new and usual” type of sequel. The story is standard fare for the most part, except that this time Bowser’s trying to save Princess Peach alongside the Mario Bros. and they’re also trying to cure both a condition unique to Bowser and an unrelated epidemic sweeping across the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario and Luigi get their old battle system back, but with the addition of new special attacks tied to a new meter. They also get an interesting world to explore thanks to being shrunk and stuck inside Bowsers inner-workings. Bowser on the otherhand gets to be the one exploring the Mushroom Kingdom for a change. He gets his own battle system and can even swallow enemies for Mario and Luigi to fight instead. It’s ridiculous, adds unexpected wrinkles to established systems and can easily be more fun to play than the original depending on how well the story jives with you. Is it actually better? Maybe, maybe not. However, it is fun and is most definitely its own game.
I can’t really comment on the most recent entries in the series, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team and Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam, since I haven’t played them. However, it looks like they follow the lead of Bowser’s Inside Story and opt-more for doing things their own way rather than trying to further complicate the core gameplay.
Sometimes setting out to outright improve on everything in the original game is exactly what’s needed when making a sequel. Other times though, when the game being followed is already quite good, it’s better to try and make something new that follows the spirit of the original rather than using it as a base to build upon.
What do you think? What is the best way to make a sequel to a game that could already be considered near-perfect? Do you try to build upon it or make something with its own identity to run alongside it?