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Falling From Grace

By Kellen Scrivens
Over the years we have seen many video game franchises spend their fair share at the top. Some have been there so long that it seems like they might remain there forever. While Metroid, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear and The Legend of Zelda continue to dominate the market, today I'd like to look at the games that once stood beside them at the top of the hill. Those fallen stars of the video game world — the ones that once shined so very brightly but burnt-out ever so unceremoniously — are the topic at hand.

Though many franchises have enjoyed bursts of great success, they often fade away and fall off the radar. However, the ones I'm prepared to look at today were once so big that they simply refuse to fall off the radar... no matter how dead they are. Much like Metallica's disappointing St. Anger, new releases are looked upon with much hype but most fans wind up wondering, "Why couldn't it have been as good as the other ones?"

Before I say anything else, let me add that I am a fan of all three of the franchises that I'm about to look at, and it saddens me to see just how far each one of them has fallen down the tube. They have become the jokes of the video game industry to some, and many others simply wish that someone would finally pull the plug.

So without further ado, I give you three fallen stars of the video game industry.

Mega Man

Mega Man made his video game debut on the NES in 1987, and, though the first game was widely overlooked it eventually became a classic thanks to its engaging gameplay, incredible difficulty, the innovation of acquiring new power-ups from the defeated bosses and the ability to choose the order of the boss battles. Like many great games, Mega Man spawned a plethora of sequels; after all was said and done, there were six games on the NES alone. Unfortunately the sequels were more or less the same, but it worked at the time and all of them had the it factor that got many people hooked on gaming in the first place.

As video games in the 1990s changed into the 16-bit era, Mega Man again broke new ground when Capcom decided to continue to publish new Mega Man games on the dying NES while starting the spin-off series, Mega Man X, on the SNES. This was the first time that one character had two continuing franchises on two different systems.

Mega Man X hit the SNES in 1993 and was a success for Capcom. With the money rolling in, they produced two "original" Mega Man games for the GameBoy, quickly released two sequels to MMX, another Mega Man game for the NES, the quirky Mega Man Soccer and a title for the Sega Genesis. With all doing well in terms of sales and quality, it looked like the Blue Bomber might be one of the mainstays in the video game world.

However, when the 32-bit era arrived the franchise started to slide a bit.

Sony's PlayStation was fresh on the market and Capcom had its eyes set on publishing a Mega Man title for the machine, but Sony had a strict "no 2D games" policy. But after some negotiations, Sony relented and 1997 saw the release of two Mega Man games on the PlayStation: Mega Man X4 and Mega Man 8. While both were as fun as their predecessors, many gamers were beginning to tire of the same old, same old.

Then after the release of Mega Man X5 and X6, Capcom did something really new to the classic franchise by making its first foray into 3D gaming with Mega Man Legends in 1998. While many enjoyed the fresh breath of air, many others did not like the game and claimed it had strayed too far from its roots. But with the push towards 3D gaming, many 2D side-scrollers were falling by the wayside. Their only saving grace was the GameBoy Color, and while Capcom made sure to capitalize on the handheld unit, the games didn't fare so well.

In the new millennium, Mega Man was given another makeover. He became an Internet warrior. Personally this is where I think the series went from slow slide to frantic free-fall. There have been many games released in recent years for the PS2 and GameCube that have tried to stay true to their 2D roots, but they just don't have the same quality. No matter the quality, the franchise continues to make money to this day, so Capcom continues to bombard us with unworthy successors to the throne. However, these games do little to entice old fans (myself included) and lead many to think the series will never reclaim its former glory.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Without question the most well known character in Sega's history, Sonic made his video game debut on the Sega Genesis with the megahit Sonic the Hedgehog; this game alone put Sega on the map and led to the first ever major console war between Sega's Genesis and Nintendo's SNES. Sonic was followed up with a sequel one year later and was without question the most popular game in the series. Two cartoons and a comic book series were released shortly thereafter, as were Sonic Spinball, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Sonic 3 and Sonic 3D Blast (which was the final Sonic gem on the Genesis).

While all this was happening on the console system, the Sega Game Gear had a great number of Sonic titles appear, including Sonic and Sonic 2, Sonic Blast, Sonic Chaos, Sonic: Triple Trouble, Sonic Drift and Sonic Labyrinth. Many of these games were incredibly fun and were the only major sellers on the Game Gear. (The big, bulky, battery-wasting handheld never really received much third-party support.)

Sonic's major folly came when the Genesis' life cycle came to its end and other Sega systems such as the Sega CD and Saturn came to the forefront... or at least they tried to. The 32-bit age was not kind to Sega; the Saturn did not sell very well and the Sega CD is little more than a footnote in video game history. So while there were good Sonic games on the Sega CD, they were overlooked.

With the age of 3D gaming approaching, Sonic (much like Mega Man) adapted. The first true 3D Sonic game to show up was the overlooked racing title Sonic R. It was nothing more than a test on the Saturn, a system that provided the character with limited exposure.

On September 9th, 1999 Sega released the Dreamcast, their 128-bit super-system. And Sega, noting the mistakes of the Saturn, made Sonic into one of the focal points at launch. Sonic Adventure was released and while many liked the game, some had trouble adjusting to the new 3D style of gameplay. The overly complicated story, clunky controls and incredibly bad camera angles didn't help either. While easily not the best game in the franchise, it did get Sonic back into the public eye. And while the Dreamcast did well for awhile, it was eventually crushed in sales against the all-powerful PS2. Due to that, Sonic was overshadowed once again and hardly anybody took notice when the party game Sonic Shuffle came out. Then Sega sunk a lot of money into their ad campaign for Sonic Adventure 2, but sales tanked. And, in a way, that was the Dreamcast's last gasp.

Shortly thereafter Sega discontinued the Dreamcast, halted the production of all future hardware and became a third-party developer.

In this new age, Sega has not done much of note with Sonic. Both Sonic Adventure games were remade for the GameCube, and three games were released on the GameBoy Advance... all of which were very underwhelming. In early 2004 Sonic Heroes became the first original third-party Sonic game on a console when it was released on the Xbox, GameCube and PS2. And in my personal opinion, it was a true testament to just how much the series has fallen in the last ten years.

The other sad fact to bring up is that Sonic Mega Collection has been Sega's highest selling game in years, proving to this longtime fan that the older games have withstood the test of time.

Pokémon

In the closing days of 1997 there were two RPGs released on the GameBoy by the names of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. You might have heard of them. In case you didn't realize it yet, they became an overnight sensation, and unquestionably brought handheld gaming to a brand new level. The games were so popular that they not only made once-useless peripheral profitable, but helped contribute to the crushing sales of the GameBoy and GameBoy Color.

In what seemed like no time flat, there was a TV show and white-hot trading card game (that was banned from many schoolyards because hustlers would swindle little kids out of the more popular/rare/expensive cards). Within months the playgrounds were littered with toys, candy, shoes, backpacks, clothing, lunchboxes and anything else that could have the licensed pocket monsters plastered on them. The phenomenon became so huge that the only reason to have a GameBoy was to play Pokémon and its forthcoming sequels. The first, and arguably the most popular, was Pokémon Yellow — a slightly tweaked version of the first two games. Then there was Pokémon Pinball, a very fun game which sported an innovative (at the time) rumble feature.

Then came the first Pokémon console game; Pokémon Snap — the game that allowed you to... take pictures of various Pokémon — was nothing more than a greedy marketing gimmick. But it worked and was followed up with Pokémon Stadium, which was nothing more than an excuse to have two-player 3D battles with your Pokémon. Anyone who was anyone (including myself) bought these games in droves.

However, as has been explained in this column already, all good things must come to an end.

In late 2000 Pokémon had its first true sequel: Pokémon Gold and Silver. Yes, they were successful, but they didn't draw people in the way the first wave of games did. The franchise was suffering from a massive case of overexposure, and had since worn-out its welcome. The cartoon was losing ratings and the games were becoming much less popular, but that didn't stop Nintendo from publishing more titles, including Pokémon Puzzle League and Pokémon Crystal.

The GBA offered several flops in recent years, with Pokémon Fire Red and Leaf Green (both ports of the original Red and Blue games) and Ruby and Sapphire (which no one even talks about). On the GameCube front we have the crappy Pokémon Channel (which is more of a really bad video than a video game) and the incredibly bland Pokémon Coliseum. And thankfully most gamers have overlooked the abysmal Pokémon Dash.

It has become quite obvious that Pokémon has become the biggest burnout in video game history. What would be good for the series is if it took some time off so people can get the current bad taste out of their mouths. During which time, Nintendo would be advised to crate a really good game — you know, the kind that made the series so huge in the first place — and drop the cartoon. With 352 episodes in its canon (that's equal to The Simpsons by the way), it became stale four years ago. But if they must continue, to quote the last writings of Kurt Cobain, "It's better to burnout than to fade away."

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And that is my look at the three biggest fallen starts of the video game world. Is there anyone I missed? Is there one that you don't like on the list? Do you have any feedback at all? If so, please send me an e-mail at Kscriv@hotmail.com or take it to the boards.


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