I’ve always said that video games might be the only creative medium where the sequel is almost always better than the original. Film and literature can certainly carry technical improvements from entry to entry, but games have mechanics, and mechanics can always be better tuned with iteration.
As such, video game sequels tend to be pretty damn good, so I thought it’d be fun to go through some game series that had the best improvements over their original.
Assassin's Creed 2
This will be a running theme on this list, but it’s more true with Assassin’s Creed 2 than any of the rest: this game feels like what we were supposed to get from its original. Ubisoft packed AC2 with so many new features it makes Assassin’s Creed feel damn near like a tech demo in comparison. More stealth opportunities, more ways to upgrade your character, a better combat system, hell even a more interesting protagonist (sorry Altair). It’s the game that popularized Assassin’s Creed and turned it into the monolith of a series it is today.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 was the hardest game to put on the list, simply because there is a lot I feel Mass Effect did better, especially with regards to its RPG elements. That said, ME2 wins out for all the improvements it carried, including a more active and refined combat system, engaging set-pieces, and a highly entertaining cast of characters. Also, it has some of my favorite tropes you can put in a piece of media: suicide mission + getting the gang back together. With the Mass Effect rerelease on the horizon, I'd put down ME2 as the title I'm most excited for, but don't get me wrong — they're all pretty great.
Portal was a masterpiece already, and I didn’t think it could be topped with a sequel, but boy was I wrong. It’s funny because despite my intro at the top of this post, what makes Portal 2 great is the inverse — the original was already mechanically perfect, and a fantastic story was added to its sequel. Even now, 10 years later, there are games that wish they could hit the dizzying narrative heights of Portal 2. Despite a limited cast of characters, half of whom are robots, it has a ton of emotional heft to it. And perhaps most impressively, it’s a game that actually gets me to laugh. That’s definitely a feat, because being honest, most games aren’t that funny.
Sly Cooper 2
The original Sly Cooper was a delight, but it didn’t take much advantage of its aesthetic. It was a pretty simple platformer with some minor stealth elements. It seems Sucker Punch felt the same, because Sly 2 blows it out of the water. The idea of each section of the game hosting its own hub world, where Sly and the gang must complete a series of tasks to prepare for their end-goal, a grand heist, was genius. You actually felt like the robin-hood character you were supposed to be. Couple that with Bentley and Murray as playable characters, more engaging stealth mechanics, and a longer playtime (Sly 1 really was way too short), and you’ve got a recipe for a complete sequel upgrade.
Kingdom Hearts II
I never thought Kingdom Hearts II would be the series peak, but, uh, now I do. Which is kind of a bummer, but also a testament to how much of an absolute banger Kingdom Hearts II is. Considering I grew up with the series, KHII felt like it grew up alongside me, bringing with it a darker, more engaging story, combat that felt about 10000x better than the original, and best of all: camera control on the thumbstick!!! Truly revolutionary. Kingdom Hearts II also held the crown for the best climax in any game I’ve ever played up until Final Fantasy 7 Remake came out last year. That’s a 14 year streak. A hall-of-famer sequel, to be sure.
Maybe I can’t say this because I haven’t actually played that much of the original Titanfall, but also this is my blog and I can do whatever I want so shh. Titanfall 2 gave us the best single-player campaign in a First-Person Shooter, hands-down. It still hasn’t been beaten. Every level came with interesting mechanics that never overstayed their welcome, and the bond that grew between Jack Cooper and his robot pal BT was incredibly fun to watch. It was the missing piece that brought Titanfall out of obscurity…until Apex Legends came out and brought it back into obscurity. Whomp whomp.
Street Fighter II
I was lying earlier. Assassin’s Creed 2 is not the epitome of the prototype-to-actually delivered sequel. That honor goes to Street Fighter II. There are a lot of people who probably haven’t even seen the original Street Fighter, and for good reason — while it popularized the idea of special inputs and a six-button control scheme for 2D fighting games, it wasn’t much of a success for Capcom at all. How successful was Street Fighter II? I don’t think I even have to tell you. The new characters, stages, special abilities, and an iconic soundtrack from the queen herself, Yoko Shimomura, created a worldwide phenomenon that led to the fighting game genre and community we have today. So yeah, it’s kind of important.
Gravity Rush 2
Gravity Rush is the most perfect video game ever made. Gravity Rush 2 is even more perfect in every single way. I rest my case.
Dark Cloud 2
I remember renting the original Dark Cloud when I was wee Mint, and I quite liked it. I never got to play Dark Cloud 2 because I was a tike that couldn't buy many video games in a year, so I only recently got to play the sequel, and wow am I sad that I didn't get to sooner. While a little messy in comparison to modern games, it really was superior to the first in every way. It was packed with so many additions that it was honestly a little overwhelming, but once you dig into it, you get a game with dozens of hours of entertainment.
Super Mario Galaxy 2
I love Super Mario Galaxy, especially because it has the most interesting plot in any Mario game that isn’t an RPG. But — and I can say this quite confidently — Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the greatest Mario game and the greatest Platformer ever made. It refined everything that made Galaxy interesting, added a metric boat-load of incredible levels and new mechanics, and then on top of all that, brought back Yoshi. It's a masterclass in how to beat your own record, and I've been chasing the high it gave me when I first played it ever since.
Pokémon Silver / Gold / Crystal
The original Pokémon is of course a phenomenon, but as a game, it’s…actually kind of a mess? It’s buggy as hell, an entire move-type just didn’t work, and the balance was dubious at best. The second-gen follow-up gave us much of what most people love about Pokémon today: Pokémon breeding, held items, the pokégear, types that actually work, and a whole-ass day/night cycle, just to name a few. On top of that, even when you finished the game, you weren’t actually done, with the entirety of Kanto and a awe-inspired fight with Red to look forward to once you beat the Elite Four. It might be nostalgia talking, but Silver and Gold are what truly made Pokémon such a magical series, and I don’t feel any follow-up has been as impactful in new features.