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Top 10 Long-Running Game Series
Some gamers today just don’t know how good they have it. What with liberal checkpoints giving infinite respawns, dynamic difficulties that ensure you don’t get stuck for too long, and rambling narratives that take the place of, you know, actual gameplay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Either you adapt with the times, or you fall behind. As our industry matures and grows, this concept becomes more and more important. Games are expensive, making games even more so. If you aren’t evolving the formula somehow, you aren’t going to make it too long.
There are exceptions, though. Some games become an entity in their own right. Games that not only pave their own way, but blaze the trail for numerous other games as well. These games (which usually spawn into series) have burned their way to relevancy with their own methods, but staying on top is much harder than getting there. How many titles have we seen at the top of the world (i.e. Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk, Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog) only to come crashing down when people grew tired of them? However, some titles maintain relevancy despite every factor saying they shouldn’t, despite the fact that their basic formulas haven’t changed in years. It isn’t easy, but I would like to examine, and rank, the Top 10 long-running video game series.
10. Tomb Raider
When Core Designs developed the first Tomb Raider back in 1996, video game heroines weren’t exactly running the planet. Sure, a few months earlier Jill Valentine was showing everybody that girls can do it better than boys, and Samus Aran had been busting a pellet in aliens for a while, but female characters in video games were mostly relegated to at best quippy sidekicks and, at worst, literal prizes waiting at the end of the journey. Lara Croft stepped in and turned that dynamic on its head. After years of the guys dominating the landscape, Tomb Raider featured an independent, completely able adventurer, and she just so happened to be the protagonist of a pretty darn good game in its own right. Other people must agree, because Ms. Croft has graced the head billing in no less than a dozen games, including the most recent reboot, which found both critical and commercial success. A remastered edition even brought Lara into the newest console generation, and hopefully that won’t be the last we see of her there. Either way, Tomb Raider, and Lara Croft, served as a powerful symbol for female gamers everywhere, and it doesn’t appear as if she is ready to give up her role as gaming’s leading lady any time soon.
9. Mega Man
Ah, the blue bomber. I could probably spend days talking about Mega Man (and I have), and based on nothing but fan support, I’m not exactly in the minority. Ever since he redefined what platformers were capable of with his first release in 1987, Mega Man has been a fan favorite thanks to his cool level designs, ever-expanding power list and his freaking awesome hand-blaster. A number of NES sequels iterated on his original adventures and, although some were better received than others, most all of them displayed the excellence that the series is known for. As the series grew and added complexity, they all stuck to the core designs that made him such an icon in the first place. With the advent of the Super Nintendo, Capcom and series creator Keiji Inafune expanded the universe by introducing Mega Man X, a sleeker, cooler and overall awesome-ier Mega Man that introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. A ton of spin-offs and sequels, to both the classic and X franchises, were released to varying acclaim, but the love for the character has never wavered. Recently, we were treated to two brand new games created in the vein of Mega Man 2, and although Capcom seems content now to let the Blue Bomber waste away in a series of cameo roles, Inafune is hard at work on his spiritual successor Mighty No. 9. So while things may not be looking great for a proper Mega Man game right now, you can still feel the effect that series had on gaming to this day.
8. Grand Theft Auto
While Grand Theft Auto may be on top of the world now, it hasn’t always been like that. Most people’s earliest memories of the series is most likely with the PS2 release of Grand Theft Auto III, but, as you might have guessed, there were a few versions of the game before that. Grand Theft Auto, Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 and 1969 and Grand Theft Auto 2. Unlike the glorious 3D playground that you no doubt remember, these GTAs featured a top-down view that weren’t exactly on the graphical bleeding edge, but still featured the series signature violence and pop culture lambasting humor. Since the series found its stride, and then some, with Grand Theft Auto 3, a parade of high quality (and high selling) games have raised the bar even further, basically putting Grand Theft Auto in a class of its own in the open world genre. The series has obtained a following like few others, deservedly so, and it shows no signs of slowing down. With the addition of multiplayer in Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar elevated its flagship franchise to new heights, and has me, and presumably everybody else, even more excited for what the future could bring. Grand Theft Auto isn’t going anywhere.
7. Street Fighter
While technically the Street Fighter series began in 1987 with the original, there is a reason most people had their first Street Fighter experience with 1991’s Street Fighter II: the original Street Fighter isn’t that good. But is is important, in the sense that it kicked off the most important series of fighting games ever, and one of the longest running game franchises to date. Capcom has a knack for giving people what they want, and with Street Fighter II, they got pixel-perfect combat, a cool set of characters and a whole new competitive scene to flex their fighting chops (or lack thereof). Kids these days won’t understand (he said with wagging fist), but back in the day the competitive scene wasn’t done over the internet from the comfort of your own home. Nope, you had to trudge to the arcade if you wanted to settle your grudges video game style, and I would wager a guess many a friendship were lost over a stack of quarters at a Street Fighter II machine. Over the ages, as the series iterated for better and worse, Street Fighter never quite left the collective conscious, even as the clamor for fighting games dwindled. Then, in 2008, Capcom revived the genre in a big way with Street Fighter IV, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fighting games experienced a surge, Capcom put out roughly 2300 editions of their latest fighting game (as they are wont to do) and Street Fighter continues to rule the roost as the king of punching people in the face.
6. Resident Evil
I think it’s safe to say that, despite how obviously good the game was, nobody expected Resident Evil to reach the heights of pop culture stardom that it has. Not only has there been numerous sequels spanning multiple genres and almost twenty years, but the universe has expanded to books, comics, movies and even other video games. Raccoon City, the setting for a lot of the games, seems to have taken on its own identity, and, as usual, Capcom really knows how to sell a brand once it has caught on. While there are no shortage of zombies in popular media, something about Resident Evil has kept people coming back from the long haul, even as the series turned away from zombies and introduced…Las Plagas? Maybe? Eh, who cares, I still enjoy them, and apparently I’m not the only one. Although the series has went through some radical changes since its inception, for the most part it has been defined by the same criteria: oppressive atmosphere, frightening enemies and a dedication to quality that few other games can match. Some of the later games may have been divisive, especially to super fans of the earlier ones, but it’s hard to argue against the importance of the series, not only in video games, but in pop culture in general.
I’m sure some of you are seeing this, and thinking surely there are better series to put here. Heck, are football games even real games? Well yes, they are, but more importantly, they are games that have been around for a long time. The original John Madden Football debuted in 1988 on the Apple II computer, and since then, it has exploded into one of the biggest yearly gaming franchises on the planet. I’m a major football buff, and while I’ll admit to being more of a college fan, there is no denying the power of Madden. For every Final Fantasy apologist and Mass Effect geek (I am very much both of those things too), there is an equal and opposite gamer who plays nothing but Madden and NBA2K14. It’s crazy to think of it in wider video game terms, but sports games have been around about as long as their has been video games, and Madden wasn’t that far behind the original Legend of Zelda. Think about that for a second. So, while perhaps not an orthodox choice, Madden football has earned its place on this list.
When the first American versions of Pokémon, Red and Blue, released in 1998, I think we all knew we had something special on our hands. Yes, the monster collecting aspect was addictive, the easy-to-understand mechanics introduced a whole new generation of gamers to RPGs and the multiplayer aspects were groundbreaking. The best barometer of its success however is much easier to pinpoint: once picking it up, no one could put the darn thing down. If within five minutes of picking it up you weren’t hopelessly addicted, then there is a pretty good chance you are secretly a robot incapable of feeling emotion. For the rest of us, it opened a whole new world, one that has continually grown and refined itself for almost twenty years. After dominating the video game landscape, it set its eyes on cartoons, trading cards and pretty much any kind of merchandise that a kid could theoretically be interested in. Pokémon recently saw its sixth generation of games, not including the myriad special versions and rereleases, and the sheer amount of Pokémon, items and regions available is impressive in its own right, even if I don’t think the first generation of Pokémon can ever be topped (let’s just say some of the newer ones are a bit of a creative stretch). Regardless, you cannot deny the success and overwhelming saturation of Pokémon pop culture, and the series shows no signs of slowing down.
Ah, Mario. You have been there from the beginning. First, you taught me how to run and jump. Sure, I was jumping on turtles, but you have to start somewhere, right? You cured me when I was sick, with your odd colored medicine. Then we progressed to flying, swimming and travelling the stars. You showed me fine art, then sunshine, then the joy of experiencing it all with friends. You even let me bring my RPG experience with me, and for that I am eternally grateful. I have fought with you, been knocked off stages with you and even took my turn protecting you when you were a baby. Perhaps more than any other character, you are synonymous with video game culture, and you help bring a layer of legitimacy and recognition to the craft that few others can match (as long as we ignore your movie history). While we know him as one of the elder statesmen of video games, and one of its most iconic stars, it is important to remember that, despite appearing in over fifty titles, the quality of his work has been consistently great, which is incredible for a core formula that hasn’t really changed in two decades.Mario, keep on keepin’ on brother.
2. Final Fantasy
Sure, the problems that have plagued the Final Fantasy franchise of late cannot be ignored. While they have featured a level of technical brilliance and polish on par with anything the industry has to offer, elements that RPG fans love to geek out on (story, characters, environment, etc.) were found lacking by many. Stretching these problems over a trilogy of games exacerbated them greatly, especially with the ridiculous expectations this franchise brings with it. But Final Fantasy has those expectations for a reason, and it has been the premier RPG franchise for a long time. The original Final Fantasy was first released in 1987, and was considered as something like a last gasp from a floundering Squaresoft. Safe to say it worked out well, as Final Fantasy has gone on to sell over 100 million units of its various games. While we may never see the venerable franchise return to the throne it once held, the future isn’t all bleak. As bad as Final Fantasy XIV was when it first released, it has morphed into one of the best MMO’s on the market, and expectations remain high for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV. I still have faith for the future of the franchise, but few can deny the success of its past.
1. The Legend of Zelda
Did you expect something different? If a series is around long enough, and puts out enough games, it’s reasonable to expect a clunker or two. Unless of course you are The Legend of Zelda, in which case every single game you release is basically perfect (OK, OK, I’m conveniently forgetting about Four Swords). Ever since redefining what a video game could do with the original release in 1986, you can point to almost all of their games and make a case for them being elite: A Link to The Past and Ocarina of Time are routinely picked for GOAT lists, Majora’s Mask remains one of the all-time loved cult classics, and Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess are two of the best games on their respective systems. Even some of the lesser known releases, such as Link’s Awakening, The Minnish Cap and the Oracle series, are gems in their own right. High expectations almost doesn’t even begin to describe how people feel about a new Zelda game…this is a series that makes grown men cry when a new installment is announced. The folks at Nintendo consistently meet and exceed those expectations, and show absolutely no signs of slowing any time soon. We could have this conversation in ten years, and there is a chance that we are still gushing about the new Zelda game. All of the franchises on this list are special, but The Legend of Zelda is in a class of its own.