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How video game reboots have evolved from Mega Man Legends to God of War

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The concept of updating a franchise has changed radically in 20 years’ time

God of War - artwork of Kratos and Atreus fighting a troll Sony Interactive Entertainment

The greatest challenge in reinventing an established franchise these days frequently comes down to retaining the series’ essence within the parameters of the contemporary blockbuster format. Developers frequently pull elements like crafting systems or skill trees into these reinventions, because they know those mechanics tickle their fans’ endorphins.

This isn’t to say that revamping an aging franchise is always easy or a guaranteed success, but at least developers have some comfortable blueprints from which to work.

Consider Sony Santa Monica’s God of War, which returns this month after a lengthy hiatus in a PlayStation 4 sequel named, simply, God of War. That this new game shares its title with the 2005 PlayStation 2 adventure that kicked off the franchise speaks to a fundamental desire by Sony to establish this less as a sequel and more as a new beginning. God of War combines its own legacy with the modern blockbuster format, to tremendous critical acclaim.

God of War’s warm reception certainly represents a change from the way things were back in the original PlayStation era, when games like Capcom’s Mega Man Legends attempted to reinvent aging franchises and found far more resistance.

Moving into the future

Twenty years ago, developers struggled to sort out the realities of the industry’s first major wave of franchise overhauls. How do you take a series that had gotten its start on 8-bit hardware in the ’80s and keep it feeling contemporary as new consoles push graphics and gameplay into the third dimension? The arrival of Super Mario 64 in 1996 made the message clear: Evolve or die.

That was more easily said than done, though. Not every developer had the luxuries Nintendo enjoyed when designing Super Mario 64. That game wasn’t just created side by side with the hardware that powered it; according to some reports, it even influenced the design of the Nintendo 64 console itself.

Third parties didn’t enjoy that luxury for their own 3D makeover efforts with mascots like Bubsy or Gex, and the 32-bit era soon became littered with the ruins of beloved 2D franchises that failed to establish themselves in polygons. The carnage wasn’t all bad; it meant that new properties, built from the ground up for 3D hardware, could thrive. Yet it also called into question what, exactly, constituted a successful reimagining of a game concept.

For every breathtaking Super Mario 64, Metal Gear Solid or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you could find two or three vintage properties that attempted to leap into 3D and instead fell flat on their faces. Sega fans could agree that the desultory 3D hub of Sonic Jam for Saturn was hardly the renaissance that Sonic the Hedgehog deserved. Even Castlevania maniacs found themselves left cold by that series’ much-hyped 3D update for Nintendo 64 (which, as with the new God of War, was simply called Castlevania, like the NES game it hoped to redefine).

And then, somewhere between the blockbuster hits and miserable flops, you had the likes of Mega Man Legends, which cleverly reinvented the Mega Man franchise in the style of Ocarina of Time, yet found a lukewarm reception at best.

What we’ve learned along the way

Today, the industry has the franchise overhaul process down to a science. The new God of War brings many changes with it, yet it also feels decidedly familiar. It tones down its predecessors’ driving sense of aggression. Accordingly, the action has shifted away from the dense structure and cinematic viewpoint of the older games. It also attempts to make Kratos’ family something more than a thin pretext for him to wipe out an entire category of mythological lore, by having his son tag along as an AI companion.

God of War refreshes an aging series by pouring it into the mold of a modern AAA blockbuster and using the formula to its advantage. The bond between Kratos and his son becomes a sounding board for character development. At last, the god of war has become something more than a blank-slate murder machine, and it has the work laid down by the likes of BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us to thank for its winning formula.

Two decades ago, however, the developers of Mega Man Legends didn’t have the luxury of fresh examples to draw upon. Its creators aimed to take Capcom’s platform-shooter franchise for NES and Super Nintendo into the third dimension, but they were charting new territory in the process.

Boasting colorful anime-inspired graphics that used cel-shading techniques before the term “cel-shading” existed, Legends certainly seemed promising. Beloved robot hero Mega Man would run and jump through 3D arenas as he battled towering robots, some of which would be so enormous they could only be attacked with the help of vehicles.

The game would manage to beat some of the medium’s formative classics to the punch in many respects: It introduced lock-on targeting well before Ocarina of Time, and it incorporated voice-acted, real-time cutscenes well before Metal Gear Solid … and unlike the shadowy head-bobs of Metal Gear, Legends’ characters spoke with fully animated facial features. While a bit clunky by modern standards, Legends was a great example of 2D concepts translated effectively into the third dimension.

Mega Man Legends didn’t fare especially well at launch, though. Reviews at the time were mixed, with even the most positive opinions expressing reservations about various aspects of the game. And while Legends found a small subset of Mega Man fans who immediately took to its strengths, the overwhelming sentiment among the franchise’s loyalists came down to the same complaint: “This isn’t Mega Man.”

But what did that mean, precisely? The hero of Mega Man Legends, MegaMan Volnutt, was a young man clad in blue armor, equipped with an arm cannon and possessing the ability to adjust his attacks by switching up weapons. He was as much a valid take on the hero as the fan favorite Mega Man X. Maybe more so; after all, unlike X, Volnutt still belonged to a family unit that included a kindly old inventor and a girl named Roll, just like the 8-bit original.

However, almost nothing about the world around Volnutt resembled what fans had come to expect from the franchise. The robots he fought here — Reaverbots — weren’t the inventions of Dr. Wily or the evil Maverick Sigma; instead, they were ancient machines that patrolled lost labyrinths beneath the earth, allied to no particular creator. That meant no Robot Masters or defective animal-themed Mavericks to fight.

Instead, the bosses at the end of each dungeon either took the form of larger Reaverbots or were the wacky creations of the Bonnes, a bumbling and not-especially-evil family of pirates eager to score wealth but with no particular interest in global conquest. And while a fellow named Wily did make an appearance toward the middle of the game, he was a far cry from the maniacal villain of the older Mega Man games. Though stern and intimidating, he turned out to be a friendly old boat captain, perfectly willing to lend the hero a hand.

Most divisive of all, Legends abandoned Mega Man’s classic level-select structure altogether in favor of a largely linear, story-driven quest. Not only could players no longer begin the game by choosing one of eight themed stages to tackle, but there were no stages at all. The loss of Robot Masters also meant a lack of alternate weapons to collect; instead, Volnutt gained new guns and ammo by earning cash and collecting parts for Roll to turn into new gear. And he could only carry a single alternate weapon per outing, as he needed to return to Roll’s workshop on his family’s airship Flutter to swap out his payload.

The things Legends failed to carry forward from vintage Mega Man games made it difficult for many players to enjoy what it added to the mix. It brought the Mega Man franchise timeline far into the future; yet despite painting a bleak picture of the world, it never lacked for warmth or charm.

The storybook narrative played like a Saturday morning cartoon. It devoted more time to heartwarming side quests than to the central conflict. Players could wander around for hours doing things like helping a young girl in the hospital, donating relics to a museum or contributing cash to the restoration of the city. Meanwhile, the true threat to Kattelox Island didn’t appear until the final half hour of the adventure.

Even the nefarious Bonnes themselves eventually come to Volnutt’s aid, won over by his innate decency despite the fact that he single-handedly wrecked every one of their ever more impressive engines of destruction. They’re not the only ones; Volnutt ultimately wins over the entire population of the town in which the Flutter had crash-landed at the story’s outset. The game ends not with a grand cinematic climax but with a subdued goodbye, as the citizens of Kattelox Island come to wave farewell to the Flutter as it heads for new horizons.

Most series fans, however, found themselves rather less convinced by this plucky upstart who called himself MegaMan. Legends sold modestly at best, netting itself only a single sequel and a prequel spinoff centered around the Bonne family — a true sign of low confidence by Capcom, a company that churned out sequels to Mega Man properties with assembly-line rapidity.

Legends’ reputation has certainly improved over time, to the point that Capcom almost gave it a sequel for the Nintendo 3DS more than a decade later ... but the legacy of Mega Man Legends seems to be more of a cautionary tale. It stands as a warning to publishers about how not to update their beloved franchises.

Despite the obvious love and thoughtfulness that went into Legends’ design, it strayed too far from its source material to connect with many of the fans who dearly wanted to love it. A game concept or protagonist may be able to survive dramatic reinvention, but fan expectations often turn out to be far less flexible.

So if modern-day franchise updates like God of War seem a little overly familiar at times, you need look no further than Mega Man Legends to better understand why.