the artistry and psychology of gaming


Top 10 Black Sheep of a Series

Top 10 Black Sheep of a Series

Sometimes a game series gets into a rut.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Mega Man 1-10 and Mega Man X-X8 were all fantastic and incredibly fun to play (well, most of them, anyway, but it was usually an innovation to ruin a Mega Man game, not stagnation).  That’s 18 of the same basic game.  Yeah, they each had small things to make them unique, but the core gameplay was the same throughout the series.  That in and of itself proves that you don’t need to constantly do weird stuff to a series to make it work (Final Fantasy, I’m looking in your direction), but I digress.  Sometimes, a series takes a wild jump and it actually ends up being really good!  Sadly, it is often criticized for being different, and the original formula or even a new one takes its place.  This is a list of the black sheep from various series that I thought were better than the original formula or were at least good ideas that could’ve been done again.

#10: Kirby’s Block Ball

Kirby is likely a franchise that needs no introduction.  It was introduced on the Game Boy as a nice little introductory title.  The goal was to create a game that anyone could finish, and even when I was younger and less skilled, I could indeed clear the game in about fifteen minutes.  The simple premise was to inhale bad guys and spit them out at each other.  You could fly indefinitely at any time, and even attack enemies by exhaling afterwards.  It wasn’t until his NES debut that he gained the ability to steal his enemies’… abilities, and smash his way through legions of bad guys even more easily.  Along the way, the little guy almost had two separate series going on: Platformers and others, like Pinball, a rudimentary predecessor of a Wii game, and even a stylus-based micromanagement game for the DS, among many others.

Well, we’re off to a great start; Kirby’s always had offbeat games that weren’t Platformers, so what makes this a black sheep?  Well, when this came out, the only other non-Platformer was Kirby’s Pinball Land, which I found to be a frustrating mess of a good idea, though I’m admittedly not a big Pinball fan.  Kirby’s Block Ball is a Breakout clone, but with its own innovations that make it fun, even to someone like myself, who doesn’t really like Breakout.  In addition to the standard fare, you sometimes have paddles on more than one of the walls, sometimes all four of them.  You can tap the button to hit your ball harder, turning him into a full-sized Kirby, which can break certain blocks.  You can also find abilities to destroy other blocks.  At the end of each world, there’s a boss fight, many of which make creative use of the controls.  You have occasional minigames to net you free guys, and you can pick which of the four you’d prefer to play.  Of the non-Platformer Kirby games, I’d say this is the best by far.

#9: Pac Mania

Pac-Man is another franchise that is well known across the world.  One of gaming’s earliest characters, his game’s premise was very simple: eat all of the dots and avoid the ghosts.  It took arcades by storm, and the franchise fell into a bit of a Mega Man-like slump, only with less innovations between titles.  Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man, and many others hit the arcades, including some with kits to slightly change existing cabinets.  Did you know that there are nearly 300 variants of the original Pac-Man?  While Pac-Man was wabba-wabbaing his way through everyone’s quarters, I was wondering what the fuss was all about.

Like Breakout, I’ve never really cared much for Pac-Man, though I absolutely loved the aesthetic of Ms. Pac-Man After Dark, one of the aforementioned kits.  Pac Mania takes the formula and spruces it up to make it better.  You have a neat, semi-isometric perspective, which, since it’s Pac-Man, doesn’t really have any problems as far as control is concerned.  With the new graphics, there are also themed levels, which look pretty neat, from Block Town to Jungle Steps.  The smooth character models are very aesthetically pleasing, especially given what CG used to look like at the time.  The music’s pretty catchy, too, and very appropriate for the theme.  Perhaps the best innovation, though, taking a page right out of Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory, is the ability to jump.  Remember how frustrating it was to be cornered by ghosts with no way out?  Now, you can just jump over them.  Don’t rely too heavily upon the jumping mechanic, though, since some ghosts will jump in tandem with you in later levels.  Like the above entry, this game is a great twist on a classic formula that even non-fans of the original can enjoy.

#8: Adventure Island 4

The Adventure Island series has a strange history.  Hudson and Sega developed a game together known as Wonder Boy, which was one of the bigger franchises on the Sega Master System (the predecessor to the Genesis/Megadrive), right behind Alex Kidd.  When Hudson signed their exclusivity contract with Nintendo, they still had the rights to the levels that had been designed, but not the Wonder Boy character, so they created Master Higgins, threw him in, and called it Hudson’s Adventure Island.  Both series evolved along very different paths, though they wound up in a pretty similar place at their respective ends, which brings us to this game.

While the typical Adventure Island title had one-directional scrolling, one-hit deaths, somewhat sketchy jumping controls, and a weird life bar that was more of a timer, Adventure Island 4 was an Action-Adventure title with a typical life bar and tighter controls.  There were 12 different weapons, which you select from a menu.  Some were weapons in earnest, while others, like the surfboard, were more like tools.  You could still ride the 5 dinosaurs after rescuing them, as well.  The music, puzzles, and exploration aspect were absolutely top-notch, and the environments were very pretty; some of them Oases of Beauty pretty.  This particular style would later be mimicked in Super Adventure Island 2, which did manage to make it overseas, but with less focus on equipment-based puzzles, and more focus on the equipment itself, like armor and shields.  The dinosaurs were gone, as well.  So, while it was still an excellent game, it just wasn’t quite the same.

#7: Ys 3: Wanderers from Ys

The Ys franchise was relatively unknown in the United States until fairly recently, and with good reason.  A very early Action-Adventure with RPG elements, Ys: The Vanished Omens only made it Stateside on the Sega Master System, a console doomed to obscurity; I was the only kid in school I ever knew to own one.  The second game didn’t even make it overseas until it was remade for the PSP.  Being a product of Nihon Falcom, the music and visuals were, of course, spectacular, but there was one huge problem with the series: the combat.  Fighting an enemy was like a messed-up joust; there is no attack button, so to fight, you run into an enemy to damage it.  The idea was to just clip them, rather than hit them dead center, which worked most of the time, since the enemies would be thrown back when you hit them.  The biggest problem was the boss fights: since they didn’t get knocked back, so you ran through them, trading blows and hoping for the best.

Ys 3 changed all of that, though.  It eschewed the overhead perspective for a sidescrolling one, making it more of a Platformer, though still an Action-Adventure title.  This was the first game in the series that most gamers in the United States (myself included) played, and it was fantastic.  The hero had a large number of sword techniques, all of which were available right from the very beginning.  The story, while not terribly deep or innovative, was still gripping, and had a very bittersweet ending that was quite well written.  The reaction of the hardcore fans of the series?  Violent backlash.  “How dare you change the battle system!?  We demand that you return our ill-conceived jousting mechanics this instant!”  Nihon Falcom sadly answered these cries of outrage by returning to the old system in Ys 4: Mask of the Sun.  Sometimes I think the worst part about the medium of gaming is the gamers themselves.

#6: Dragon Ball Z Sagas

Dragon Ball Z is an anime series that that was a sequel to the series Dragon Ball, which was based upon The Journey West, one of the most famous Chinese literary works of all time.  While Dragon Ball itself did fairly well, Dragon Ball Z just took off; to this day, countless anime and other media rip it off wholesale.  Something so popular naturally cannot go without an incredible amount of merchandise; there have been t-shirts, action figures, and, of course, video games.  How to make a video game based upon a series with tons of different characters with wild hair reminiscent of Esoteric Buddhist deities wailing on each other and throwing pretty balls of colored light?  Well, a Fighter is the most obvious path to take, and there were indeed dozens of Fighters across many systems across many generations, even to the point of the aforementioned Mega Man-like stagnation.

Along came a breath of fresh air, both within the franchise and gaming in general: a 3D Brawler with decent controls.  You run around in 3D environments, executing combos and performing simple special moves to destroy either enemies or the environment itself, if you want.  You find different items to upgrade your characters, either powering up their vital stats or finding tokens to unlock new moves.  It’s almost like God of War, but without all the yelling… wait.  So while it has its problems, it’s still a solid 3D Brawler, and aside from Budokai: Tenkaichi 2, one of the better Dragon Ball Z games out there.  If you like the series, but are tired of Fighters, give this one a try.

#5: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

I know what you’re likely thinking, but this is actually part of the SaGa series.  Those who aren’t hardcore fans might know the first three installments better as Final Fantasy Legend; SaGa Frontier was actually the seventh game in the series.  SaGa was a little more Western than most JRPG players had encountered, with the build-a-party mechanic, rather than developed characters with personalities, and stat gains based upon how you fight, rather than experience, and weapons that break unless repaired.  Many stuck with it, since it was the only series of portable RPGs that early in the Game Boy’s library, but it certainly had its flaws.

Well, the first three games were rebranded to sell better under a more popular flagship, why not this one?  It went back to the traditional leveling system, and in fact even eschewed the crippling difficulty of earlier SaGa games to make more of a “My First RPG” experience.  Despite it not having been my first RPG by far (that honor goes to Dragon Warrior), I thought it was very enjoyable.  The game was developed in the United States, so the dialogue sounded like something we would say, there were a few action elements used in dungeons, often to solve puzzles, and the soundtrack had a lot of great Hard Rock tunes; the battle themes really get your blood pumping.  Everything is spelled out for you; if you hit an enemy with a weakness or resistance, you’re told about it in a little text box.  You also accrue gradually better armor, increasing elemental and status resistance to almost everything by the end of the game.  While it is anything but expansive, the same could be said about Paper Mario in contrast with its sequel; it’s a nice, succinct little package that’s easy to complete with 100% with nice visual features to make that convenient.  Sadly, while Paper Mario is rightly regarded as a timeless classic, this game is despised by many.

#4: Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link

The Legend of Zelda came into the NES library out of nowhere and practically invented the Action-Adventure genre (which happens to be among my favorites).  Since most gamers, particularly in the United States, were used to Platformers or single-screen Arcade Action titles, this game came in on a Warp Whistle-summoned whirlwind and blew the minds of a nation.  There was so much to explore, so much to see and do.  Back before the days of text-heavy games with more sidequests than actual content, this game dumped you into a massive world with a single objective and said, “Okay, go to it.”  Sure there were some moon logic moments, and the combat wasn’t entirely without its flaws, particularly when fighting something that could shoot you, but it was among the first of its kind, and it paved the way for a wonderful new hybrid genre.

The second installment of the series went a bit further into the hybridization.  In addition to changing combat to a sidescrolling perspective, it added some RPG elements, like magic, towns, experience levels, and even (somewhat) random encounters on the overworld.  You could still find health and magic expansions, as well as tools, though they were more passive abilities than gadgets, but the formula was completely rewritten.  The dungeons, now viewed from the side, were more complex to navigate.  The combat, still a little clunky, was improved upon, and well scaled with the leveling and magic systems.  The world was bigger and more beautiful, the music was better, and just about everything was new and fresh.  Sadly, while this was my absolute favorite Zelda game until I played Wind Waker, most people regard it among the worst of the series, right above the three nearly universally reviled CD-i titles.

#3: Mega Man X Command Mission

The Blue Bomber has quite an empire going for him.  The little game that started everything has since spawned a staggering seven main series, each slightly different.  Each of these series has at least two entries, and some have as many as eight to ten!  The second series to come out (unless you count Rockman World, the Game Boy titles, as their own series) was Mega Man X, which, until Mega Man X2 came out, we had all assumed to be Mega Man 10Mega Man X took the classic series and warped it, adding upgrades and a new, dark storyline to the mix.  While the typical Mega Man story is “Blow up robots and beat bad guy”, the X series created a deep mythos, weaving its way into other series in the franchise.  At their core, though, they were still Mega Man Platformers.

Along came Mega Man X Command Mission, which I had initially thought to be an Action-Adventure spin-off, much like Mega Man Legends.  As it turns out, it was a full-on 3D JRPG.  You have transformations that last a few rounds, special moves, and countless things to find.  It has a very familiar feeling to it that remains just out of reach until you recognize the battle font; it’s Breath of Fire with robots.  Instead of physical and magical attacks, you have melee and projectile weapons.  For your party of three, you have a choice of any of seven playable characters, each with his or her own set of weapons and special attacks.  You craft accessories, as well as finding them, and there are a lot of intricacies to the battle system that make it complex without being too complicated.  The story might not really hold up to the series’s standard, but it’s still a solid JRPG.

#2: Super Paper Mario

The Paper Mario series is a spin-off of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, which actually did better than its predecessor.  The Paper Mario games are RPGs with turn-based battle systems with action triggers to enhance your actions, usually by dealing more damage.  Outside of battle, the games are like Platformer Lite, having some action-based navigation and puzzle solving without completely alienating RPG fans who lack the reflexes necessary for a hardcore Platformer.  This series, along with the original Valkyrie Profile is what immediately comes to my mind when I hear the term, Action-RPG; blending of Action and RPG that still preserves both of its parts. 

Super Paper Mario is not like its predecessors; it’s more like a 2D Sidescrolling Action-Adventure with RPG elements that plays like a Platformer.  If you think that sounds overly verbose, there are Grand Theft Auto games with RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them Action-RPGs, does it?  Anyway, the 8 different areas are accessed through doors atop a tower, and each one is separated into 4 levels; sound familiar?  The humor is better than in the rest of the series; I’ve never met a single person who played through the “nerd chapter” without saying, “Hey… I like that…” at least once; the writers really knew their audience.  The most famous thing about this 2D game is the ability to flip to 3D, which makes the environments more like those in the other Paper Mario games.  At first I was concerned that it would be overly gimmicky, but after the first world or so, you don’t really use it more than occasionally.  Overall, it’s a very satisfying package with enough charm and challenge to keep you interested.

#1: Legacy of the Wizard

Of the few of you who know this game, it is likely that even fewer realize that it’s part of a series.  Unfortunately, like Kirby, this is another example of a game within a constantly changing series.  The series in question is Dragon Slayer, and the Japanese title of this game is Dragon Slayer 4: Drasle Family.  The second title, Xanadu, had a spin-off on the NES called Faxanadu (Famicom + Xanadu), with which you may be familiar.  At any rate, most of the games are wildly different from each other, ranging from Sidescrollers to Dungeon Crawlers, to whatever, though all staying relatively under the Action-Adventure umbrella.

Legacy of the Wizard is a very interesting entity.  It’s laid out like an overhead Action-Adventure, but it’s sidescrolling.  You have five different playable characters, each with his or her own special properties and equipment lists.  The father is strong, and can move blocks with the glove, the mother can fly and pick locks, the daughter can jump like a spring-loaded Luigi on the moon, the pet is immune to monster attacks, and the son is the only one who can slay the dragon.  You use the characters’ abilities and tools to solve puzzles and make your way through the gigantic labyrinth, which is so large that it’s actually broken into five different sections, one of which is a relatively small hub area.  The environments are surreal and gorgeous, and the colors of the enemies only add to its splendor.  It is incredibly challenging to clear each section of the labyrinth (which can be done in any order) and locate the crown, and the journey is nothing short of magnificent.  If you like Action-Adventure games, I’d highly recommend this one; it’s one of the best titles on the NES.


As you can see, the negative connotation that often goes with the term, black sheep is not entirely deserved.  Just because something is different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but it doesn’t always mean it’s bad, either.  We may never see games like these again, and it’s a shame.  Any of these could have been classics, but many of them live on either forgotten or hated for being different.  It’s like Elementary School all over again; Final Fantasy 7 is the cool kid that beats up on Mystic Quest.  Zelda 2 doesn’t get to hang out with the Ocarina of Time due to being the only non-Christian in a hick school (I’m not bitter; why do you ask?).  Come on!  Can’t we learn our lesson the first time?  At any rate, I hope that this list has opened some minds.  As a gray sheep amongst a family of black sheep myself, I say, “Give these games some love and respect!”  I hope you enjoyed this list.  See you next time!

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