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January 13, 2012

This Article is Getting a Reboot

You know, I’ve always felt like I don’t really belong in my age group.  Not because I’m more mature than everyone else (if anything, the reverse is true); it’s because more often than not, I feel like I’m an old man compared to the young ‘uns around me.  I’m no stranger to a nice, quiet afternoon nap.  I consider anything past twelve-thirty at night to be extremely late.  I love eating oatmeal for breakfast, and I don’t have any problems eating broccoli.  My only saving grace is that I don’t like prune juice…yet.

Nevertheless, the day is coming.

That, and the fact that I’m not completely crippled by my nostalgia.  I’ll allow and accept change as needed, but as long as it’s within reason.  The established canon of franchises the world round are there for a reason -- they’re a guide, a sort of history that shouldn’t be defiled by newborns trying to change elements to suit their fancy.  If I may borrow an old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t reboot it.”

…Wait, you mean people don’t say that?  Well, they should.  I DID say that I’ll allow change as needed.

I’m very wary of the upcoming reboot to the Spider-Man movie franchise.  Not just because the director of the first three movies shares a phonetic name with a certain writer, but because I’ve grown fond of them.  The movies held a certain charm -- genuine emotion, plenty of action, and lots of comedy for good measure.  Some could argue that they were pretty silly, and I won’t deny it; bear in mind, however, that Spidey comes from a medium where one could create a villain named “Animal Mineral Vegetable Man” and not be laughed off this side of the universe. The camp was part of the fun, adding to it rather than detracting from it.

Better than the Joker.

Imagine my surprise when I hear that, rather than a return to form (after the rather poor Spider-Man 3) in a fourth movie, the entire franchise is getting rebooted into The Amazing Spider-Man.  It’s coming out in 2012, featuring a new cast, a revisit of Peter Parker’s origin story, and a much darker, grittier take on the Spider-Man mythos.  My first thought was “Why?”  My second thought was “I’m hungry.  I’m up for some hot dogs.”  My third thought was “What the hell for?  It hasn’t even been ten years!  That’s cheating!”  And other miscellaneous threads regarding the tonal shift, the new suit, and putting mustard on my hot dog.

A friend of mine was quick to reassure me that, although it IS a reboot, it’s being handled by good people.  Talented people.  People who aren’t just taking Spider-Man and running him through the Grimdark-O-Matic 5000.  Fair enough; he’s the movie expert and not me, so I’ve every reason to believe in him and the moviemakers.  By extension, it’d be downright stupid of me to slam a movie just because it’s a little different -- especially if I haven’t even seen it yet.

What I CAN slam, however, is the emergence of reboots in video games.  I know them better than movies, and I’ve got more than enough kindling to spark the flames of my nerd rage. 

Comic books and video games have one thing in common: timelines.  Sure, Superman has been flying around for some seventy or eighty years now (compared to the twenty-five of, say Link), but the fact remains that they have established canons that you don’t want to tamper with too much.  Screw around, and there’s a good chance you’ll do little more than -- to put it eloquently -- piss off your fanbase.  That general rule applies to franchises that aren’t quite as old as Link; a good number of them are barely a decade old, but the games that carry their name have certain expectations that have to be lived up to.

So naturally, game developers and publishers are suddenly pushing for reboots.  New graphics technology and the need to match market demands mean that new standards are being put into place.  Realism!  Grit!  The color brown!  Adult situations!  Guns!  Familiar gameplay!  Seriousness!  Viscera!  The Dark Knight!  Woe can befall anyone who differs too greatly, or alternatively makes a shoddy game; the failure of a single project can close down an entire studio, leading to hundreds of jobs lost.  Best to play it safe, then.  And what better way to do that than to combine sensibilities -- the modern climate of tastes with the alluring appeal of nostalgia?

Franchises from the past are coming back with a vengeance…some, more vengefully than others.  The demolition derby simulator, Twisted Metal; the snowboarding extravaganza, SSX; the archaeology adventure, Tomb Raider; the demon-busting Devil May Cry.  All of these are what I’d consider reboots, with plenty more either on the horizon or behind us.  One would think that with so much money and people’s livelihoods on the line that there’s no way they can fail.  So why is it that, much like The Amazing Spider-Man, I’m still filled with worry?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that reboots aren’t the answer to every problem. 

The ultimate example of a game reboot gone bad -- one that haunts me to this day -- is Bomberman: Act Zero.  Admittedly, I’ve never played the game, but that’s only because I don’t play awful games.  It was a 2006 release by Konami and Hudson, and an early part of the Xbox 360’s library featuring everyone’s favorite little demolition man, Bomberman.  Except apparently, someone jettisoned the memo that said “Insert character with a head shaped like a lunchbox with a pink pom-pom that everyone loves” into the blackest corners of space.  In place of the cute little hero synonymous with the franchise, we instead got an Iron Man knockoff -- a scarred robot (available in purple armor if you choose) with one oversized claw hand and miscellaneous wires and chains attached to his person.  Why?  Hell if I know! 

Gigantic titanium oven mitts are in this season.

The result was about what one would expect.  The shoddy gameplay and heavy load times earned no sympathy, and the bare -bones features -- along with, damningly, poor online play -- led to it getting hammered by reviewers online and off, pro and recreational.  A chief complaint?  Why did they redesign Bomberman?  What was the point?  Why did they turn the colorful, feel-good adventure into an unimaginative cyberpunk wasteland?  Worse yet, the redesigned world raises more questions than it answers: if the new Bomberman is designed to blow up stuff, why is he vulnerable to his own bombs?  What purpose does that huge hand serve?  Why is he scarred right out of the production line?  Why pit Bombermen against one another in the first place -- so there can be only one survivor?  And then what?  Why not put those bombers to better use?  Why, in the wake of this universal overhaul, are the areas virtually identical to the original games?  Sure, the cute Bombeman games didn’t answer a lot of its questions either, but it didn’t need to; it had a separate story mode that kept your mind occupied, and treated the multiplayer like a fun little diversion.  Act Zero did not.  Act Zero drops you into this grimdark world and explains nothing, rationalizes nothing, justifies nothing -- it’s just there. 

It’s one of the biggest examples of “completely missing the point” that I’ve ever seen.  Like I said, I’ve never played the game, but I’ve seen enough of it to know that it’s bad, and read enough to know that the redesign is universally reviled -- to say nothing of the fact that the next Bomberman game would go back to the cutesy style while adding the option to wear silly hats.  But the damage was done; his last game was nothing more than a downloadable release, at a fourth the price of a retail disk.  The franchise isn’t quite dead, but it certainly has a taint.  All because of one misstep in an otherwise stalwart series.

Stay strong, little bomber.  Stay strong.

It makes me think that the reboot movement might be a little short-sighted.  You get your product out there, and then what?  If you succeed, then what do you do with the canon of the past?  Throw it out?  Keep going until your rebooted continuity takes a sour turn, then reboot again a few years later?  If you fail, then what?  Backpedal until you can get somewhere safe?    Apologize to the fans you’ve wronged?  Cry and drink until you fall asleep?

This is what worries me about the Tomb Raider reboot.  It’s the tenth game in the franchise overall, and it’s slated to be called…Tomb Raider, as if this is the first one.  It’s going to Take Lara Croft, our feisty, full-figured heroine, back to her origin story; we’ll see how the young student became the woman that so many of us know today, as well as build her character beyond the sex symbol she’s reputed to be (which isn’t helped by the fact that press releases seem adamant to tout their latest real-life models in sultry poses).  Okay, let’s ignore the fact that the gameplay shown to the public so far features Lara in a tight tanktop and pants, with the camera going to great lengths to zoom in on her chest and rear, with the regular “passionate” moans coming from our de-sexified heroine.  And let’s ignore the fact that the last on-disk game in the series, Tomb Raider: Underworld, was actually an enjoyable and mostly-well-crafted sequel.  And let’s ignore the fact that Lara Croft has already gotten a reboot in the past. 

Lara Croft is busty.  Anyone who argues otherwise is just fooling themselves, and poorly at that; you can take the breasts off the character, but you can’t take the character off the breasts.*  Ignoring the fact that the developers are assuming that a character needs to be busty to be a sex symbol -- as if they’ve never heard of Rule 34 -- there’s still the matter of continuity.  If New Lara is destined to grow into Current Lara, then does that mean that she’s going to grow…shall we say, dimensionally?  Bear in mind that she’s at least twenty in the upcoming reboot; given that puberty’s over for her (and as others have pointed out, she’s still kind of chesty), does that mean that our heroine’s destined to have some work done?  Or are the developers assuming that their work will be so successful that there’ll be no need to have Current Lara in our minds anymore?  And for that matter, how asinine is it to assume that you can whitewash an old, memory-engraved character and replace her with some new version with such boastful fanfare?

The only thing that can beat a filled-out tanktop is a dirty, slightly less filled-out tanktop.  

Reboots are like time travel: if you try it, you’re destined to ass up history.  Chances are that even if you have a success, you’re still alienating a lot of people, making changes neither asked for nor needed.  Nowhere is this more evident than with the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot, creatively titled…DmC.  (We’re gonna need better naming conventions if we keep making reboots.)  Why Devil May Cry needed a reboot is beyond me, and beyond plenty of fans far more dedicated and skilled than me.  For starters, the series -- barring the second game -- has only evolved since the first outing.  Hyperkinetic, combo-heavy, “stylish-crazy action” became the series standard, along with a heaping helping of camp, randomness, and over-the-top shenanigans through its spirited hero, Dante -- spirited in the sense that he’ll karate-chop jukeboxes, play guitar solos on succubae he’d defeated seconds earlier, and wax Shakespearian all over the damn place.  In fact, the last game in the series, Devil May Cry 4, was actually the highest-selling installment.  There were criticisms of course, like adding a love-him-or-hate-him new character and some excessive backtracking, but it was a very solid game.  Not to mention that 1) it had plenty of plot threads left hanging to pursue in a sequel, and 2) Devil May Cry 3 was in itself a reboot after 2, showing Dante’s ascension into badasshood.  So why are we stepping backwards now?  The series was fine -- the developer, Capcom, just needed to do a little bit of work bad they would’ve had another hit under their belts. 

So what did they do?  Sanction the western developer Ninja Theory to help make a new game: DmC.  Much mudslinging has gone about, with fans eager to blame anyone even remotely related to the project…and with good reason.  Dante is being taken back to his origin story, even though that’s in contradiction to 3 (still fresh on many a gamer’s mind).  Said backstory is being rewritten to turn him from half-human half demon -- pivotal to his character development -- into a half-demon half-angel.  He’s got a sword, a demon axe, and an angel scythe (not too keen on my scriptures, but I doubt that was in the Bible).  And he’s gotten a redesign that’s left droves of fans making faces so sour you’d swear they’d eaten genetically enhanced super-lemons.  To say nothing of slower gameplay, a less-than-impressive combo system, and worst of all, a character who’s less about “stylish crazy action” and heavy on the “mad at the world” angst.  That’s a surefire way to light the world on fire, right?  It certainly doesn’t help that the attitude of the developers has been “Yeah, that guy you know and love?  He’s not hip anymore.  So just sit here and enjoy this.” 

Pfft.  Nerd.

It’s as if DmC is writing the book on “How to Make Your Fans Want to Burn Down Your House.”  What was the impetus for such an overhaul?  Why draw so much fire to yourself when you’re an outsider in the grand scheme of Dante’s canon?  Why give gamers, an easily-incensed and intensely focused bunch, a name and a face to hate you by?  And most importantly, why turn such a colorful hero into a husk that few fans would love, fewer neophytes would recognize, and complete strangers to the series would confuse for Edward from Twilight?  If reboots are supposed to succeed on a short-term level, then why are so many people deeming this a game that’s DOA?

Oh.  Well, that explains it.

It’s here where I want to draw the line.  I don’t want to keep writing this article based on the premise that “all reboots must burn” or any other stupid ranting.  Instead I want to admit that, while reboots can go wrong (and perhaps will, God willing) there are actually smart, effective uses of a restarted continuity.

 Let’s sum up what makes a BAD reboot:

A bad reboot is one that comes in spite of unresolved issues and creative potential in the previous installment; essentially, digging a new hole when the old well hasn’t been fully tapped.  It treats the established canon as faulty -- one that insults the creators and the fans alike.  It creates such a jarring shift in tone and intent that it becomes something largely unrecognizable.  It tries to breathe new life into a series/franchise; the problem is that it uses tired ideas and clichés to try and do it -- trying to appeal to an audience’s perceived sensibilities (grit and edginess chief among them), rather than introducing some new element or spin.  Worst of all, these changes do little to cover up the end product’s flaws; a game with bad gameplay might as well be dragged out to the dumpster.  Major offenders: Bionic Commando (again with the title…), Shadowrun, Sonic the Hedgehog (still no new title, but referred to as Sonic ’06 -- the equivalent of a scarlet letter).

Now, here’s what I think makes a GOOD reboot:

A good reboot is one that takes the flaws of the franchise and fixes them; it’s a reboot in the sense that it’s giving a shamed name a chance at redemption, or offering the fresh start it needs.  Rather than throw out the established canon, it makes tweaks while offering winking nods to longtime fans.  While there’s an element of familiarity, there’s also enough new ideas and new blood to justify a new start; there’s something here now that hasn’t been done before, at least not in the franchise’s context.  All of the new elements work with the old to create a smooth, enjoyable experience.  Something that’s -- and this is a key word here -- FUN…and it does so while keeping the spirit of the franchise.    Lifetime achievers: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (and its 2008 installment…Prince of Persia), Street Fighter IV, a handful of Legend of Zelda games.

Let’s take a closer look at Prince of Persia.  That was a franchise that, up until a few years ago, had vanished into the ether; when Sands of Time came out, it succeeded on multiple fronts.  It went beyond a mere revival of the Prince for a new generation.  It was a fantastic game in its own right, with snappy writing, fun yet deep characters, and gameplay that would turn parkour from a misspelling of “park ore” and into a staple of the game industry.  The 2008 reboot would stay true to the franchise, but branch off -- out of necessity, not to separate itself from its ancestor.  Sands of Time became part of a much-lauded trilogy; that Prince’s story was complete.  2008 saw a new Prince, with a new story, new gameplay mechanics emphasizing flowing motion and combat, and visuals best described as “like, whoa, man, it’s like I’m playing in a painting.”  Positive reception, positive results -- now, if only the developers hadn’t sold the ending as a separate downloadable purchase…

Street Fighter IV is another fine example.  See, in the 90s Street Fighter II ruled the roost when it came to arcade fighting games; often imitated, never duplicated, it almost single-handedly gave birth to the genre, as well as competitive gaming both local and professional.  But all that fury and all those spent quarters went the way of the dodo; arcades across the states started dying out as home consoles grew more powerful.  While the game was played by dedicated fans in whatever avenue they could find, even with the beloved Street Fighter III the franchise disappeared from the world.  It would be roughly ten whole years before another installment came out, to the delight of fans old and new.  And when it did, it would make a few departures.  For starters, it would be rendered in 3D.  For another, it would take a step back in the canon, nestled between II and III; the consequence being that it would bring back the cast that had been shafted in place of a new wave of fighters (so yes, you too could play as a sumo wrestler or hyper-elastic yogi.  Great success!).  Gameplay would remain the same, but introduce a few new mechanics -- the Focus Attack chief among them, allowing for counterattacks as well as mounting an offense, and making insane combos a real possibility.  Much like II before it, IV helped bring the fighting game back in full force; as of this writing, there are no less than six different fighting games in development.  Also, there was another live-action movie, but the less said about that, the better.

You know, the one where the guy from Spain is Asian.  Research!

And then there’s The Legend of Zelda.  It’s almost unfair, comparing any game to a franchise that has ROUTINELY been excellent.  But really, it’s possible that part of that success comes from the fact that many of its installments have been -- breathless gasp! -- reboots.  See, a while back a bunch of fans got together and tried to sort out the series’ timeline, something that’s been in debate for quite a while.  It came down to the canon being split into two separate, branching timelines based on the events in the time-travel-happy Ocarina of Time; one timeline and the games afterward followed the exploits of Link, our hero, seven years into a “bad future” after beating the villain Ganondorf.  The other timeline followed Link’s ten-year-old self as if he stayed in the past to look for an old friend.  It was a legitimate theory that managed to sort every Zelda game -- over a dozen -- into a very succinct and sensible order. 

Of course, Nintendo came out and shot that theory right between the eyes; still, that didn’t stop fans from suspecting that the theory proved accurate.  But Nintendo has a bit of justification; oftentimes, it seems like they just drop a hero in green named Link into whatever universe suits their fancy.  In one setting, he’s in a Waterworld-style chain of islands.  In another, a surprisingly-advanced medieval world plagued by the Twilight World.  In a third, he’s living in the sky and suicide-dives onto birds passing by.  To say nothing of the fact that Skyward Sword is slated to explain the origin of the series-famous Master Sword.  Nintendo’s free to do whatever it wants with its property’s canon, and I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s to their detriment.  It’s a chance to explore new worlds, and keep the visuals fresh.  It begs for new gameplay mechanics to be instated each time -- sailing, transforming into a wolf, or skydiving -- and feels like a logical step rather than some forced gimmick.

Game of the year for all years.

But no matter how much Zelda may change from game to game, it has barely changed since the original installment.  There’s a very stable, almost predictable progression.  Go to an area.  Get a mission from some bigwig.  Find a special item (or items).  Use that item to find a way/open a path to the next dungeon.  Get new item from the dungeon.  Use that item to clear the dungeon and beat the boss.  Get the MacGuffin.  Do that about seven more times.  Congratulations, game complete!

That’s a major simplification of it, though.  See, Zelda can get away with repeated reboots because a new one doesn’t come out too often -- and when it does, it’s met with fanfare and angelic chorus.  What’s old is new, and what’s new is old; there’s a formula that doesn’t need excessive tweaking, because at its base the franchise is largely without flaw.  Any change the Nintendo team makes is one that only utilizes the formula for a different, yet recognizable output.  To put it mathematically, imagine if a new Zelda game equals x + y + z; characters, setting, and gameplay.  Same formula it’s always used, but altering the values of each variable for specialized yet expected result.  Extreme reboots -- like Bomberman: Act Zero I’d wager -- take their franchise’s formula and add plenty of variables that distort it.  You may get a similar output, but at what cost?  Fans that hate you?  A franchise sullied?  A blow to the checkbook?

Like I said, I’m not completely opposed to change.  I support it, so long as it’s a change that makes, you know, sense.  Some reboots -- in video games, and in plenty of other media outlets -- do, and I’m fine with them.  Some gambles pay off.  But others don’t; others are reboots for the sake of reboots, while missing the point just for a chance to ride on the gravy train.  Developers take heed: a gamble is still a gamble.  Don’t play unless you’re prepared to lose.    

*That sounded kinda sexual.  I'm eerily good at this.

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