First entries in a video game series have a lot of hurdles to overcome. They need to introduce the characters, story, world, and lore, plus all the different gameplay mechanics. They also often try to do something more experimental than other series on the market to stand out. For all those reasons, plus many more, it usually isn’t until a sequel that most games really begin to shine. This is when the developers really know what their game is from the start and can build off of what came before, knowing the player also has that knowledge. Of course, that also means expectations are much higher, leaving many sequels that don’t do quite enough to feel disappointing.
Here are some of the best sequels to games that are seen as massive leaps in quality from their predecessor and perhaps even stand as the best the series has ever seen.
Mega Man created a simple formula that has persisted for over a dozen games now. Pick a robot master to challenge, fight through their stage, defeat the boss, acquire their weapon, and use it to beat another boss. Repeat the process for six bosses — or eight, starting in the sequel — before one final gauntlet leading up to the final boss. While nothing changed graphically between the first two entries (or first several, for that matter), everything under the hood was improved. Mega Man felt way better to control, and the stages were still incredibly hard but far more fair and less about trial and error and enemy variety. Boss patterns were satisfying to learn and exploit, and the soundtrack stands out as one of the NES’ all-time classics. Ask any Mega Man fan which one is their favorite, and Mega Man 2 will be at least in the top three.
Not to say the Sonic is better than another franchise, that’s entirely subjective, but we do feel fairly confident in saying that Sonic 2 was a better sequel to the original Sonic the Hedgehog than Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link were to their respective series. Where those two games made massive departures from their original formulas, and in Mario’s case was just a re-skin of a completely different game, Sonic 2 was more Sonic, only better. The levels were more intricate, Tails joined the team and allowed for two-player co-op or competitive play, there were 3D-style special stages, and we were introduced to Super Sonic. Basically, the Sonic team took everything great about the first game and supercharged it for the sequel to fully establish Sonic as a true rival to Nintendo’s Mario.
Back on the Nintendo side of the console wars, Rare had struck a massive hit with the reinvention of Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. The biggest draw was undoubtedly the insane (for the time) graphics they were able to achieve compared to everything else coming out at the time. The game itself was solid, too, with tons of unique environments to traverse through. The sequel, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, blows that great game out of the water. Swapping out Donkey Kong for the duo of Diddy and Dixie, this new Kong allowed for even more variety in movement thanks to the glide ability. Then there were even more animal companions to find with their own bonus stages, more intricate barrel sections, better bosses, and somehow even more creative levels than the first. Oh, and the track Bramble Blast alone ranks it in the top five OSTs at least.
The first couple games on this list at least knew what they wanted to be when they began, but the first Street Fighter game only vaguely feels like a proper fighting game. That’s what makes the jump to Street Fighter 2, a game that received over five iterations, so impressive. The first game did have some basic moves, like the famous Dragon Punch and Hurricane Kick, but they were far too difficult to pull off, partially due to the control setup. Rather than having different buttons for each level of attack (light, medium, and hard), the player would actually have to press the arcade pad harder to do stronger attacks. The game also only had two playable characters, Ryu and Ken, who were functionally identical. The sequel fixed every problem this game had, plus invented staples of the fighting game genre that are still followed to this day. The roster of characters was upped to six, all of whom have become iconic to the series and all with their own personalities and special moves.
OK, moving into some more modern entries now. Kingdom Hearts 2 is a game that doesn’t have any right to be as good as it is. The first KH title was a huge experiment, combining classic Disney characters with both Final Fantasy and wholly-original characters in a story that, at least at the start, was simple and fitting for both franchises. It was a basic action RPG, but the gameplay wasn’t all that complex, and it followed a fairly basic structure. You would go from world to world, suffering through long and boring gummi ship segments, and participate in truncated and altered versions of that Disney franchise’s plot. It was more about the novelty of interacting with these worlds and characters than anything else. Then the sequel came along and blew everything out of the water. There were tons of new worlds, including returning ones, with stories that required you to return to each and every world at least twice to complete. The stakes and quality of the story were ramped up, but not yet at the level of complexity that turned people off the series, and the gameplay is still seen as the pinnacle that all future titles would be measured against.
If there was ever a game that needed a sequel to fully bloom into the game it was meant to be, it was the original Assassin’s Creed. That game had such lofty ambitions that it just couldn’t live up to in its first iteration, and thankfully, the sequel was able to come along and show everyone the full potential of this IP that would go on to be one of the biggest in gaming. The first game relied heavily on its unique setting, graphics, animation, and parkour systems to stand out but had an incredibly repetitive gameplay loop with very little variety and a story that only really showed up at the beginning and end. Cut to the sequel, and we have even better graphics, more varied locations, improved parkour, more weapons and animations, way more mission variety, and a story and characters so well-liked they gave him his own trilogy of games.
It’s hard to argue around the fact that we have Batman: Arkham Asylum to thank for superhero games finally reaching the heights of quality they deserve. That first game knew exactly how and where to restrain itself to create an experience that felt bigger than it was. The art style was pitch-perfect, the story no more complex than it needed to be (save for a bit of a stumble at the end), and it brought back the iconic voice cast from the animated series. But it was the free-flowing combat system that really put this game on the map. The sequel, Arkham City, went bigger but still knew how to hold back. The map is large enough to make traversal fun without feeling like you’re just crossing empty space for no reason, and the city itself is packed full of details and things to discover and do. Toss in a bunch of new gadgets, even more clever bosses, a gripping Batman story, and an improvement on the combat system that would influence dozens of games in the future, and this Batman game stands as one of the best games of the generation.
How do you make a sequel to Portal? That was the question many had after beating the mind-breaking puzzle game. The first experience was more of an experiment, pardon the pun, than a true game. You were introduced to portals and then given a test with applying them in different situations to reach an exit as an AI berated you. Sure, they could add more puzzles, but would that actually be worth an entire sequel? Well, Valve had way more planned than just “more puzzles” when making Portal 2. Despite being the only human, and a mute at that, they managed to introduce new, interesting, and hilarious characters into a story that actually had some stakes to it. They also took a risk and introduced a few new elements to the puzzles, such as gels and light bridges, but managed to keep the core simple enough that you always felt like you were right on the verge of figuring it out. Surprising just about everyone was a co-op campaign that was just as tightly designed as the single-player.
Valve might have a reputation for never making a third entry in a series, but when their sequels are this good, who can blame them? The original Half-Life was almost what the first Portal was to FPS games. It was one of the most immersive, interactive, and satisfying shooters ever released at the time. Going back now, it is clearly dated and only impressive in hindsight. Half-Life 2 took all that innovation of the first game and added in physics like no game ever had. The gravity gun alone was a marvel that in a lot of ways hasn’t been matched since, aside from the gravity gloves in Half-Life: Alyx, of course. While it could’ve earned a place in history just for the impressive engine running it, Half-Life 2‘s campaign had gamers gripped from start to finish. There’s a good reason people have been waiting for over a decade for a conclusion to this trilogy.
Looking at the bestselling and most popular games of the last decade or so, it might be hard to remember that there was a time FPS games on consoles were mostly bad. You’d get your occasional Golden Eye here or there, but even those were cumbersome at best to control. Then Halo came along and showed everyone how it was done. There were still plenty of rough edges to work out, but it showed the potential in joystick aiming in first-person while offering a fun sci-fi adventure that hinted at a much bigger universe. Halo 2 took that base and managed to build an FPS that still feels modern to this day. The speed, aiming, feedback, movement, and everything about the combat was tuned to perfection. Thankfully, that gameplay had a perfect place to shine in the form of the new Xbox Live, where Bungie managed to also invent a near-perfect matchmaking system with no prior model to base it off. We take for granted the ability to invite friends to parties and match up with random opponents so easily, but we have Halo 2 to thank for setting that standard.
There’s more than a lot to love about the first Resident Evil. It was by no means the first survival horror game, but definitely the one to bring it into the spotlight. It did, unfortunately, come with some warts you either came to find endearing, like the voice acting, or were glad to see left behind. They’re very similar in a lot of ways, but the differences the sequel makes push it up as one of the greatest survival horror experiences of all time. For example, while both games feature two playable characters with their own campaigns, RE2 not only has more variety between the campaigns, but they also are altered depending on what order you play them in. Both featured zombies, of course, but the sequel was where we got some of the series’ mainstays like the Licker. It isn’t a particularly long experience, but between the multiple campaigns and unlockable secret modes, there’s plenty of zombie fun to be had here.
OK, you could argue that the first Uncharted was somewhat of a Tomb Raider rip-off, but the script was completely flipped after Uncharted 2 came out. The first game was a decent third-person shooter with light puzzle solving and some decent platforming elements that were mostly propped up by strong characters. The story went a little out there near the end, but that ended up becoming kind of a trend for the series as a whole. The sequel, aside from still looking pretty good visually, didn’t just elevate the gameplay to match the storytelling and characters of the first — everything was taken to blockbuster levels of quality. The shooting felt smooth, the platforming fun and exhilarating, action set pieces heart-pumping, and story perfectly-paced. This is the game people pointed to first when claiming games weren’t equal to action-adventure movies but better.
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