On Friday, The Last of Us Part II — one of the most anticipated video game sequels in recent years — was released. Seven years after The Last of Us was released, Part II picks up five years after the first one left off and follows Ellie and Joel’s continued efforts to survive in a postapocalyptic world that has been ravaged by a deadly disease. As groundbreaking as the first game was for the level and depth of storytelling and compelling characters it introduced, Part II is already being met with rave reviews and is even more cinematic, emotional, diverse and gruesome than the first game.
It remains to be seen how players will react to this sequel, though early reviews indicate Part II might be even better than the game that spawned it. Making a worthy sequel to a beloved game is no easy task, and fans will not be shy about criticizing developers when the second game doesn’t live up to the first. With games commonly taking several years to produce, the lengthy time between games can lead to extremely high expectations as anticipation builds up. Sometimes, though, developers do manage to strike gold and produce a work that lives up to or even surpasses the original. From Street Fighter II to Mass Effect 2 to Red Dead Redemption 2, here’s a look back on some of the best video game sequels ever made.
Street Fighter II
One way to look at how much better a sequel is than its predecessor, is that, while you might respect how the series began, the first release becomes virtually unplayable. There are a lot of examples of this: Mega Man still has its moments, but Mega Man 2 really sets the tone for the entire series and changes the paradigm dramatically. Then, there is that other Capcom game that is really the gold standard of this argument.
In 1987, the original Street Fighter was released in arcades. It was well-received at the time. You took control of Ryu (the only time he had red hair in the series) to face a series of CPU enemies, many of whom would make appearances later in the series (like Birdie, Gen, Adon and the final boss in this release, Sagat). If someone rolled up to the Player 2 spot on the machine, they would get Ken (who looked pretty much like Ken). It even innovated — the harder you hit a button, the harder your character on screen would punch.
But as much as people enjoyed the original Street Fighter for the next four years, 1991 is when the Street Fighter franchise got catapulted into the zeitgeist.
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, followed by Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, are where the game truly sings. These games featured multiple players to choose from who all became household names: The warrior BFFs Ryu and Ken are back, joined by the quick-footed Chun-Li, the Brazilian green monster (but don’t call him Beast) Blanka, the Russian pro wrestler Zangief, the Indian zen yoga master Dhalsim, the Japanese sumo champion E. Honda and the confident American soldier Guile. The difference in gameplay from the first to the second is night and day — in Street Fighter, even pulling off a hadouken feels as difficult as pulling off EVO Moment 37. The controls, graphics, gameplay and flow of Street Fighter II make the original seem ancient, antiquated, obsolete.
Ironically, much like SF2 did to SF1, modders sped up the game in a version called Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition that became so popular it got on Capcom’s radar. It led to “Turbo” being officially released with sped-up gameplay, which made Champion Edition feel ancient. The circle of life.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any ’90s kid who doesn’t have fond memories of pumping quarters into a Street Fighter II machine in arcades across the country. But it wasn’t just in those heavenly palaces of fun; Street Fighter II machines were found everywhere: restaurants, convenient stores, laundromats, the waiting room at the dentist and sometimes all by itself in some random place. Everywhere you saw one, you’d find quarters stacked up on the machine’s ledge from players in line waiting to play.
You could argue that Street Fighter II is the greatest video game sequel of all time — at least on the Mount Rushmore of best sequels. It’s always in the conversation.
— Arda Ocal
Mass Effect 2
The great waste of the Mass Effect series — now on ice after the disastrous ending of Mass Effect 3 and the nervous irrelevance of Mass Effect: Andromeda — is that, at one point, it looked like it was going to become the next Star Wars. The point when game developer BioWare was firing on all cylinders and at the absolute height of its RPG powers was the release of Mass Effect 2, one of the greatest games of all time and perhaps the best direct sequel ever made.
The original Mass Effect is a fascinating game, confident enough in its storytelling to mix bombastic action scenes with lengthy, subtle conversations about philosophy and faith. It suffers from bloat, however — just ask anyone who spent ages climbing hills with the Mako trying desperately to find some minerals — and the combat is barely functional. It’s a classic and still worth playing, but 13 years after its release, the cracks are extremely visible.
Mass Effect 2 takes the original game’s formula and burns away all the dross. The game’s pacing is perfect. It hauls off like a freight train from the start and doesn’t stop until the final notes of its astoundingly crafted Suicide Mission finale. The game breaks down into chunks of three repeatable 45-minute segments — exploring hubs to find a mission, the mission itself and then talking with your crew about how they felt about the mission. It makes every play session feel like a lengthy episode of a sci-fi show.
The combat is fluid and challenging, with the Insanity difficulty level standing out as perhaps the most challenging (but fair) action RPG experience around, and with every class (particularly the Vanguard, where Commander Shepard zooms around the battlefield like a pinball with a shotgun) offering a unique style of play. The planets you can freely roam in the original game are gone, replaced by lovingly crafted missions that still give the player the sense of exploring a huge and mysterious galaxy.
Even with these changes, BioWare stayed true to its strength, which is creating memorable characters. Though the original cast is given relatively little screen time (save for Garrus and Tali in the base game and Liara in “Lair of the Shadow Broker”), Mass Effect 2 overflows with beloved characters, from the bizarre Geth gestalt consciousness known as Legion to the consequentialist, theater-loving Salarian scientist Mordin. You’ll spend upwards of 50 hours with these characters, swanning around the galaxy solving problems and talking about your feelings, and it’ll feel like no time has passed at all. Other games have produced individual elements of the classic BioWare formula better, but none of them have put their disparate pieces together as well as Mass Effect 2. If there ever is another Mass Effect game, whoever makes it should know exactly where to look for inspiration.
— Joe DeMartino
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Just the name invokes that chant in your head, doesn’t it?
Note: I tried writing out the phonetics of the vocals, but you know what i’m talking about.
While the original Halo was magnificent, it was Halo 2 that really opened things up. It’s no stretch to say it was one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, not only because Halo was such a smash hit, but because of something else it was bringing to the table: matchmaking.
Prior to Halo 2, the most common way to do multiplayer was for players to manually join lobbies with their friends. While this allowed for a large amount of control for the players on PC with dedicated servers, on console it really wasn’t a thing. With Xbox Live and Halo 2, matchmaking created ease of use for players and their friends.
Log on. Party up. Select a playlist. Search for a match. Done. You’re in.
It was a brand new world and revolutionized online console play. We could now troll our friends (or strangers) from the comfort of our own couch rather than system-link like the original Halo demanded (which was still fun, by the way).
As for the maps in Halo 2 — there are still legendary gems in there. Lockout. Midship. Turf. Beaver Creek. Ascension. And probably the best one of them all: Zanzibar.
I can’t count how many hours I lost to Halo 2 in college. My roommate skipped classes all day to play it. Graphically, it was stunning and a significant leap from the first Halo. New weapons such as the Battle Rifle and SMG added variety (but RIP the Pistol; they nerfed that to the ground), and let’s not forget about dual wielding.
Looking back at the campaign, it’s easy to understand why people were upset at the time. The cliffhanger ending and split gameplay of Master Chief and the Arbiter was jarring, to say the least. Now fans reflect fondly on it since the original trilogy is complete, but Halo 2 is remembered particularly for its multiplayer.
— Darin Kwilinski
God of War II
Santa Monica Studio must have felt like it had the weight of the world on its shoulders when designing the sequel to the original God of War. After producing a title that received near-universal praise for its visceral combat and approach to ancient Greek and Roman lore, the sibling studio of Sony Interactive Entertainment needed to put in a Herculean effort to do one better with the sequel. Somehow, the second installment of the series was even better than the first.
My favorite memory of this game, outside of the epic battles and turning a ripped-off Gorgon head into a weapon, comes from the Challenge of the Titans minigames you get after wrapping up the story for the first time. Getting the top rank in “Perfection is Divine” — a trial in which you had to kill every enemy sent at you without being hit — was one of my crowning Gamer™ moments as a teenager. The fact that the series is still going 13 years later is a testament to how great this sequel was.
— Sean Morrison
Read Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fitting sequel — though technically it’s a prequel — to Red Dead Redemption. Released eight years after RDR, Rockstar Games’ latest Red Dead installment takes place about a decade before the events of the previous game in the series. While Red Dead Redemption focuses on John Marston, the sequel/prequel tells the story of his time with Dutch van der Linde’s gang, in particular Arthur Morgan, who has a big role to play in helping shape the man Marston would become in the first game.
As I wrote a couple months ago as part of our Stuck Inside With gaming series, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a compelling game with countless things to do besides the main mission. As you traverse the vast open world on horseback, you can hunt more than one hundred different species of animals, go on adventures with strangers, play table games all day, take part in lucrative heists and search for dinosaur bones among other unique quests. It’s easy to spend hours just exploring the picturesque Old West setting that Rockstar Games did an incredible job of creating. Even after finishing the main mission, I’ve found myself coming back to the game again and again to do other quests and find more items and check out unexplored locations.
It’s a game that lets you be who you want to be, which your honor level will attest to as the indicator trends either in a positive direction or negative direction based on the actions you take throughout the game. Morgan grapples with the nature of his character and so will you as you ponder whether some of the things he does in service of his friends and fellow gang members are justified. Below the tough-guy outlaw facade is he really a good person as all the strangers he helps out keep telling him? Or have all the killings and robberies committed to acquire more money for the gang made him someone who’s too far gone to deserve any redemption?
— Brian Bencomo