What’s a sequel supposed to be, anyway?

20200430_092516.jpg[A quick refresher on this series’ rather confusing menagerie of names before we start: The original Mega Drive ARPG is known as: “Story of Thor: Hikari wo Tsugu Mono” (Jp), “The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light” (EU), and “Beyond Oasis” (US), while this Saturn prequel goes by “Thor: Seirei Ou Kiden” (Jp), “The Story of Thor 2” (EU) and “The Legend of Oasis” (US)]

This Saturn title released in early 1996, just a short year and change after the original Story of Thor blessed the Mega Drive with its non-stop RPG action and was endlessly compared to The Legend of Zelda for much the same yeah-but-no reasons Ragnacenty was. I loved it. I loved it so much I was speedrunning it before I even knew what speedrunning was, dashing around like Ali’s voluminous lower garments were on fire, the whole game an exquisite puzzle I’d solved so thoroughly and so often I’d start a fresh save and sit there for the sub two hours it took until I’d finished just for the fun of it.

Thor: Seirei Ou Kiden, as this Saturn follow-up’s known in the region my copy’s compatible with, is an action RPG starring a brave young man wearing magnificent trousers who uses a magical golden armlet to go off on a spirit collecting quest that ultimately culminates in a battle against the evil Agi- wait no, that’s the Mega Drive game, isn’t it? Hang on a sec…

Thor 2, as I’m choosing to abbreviate the title (Thor: SOK looks a little weird), has been made with a great deal of care as well as an obvious love and respect for the game that spawned it. It also poses an interesting question:

What, and who, are sequels (and in this case, prequels) for?

Some decide go off in experimental new directions, spiritual sequels tied to the original by nothing more than the thinnest of threads – or perhaps a financial team’s insistence at eking just a little more mileage out of a well-received brand. Whether fans adored the first or had no clue it existed at all makes no difference here, because the only similarity between the two will be some abstraction of a core game mechanic or a small nod to a person or place that vaguely hints at a greater connection but is never followed through.

Others carefully refine the original into a more polished form, working hard to eliminate old issues, accidentally introducing a few new ones along the way, and hopefully recapturing the attention of everyone who had a good time with the first release while still luring in as many new players as possible. Sequels made like this may venture into unfamiliar territory or work previously unfinished or discarded concepts into the mix but the emphasis is always on being the same, but better.

Then there are those made to be proud new links in a well-established chain: Sometimes they’re a little more experimental, sometimes they’re a warm blanket of nostalgia, but their only real concern is to remain loyal to themselves and to the players they’ve picked up along the way. Think of Falcom’s Trails of… series, the Touhou shmups, or the friendly familiarity of your favourite mascot IP.

And then we have Saturn Thor, a game so close to the original in every possible way that anyone who saw it would be forgiven for thinking it was either a remake or some sort of expansion pack.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I’ll never forget the excitement surrounding the announcement that a brand new sixty-flippin’-pounds version of Street Fighter II was going to let people play as the bosses, how eager I was to part with cash in exchange for a new edition of my favourite rhythm game of the month (and all the plastic accessories that went with it), or more recently how happy I was to purchase N++ on Switch based entirely on the fact that I’d be receiving more of the same hazard-avoiding ninja platforming I’d already been so thoroughly enjoying on my DS.

But those games all have one very important thing in common: They’re driven entirely the fighters, the songs, the puzzle-platform levels they contain – those things by themselves are the game, so even if the surrounding “bones” don’t change that much (or at all) from an outsider’s perspective to those playing they will still feel new and fresh. Thor 2 however is an (action) RPG by design – a game with a plot, a named hero, and a peaceful starting village filled with people who say things like “I’m not allowed to open the gate, sorry” and “Did you know you can dash by tapping twice in the same direction?” – for all the switch-based puzzles in beautifully realised dungeons and squabbles with imposing adversaries there’s supposed to be some sense of place, purpose, and progression outside of clearing a series of set tasks before moving on to the next.

And it does! There’s an interesting story, unlockable abilities that open up new avenues of exploration, and all sorts of out of the way collectables to keep people busy along the way to that final confrontation.

The only problem is they – and just about everything else in Thor 2 – have all been lifted wholesale from the original Story of Thor.

The game opens with a wise mentor sending the heroic lead Leon off to find the water spirit Dytto (again), then with her in tow it’s time to head into another element-themed dungeon to grab Efreet (again). In a twist shocking to nobody ever, there’s trouble in the village while you’re away (again), a mysterious women who has ties to the last boss appears (again), and that last boss just so happens to be Agito (again). It wouldn’t be fair to pretend that this was the first time a game has re-used a much-loved setup – hugely popular series such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Dragon Quest, and The Legend of Zelda have all at one point or another all become homages to themselves and been none the worse for doing so – nobody ever seriously complained about Sonic games starting somewhere lush and ending up somewhere mechanical – but there has to be more to it than straight reproduction of what went before, there needs to be some clever twist or fresh angle. Sadly as much as I’d love to say otherwise, Thor 2 is so focused on replicating everything from the first Mega Drive release that even Leon can’t escape Thor 2’s myopic imagination, with those beautifully animated trousers of his perfectly mirroring the ones worn on by The Story of Thor’s Ali, and for all the other smaller changes to his design (he really is a beautiful sprite from all angles no matter what he’s doing), they made two completely different characters wear the one big thing that makes them look exactly the same. A brief play reveals further copycat behaviour – Leon also handles in the same way as Ali, using the same special moves executed in the same way using largely the same selection of weaponry. The original’s control scheme was an unusual and entertaining idea, bringing a touch of real arcade skill and input to a genre traditionally dominated by equipment bonuses and other statistics, but to see it replicated here without any apparent interrogation in to what worked, why it felt so exciting, and what could be changed to make it even better feels like a missed opportunity for no reason beyond “It wasn’t in the original so it’s not in here either”. Just press forward-back-forward to spin-somersault-dagger everything into oblivion, same as the last game.

Enemies fare no better, with the most common ones looking far, far, too close to their direct equivalents in the original for comfort. It’s not just a case of two different monsters fulfilling the same role (ex: a small one that’s easy to kill, an undead enemy, a versatile humanoid type) but nigh-identical copies of the exact same monsters attacking and reacting to the hero in identical ways. This is also true of the spirits Leon summons from his golden armlet: there may be two brand new ones this time around, but by the time the first one appears Leon will have tracked down three of the original four, and those three all look, behave, control, and are generally used to solve carbon copies of old puzzles in the same way they did the first time around.

In fact they all looked so similar I honestly had to go and have a look at the original sprite sheets just to make sure Ancient hadn’t given everything a quick once-over before calling it a day. I do have some good news here: a direct comparison reveals that the Saturn sprites have been completely redrawn with an assortment of design tweaks, a wider range of colours, and overall in much higher detail. But this raises a new question – why spend so much time and effort (and there is a lot of hard work and skill in here) creating something that’s so close to the original side-by-side comparisons are needed to appreciate the differences? The end result is a game that definitely couldn’t have been pulled off on the Mega Drive but looks so damned similar to its initial 16-bit outing that its hard to see where all the work went, and the all-new crudely scaled objects (ex: a regular sized pot, enlarged x4) with their giant pixels backed up by the odd poorly-CG’d skeleton do a poor job of showcasing the Saturn’s powerful 2D capabilities or Ancient’s undeniable talents.

It’s an odd sort of disappointment to know for a fact everything’s been improved but somehow still not really believe that’s true. In its own little bubble Thor 2’s a good albeit flawed action RPG (the dungeon design leans more towards the OK side of things), but by being so painfully similar to an already excellent (and these days – widely available) game makes this prequel feel creatively vacant, even though in reality it’s nigh-identical. It’s an interesting problem with no clear solution – when the first game’s so good, why not stick to things that have already been proven to work? The conclusion I came to was this: Thor 2 is the game equivalent of telling somebody a joke they’ve already heard, or owning a postcard of the Mona Lisa – it’s exactly the same thing, but the soul’s been lost in the process. There’s no question of the overall quality but I can’t ever feel that warm love-at-first-sight glow for the game because all of the content tells me I’m playing a facsimile of something I already fell in love with. The passage of time can sometimes soften this problem: when the most recent game in the series came out decades ago you’re often grateful to discover that there’s more of it in any shape or form – but not when it retreads old ground as definitively as this does. Thor 2 is another game’s echo, a follow-up that neither expands upon nor seriously bungles its origins but merely repeats them over and over again until it fades away into nothingness.

 

7 thoughts on “What’s a sequel supposed to be, anyway?

  1. Man, that sounds a bit disappointing. I could understand trying to fix problems and expanding on the original Vision or adding a new quest to the end, but mostly releasing the same content and even titling it like a sequel seems weird.

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    1. It’s quite difficult to judge because there’s little that’s actually ~wrong~ with the game but because it’s so close to the original it feels really flat and empty.

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    1. It’s a real shame! The first one’s a lot of fun (which kinda means this one is too), but I would’ve liked the follow-up to do more than just the exact same thing all over again

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      1. Yes, it seems it’s really enough to have played either one of them. In that case I will probably choose the “version” that won’t make me poor :D

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  2. Aww, Beyond Oasis was one of those gems from back in the Genesis days that I really got into, so it’s disappointing to hear that the sequel is, well… that.

    I could sorta understand if they essentially remade the first game on a much different platform, but it’s another Sega console??

    I wouldn’t mind playing it one day just because I loved the original so much, though. If only more Saturn games were on those collections they’re always putting out~

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