#10: Guitar Hero
Originally released in 2005, the Guitar Hero franchise may unfortunately be now most recognized for a fall that was as auspicious as its rise. The original game, Guitar Hero, was almost an overnight success. The presence of popular rock anthems made it one of those rare games that can be entertaining even for spectators, launching the game as a popular party game. Not long thereafter, Guitar Hero guitars became a fixture in fraternity houses, start-up lounges, and student rec centers around the country. Capitalizing on its success, Activision released a sequel a year later, followed by a series of new releases around themed song packs, such as rock anthems from the 80s, recent megahits, and the libraries of popular bands like Aerosmith and Metallica. For many, this was the death knell of the franchise: many accused Activision of milking the franchise for easy money with low development costs. The release of ten games within two years (2008 and 2009) seemed to validate these criticisms.
The franchise is also notable for spawning many imitators, which may have hastened its oversaturation issue. Not long after Guitar Hero reached popularity, Rock Band followed up with the same formula while adding more instruments to the mix. Rock Band itself tried to keep things fresh with DJ Hero, a similar rhythm game, and it’s clear that the franchise is partially responsible for the surge of rhythm-based games in the past decade. The series hasn’t had a release since 2010, however, and there are no current plans to bring it to the latest console generation. More broadly, rhythm games so far have little to no presence on the current generation outside of the Wii U’s slate of rhythm-themed exergames.
Considered by some to be the spiritual successor of Shenmue due to its similar gameplay and setting, the Yakuza franchise burst onto the scene in Japan in 2005, and followed up with an American release in 2006. Throughout the franchise’s history, it has been a bigger seller in Japan than in the United States, which is likely unsurprising given the game’s setting. Nonetheless, the most recent release to hit the United States, Yakuza 4, received significant acclaim and some Game of the Year whispers. The fifth installment released in Japan in 2012 to critical acclaim, but as yet has not been localized outside the country. The franchise has also inspired several spin-offs, both in games and other media. Included in the franchise’s scope are books, videos, radio shows, and even a feature film released in 2008.
The Yakuza franchise follows the warring clans in Japan’s criminal underground, focusing on orphan Kazuma Kiryu. Kiryu is caught in the middle of several families vying for control, influence, and wealth in the Japanese underground, and often finds himself at odds with rival families and the local authorities. The structure of the game is reminiscent of an Eastern take on the Grand Theft Auto series. The games typically take an open world approach, letting the player explore, but combat is usually more melee-focused than gun-based. Events allow the player to participate in various parts of the yakuza “lifestyle”, from fighting to running a store to scouting out dancers for a cabaret. Given the contemporary genre of the game and its slow, deliberate release schedule, it’s reasonable to infer that Yakuza has more left in it for both Eastern and Western audiences.
#8: Professor Layton
One of the biggest points of simultaneous praise and criticism for Nintendo’s recent consoles (the DS, the Wii, and their successors) is the company’s strong command of casual gaming audiences. With a library of light puzzle games, exergames, and accessible platformers, these latest consoles have helped the gaming industry transition to a new phase of accessibility. One of the most notable franchises along this trend is the Professor Layton franchise. Professor Layton is a simple adventure/puzzle game where the player completes collections of relatively simple puzzles to advance the plot. The puzzles themselves are not awfully remarkable, taking the form of logic puzzles and brain teasers that have been used in games for years, but the clean knitting together of these puzzles into an adventure game with a light, engaging plot has helped the franchise attain a loyal following. To date, the franchise has sold over 15 million copies, and with a sustainable formula based on simple appeal, it appears to have a strong future ahead of it.
The franchise has spawned six titles in the main series: Curious Village, Diabolical Box, and Unwound Future, Last Specter, Miracle Mask, and Azran Legacy. It also consists of a spin-off game for mobile platforms called Mystery Room and an animated film called Eternal Diva. A crossover with a similar graphic adventure series, Phoenix Wright, as released in Japan in 2012 and will be localized sometime this year, along with a new entry in the franchise. Phoenix Wright deserves mention of its own as another relatively young franchise, but technically its initial release (even if only in Japan) was in 2001, which makes it ineligible for this list.
#7: Gears of War
Among the most significant new franchises of the past ten years are the exclusive launch titles with each new console. While Nintendo’s exclusive launch titles are largely new releases in their long-running Mario and Legend of Zelda series, Microsoft and Sony both lined up some new intellectual properties to drive traffic and sales to their consoles. For Microsoft, arguably the most successful of these was the Gears of War franchise. Constructed in large part to demonstrate the graphical capabilities of the new console, Gears of War presents remarkable detail and realism even when compared to new releases in the young console generation. I know for me, one of the “woah!” moments of that console generation was the first time I saw my roommate use the chainsaw attachment on an alien. That, for me, showed the power of the new consoles.
Gears of War went on to spawn three sequels, two in the original trilogy and one close spin-off. Throughout this, the series maintained its high reputation, earning strong critical acclaim and sales throughout (although they dropped off a bit with that fourth game). It’s a little surprising to me that Microsoft did not push to have a game in the series prepared for the release of the Xbox One, but a new installment of the franchise has been announced. Following Microsoft’s acquisition of the rights to the series, it will continue to be an Xbox exclusive. Although the original company is no longer responsible for it, its chief producer will continue to be involved with the development of the new installment.
#6: Saints Row
Released in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III almost single-handedly created and popularized what would go on to be the sandbox genre, characterized by large, open worlds for exploration and interaction. Following the popularity of the game, other series jumped on the formula, and within ten years sandbox games were an unwanted epidemic. Somewhere in between those two endpoints, Saints Row was released. Capitalizing on the formula in a very similar setting, Saints Row derived significant attention from its position as the first sandbox game on the Xbox 360. It played a major role in demonstrating what the new consoles could do not only graphically, but also in terms of size and scope.
Toward the end of the decade, though, the sandbox genre started to get a little stale. Every new game, it seemed, was a sandbox game, and simply being a sandbox game was no longer enough to garner the attention and acclaim of the earlier Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto games. It was around that time that Saints Row brilliantly reinvented itself, and in my opinion surpassed the better-recognized Grand Theft Auto games. With Saints Row the Third and Saints Row IV, the franchise transitioned from sandbox game to sandbox parody, maintaining its appeal while deconstructing and mocking the genre it itself helped form. With Saints Row IV, the game openly bucks any physical or mechanical constraints through a clever plot dynamic, allowing for the most free and open sandbox experience I’ve ever seen. The downside to all of this is that with the size, scope, parody, and humor of the latest release, I’m not entirely sure where Saints Row goes from here.
#5: Assassin's Creed
Assassin’s Creed is the target of my biggest love-hate relationship in gaming. On the one hand, I love the unique ideas of the franchise: the interplay between the present and the past, the altered history with real historical figures, and the beautifully mixed gameplay. On the other hand, almost every individual iteration of the franchise has found a way to be extraordinarily disappointing, from the formulaic original release to the unfaithful middle trilogy to the downright awful Assassin’s Creed III. Despite those disappointments, though, Assassin’s Creed has worked its way into being a surprising yearly release. While most franchises with a 12-month development cycle get by with only slight changes from iteration to iteration, Assassin’s Creed has managed to stay surprisingly fresh throughout its run, even though that release schedule has led to notable cracks in the foundation.
What’s also interesting about the Assassin’s Creed genre is that of all the ongoing franchises right now, new and old, I feel it has the greatest chance to remain engaging and entertaining in the long run. The fact that it draws on history means that every new release has a very natural new appeal to tap into. The writers do not need to consistently one-up themselves with bigger plots or reinvent the core of the gameplay to retain appeal; just seeing this familiar franchise go into different historical eras provides all the appeal that the new releases will need. Assassin’s Creed IV seemed to understand this: the game wastes no opportunity to tease the potential historical eras the franchise might examine next, from the ancient Japanese dynasties to the American Civil War and everywhere in between. Heck, pirate lore alone has the potential to bolster a handful of titles by itself. There is also a movie in development based on the franchise starring Michael Fassbender, but as we'll see soon, that isn't exactly uncommon among these young franchises.
#4: God of War
Complicating the ‘GoW’ acronym for the entire seventh console generation, God of War is Sony’s launch exclusive property to bolster sales of both the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. The franchise traces its origins to the original God of War, a 2005 hack-and-slash action-adventure game that would be one of the PlayStation 2’s most acclaimed and best-selling titles. Upon its release, the game won multiple Game of the Year awards, and its sequel released to similar universal acclaim. Entering the seventh console generation, the promise of a new God of War game was one of the PlayStation 3’s main selling points over its competitor, but it took four years into the console’s lifespan for God of War III to finally hit shelves. When it finally arrived, it more than lived up to its predecessors, winning its share of Game of the Year awards, outselling the rest of the franchise, and being called by some one of the greatest games of all time.
In addition to the main trilogy, God of War inspired four other spin-off games: Betrayal, Chains of Olympus, Ghost of Sparta, and Ascension. Betrayal, a mobile tie-in, served primarily to build hype for the big releases, but Chains of Olumpus and Ghost of Sparta would become among the best games ever released for Sony’s portable console, the PSP. Ascension, a prequel to the entire series, did not quite earn the acclaim that the rest of the franchise won, but even so God of War remains one of the most universally acclaimed series in video game history, and one of the strongest new intellectual properties to come onto the scene in several years. Oh, and there's also a movie in development.
Originally released about a year after the PlayStation 3 debuted, the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the ultimate system-seller. In advertisements, it was marketed as a game that looks so good you’ll forget you’re playing a game at all. I won’t disagree with that, but to me, that misses the bigger strength of the Uncharted franchise. The franchise features a masterful combination of minimalistic display, simple controls applied in multiple unique situations, and legitimately improvisational, unscripted battles. The game looks as good as a movie, yes, but that’s not just a testament to its graphics. Uncharted could pass for a movie because every moment feels simultaneously brilliantly constructed and seamlessly unscripted. To me, it is one of the best examples of pure game design in the history of the medium: a simple set of mechanics applied in an open environment allowing multiple planned approaches and revisions.
The franchise made the jump to the PlayStation Vita very nicely as Golden Abyss maintained the series’ high standards. While I, personally, was massively disappointed in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, it nonetheless received critical acclaim. The strength of the series is, in my opinion, largely responsible for the hype surrounding The Last of Us before its release. That game, in my opinion the best game of the last ten years, mimicked many of the design principles refined and honed throughout the Uncharted series as well. A fourth game is on the way, exclusively for the PlayStation 4, and in my opinion we may not know what the PlayStation 4 can really do until we see it in Naughty Dog’s hands. A movie is also on the way in theory, and if there is any video game franchise that may lend itself to a decent movie, I would say it is Uncharted.
#2: Mass Effect
The Mass Effect trilogy, starting with the original release in 2007, is remarkable for a number of reasons. The work of BioWare, developers of many of history’s greatest Western-style RPGs, one can immediately see the influence of classics like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. The scope of the game is absolutely massive, with an entire galaxy to explore that never feels artificially constrained or formulaically constructed. The gameplay of the game is highly acclaimed as well, connecting RPG-style equipment and setup systems with state-of-the-art third-person shooter combat. And of course,we would be remiss to forget the game’s beauty, presenting a sprawling galaxyscape beautifully and dynamically.
Likely the most revolutionary element of Mass Effect, however, is the narrative structure and flexibility. Mass Effect is as open as any game has ever been, and the player has considerable leeway to customize their protagonist to their own personal preferences, not just in appearances but also in interactions. Many games attempt to facilitate this flexibility, but fall short because it is difficult to write a compelling plot while allowing considerable room for variability in the main character. Mass Effect, however, manages to succeed in this difficult task, leaving plenty of room for the player to drive a compelling story regardless of the decisions they make with their own Commander Shepard. Mass Effect is, arguably, the first true example of real interactive storytelling seen in modern gaming, and represents one of the industry’s greatest achievements – no matter how disappointing the trilogy’s ending happened to be. The success of the franchise has inspired numerous other pieces of media, including novels, comics, anime, and, again, a feature film in the works.
2007’s BioShock marked the beginning not only of gaming’s best new franchise in years, but also the ascension of video games as an artistic medium. For several years, video games had been earning more and more recognition as a medium that gives its creators a different level of expressive control over a world, a story, and a cast of characters. Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, and Silent Hill had all pushed the envelope and showed the medium’s potential over the years, but BioShock, in my opinion, truly popularized and demonstrated what video games could express. All three games in the franchise tell stories that challenge and toy with what a video game really means, from the parody of objectives and autonomy in the original game to the airtight commentary on determinism and free will. All the while, the series expresses a natural willingness to tackle big themes of objectivism, religion, and moral absolutes.
Of course, the story isn’t the only good part about BioShock. It has compelling gameplay that could appeal to fans of first-person shooters with enough twists to connect with those that aren’t as big on the common genre. The graphics express the series’ brilliant settings spectacularly, creating an ambience and mood that was simultaneously subtle and striking. But what is remarkable about BioShock is that even these other elements are most powerful in the way they complement the narrative. The graphics portray a world that is intentionally, intelligently created rather than designed as a level in a video game. The twists on the gameplay make perfect sense in the context of that plot, painting a cohesive and believable world in which the stories can take place. The BioShock franchise is not merely a masterpiece of the gaming industry; it is a masterpiece of literature as a whole.
Of course, there are notable omissions in this list -- that's part and parcel of narrowing a list down to only ten entries. Several other franchise could easily have been included here instead of some of these selections; specific honorable mentions go to Just Dance, Brain Age, Brothers in Arms, Rock Band, Dead Rising, Lego, and especially Dead Space. Dead Space was easily my #11 choice, while the Lego franchise is excluded only because it is largely based on source material that itself originated before 2005.
In addition to these qualifying franchises that did not make the list, several other franchises likely will eventually qualify and deserve a spot on this list. inFamous, Left 4 Dead, The Witcher, Guild Wars, and Minecraft may all eventually prove to be quality franchises that originated after 2005. At present, however, each has only two releases, and thus did not qualify for this list.
Have I forgotten any? Come by the Top 10 List board and let me know, and poke fun at the first person to ignore the criteria and complain that inFamous wasn't one of the entries.
List by DDJ (02/14/2014)
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