Spinoff games are a fun way for developers to try new things and have some fun while exploring worlds fans already know and love. But sometimes these spinoffs evolve and take shape into something more than that; into something special, innovative, and even occasionally something better than their parent game. In this list – the student becomes the master!
First off, I would like to say that I will not be talking about Super Smash Brothers on this list because while so good, holy hot damn what game is it a spin-off of. Mario? Legend of Zelda? Fire Emblem? All of them? Yeah, I’m not willing to mess with that. Also, no Mario games, like Mario Cart, because the canon main series cannot be beaten by its more shallow brothers.
5. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater < Tony Hawk’s Underground
The Tony Hawk Pro Skater series wowed the world with original and frantic gameplay focusing on a combo system and bombastic tricks, making the series an almost instant hit in the generations of PlayStation 1 and 2. But after four games, while all having varying degrees of critical acclaim, the formula had reached its plateau and was in need of something truly new to spice things up. Enter Pro-Skater’s two-game spin-off series Tony Hawk Underground (lovingly know as THUG). This took the tried and true original gameplay and combo systems of the original series but added an engrossing and varied narrative absolutely dripping with the punk and skate culture of the 2000s, adding an entirely new feel of grit to the series while also innovating with being able to get off the board to search and climb for new spots. This involved things other than just reasons to score huge points, but story-specific moments like nailing a trick over a helicopter on your way to stardom to have your best friend steal the footage and edit himself in; using you for his own motive of rising to the top. It is this underdog narrative that brings Tony Hawk Pro-Skater to the next level, creating something that fans have come to recognize as one of the best games in the long-running series. Let’s just all forget about Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 5.
4. Half-Life < Portal
(This is as much as I am going to stretch in this list. Yes, Portal is a spinoff of Half-life and I’m willing to fight you on that! the voiceless protagonist, an iconic tool for the main weapon [that looks quite similar, mind you], and most importantly a shared world of rival companies, makes this an obvious yet quite varied spinoff. Okay, I’m done, back to the list. *Whisper* Also, Portal is better hands down.) Valve rocked the world with its immersive games (you know, back in the day when they actually made games) and the titular series that saw their rise to fame was their magnum-opus; Half-Life 1 and 2. These games broke the mold by telling a game story through seamless voice acting without cutscenes, some of the first legitimate physics-based puzzles, and some good shooting to boot. The second Half-life still holds the top spot as many gamer’s answers to what the most important game of all time is and has cemented Valve as being an industry legend (again, regardless of recent years [I’m not bitter, you’re bitter]). Nothing inspired today’s gaming landscape quite as much as Valve flexing its muscles to strange and innovative ideas. This flexing was piqued by Valve’s mega-hit The Orange Box. Orange Box was a single disk that housed now industry landmarks such as Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2, The Half-Life 2 episodes, and my topic of discussion, Portal. Portal was a small project out of Valve to create a puzzle game that takes place within the Half-Life universe, but what followed transcended into something brand new. Filling the shoes of Chell as they solve a number of progressing puzzles with a revolutionary mechanic of portals that cut through space and boggle the mind when first wrestled with. Instead of Gordan, we have Chell, Instead of Black Mesa we have Aperture Science, Instead of the Gravity Gun we have the Portal Gun, and instead of G-man, we have the infinitely more memorable GLaDOS. Where Half-Life will rust with age due to its lack of notable style and focusing down on now flat physics puzzles, Portal focuses on a simple yet iconic style, spot-on humor/terror writing, and streamlining itself down into what some revere as one of the best and most focused gaming experiences around.
3. Fallout 3 < Fallout: New Vegas
How appropriate that this is my number three! When Bethesda obtained the rights to the cult series Fallout, many fans were upset, but soon they brought Fallout into the mainstream with Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was a fantastic game, coming to help define Bethesda as a studio with its large open first-person games; but some Fallout fans weren’t satiated… Those fans got to see the potential of this new format with Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas was brought to us soon after Fallout 3 and actually brought to us by another studio, being Obsidian, comprised of RPG legends and some of the original creators of Fallout. New Vegas took the mechanics and beautiful new open format of Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and shot it full of life with Fallout’s original sense of ambiguity in actions, survival, and personal storytelling. They focused the world down to a narrow story between the player and the antagonist (Chandler Bing is that you!?) and opened up broad possibilities with creating your own stories along the way. That’s why Fallout: New Vegas as a spinoff proves itself superior and takes Fallout to the next level.
2. Shin Megami Tensei < The Persona Series
There is almost no Japanese RPG with as rich of a history as the Shin Megami Tensei series, being around for more than 30 years and literally dozens of games in its backlog. The series revolutionized unique systems such as the Pokemonesque demon battling and combining, and its especially creative conversation mechanics that have been cited as the inspiration to recent indie hit Undertale. Shin Megami is no stranger to spinoffs with numerous others, but few have been prolific enough to thrust an entire eastern franchise into the spotlight of the west. This is what Persona did for Shin Megami Tensei a few years back. Persona took the staples of the fantasy Shin Megami Tensei and thrust them into a modern setting and meshing it with a high-school-life-simulator. This dual genre shouldn’t work as well as it does but it truly made a perfect yin-yang or push and pull of gameplay. The worlds Persona created were fleshed out with unique themes, such as Persona 3’s television-based theme and Persona 5’s prison theme, while also putting us in the shoes of a new lovable crew of underdog heroes every game. The craze of Persona was caught in the West when Persona 4: Golden came out for PS Vita, but soon Persona 5 took the entire world by storm with what some people (me included) believe is the best RPG the world has seen.
Special Honorable Mention – Far Cry: Blood Dragon
Far Cry is a pretty fun series that has the problem of growing dull with repetition fairly quickly; Charismatic villain, an open world, kill animals, craft, take out a base, rinse and repeat. That was until after the release of Far Cry 3 Ubisoft launched a surprise small game that was Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Blood Dragon breathed life into the stale with a tongue in cheek parody of 80’s action tropes, even video game tropes, and a bonkers look at what people believed the future would look like. Dragons that shoot lasers from their eyes, cheesy kill-lines, and muscle-clad cyborgs; Far Cry: Blood Dragon is worth it for its hilarious tutorial alone, where you find yourself mocking the very idea of ridiculous video game tutorials. Far Cry: Blood Dragon is all the good of Far Cry plus more, and just when it seems like its run out of ideas – it ends. All the sweet with none of the sour of the main series makes this spinoff absolutely shine in a gaming world full of bland shooters. That is why Far Cry: Blood Dragon is this lists notable honorable mention.
1. Donkey Kong < Donkey Kong Country
There is no-one as strong with mascot characters as Nintendo themselves. They have been the king of characters since the very beginning with one of their first huge hits: Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong tasked you as Jump-man (Mario’s precursor) to save the princess from the evil villain Donkey Kong at the top of a tower. While remaining wildly popular and solidifying itself in videogame history, Donkey Kong remains a shell of what Nintendo would build its future series on. One of these series was Rare’s Donkey Kong Country for the N64. This new take focused on Donkey Kong as the protagonist rather than the villain and brought the personality to the next level rather than creating another King Kong knockoff. While renovating the character, Rare also matched Donkey Kong with a side-scrolling base and a lovingly crafted world with what I believe to be the best videogame soundtracks to date. In the world of platformers, Donkey Kong Country has aged like a fine wine with iconic art, characterization, exciting gameplay, with the real home run being level design. Each level took a theme and cranked legendary results, such as the minecart level that will never leave my brain and the cave level that still has its theme play in my head as I walk through dark areas. Donkey Kong Country is the only game where I can vividly recall not only the music but each death sound and exploding barrel. Donkey Kong Country balls everything it takes to make a great game and makes each sing with synergy, to make the absolute pinnacle of spinoff games – marking Donkey Kong Country as my pick for number one spinoff that is better than its original.
Looking back at these wonderful games and even more wonderful spinoffs it proves just how important innovation and originality can be. These spinoffs had the ability to be as great as they are because they were given the opportunity to reinvent and run with ideas. In an industry that is overrun with invasive business and monetization to maximize profits, it’s so important to remember that true creativity will always have the true power in the end.