Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
The question for this installment comes courtesy of reader stakkalee:
A comment by Derrick Sanskrit on his Need For Speed: Most Wanted review got me thinking about the games I revisit, and why I revisit them. Batman: Arkham City was an awesome game, and the “new game plus” version, with its stronger, faster enemies, was sweet, frustrating catnip. The added difficulty made the need for stealth and tactics paramount, whereas the first time through, I could rely on brute force and a bit of button-mashing to save the day. Similarly, the first time I played through Dragon Age: Origins I played it pretty straight—honor-and-duty, blah blah blah—but the second time through, I played as a smart-mouthed city elf who talked back to princes, got it on with a witch, and let that asshole Loghain be executed. It was much more satisfying. There are plenty of reasons to replay a game, but my question is, which games were more fun the second time around?
A lot of times I play games with the second playthrough in mind, the rationale being, “You don’t have to play it perfectly and find everything, because you’ll do that the second time through.” Of course, I almost never do that—it’s just a lie I tell myself to repress the completist instinct. Most games aren’t worth the trouble. But many moons ago, I actually did come back a second time for Final Fantasy III for the Super NES (also known as Final Fantasy VI, because of Japan and oh god it is always so confusing to talk about these games). On the repeat journey, I was accompanied by a strategy guide I had picked up at the mall. (This was a time before GameFAQs, of course—and a time when shuffling across the parquet floors at B. Dalton was the default book-shopping experience.) This guide turned out to be different than others I’d read before. It was written with style and humor. It was strange enough that the author, Peter Olafson, cared enough to lend his prose some craft in a corner of the publishing world that had no use for it. But weirder still, he was actually a talented writer. I felt like I had a companion for that second playthrough of this wonderful game. It was one of the first moments that showed me how a stylish, humanistic approach to writing can enliven games in a way that a “just the facts” approach does not.
I’ve played through Dragon Age: Origins probably half a dozen times. In hindsight, it was probably not the most productive use of leisure hours that could’ve been better spent spackling stuff or frivolously petitioning the White House. But, much like stakkalee, I just wanted to kind of explore the boundaries of the game’s world, testing the limits of the different paths and experiences. Plus, I just didn’t feel like learning to play a new game—the main reason I replay anything. Dragon Age II, though, is in many ways a much more static affair. Many critics will tell you that it’s not even worth playing through once, let along three or four times. Yet that’s what I ended up doing, and on subsequent playthroughs the game really opened up for me in surprising ways. Facets I originally thought liabilities—for instance, being limited to playing in a single city, rather than a typical enormous RPG world map—were later revealed as strengths. The city of Kirkwall really comes alive, and when I much later tried to go back and play Origins again, I was aghast to learn that my affinity for the maligned sequel’s changes had rendered this—one of my favorite games in recent memory—all but unplayable. Just talking about it has bummed me out. Thanks a lot, Dragon Age II.
One game that I’ve replayed many times is the NES-era Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. Once I beat Mike Tyson, the “will I or won’t I?” tension was drained from the game. So I invented a new storyline, one where I was now “The Champ,” and all of the opponents in the game were hungry to take my hard-earned belt from me. My skills had advanced to such a degree that on my second playthrough, I was annihilating everybody. I was unstoppable. I KO’ed Piston Honda and Von Kaiser in the first round. I practically killed Glass Joe in the ring. It was cathartic, especially after all the hours of energy and effort I’d put into finally beating Tyson. On my third run through the game, my storyline became cruel and dark. I damaged fighters but wouldn’t knock them out, similar to the way that Muhammad Ali taunted Floyd Patterson during their fight in 1965 (Patterson had refused to refer to Ali as Ali; Ali didn’t like that). I’d take each opponent to the brink of a knock-out, I’d dazzle him with jabs and hooks and uppercuts, I’d have him staggering all over the ring, and I’d back off, allowing him to stay on him feet and live to fight another round. I learned exactly how many of those between-rounds facial-deformation graphics—minor damage, medium amount of damage, huge amount of damage, etc.—the programmers had seen fit to include in the game for each fighter. At the start of each subsequent bout, I imagined that I saw real fear in my opponent’s 8-bit eyes, because he just had to know about the unholy beating that I gave to the last guy.
Anthony John Agnello
Traveling back through a game, or anything really, is often my favorite part of the experience. I often find myself going back into games to more closely examine a particular level or scene in more detail. The first one that really caught me in its grip was Bionic Commando’s Level 5. I just played it over and over again, marveling at how it always manages to build emotional stakes while still allowing for a lot of physical experimentation. Is there a way to ascend from the left that’s more economical time wise than on the right? Will it look cooler doing it? When it comes to running the full gauntlet, Super Mario World is the one that keeps me coming back. It’s always surprising, hiding away strange little corners of activity even after you’ve played it on an annual basis for two decades. The ritual of beating every stage and finding every exit is both comforting and ecstatic, a weird cartoon rosary cycle I never seem to get tired of.
Like John, even though the plot remains the same each time, repeat playthroughs of Final Fantasy III never cease to delight me. The game has a humongous ensemble of playable characters, and because you can only have four in your party at once, each time through the game can be totally different. And there are certain story moments that the game does better than any other game. Early on, the party splits and three stories are told simultaneously, and each time that happens, I remember the first time I marveled at the game’s ability to captivate my attention. Then, midway through the game, your entire ensemble is forced to pick up the pieces and regroup. I know how this story ends, of course, but it feels like reuniting with old friends, seeing all these people again. The game shares its spotlight, which lends distinct personality to every playthrough.
I rarely replay games since I don’t have nearly enough free time to play all the games I want to play even once. When games offer a lot of customizable options or multiple preludes, I’m more likely to start over a few times to decide what build I like best before committing and digging in. If I want to see alternate endings or how a big decision went, I turn to YouTube. So to answer this, I have to go pretty far back to Sonic The Hedgehog. My first complete playthrough of that game was as much a battle against my Game Gear’s awful battery life as Dr. Robotnik and his minions. Once I knew I could actually beat the game and got the rhythm down to make it go faster, my future playthroughs were a lot more fun.
I’m not usually one for replaying games, simply because there are so many new titles coming out that I often don’t have time to go back a revisit a particular game, no matter how much I might love it. That being said, one game which I did tackle a second (and third) time was the somewhat overlooked Just Cause 2. It’s a ridiculous third-person shooter, yet it’s also a game that revels in open-world experimentation. I spent much of my time playing it simply neglecting whatever current mission I was on and instead seeing what kind of insane stunts I could pull off using the game’s signature grappling-hook/parachute combo. It’s one of the few games that I finished and almost immediately wanted to play again. Unfortunately, playing Just Cause 2 again from start to finish was also a matter of necessity for me since once you complete the game, there’s actually no way to go back and replay a specific mission.
As much as I loved Katamari Damacy the first time through, I definitely think I have gotten more out of it on subsequent playthroughs. I rushed through it the first time, devouring its novel gameplay and cheeky music as fast as I could, and kind of missing some of the fun in the process. When I picked it up again a few months later, I spent a lot more time exploring all the levels and really appreciating them for everything from the insane level of detail to the way the game played with perspective. I definitely loved Katamari from the first time I played it, but replaying it made me realize how special it was and cemented its place as one of my favorite games of all time.
Since this sprung from one of my comments, I know I should say Burnout Paradise, but I wasn’t really exploring anymore the second time, so half the thrill was gone. InFamous 2, on the other hand, benefited from familiarity. I played the inFamous games as “good” the first time through—like most people, I imagine. We’re trained by society to do the right thing whenever possible, so the noble and just decisions in those games just make sense. On the second playthroughs, though, I throw my morals out the window and play as a totally self-absorbed evil prick. It didn’t make much of a difference in the original InFamous, but the story was so different in the second game, and so much better if you were evil, that I was genuinely more invested in the story, characters, and ramifications of my actions. If I ever get a “New Game+” on real life, I’m totally gonna be a bad guy.
I can’t say I’ve repeated many single player or story-based games since the old days of video games, when plowing through the original Super Mario Bros. or Turtles In Time again meant all of an extra hour or two. That said, I’ve played through the underrated arcade version of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy five or six times (it was really dangerous that my college arcade let me charge tokens to my student account) back in the early aughts and found it even more fun after multiple playthroughs. By completing certain challenges in bonus areas, you could unlock animal versions of standard characters like the wizard, valkyrie, or archer. My character of choice was the Hyena, who was basically the Jester with a new skin. Playing as a carnivorous furry mammal dressed in a goofy jester outfit whose primary attack was throwing bombs, Wile E. Coyote style, gave me immeasurable joy as a college kid. And did I mention he had a flying rat as a pet? I had secretly hoped that recent animal apocalypse sim Tokyo Jungle would allow you to unlock a jester hat for the hyena character to let me relive my Gauntlet glory days but alas.
Since unearthing my purple see-through Game Boy Pocket, I’ve averaged two or three marathon attempts at beating Super Mario Land per year. Unlike Anthony’s experience with Super Mario World, Land offers nothing new to discover, nor any way to save your progress. Finishing doesn’t take more than an hour, and finding the same hidden life in the same location every time can get old. However, watching the flickering red light indicating that my ancient AAA batteries can and will conk out at any moment has made playing the game into its own morbid race against my Game Boy’s lingering mortality. The game has gotten so easy, but I keep coming back to it, kind of like a bored NASCAR fan just hoping upon hope to see something brutally interesting. But until that day finally comes, I’ll keep chugging along, happily wasting half an afternoon launching bouncy balls at idiot goombas.
BioWare added something to Mass Effect 2 that made my second play inevitable: “renegade moments.” I had carried over my Commander Shepard, a real goodie two-shoes, from the first Mass Effect. Surely I wouldn’t let him become some kind of alien-hating psychopath. Matthew Shepard has his scruples, damn it! But sometimes a little red icon would appear during tense conversations and along with it, the promise of a quick, violent, and spectacular end. Each and every time, I could feel my trigger finger tensing up. I mostly resisted that urge, but I had to go back and play again. I needed to know what happened. I created a new persona—a tough-as-nails spacelady with a sordid past, of course—and set out to be the universe’s greatest badass.