The upcoming release of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is interesting in several ways. Not only is it the third main Fire Emblem game for the 3DS, it is also a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden, which has never been released outside of Japan when it first launched back on the Famicom in 1992. Echoes as a title has an interesting history in the Fire Emblem canon, making several changes to the series formula that were all but abandoned until recently. These changes include branching promotion trees for the new “villager,” the learning of spells through level up and even an overworld map that was fully explorable to a degree, instead of the standard mission structure expected from the series.
Today, some of the innovations of Fire Emblem Echoes have made their way back into the fold of the series, but for years, the title has been a series misfit of sorts—the black sheep of the Fire Emblem family. It was radically different from its predecessor upon release, and while continuing the legacy of Fire Emblem in its own way, the differences pale in comparison to the formula expected from the series.
Of course, many series go through this evolution between installments, but some games tend to just be so radically different from its predecessor, it becomes that black sheep without much of a thought. It is almost a guarantee in the world of gaming that at least one title in a long-running series will eschew its "original design" in some form. This is not to say all games in this vein are “bad” in any way, as their differences can sometimes be an asset comparatively to the mainstream successes of their respected franchises. In this regard, let us look at a few franchise misfits in video games and see what they did right, what they did wrong, and the legacy they leave behind.
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (2008)
In the late 1990s, Rare was the king of game development on the consoles, working closely with Nintendo on a string of hit titles from both the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 days. One of their most enduring successes was the platform game Banjo-Kazooie, which to this day is still lauded as one of the best platform games ever made. The game was so popular, the nostalgic fueled fanbase frothed at the mouth when ex-Rare developers started their own company, Playtronic, and re-leased a facsimile title in the form of Yooka-Laylee to the public earlier this year.
To say the least, Yooka-Laylee is uncannily like Banjo-Kazooie, and that is apparently a negative for the modern platform title. It is still not as nasty as the reception Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts received. Released on the Xbox 360 (now that Rare is an owned subsidiary of Microsoft), Nuts & Bolts is a complete 180 from the franchise, while still maintaining the same continuity between the three main games of the series. The catch here is the change-over from platform gaming to kart building.
Yes. Kart building. Inspired by Lego blocks and construction kits, the main mechanic of Nuts & Bolts is to build various vehicles to serve different purposes in the game's six large levels. This can range from tall vehicles to collect acorns, to lightweight dragsters to win at a race. Different parts can be customized to create the karts you need, and the results are often something ridiculously off-kilter to look at, while simultaneously frustrating at the same time.
Despite the complete changeover of mechanics, Nuts & Bolts does offer some good moments. There is still a bit of platforming in the game's main hub, although it is minimal compared to what you would expect from the bear and bird duo, of course. You also have some inventive levels, including the inside of a “Logbox 720” and the comically self-indulgent “Banjoland,” a level that celebrates the Banjo-Kazooie games by immortalizing it in a giant museum. Still, Nuts & Bolts, while containing some interesting ideas, it never really clicks, and it left a lot of Banjo-Kazooie fans disappointed in the end. Rare has not made a Banjo-Kazooie game since, but there is always hope that something for the duo is around the corner. As for Rare, this is not the last time they will be on this list…
BioShock Infinite (2012)
The BioShock series in and of itself is a re-imagining of the mechanical styles of the System Shock series, but has probably seen more mainstream success due to its wider reach on consoles than on PC. BioShock and, to an extent, BioShock 2 are heralded as some of the best FPS games ever made, sharply pointed with well thought out stories and deep, philosophical themes that pushed the envelope of what kind of stories a FPS can tell in modern gaming.
BioShock’s third title, BioShock Infinite, is a horse of a different color, yet still retains a lot of what made BioShock memorable. Instead of the captivating, decrepit underwater paradise of Rapture, we get the cloud-gliding gilded cage of Columbia, a supremacist’s paradise hovering high above the sky. The action is the same in all the games, but the setting contains sharp contrasts to each other in terms of visual cues and themes. Objectivism and self-serving interests ruled Rapture and founder Andrew Ryan, while the deformed and desperate denizens struggling to survive against their dying city, contrasted with the clean and tidy Columbia fueled by the elitist fervor of a technocratic dictator known as Zachary Comstock, a theocratic state that perverts the values of American exceptionalism.
BioShock Infinite often gets a bad rap, and to an extent it is due to the convoluted narrative. The main protagonist, Booker Dewitt, is not a graceful everyman hero but a tragic figure that is wrapped up in the events in ways that are far-reaching for the franchise. The real revelation is the character of Elizabeth, and the introduction of “tears," breaks in the space-time continuum that lead to alternate universes. What follows is a complicated plot that ultimately goes for broke with its themes and neatly ties together everything about the BioShock universe in one giant package.
BioShock Infinite is also well-known for the Burial at Sea DLC, which expands on the “tears” of the original game and provides a backdrop just before the titanic fall of Rapture. This DLC alone is worth the price of BioShock Infinite, which by all accounts is perhaps a more important game than the original title, at least in terms of its narrative significance to the series. Ken Levine left the series after the completion of Burial at Sea, however, but publisher 2K still controls the rights. 2K has stated that more BioShock is coming in the future, so the company is likely waiting for the right moment to revisit these worlds one more time.
Dragon Age II (2011)
Dragon Age: Origins was perhaps the last old-school BioWare game ever made. It was the company's comeback to fantasy RPGs after losing the Dungeons & Dragons license, with a custom world setting and new characters to follow. The game was also an unexpected hit, taking nearly six years to develop during a time when BioWare was close to bankruptcy, despite the minor successes of Jade Empire and the first Mass Effect. Part of the reason the game was finished was BioWare’s new corporate overlords, Electronic Arts, who bought them and the now defunct Pandemic Studios back in 2007 for $860 million dollars.
EA, of course, quickly commissioned a sequel, and in eighteen months, BioWare released Dragon Age II to a very divisive fan reception. Dragon Age II was rushed, and it shows in the relatively small scale seen in the title. Players who fought werewolves and archdemons in Origins traded off for gangs and templars instead; the scope was smaller and decisively less epic. The game was completely redesigned in a whole new engine, to very mixed results from a visual standpoint with reused environments and enemies being two of the main marks against the title.
It was also a turning point in BioWare as they transition to a more action-heavy RPG system that remains popular today. For one, Dragon Age II utilized the voiced protagonist from Mass Effect for the first time in the series, which has become a major staple of most mainstream RPGs in 2017. It was also a "transitionary" game due to the narrative; the lack of development time made the game about the singular protagonist Hawke as he rose to prominence in a single city. For many Dragon Age fans, the changes were massive turn-offs, eschewing the standard "save the world" motif BioWare often employs. This has given Dragon Age II a reputation as being the weakest game BioWare has ever made.
A reputation that has slowly been changing since the title's release in 2011. Despite the 18-month development time, Dragon Age II had many positives going for it that make it worth a play. For one, the game supports the best morality system ever created for a RPG, in the use of the friendship/rivalry system that tracked the reactions of companions to the actions of Hawke. This shaped character combat bonuses and even story decisions leading up to the last act of the game, offering a unique and diverse take on role-playing. Another welcome change was character progression being less intrusive, utilizing a few talent and spell trees per class that allowed for diverse character builds.
Perhaps most importantly, Dragon Age II has arguably one of the best-written plots in the Dragon Age series, providing the right amount of levity, drama, tragedy, and triumph in the game's short three act structure. If BioWare had more than 18 months, Dragon Age II would likely not be the misfit of the series, which has continued with the acclaimed Dragon Age: Inquisition. As it stands, it’s a game that is either loved or hated by fans.
Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of the Steel (2001)
The Fallout series has a long history, but perhaps the most well-known portion of it was the work on Van Buren, the code name for the third Fallout title by Black Isle Studios. Van Buren never saw the light of day despite being close to completion, and it would take nearly a decade until Fallout 3, under the hands of Bethesda, to come out of its vault once more. In that time, only two Fallout games were made, one of which is often seen as the “unofficial” continuation of the series, Fallout Tactics.
Instead of being a pure RPG, Fallout Tactics is a tactical-based RPG using the Fallout universe as its backdrop. In the same vein as other tactics-based spin offs, Fallout Tactics focused on combat and strategy, and utilized several different units to accomplish a string of missions on large, detailed maps. This curiously made Fallout Tactics a more complex Fallout game, at least in terms of how combat played out, even offering three modes of play to try to suit the player’s needs.
It was an interesting take on the Fallout universe, that did a number of things that have been seen as unique for the time. Instead of the American Southwest as the setting, Fallout Tactics takes place in war-torn Chicago. It was the first Fallout game to have you play as Brotherhood of Steel members right off the bat, and the first Fallout game to suggest splinter groups of Brotherhood of Steel members as well. Lastly, it was the first true linear experience in Fallout, telling a very specific narrative through story missions, leading to a final climax, which was a major divergent point for the series, which generally heavily valued player agency in its stories.
A bonus was also given to fans when Fallout Tactics was released, a CD showcasing the rules and guidelines for Fallout Warfare, a sort of tabletop-style wargame that used a modified version of the SPECIAL ruleset to play. It was a nice bonus for the time, especially considering the campaign of Fallout Tactics was a major disappointment to many Fallout fans upon release. It also didn’t help that Van Buren was hotly anticipated as the true return to the Fallout series, as Fallout Tactics was too linear compared to the previous titles.
Sadly, time has been very unkind to Fallout Tactics, mostly due to Bethesda declaring the entire game to be non-canon to the Fallout series. It is so mechanically different from both classic Fallout, and the Bethesda versions of Fallout, it is ultimately stuck in a state of limbo between the two eras, the only connective tissue as the Fallout series lay dormant for a decade.
Star Fox Adventures (2002)
The second title by Rare to be on this list, Star Fox Adventures has a very colorful history. Originally an original IP by Rare called Dinosaur Planet, it would have been a Zelda-esque styled action-adventure game that starred two characters, Krystal and Sabre, as they fought against the evil General Scale. It changed hats many times during development. One little tidbit, for example; Dinosaur Planet was planned to be on the Nintendo 64 and use a "SwapStone" mechanic that would let players switch between Sabre and Krystal, the last game to use the Stop N Swop system first created in Banjo-Kazooie.
However, Dinosaur Planet had languished in development hell for a while, until a famous, offhanded comment by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto that the characters looked like the character of Star Fox, which prompted Nintendo to request the game be made in the Star Fox canon. Dinosaur Planets lead developer Phil Tossell noted that the change was not taken well by members of the development team, but also stated that the relationship between Rare and Nintendo was strengthened during the development of Star Fox Adventures.
It is a poetic notion, as it was the final Rare game developed for a Nintendo console. Microsoft famously purchased Rare in 2002 for the price of £375 million. As for Star Fox Adventures, the game itself was okay, but it was the beginning of the end for the Star Fox series, which has never fully recovered, unfortunately. The stark contrast from an on-rails space shooter to a semi-open world action/adventure title with dinosaurs thrown in the mix was jarring, to say the least. Still, Star Fox Adventures is a decent game to track down for the Nintendo GameCube, but perhaps what is most interesting of all is this is not the first time Nintendo would re-skin an entire game…
Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)
A very well-known misfit, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a massive change from Super Mario Bros. when it was released in 1988. For starters, you had control of four playable characters in Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach. Each had different strengths and weaknesses. The worlds are larger and more detailed, the enemies numerous, and the mechanics wholly different from the standard jumping and platforming. The world was also different, fighting the newly created shyguys, Birdos, and Wart Jr. instead of Bowser and a plethora of Koopa Troopas.
The reason for the drastic change, though, is Super Mario Bros. 2 is technically not the second Super Mario Bros. game. At least, not in Japan. Nintendo, fresh off the success of Super Mario Bros. in the American market, was afraid that Super Mario Bros. 2 would dilute the success of the original game. It should be noted that Super Mario Bros. 2 was released in 1986, the year the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the U.S.
Nintendo of America, which at the time was a new subsidiary of Nintendo, didn’t want to release Super Mario Bros. 2, and a new prototype game, designed for two player co-op in mind, was meant to replace the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2. Developed by Kensuke Tanabe, the game was panned by Nintendo of America for not being fun and criticized for being too difficult overall to play.
The solution came from another game in Japan, titled Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic. That prototype developed by Tanabe with the assistance of Shigeru Miyamoto would be re-tooled into a one player platforming experience. With the help of Japanese television station, Fuji Television, Doki Doki Panic became a promotional tool for the network during their Yume Kojo ‘87 event, essentially a sweeps week for the network that showcased the latest TV shows and other products.
Doki Doki Panic stars the mascots of Yume Kojo, a family that would fight against the villain of Mamu. The game was originally set in an Arabian setting and would have players complete a level four times (once for each family member) before progressing to the next stage. Nintendo saw Doki Doki Panic had potential for the North American market, so Nintendo decided to tweak the graphics to add Mario characters and iconography throughout the game. They also tweaked the difficulty, making the game even easier to pick up and play to satisfy the desires of Nintendo of America.
It would take at least a few years before fans realized that the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was a conversion of another game. The original Mario Bros. 2 would be released as part of “The Lost Levels” in Super Mario All-Stars for the Super Nintendo in 1993. Even in Japan, Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario Bros. USA) would see great success. Since then, the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 has been released on the Nintendo Virtual Console in the U.S, while the American Mario Bros. 2 remains one of the biggest misfits in gaming history.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)
Not to be outdone, of course, is Zelda II. The true misfit of the Zelda series, Zelda II is the opposite of what we expect from a Legend of Zelda series, offering a more role-playing game feel to the Zelda series for the first, and arguably, only time in the entire thirty-year history of the franchise.
What set Zelda II apart from the original Legend of Zelda was the use of side-scrolling and the level up mechanics, both features only used in this game. There was a larger top-down map, but it was used only for map exploration unlike the original Zelda title. All fighting was done in a side-scrolling map when facing enemies, and you gained experience points in your attack, magic, and life force by defeating enemies in combat. Another interesting change was the use of towns and conversations with villagers, which give you cryptic hints as to where to go next in your adventure in the game.
In a lot of ways, Zelda II is like another game series, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Similar progression, use of towns, cryptic puzzles, and a diverse amount of gameplay that was ultimately unexpected from its predecessor. Only the non-canonical CD-I Zelda games offered side-scrolling mechanics to players again, but no console Zelda since Zelda II was this diverse and different from the rest of the canon.
It was also done purposely by developer Shigeru Miyamoto, who wanted Zelda II to stand out as a title and worked with a whole new team at Nintendo to develop the game, including the director debut of Tadashi Sugiyama, who would go on to direct Super Mario Kart, F-Zero X, and was the producer of Wii Fit. The reasons for the radical departure from The Legend of Zelda have never been publicly stated. Perhaps it is like Super Mario Bros. 2, where a similar game would be too confusing for the market since console gaming was just getting back on its feet in the late 80s in the U.S. Or it was simply a decision to try and differentiate the games of the Zelda series early on. Whatever the case may be, the rest, as they say, is history, and Zelda II became, like most of the misfits on this list, a divisive title upon release.
Zelda II is still a black sheep, but it is also a popular game in the end. Like most Zelda titles, it has its share of fans out there, as do all the titles mentioned on this list. Regardless of their misfit status, these series have given us at least something different or unique, for whatever reason, to be entertained by. We can only hope that these misfit games can continue to attract an audience in the future, and who knows, maybe they will be like Fire Emblem Echoes someday, getting a full-blown remake or remaster for a new generation.
What are some other misfits out there? Let us know in the comments below!