The 10 biggest gaming franchises
Lists, lists, lists. They can be, and frequently are, a cheap and cynical shot of content - but none the less they can also make for surprisingly compelling reading. So, after a booze-fueled debate reached no natural conclusion, we thought we'd let the Play.tm team lay-down the evidence for their favourite gaming 'IPs', and let you, our beloved reader, decide. What do you think is the most important gaming franchise? Have we missed out anything? Bring out the witnesses!
Martin Gaston: Gran Turismo
As I write, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue has shipped 2.23 million units worldwide. You’ve got to tip your hat to Polyphony Digital for creating a franchise so beloved that people are prepared to spend money on what amounts to little more than a beta. Gran Turismo is revered, with good reason, for sucking you inside its world of statistics, numbers and times and weaving the illusion of reality with an ineffable alacrity.
There’s not much wrong you can say about the series, to be honest. It was, without a doubt, the first racing game I took seriously. For me, it opened the door to an entire genre in ways that Ridge Racer and Virtua Racing never could. You can question its status as a ‘real driving simulator’ all you like, but if you’ve never felt oddly euphoric as you scramble around High-Speed Ring, desperately trying to beat your best time, then you’d be lying.
Its real power, however, comes from the attachment that festers towards you and your garage. Starting the game with a measly amount of credits, you end up meticulously tweaking and modifying some of the world’s most incredible cars to reach dazzling speeds. There’s a definite sensation of bliss in doing this, and to this day I have never quite worked out why. Gran Turismo’s success, however, is undeniable.
Richard Nolan: Mario
Ever heard of this guy in red and blue overalls with a moustache? Just in-case you’re a freshly arriving time-traveller from the 1970s, I think they call him Mario, and he’s cheated at this whole “best franchise” thing. He’s cheated because not only does Mario have his somewhat massively popular niche in the platform genre, he’s also been known to drive karts, play tennis, invent his own board-game, host golf-tournaments, rip-off Tetris, gain experience and level-up; and he’s done most of these various activities on numerous systems in numerous different releases.
Mario is the bestselling video game series of all time. He has transcended his meagre primitive roots as “Jumpman” from the 1981 arcade and NES title Donkey Kong, and now flies around brilliant 3D environments in a next-gen universe; unlike his somewhat fondly remembered but obviously lesser rival - a blue spiky weasel who was really good at doing forward rolls or something...
Consensus states the Super Mario Bros., the original, must be loved, but based mainly on nostalgia value. You can still play it, you can still love it, and you still appreciate the frustrating physics and jumping challenges, but it’s not magical aside from the nostalgia. SMB 2 is magical, but Nintendo pulled a real fast one with this title – they bought an almost unknown title called "Doki Doki Panic" and then replaced some of the graphics with Mario paraphernalia, and then sold the game as SMB2. SMB3, for me, is where the real magic of the Mario series took off. Carrying shells, flying about gun-ships, the Koopa kids, awesome themed lands, item shops and mini-bosses? That is truly awesome. Super Mario World is just another step in that brilliance – a huge boost to the number of enemies and even more creatively themed environments, with an impressively large quantity of secret worlds and levels to discover.
The question is, how long can Mario really go on for? If the market-storming success of the Wii is any indication of the future of Nintendo’s celebrity mascot then I’d guess that he’s got some way to go. So not only has the Mario franchise dominated the last 25 years of video gaming, even conservative estimates would have to agree that Mario is going to live on for a long long time to come.
Stevie Smith: Resident Evil
A videogame audience growing numb to blood and gore may means that Resident Evil (a.k.a. Biohazard) is no longer able to loosen bowels or shock critics the way it once did, but there’s little argument that Capcom’s white-knuckle series remains the first-choice purchase for those gamers looking to secure genuine high-quality videogame thrills and chills.
The roots of success attributed to Resident Evil are furrowed deeply within Capcom’s ability to constantly evolve the surrounding survival horror experience, create new and eerie narrative environments, and provide the assurance of recognisable character anchors that remain faithful to the series’ lore.
More often than not, Resident Evil has whisked these contributing elements into a symbiotic videogame relationship ensuring a sense of in-game familiarity that weaves seamlessly with the often cloying claustrophobia and visceral panic felt by the player as they creep forward through the oppressive dark.
While the odd series spin-off has failed to convincingly project the Resident Evil effect into a separate gaming genre (i.e. Resident Evil: Survivor), the most recent ‘‘true’ Resident Evil episode, Resident Evil 4, marked a critically acclaimed step forward for the series and has subsequently provided Capcom with the perfect platform to launch its hotly anticipated Resident Evil 5.
Expected in early 2009 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Resident Evil 5 will arrive as only the second series offering that takes the zombie-killing action outside of the United States, thrusting original series protagonist Chris Redfield into the blazing hot climes of Africa, the very source of the horrific outbreak.
Based on existing trailer and gameplay clips, the effects of which are hugely magnified by the pure power of the host consoles, Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 might well arrive as the first series entrant since the original game warranting the purchase of industrial-grade rubber underwear, the presence of a family member while playing, and enough accompanying house lights to guide in a fog-bound airliner.
Jennifer Allen: Final Fantasy
The Final Fantasy series, owned by Square Enix, has been around for over 20 years now and encompasses an increasingly large variety of game genres. Initially and most famously, the Final Fantasy series has been known for its console based RPGs. Each RPG is entirely independent from its predecessors (excluding Final Fantasy X-2) but with many of its gameplay elements used throughout the series such as the turn-based battle system persist, and this has been used in many other RPGs games too. They aren't for everyone, some people can still find the battle system in particular a turn off, but no one can doubt the influence of these games on the industry nor the strength of the stories that they tell. Europe unfortunately missed out originally on many of these epics until the release of the seminal Final Fantasy VII, and its huge success, encouraged the future release of the first six games onto the PlayStation and subsequently the GameBoy Advance and Nintendo DS.
Final Fantasy 6 and 7 were arguably the best of the series so far (Final Fantasy 13 is currently in development for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) both with gripping stories and the ability to make even the hardened gamer shed a tear at certain moments within the games’ unfolding stories. Both games offered memorable characters (who could forget Kefka and Sephiroth?) as well as unsurpassed battle systems and minigames ensuring that the titles were not just interactive stories, but truly epic games. Personally I still don't think either of these games have been surpassed by any other Japanese RPG, but I dearly hope one day Square will reach this high point again.
Besides the core games there have also been a range of spin off games such as the Crystal Chronicles series, Final Fantasy Tactics and Kingdom Hearts which features a number of the Final Fantasy characters. Throw in the various anime such as Final Fantasy Unlimited, and the films The Spirits Within and Advent Children; and this franchise is frankly phenomenally successful. Even the soundtracks of the games have managed to sell well thanks to the impressive talent of composer Nobuo Uematsu and his distinctive style. In summary, Final Fantasy is a truly pivotal franchise which alongside the Dragon Quest series (which never quite broke the US and European market as well as Final Fantasy) has changed the RPG market hugely in its time and will hopefully continue to do so.
Gary Flavell: Call of Duty
No other franchise has dragged a gamer through the emotional trenches of WWII onwards with such aplomb than the Call of Duty franchise. Whether creating entertainment from the devastation of the Second World War is ethical is another argument, but Infinity Ward’s recreation of Allied/Axis conflict is as accurate to the conflict since our grandfathers actually went trudging around the world, rifle in tow.
Call of Duty was never enjoyable in the traditional sense of the word. Screaming ‘headshot!’ after putting a bullet your enemies’ nut wasn’t what CoD was about. The set pieces could never be compared to those of Crysis and Half Life because the narrative was based on fact. It was real pain, real blood, real lives being lost albeit transcending down through the history books and films and into our hands. If you didn’t perform, the people around you died – just like then.
It wasn’t until Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat (we can forget number 3 as the exception that proves that CoD is the quintessential franchise) that we were released from the shackles of a war that still affects us today. That isn’t to say that Modern Combat isn’t political, it is, but, perhaps, ignorance allowed this to be a more traditionally enjoyable game.
For those that read the papers we were taken through the life of Coalition forces in the Middle East as they fight today. One particular level stands out. You provide air support from an AC-130 (you might have seen videos on YouTube of a camera mounted with a machine gun shooting people). The level is particularly easy, you’re in no danger, the ammunition is practically limitless, and your missiles blow infantry to bits. This level isn’t seamless with the rest of the game and isn’t a particularly amazing piece of game development; instead it demonstrated the power of modern weaponry and the frailties of human life in comparison. Infinity Ward could have not bothered included this mission and CoD 4 would have remained immense. Its inclusion is testimony to the ingenious thought that runs throughout the Call of Duty franchise.
Most will probably feel that the quality of CoD lies in its playability and not in the admittedly awkward opinions expressed above. If so then the fact that the original Call of Duty multiplayer servers are still brimming with players is evidence to how playable these games are. So deep and rich is CoD’s design that it has never lost it’s appeal and remains from the very first incarnation, a truly brilliant game, if not a history lesson in itself.
Thomas Ryan: Zelda
The Legend of Zelda series has spawned 14 official titles across most of Nintendo’s platforms (Virtual Boy never got a Zelda) and has captivated the imaginations of millions over the past 22 years. Most of the games have received massive critical acclaim with highlights from the series being ‘A Link to the Past’, ‘The Ocarina of Time’ and ‘Twilight Princess’. The Ocarina of time still stands as one of the greatest games of all time with a metacritic rating of 99 (based on 22 reviews). There have been countless spin offs throughout the years including games and cartoons all with varying degrees of success, however it’s with the official line-up where the true magic lies.
With such engrossing and evocative story-telling the Legend of Zelda series stands at the top of many gamers' lists and has stood the test of time as the series’ structure has always stayed true to itself. Nintendo found a winning formula and has stuck with it over the years, creating some true masterpieces that many RPGs still try to live up to today. If you have never played a ‘Legend of Zelda’ game then you really are missing out on some gaming greatness, go and buy an N64 and a copy of ‘The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time’ and immerse yourself in a new land.
Paul Govan: Bubble Bobble
Many of the other Play.tm writers have no doubt been waxing lyrical about their favourite game franchises. But for me many of the modern day franchises smack of too much marketing budget and sequels that rehearse the same game over and over. Accordingly, my favourite franchise is Bubble Bobble. The first game emerged in the 90's before gaming had gone mainstream and become the glove puppet of the marketing department.
Bubble Bobble was an unassuming platform game that took two dinosaurs (Bob and Bub) and placed them in single screen levels that had to be cleared by blowing bubbles around each enemy and then popping them. The genius here was the variety of interactions with the different types of bubbles. Air currents wafted uniquely around each level, creating all sorts of quick routes to completion. Chain reactions enabled you to set up strings of bubbles that could be popped to release hard to reach water and fire specials, or gain score multipliers by simultaneously popping multiple enemies. Bubbles could be fired to capture enemies, block aliens, jumped on as movable platforms and even nudge the other player out the way. 100's of collectables and power ups were provided via strict rules, and each had their distinct properties. The result of all this was a world that was fun to spend time in.
This prestigious start would be enough for the Bubble Bobble series to get my vote. But they didn't rest of their laurels. Subsequent games in the series took the risky step of moving on from the bubble mechanic. Rainbow Islands created a nuanced and varied rainbow mechanic that was just as fun to use as the bubbles. Parasol Stars extended this further, enabling its Parasol weapon to be used to control your fall as well as attack enemies. We could go on to mention the numerous intervening outings for the series, or the impressive Puzzle Bubble spin off. Even without these periphery releases, Bubble Bobble will always have a special place in my gaming cannon and is easily one of the best gaming franchises of all time.
Paul Newcombe: Football Manager (previously Championship Manager)
There can't be many gaming franchises that have been going strong for over fifteen years so for that alone Football Manager (formally Championship Manager) deserves praise. Its even more impressive when you consider that over the years the series has spawned nine full games (not to mention countless annual updates) each of which has managed to improve the experience with not a single dud release among them.
As every football fan knows half the fun of supporting a club is having an opinion on what you'd do with the team given the opportunity, Football Manager is perfect because it gives you that chance to live out your dreams. While other games have often done the same thing, prettier, offering fancy 3D match engines and all kinds of graphical bells and whistles, FM has always revelled somewhat in its reputation as a glorified spreadsheet.
Perhaps most importantly is the way it feels, how it all hangs together. There’s no greater tool than the player's imagination and Football Manager knows exactly how to stimulate it. What it lacks in on screen flash it makes up for by creating a living, breathing football world that feels perfectly real. Players take on personalities in your head inspired by some quirk of the stats or one too many Roy of the Rovers comics, your managerial career becomes fleshed out with all the stories of each season, the highs and the lows combining to create a footballing life that seems more like true role-playing than most RPGs out there. If I could only play one game for the rest of my life it’d be a Football Manager game and I honestly don’t think I’d mind.
Sam Gibson: Civilization
I was a WoW addict for almost two years. I plowed through the massive Baldur’s Gate games and their expansion packs. Rivulets of moisture appear when I consider the Shock series. Yet no other series of games has enforced such devotion in me as the Civilization franchise. After first seeing the original game bleeping slowly through the ages on a friend’s EGA PC, I found myself literally counting the days till it was ported over to the Amiga. I then found myself counting the days again at the inception of each new attempt to become master of all humanity as the game engine struggled to create a new world on such aging hardware. After a few hundred years of progress I could easily expect the computer to take five, six maybe ten minutes to grind through the AI turns. What did I care though, for I was suffering yet another mystery illness which forced me to spend a week off from school lying in bed with the computer trolley parked at its edge like some cut price Habitat life support machine. Over the years and sequels and bastard children born of licensing squabbles I was always fairly content to wait for each turn as in Civilization I felt I had found gaming heaven.
First released back in 1991 the original Civilization was an ugly and bland affair. Over hundreds of individual turns the player would move unit tiles over terrain tiles and onto other unit tiles while advancing his or her capabilities through the pursuit of scientific research and the construction of numerous buildings and wonders of the world. As the years ticked by the player would try to expand over as much of the globe as possible - either by means peaceful or violent – while the AI would valiantly cheat its way out of difficulty. Victory was a hard fought affair with games often taking many days to reach their conclusion. As the sequels began to appear numerous improvements were introduced, from the concept of special resource tiles to religions, from multiplayer, (first to appear in the hideously arcane CivNet) to civics all while adding many new units, buildings and nations to lead. As a result of legal wrangling over the rights to the Civilization brand two titles which had nothing to do with the original’s much lauded creator Sid Meir appeared. The Call to Power games were a slightly different riff on the familiar tune yet not as much as the less-then highly regarded CivCity: Rome spin-off. One should also never forget Alpha Centauri, the first game from Sid’s studio Firaxis which took the Civ concept and transplanted onto a planet orbiting our third nearest star, which also happened to be the destination of those who achieved a Space Race victory in the Civilization games. There’s even an unofficial opensource version called Freeciv.
Many people consider the first sequel to be the finest pure game of Civilization to be had while those of a less spartan disposition recognize the fully expanded version of Civ IV to be the current zenith of the god game genre. Whichever game you prefer there’s no denying the utterly captivating gameplay and the near-irresistible urge to start a new game immediately after guiding humanity through 4,000 plus years of progress. Across the Earth and through the years, millions of dawns will have been met by Civ players convinced that after they have researched the next advancement or taken that stubborn enemy city under siege that they will go to bed.
The Civilization series is on the verge of making the leap to consoles in the form of Civilization: Revolution, which should hopefully introduce millions more gamers to this utterly engrossing and compelling series. In Civilization Sid Meir and his co-workers have built an empire that would stand the test of time.
Richard Bright: Warcraft
Warcraft: Orcs and Humans may not have been the first real-time strategy game, but it cannot be denied that it, and the series, has been one of the most (possibly even the most) influential. The first two came in quick succession within two years in 1994 and 1995, and provided a fantasy alternative to Command & Conquer. A bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and some graphics rather ahead of their time helped catapult the gameplay to the forefront of the genre.
Many years later, Warcraft 3 came along in 2002 and updated the core fantasy strategy with added RPG elements and more playable races, along with (of course) extremely improved graphics (often cited as the reason for the long development time). The expansion, Frozen Throne, along with the easily accessible online play through Battlenet set the game up for years of multiplayer, and it is still going strong online.
Of course, in 2004 World of Warcraft was launched and brought MMORPG to the masses. It was the first such game where casual players could come close to competing with the hardcore players. Good thing or bad thing? Either way, it has cemented the franchise’s place in gaming history.
Blizzard have stated that there won’t be any further strategy games set in Azeroth, but are committed to WoW. Graphical upgrades are promised soon, and with a new expansion pack out this year Blizzard look like they are very much setting up for the long game on this one.
The series’ space spin-off, Starcraft, also has a sequel coming out and the anticipation around this sister series is yet another reason why Warcraft needs to be in this list.
So, you've heard the evidence. Who do you concur with? Who needs to be found in contempt of court? Did we miss out something entirely? Should Sonic or Doom or Quake or Tomb Raider make the cut? What about C&C? Half-Life? Halo? Let the debate commence.