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Then & Now - The Evolution of Best Selling Video Game Franchises

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 4

Video game franchises have changed drastically since they were first introduced. The oldest Ataris and Nintendos have given way to state-of-the-art systems that can connect to the Internet, stream movies and even play blu-ray discs in some cases. Joysticks are now relics you find on the t-shirts of hipsters, replaced by controllers with more buttons than an elevator.

The most popular game franchises have likewise changed as the game systems have. Now some of the games are so realistic looking that they could almost pass for movies. The best-selling game franchises like Grand Theft Auto and The Sims games also look very different from their initial counterparts.

Ninja Gaiden 

Ninja Gaiden Then & Now

Launched: 1988
Characters: Ryu Hayabusa
Type: Action/Adventure

Ninja Gaiden was a classic fighter game from Tecmo that was originally a very popular arcade game. It featured ninja Ryu Hayabusa and was actually called "Shadow Warriors" upon it's initial release. It soon went from arcade hit to 8-bit Nintendo game as part of a trilogy. Later, it became available on Sega and eventually had a revival on the X-Box. It was one of the best-selling game franchises for Tecmo at the time and was known as being the first platform game to use cinematic cutscenes. These short sequences gave background information on characters, play clues and more. It went from one-dimensional arcade to a realistic X-Box game with advanced features, a very big jump in 20 years.


Bomberman Then & NOw

Launched: 1983
Characters: Bomberman
Type: Strategy/maze

Bomberman is one of the popular game franchises from Hudson Soft. It has had over 70 variations over the years, starting with it's 1983 release on Atari. It was one of the first games to allow more than 2 players at a time. The first Bomberman had no real storyline but later evolved into the story of Bomberman, a robot who heard that if he could reach the surface of the underground factory he works in, he would become human. Sounds a little like the video game franchise's pre-cursor to the movie "AI," only a lot more fun.


Civilization Then & Now

Launched: 1991
Characters: various
Type: Strategy

Civilization is one of the biggest video game franchises of all time. In over 20 years, the game has never once been out of print and has a legion of loyal players. The game starts in 4,000 B.C. and you must build a civilization though the centuries up through the modern area. It is the video game version of Risk, but with lots more action. This is one of the more popular game franchises for Activision, who lost the rights to the game name but still put out clones under other names. One of the biggest changes is that games don't just stop in the modern era but now go into the future up to the year 3000.

Mario Kart

Mario Kart - Then & Now

Launched: 1992
Characters: Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Koopas, and so much more
Type: Racing

Mario Kart is a spinoff of one of the best-selling franchises of all time, the Super Mario series. The game pits you, as a racer, against others in a go-kart race. You can pick up mushrooms, stars, the enraging blue shell and other items along the way to help you gain coins, speed boosts, terrorize your friends and, if you are lucky, the win. The original used a basic controller but today's version uses the Nintendo 3DS gyroscope to make it more of a virtual reality game. Using the gyroscope, you control the movement by moving the 3DS itself instead of punching controllers. You can also customize the car including retractable hanggliders. We don't know what hanggliding has to do with go-karts, but it sure is a fun spin on this classic.


Metroid - Then & Now

Launched: 1986
Characters: Samus Aran
Type: Sci-Fi/Action-Adventure

Metroid is easily one of the best-selling game franchises of all time, with over 16 million copies sold across 11 different releases. You control adventurer Samus Aran who is tasked with stopping the Space Pirates from controlling the entire galaxy. All 11 games have some version of this, the biggest changes have been in the technology. Metroid went from a 2D side-scroller to more complex graphics including Metroid Prime Pinball, the same story in a pinball game. A newer feature is the score from Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka which has been praised for its originality. We say Hip, indeed!

Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia - Then & Now

Launched: 1989
Characters: King Sharaman, Prince of Persia, Maharajah, Princess Farah
Type: 3rd Person Action/Adventure

Prince of Persia is one of many video game franchises that eventually became a movie. Though Jake Gyllenhaal couldn't turn "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" into box office gold, the video game franchise is still gold. It has evolved over the years from 2D to 3D and to include different story lines the Prince, who undergoes changes in character and appearance throughout various titles. The one true constant in the series is that all action takes place in Persia. This obviously has to happen in order to keep the name Prince of Persia, or else the entire series name would have to change. Prince of Pamona just doesn't have the same ring to it.


SimCity - Then & Now

Launched: 1989
Characters: n/a
Type: City Builder Simulator

The SimCity video game franchises allow you to build an entire city according to your own plans. You decide how big or small, where to put houses, businesses, schools and more. Beware, just like in real life, natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods (and alien invasions) can hit your city. Since the first game in 1989, SimCity has gone from a nondescript city to specific cities during specific years. For example, one version lets you build Detroit circa 1972 while others let you go into the future such as Rio de Janiero in 2047. Today, you don't even need a gaming system to play as a SimCity variation called The Sims Social has hit Facebook.


Warcraft - Then & Now

Launched: 1994
Characters: various
Type: Real Time Strategy/MMORPG

The Warcraft line of games has changed quite a bit since it began in 1994. It has expanded past where popular game franchises usually go with a line of comic books, a magazine, strategy books and expansion packs that add several timelines to the series. The fourth in the line, World of Warcraft, was a mega-hit. While you could only play on Azeroth in Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, newer versions of the series have expanded the world to include places like Kalimdor, Northrend, Outland and the upcoming Pandaria, a land ruled by and ancient Panda species. It also moved from real-time strategy to the current Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and with over 10 million subscribers, we mean massive.


Castlevania - Then & Now
Launched: 1986
Characters: Simon Belmont, Dracula
Type: Action/Adventure

Launched for the NES in Japan in 1986, Konami has since seen one of its more popular game franchises, Castlevania, go to multiple platforms including pocket PCs and mobile devices. Those are big upgrades from the original MSX computer release. Since those humble beginnings it has featured anime, the art of renowned artist Ayami Kojima and even a 3D treatment. Most of the newer titles also give the player action choices in the game which will affect the outcome later. These elements of role-playing were not in the original titles. There are so many titles, in fact the Guinness Book of World Records has designated Castlevania as having the "Most Games in an Action Adventure Series" and "Largest Number of Platforms for One Series."


Batman - Then & Now
Launched: 1986
Characters: Batman, Bruce Wayne, the Joker, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler, etc.
Type: Action/Adventur

The Batman best-selling game franchises have been through a lot of changes. The earliest versions sometimes had comic book pages on the screen as homage to the Caped Crusader's origins. The action took place in the comic strips, making it a tad claustrophobic. Later versions were tied directly to the Batman movies, starting with the 1989 film starring Michael Keaton and Jack (he doesn't need a last name) and going through 2005's Batman Begins. Then came the ultra-popular Arkham games, that place you, like never before, into Batman's shoes as he skulks around and knocks hoodlums heads together (literaly). Today, you can also play various Batman games that were designed specifically for mobile phone use including two Dark Knight games and a Lego Batman game.

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat - Then & Now

Launched: 1992
Characters: Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Reptile, Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Princess Kitana, and more.
Type: Fighter

One of the best-selling game franchises for Midway Games, Mortal Kombat also launched a semi-successful line of big Hollywood movies. It went from a simple 2D game with characters that were all very similar to a more nuanced 3D game with characters that were all distinct, with extensive background stories and personalities. It was also the first game to give fighters "fatalities" which is a signature move to finish off opponents. It was also one of the earliest games to provide easter eggs, or little secrets buried inside the game. Some of them were rather cheeky, such as putting Galaga and Pong games inside it.

Dragon Ball Z

Dragon Ball Z

Launched: 1990
Characters: Goku, Brocco, Pumpkin, Onion, Tenshinhan, Yamcha Chaozu, and more.
Type: Fighter

This line of fighter games started out as a PC-only game that was trying to trade on the popularity of the Dragon Ball anime. Through the mid-90s Goku and friends could only be played on the PC, but that all changed in 1995 when it began releasing games on PlayStation. Since then, portable, arcade and 3D versions have all come out. The latest releases have multi-player online tag team games where can play against each other. They even experimented with making Goku a non-playable character but quickly changed back to making Goku playable and has been doing it that way ever since.

Metal Gear

Metal Gear - Then & Now

Launched: 1987
Characters: Solid Snake, Big Boss, Liquid Snake, Solidius Snake, Revolver Ocelot
Type: Stealth Action

Metal Gear is unique because three of the nine titles are prequels. This means they go back in time and tell a story from before the first Metal Gear video game release. It initially followed Solid Snake as he battle against his arch nemesis Big Boss. Later incarnations gave Solid a family of other Snake brothers. The series started out as non-political though later games explored the politics of war and the destruction it causes, a rarity in video games. Censorship was also a focus in a later game, giving Metal Gear a unique punch of societal values to go with the action.

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong - Then & Now

Launched: 1981
Characters: Donkey Kong, Mario
Type: Platform, puzzle and racing

We still don't know what "it's on like Donkey Kong" means exactly, but it sure is popular, just like this series which first introduced us to Mario of the Super Mario games. The biggest change in the Donkey Kong franchise is that Kong himself went from the enemy trying to smash our poor Mario to the protagonist later on. In fact, Kong and his clan were all heavily featured as the heroes in the Donkey Kong Land and Donkey Kong Country games.  The one thing that didn't change was the presence of the iconic barrels, though their use did change over time. They went from a primary weapon of Kong to furniture and even vehicles later.

Dragon Quest

Dragon Quest - Then & Now

Launched: 1986
Characters: Torneko, The Slime, Erdrick , Zenithia,
Type: RPG

The Dragon Quest games started as an RPG where various monsters had to be slayed. Players would visit churches or royalty to save progress on the game and advanced to further levels. Most of the titles had the Slime monster as the enemy, but he was so cute that they later made him the protagonist in the series. One title also uses motion-sensor technology so that you can use your "sword" to slay monsters. This is a far cry from the 2D original with fairly limited graphics. Over time, Dragon Quest expanded to books and anime instead of the other way around, which is the way things are usually done.

The Legend of Zelda

Zelda - Then & Now

Launched: 1986
Characters: Link, Princess Zelda, Ganon
Type: Action/Adventure

The Legend of Zelda was originally released on the NES in a special gold-colored cartridge instead of the usual grey ones of the time. It was the first NES game ever to sell over 1 million copies. It began as a simple action/adventure series where Link tried to save Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon using action fighting and the occasional puzzle. Later, it became more of a role-playing game. It was groundbreaking in it's time due to the non-linear play and the ability to save games, features that would be copied soon after by other big sellers like Metal Gear.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic - Then & Now

Launched: 1991
Characters: Sonic, Amy Rose, Metal Sonic, Princess Elise, Bowser Dr. Eggman, Tails
Type: Action/Adventure

When Sega was trying to make a mascot to rival the runaway success of Nintendo's Mario, they came up with Sonic the HedgeHog. Sonic could run fast and curl up into a ball to roll at and defeat enemies. He had a large head that measured about 1/3 of his entire body. Later, Sega softened it to make his head less prominent. In later versions, Sonic got a girlfriend in Amy Rose and was also mistaken for an enemy, causing him to go on the run. Though Sonic’s iconic blue color never went away, he did have temporary incarnations in yellow and even black for certain games in the series

Madden NFL

Madden - Then & Now

Launched: 1988
Characters: NFL Teams
Type: Sports simulation

The original Madden NFL was set to be a complex game featuring over 100 plays and some of the best graphics seen up to that point. Over time the playbook has grown even more complex, to the delight of football fans everywhere. In the 1990s, Franchise Mode was added, allowing players to make trades and draft picks. Later the Playmaker Tool would allow for sharper movement and defensive plays. Superstar Mode allows you to run a rookie through their whole career. Later online play, scouting and attribute boosts were added. One of the most noticeable changes over the years was featuring a player on the cover instead of Madden himself, who later got a play calling companion in the voice of Cris Collinsworth.


Fifa - Then & Now

Launched: 1993
Characters: Soccer teams
Type: Sports simulation

Football (the international kind, not the American kind) is the most popular sport in the world. If you doubt this, look at FIFA’s sales, which made it the fastest-selling title worldwide. Despite the big sales, it has been routinely criticized for not having enough improvements from year to year. There have been some upgrades though, including the inclusion of Major League Soccer as a playable league in 2000. Other changes include 3D in 1996, polygonal players, a "Road to World Cup" mode, better likenesses to actual players, inclusion of Scottish, Mexican and Malaysian leagues, Career mode and team chemistry, which determines if players will play well on a team together or not, which could affect the play of the team overall.

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy - Then & Now

Launched: 1987
Characters: Light Warriors, Goblins, Tonberries, Malboros, Flans, Cactuars, Chocobos
Type: RPG

In Final Fantasy, the Light Warriors fight through a mythical world to restore the light orbs and save the world. They must defeat several monsters to level up on their way to accomplishing this goal. It began on the Nintendo platform only but later expanded to PlayStation, Game Boy and even mobile phones. The expansion to different platforms is one of the biggest changes this stalwart game has undergone since 1987. Though many Final Fantasy titles have been released since then, including some questionable trips into the MMO space, the general story line and goals have remained largely intact. There have been mostly subtle changes since then, making this a great game for people wanting a little taste of nostalgia to play.

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto - Then & Now

Launched: 1997
Characters: Varies
Type: Action, Shooter

The original Grand Theft Auto (better known to some as GTA) gave the player a character that must complete missions in the underworld given to them by a kingpin. One of the biggest changes in subsequent releases was the character endures a hardship at the beginning of the game, thus allowing him to play for revenge. Cities in the United States are heavily featured though they are given another name. Liberty City stands in for New York, San Andreas for Los Angeles and Vice City for Miami. London is the only non-US city to ever be featured. GTA 2 took the series into the future, though no exact year was ever named. This was a change from the usual modern-day setting of previous games.

Super Mario

Mario - Then & Now

Launched: 1981
Characters: Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, King Koopa, Toad, Princess Peach
Type: Platform, racing, educational

Mario first appeared in Donkey Kong but soon graduated into his own line of games. He was a carpenter in Kong but switched professions to a plumber by the time Mario Bros. came out. Later came Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros 2. By the 90s, Super Mario Land brought the action to a seaside venue where Baby Mario and Baby Luigi made their first appearance. Super Mario Kart took the character into racing for several games in that series. By 1995, Mario was in 3D and had a doppelganger in Shadow Mario who looked like him but did evil deeds. By 2006, the release of New Super Mario Bros. sounded like a reboot, though the story line of Mario having to save a kidnapped Peach was nothing new. Later the franchise was updated in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and is much more realistic.

The Evolution of Mario



Feb 5, 2012 10:52am
Wow this takes me back! Fantastic article, makes me want to go back in time!
Feb 8, 2012 9:49pm
I go back in time with Atari. I just have to sweet talk the console into working. My youngest didn't believe that it was so awesome "way back then". This article has been a trip down memory lane. Wow
Feb 8, 2012 9:38pm
Great article, but the Sonic pictures are the wrong way around - they went backwards evolutionary since the originals!

Thanks for sharing!
Dec 31, 2014 5:33pm
I actually remember playing some of these. I still have the original Super Mario game for the Super NES. Saw MK and must say it has come a long way since the Nintendo and Arcade machines.

Thanks for the trips down memory lane.
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