Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q%26A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!
The biggest franchises in the video game world have become a ridiculous mess of installments. While film’s greatest franchises tend to keep it simple (e.g. there are three Godfather movies, that's it. No cameos, no spinoffs, no confusion), video game companies love to exploit the hell out of their franchises and characters. In some cases, as many as 30 years have gone by for these franchises, and their list of installments has twisted and expanded beyond reason. Even die-hard fans can have trouble keeping their favorite series straight.
Above: Even Mario has problems keeping track
So we decided to take a few of the most popular series in the gaming world, and break them down into a shape where they're a little bit easier to understand. We're not going to list every single game, since this page would be about three and a half miles long (and you'd be so bored by the middle of the first section that you wouldn't read it anyway). However, we hope this helps clear up some of the confusion.
A quick note, however: these counts include many games that were not released in North America. Why bother noting that? Because the Japanese cell phone industry has been raging for years, pumping out tons of new iterations. And also because there are quite a few titles that barely made it out Nintendo's front door, let alone across the Pacific Ocean.
Final Fantasy: This is easily one of the longest-running series in the history of video gaming. It's by far the lowest of this trio, but that could change someday, as Final Fantasy still has quite a bit of momentum, at least in terms of the volume of its releases. It's pretty clear that Square Enix's cash cow isn't even close to done producing revenue.
Above: Final Fantasy's huge character roster has lead to more than a few spinoffs, and has helped it proliferate
Final Fantasy also distinguishes itself in that most of these are official, full-fledged games. Whereas many Mega Man games are junky cell phone cash-ins, and many Mario games are cameos and promotional titles. That's not to say Final Fantasy doesn't have some stinkers, though. Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding, anyone?
They also have so many characters, and the series is referenced so many times that it's never entirely clear which games should be counted. Re-releases on new platforms (i.e. Final Fantasy Anthology on PSOne) were left out of our count, as were games with brief cameos (e.g. Cecil from Final Fantasy IV makes a cameo as an innkeeper in Secret of Evermore, but that doesn't count). We focused on games that either bear the Final Fantasy name, or feature familiar characters in prominent story roles. To wit: Dissidia, Kingdom Hearts, Theatrhythm, Tactics and Crystal Chronicles were included in our count, but brief cameos were not.
Final Count: 71
Mega Man: Mega Man's huge prominence in the Japanese cell-phone market buoyed his presence on this list, and lifted him up to new heights with 26 official and spinoff games. You haven't heard of most of these because mostly, they're not very good. He's got his own golf game and memorization games, for example.
Above: They may not always be good, but games like Mega Man Rush Marine have been coming out for decades on Japanese cell phones
The character has never really lost his allure for gamers, and he's constantly spawning side series like Battle Network, the X series, Star Force, etc. Note that he's not necessarily in all of those games, but to be fair to Final Fantasy, we included all of the games that bear his name and/or are based in the same universe. Mega Man's final count is a little bit unclear though because it sometimes blurs definitions. Some of his cell-phone adventures depend on what you consider a game, and many of his classic reboots introduce some new content, but probably not enough to be counted again.
Final Count: 100
Mario: It’s clear that nobody exploits a character quite like Nintendo does. The number of games featuring Mario hugely outpaces just about any other series in the industry. He's been the face of Nintendo for decades. He hasn’t slowed down since Nintendo realized how much the world loves him. He's still being thrown into any game that Nintendo can dream up, from Mario and Sonic in the Olympic Games to Mario is Missing to a gaggle of virtually unknown Game & Watch titles, like Donkey Kong Circus and Mario's Cement Factory.
Above: This is the Mario you know, but his other appearances might surprise you
He even had his own line of educational games, like Mario's Early Years: Fun with Numbers, Mario's Time Machine and the beautifully translated I am a Teacher: Super Mario Sweater. Only a few dozen of the final count feature Mario in the central role, which is on par with the other two games on this list. But Mario's strength has been in driving sales of other games merely by being remotely involved (e.g. his playable appearances in NBA Street Volume 3, SSX on Tour, and Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix).
Mario isn't going to be abdicating his throne anytime soon, either. He averaged five appearances per year in that past five years (which is similar to his pace over the past twenty years), with the standout year being 2007, when he was in nine different games.
Final Count: 188
Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them in a future Ask GR Anything.