Thanks a bunch, Christopher Nolan. Ever since Batman Begins took the universally-reviled cinematic bastardization of a cool character and redrew it in the drab colors and long shadows of The Dark Knight Returns, the “gritty reboot” has been back in fashion. In Hollywood-speak, the term's a nice way of saying “we've screwed this up, can we have a do-over?” Of course, games being a forward-looking sort of medium, players have been wise to this trick for years now – and we're still suckers for it.
Whether it's a deeper-'n-darker sequel or restarting from scratch, rejigging your series with a darker palette and more distorted guitars is a great way to draw attention to what might otherwise be just more sequel-abuse. But how well does it work? From a player's perspective, a gray coat of paint is hardly going to turn gameplay upside down... but from a “cataloguing the tricks they'll pull to sell a new installment” standpoint, dark reboots are just gravy.
Shadow the Hedgehog
Above: Note how everything including Sonic is brightly colored and appealing
The series: Iconic blue blur leads growing cast of mannish cartoon animals across meadows, jungles, deep blue somewheres, and miscellaneous standard platforming environments with a delightfully inordinate number of loops and speed-ramps.
Above: Note how everything that isn't Shadow is on fire or dead
The reboot: Mohawked black-and-red mutant wears out his frown-muscles while striding grimly through the same sorts of areas. Only now they're dark, on fire, and look like the set of a 1980s sci-fi flick.
Above: Those tires don't look like a smooth ride. Doubtless Shadow would assure you that's how he likes it
Dark 'n' edgy additions: At one time, the idea of “Sonic, but with automatic weapons and a bitchin' hog” would have made for a fine April Fools' prank. But when your series is as emblematic of the law of diminishing returns as the Sonic titles, you'd try anything too.
How'd it work? Many grudgingly admit that somewhere along the way – be it the DS iterations, Nintendo crossovers or Sonic 4 – the Sonic series has come some way toward making up for past mistakes. But ask players exactly when the franchise grew the beard, and few will point to Shadow.
Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within
The series: The dank oubliettes of PoP got a rare brighter-than-usual 3D makeover with Sands of Time, garnering Jordan Mechner's Arabian knight no end of critical and commercial goodwill. One of the best bits: the uncommonly eloquent, sensitive hero, who could kick an ass or two but wouldn't make a big macho deal out of it.
Above: Play some Stainpool or Drownd or whatever-have-you for maximum pained authenticity
The reboot: Having negotiated an Aladdin-esque sand-and-sandals fairytale, the Prince's next challenge was a dark-fantasy realm seemingly designed to encapsulate as many cliches of snarling, Axe-stinking teen-male angst as possible. Best get to broodin'!
Dark 'n' edgy additions: Having grown his Douglas Fairbanks bob out into a greasy mop – all the better to grimace through! - the Prince proceeded to crank the nu-metal and don a Final Fantasy-worthy amount of leather straps and buckles.
Above: The trouble with establishing shots is you only get one. Here's the first thing you see of Warrior Within's best-characterized villain
Fights with antagonist Shahdee – a metal-clad ass with the nominal suggestion of a woman attached – stemmed largely from tiffs over eyeliner privileges.
Above: As you can see, no contest
How'd it work? The reborn Prince of Persia remained fun enough that a ton of angst couldn't ruin the fun. But the reasoning that a good thing can only be made better with darker colors and more snarling was cynical laziness that few players fell for.