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The Top 7… Greatest gaming rebirths

Some videogame series are constant. In the years since they were introduced, they’ve always been around, dropping a sequel every few years and rarely, if ever, breaking continuity; your Marios and your Zeldas, your Sonics and your Ratchets. This article isn’t about them. It’s about game franchises that disappeared, maybe for years, only to re-emerge as something completely new. Something that shook up the formula and changed everything, and worked so well that it not only brought its series back from obscurity, but redirected and reshaped everything that would come afterward. And in the spirit of the New Year, we decided now would be as good a time as any to give gaming’s most iconic, unforgettable rebirths their due. 

7. Ninja Gaiden

What it was: If you were a gamer during the NES years and you liked your action games to deliver a decent story, chances are you crossed paths with the original Ninja Gaiden series at some point. Centered around a young, blue-garbed ninja who hopped around side-scroller levels and clung to walls, it started out as a seemingly simple revenge story, but quickly escalated to involve monsters, CIA spies and extradimensional dark gods bent on world conquest. It was also the first console game to use cutscenes – then called “cinemas” – to advance its plot between bouts of slashing up monsters and tossing around blasts from The Art of the Fire Wheel.

However, despite being popular enough to pump out four games (seven if you count the loosely related arcade, Master System and Game Gear versions), the series all but disappeared after 1991, reemerging only briefly for a 16-bit remastering four years later.

What it became: What had once been a relatively straightforward side-scroller was reborn in 2004 as a beautifully over-the-top, insanely difficult hack-and-slasher. While it had little to do with the 8-bit series, aside from starring a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa who carved up monsters with the mystical Dragon Sword, it immediately stole the “extreme action” crown from series like Devil May Cry and (eventually) followed up with two sequels, one of which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be about really outrageous gore or huge, cartoonishly bobbing tits.

Where it once set benchmarks for 8-bit storytelling, Ninja Gaiden is now synonymous with fast, elaborate action, stylish 3D platforming, barely clad female sidekicks and (on the 360, at least) buckets of spurting gore. And the upcoming third entry (which seems to focus heavily on Ryu sawing through enemy torsos with a katana) promises to elevate all that to new heights.

6. Donkey Kong Country

What it was: The original Donkey Kong stands as one of the greatest arcade games of the early ‘80s (its sequels, less so). One of the first games to tell a complete story, it followed Mario (aka Jumpman) on a quest to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from his escaped pet gorilla, Donkey Kong. It was split into multiple one-screen levels, each one a test of timing and skill, and its action was limited to jumping and smashing things with a hammer. And that’s really about all there was to it.

Above: The original at left, sequel Donkey Kong Jr. at right

Donkey Kong returned to arcades two more times, first as a captive to be rescued by his vine-climbing son, and then as a nuisance tormenting a gardener named Stanley the Bugman. His last original headlining appearance came in 1985’s Donkey Kong Jr. Math (aka The One Nintendo Game Nobody Wanted, Ever), and while his earlier games saw release on the NES in the years that followed, the character largely came to be seen as an obsolete relic left over from the days before the “real” Mario games.

Above: Donkey Kong 3 didn't even involve Mario! THE APE MADE HIS CHOICE

What it became: After his surprise reappearance in 1992’s Super Mario Kart, Donkey Kong finally got his big break in 1994. An underrated Game Boy revival was just the start; the real rebirth came later that same year, and it not only changed the way fans saw Donkey Kong, but dramatically altered the direction of the character and his games. Far from being a clunky relic, Donkey Kong Country came to represent the bleeding edge of what the Super NES could do.

Above: Trust us, this looked amazing in 1994

The brainchild of former Nintendo besties Rare, DKC reimagined Donkey Kong as the hero of a side-scrolling platformer, searching for stolen bananas alongside his chimp buddy Diddy. Of course, anyone who was a gamer in ’94 will remember that the real reason DKC made a splash was its graphics, which – as fluidly animated 2D sprites created from 3D renders – looked miles ahead of the rough polygons the PSOne and Sega Saturn were pumping out at the time.

As the years wore on and the competition’s visuals improved, DKC’s sequels got progressively less impressive, eventually culminating in an N64 game remembered more for its jaw-droppingly weird rap intro than anything else.

Still, the series left enough of a mark that it got its own rebirth in 2010’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, making it doubly qualified for this list. And in any case, it’s now impossible to imagine Donkey Kong without a red tie and a cowlick. If that’s not a permanent change to the direction of a franchise, then what is?

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60 comments

  • shayanomer - January 31, 2012 8:16 a.m.

    Why is Doom 3 not on this list?
  • RyoonZ - January 6, 2012 8:23 p.m.

    Nothing is revived until Suikoden VI , Breath of Fire VI , Wild ARMS VI !
  • jmcgrotty - January 6, 2012 5:06 a.m.

    "The original Donkey Kong stands as one of the greatest arcade games of the early ‘80s (its sequels, less so)" Considering that Donkey Kong, Jr. was the best of the series, that statement makes absolutely no sense. And I can't argue with the significance of your #1, except I tend to look at it differently. Metal Gear Solid: Great stuff, without a doubt. Metal Gear original? Borderline perfect in it's own right. Yes, the MSX changes were at times a bit too significant, it definitely didn't make the game bad or unplayable. Ultimately, though, if you don't want to think of "Metal Gear" MSX/NES and "Metal Gear Solid" as different franchises, the original games were better, and it isn't even close.
  • FriendlyFire - January 5, 2012 6:10 p.m.

    I'm surprised the most recent rebirth isn't on this list: Deus Ex. It just so happens that the rebirth has made it to the top of many "best of 2011" lists. Funnily enough, like with many other games on this list, it is considered better by those who've never played the original at the time, whereas people who did tend to prefer the first game. Sure, it may not be the iconic game that, say, Donkey Kong is, but it's still easily one of the most important games of all time.
  • jackthemenace - January 5, 2012 12:03 p.m.

    Well, MGS is a fairly good choice for number 1, come to think of it: Not only did Metal Gear go on to have Metal Gear Solid, but there was Also Metal Gear: Acid on the PSP, and now Metal Gear Rising. Which I cannot WAIT for. It'd better get released this year.
  • raxafrax - January 4, 2012 9:59 p.m.

    Street Fighter 4?
  • WTeen8 - January 4, 2012 2:20 p.m.

    Good list, and it raises great points. But DKC's sequels didn't get worse. (And while I realize he said less impressive, which is different from worse the point is still there.)In fact DKC2 improved on everything from the original, and had a better soundtrack. I can see where you'r coming from with dkc3 which was in no means a bad game. And as for dk64...read the other comments. But Metroid and Megal Gear were great rebirths. captcha: typical eeipic....eeipic job guys. Typical from GR.
  • rob619 - January 4, 2012 10:36 a.m.

    MGS the greatest video game ever. I will never forget my finest gaming moment, the end of MGS where it told you a message, real world one, about nucleur weapons. Solid Snake/Big Boss = Legends
  • Imgema - January 4, 2012 8:49 a.m.

    Ah... Metroid Prime... What an amazing game that was. A true Metroid game in 3D. Bravo Retro. Too bad OtherM ruined it for all Metroid fans. Now Retro has to revive the series once again because after OtherM i can't say the it has a bright future anymore. Also, im not sure if Resident Evil 4 changed the series in a good way. I still prefer RE Remake on GC. Yes, maybe the older games were slow and clunky but at least they were scary. And i'm not talking about the jump scares, im talking about the tension as you slowly explore an abandoned mansion while a nice eerie music plays and you hope for no zombies to appear because you don't have enough ammo. Resident Evil 4 threw all that away and became a pure action on-rails game. It still has some good atmosphere but no worries, RE5 came out and threw that away too.
  • shawksta - January 4, 2012 10:06 a.m.

    There's nothing Wrong with Other M besides the voice acting, but thats controversal to opinion.there were some shake ups but everything else makes perfect sense if you know your sh*t, and the gameplay is the same as Super Mario 3D Land, where it sits between the 2D and 3D games.
  • Imgema - January 4, 2012 2:25 p.m.

    There are too many things wrong with OtherM (if you want to call it a Metroid game that is). Voice acting is only a minor thing.
  • DecoyOctorok - January 4, 2012 3:57 a.m.

    Good list, Mikel. I'm still holding out hope for a sequel to the 2008 Prince of Persia though. GTA III would have been another good one. It was a mildly popular PC series until they pulled an Ocarina of Time and put you into a fully 3D world from a street-level perspective.
  • higgins78 - January 4, 2012 3:29 a.m.

    A few great examples here Gamesrader, a few however not so good but overall an excellent attempt. Like a few people here have already mentioned, DK64 was not only a huge rebirth but a phenomenal game to boot. Resident Evil 4 and Sands of Time (again) both excellent examples. I don't see however why MGS made the list where Mario 64 did not, MGS (PS1) being after all doing nothing more (or less) than Ocarina. Mario 64 did more, much more than simply shifting the perspective, Nintendo arguably building/engineering an entire console/joypad for this particular game...this with Metroid Prime, Resi4 and Sands of Time are 4 shining examples of developers truly on top of their game.
  • shawksta - January 4, 2012 10:13 a.m.

    This isnt best revolutions, its series that died but then Rebirthed, you guys need to read, Zelda and Mario were both revolutionary, but they never died and rebirthed.
  • shawksta - January 3, 2012 9:56 p.m.

    Rare went Apesh*t(hah) with DK64, you needed an EXPANSION pak to put on the fron the N64, and while it IS different, that game was F*cking awesome back when i was a Kid, i swear that game never gets the praise it deserves.
  • Person5 - January 4, 2012 12:37 a.m.

    the expansion pak wasn't even a big deal because it was included with the game, DK64 is one of my favorites on the N64 but I always seem to be in the minority, I'm glad I'm not the only one with fond memories of that game
  • shawksta - January 4, 2012 10:01 a.m.

    Yeah, but I guess thats the point, it was exclusive for that game. It was cool, and im sad Chunky never returned, atleast Lanky did, and Tiny somehow......went.... Through puberty......or something.
  • wingsdjy - January 4, 2012 1:32 p.m.

    The expansion pak wasn't exclusive to DK64. Majora's Mask also required it, and Perfect Dark was pretty much a coaster without it.
  • Daruniah - January 3, 2012 5:47 p.m.

    One of the better Top 7s I've read in awhile. I really like these reference Top 7s that sort of become the authority on whatever topic they're discussing,
  • brizzie - January 3, 2012 5:32 p.m.

    The original isometric Fallout's were far better than the FPSRPG franchise it has become. ReCaptcha: vacent Reference

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