We’ve all read countless “best franchise of all time” lists, and while they’re fun to write and then to argue about, there’s an inherent problem with the “all time” part – you have to consider the 30+ years of gaming history before you get to the modern generation. Heavy hitters like Zelda, Mario, Halo, Warcraft, Metal Gear and GTA are virtually guaranteed a place on the list, so how can there be much room left over for games of right now?
That’s why we’re ousting the old guard and choosing the best of the current generation. No decades-old legacies to consider, just the stuff that’s been dreamt up since 360/PS3/DS/Wii took control beginning in 2005. Our only criteria: you gotta be a NEW game that’s blossomed into a full-blown series and will likely carry on for years. And before we even start, sorry Red Dead – you either began with Red Dead Revolver (last gen) or are a fresh start with Redemption, meaning you’re not quite a “franchise” just yet.
Why it’s better than the rest: Each entry in the Professor Layton series is like the best puzzle book you could imagine presented like a Studio Ghibli movie. Professor Layton shows that a so-called "casual" puzzle game can have just as much polish as any hardcore triple-A game. Not only is each puzzle in itself well-crafted as a true brain-teaser, requiring no special knowledge or skill aside from a sharp mind for puzzle solving, but the mix of puzzles in general is well-chosen and diverse. Layton's presentation complements its elegant puzzles, with cutscenes that push the DS hardware to its limits, gorgeous art and music, as well as charming stories and characters. Each game builds upon the last to tell a bigger and better story with even more puzzles than the last, and The Unwound Future is a fitting end to the first trilogy, with a mystery of epic scope and a truly touching look into Layton's past.
Above: Japanese trailer for Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney
Legacy: In the US, the first Professor Layton trilogy for DS is already complete (with The Curious Village, The Diabolical Box and The Unwound Future), but Japan is still well ahead of us – the first game in the prequel trilogy (The Specter's Flute) is already out and a second title (The Mask of Miracle) has been announced as a launch title for the 3DS. Japan also enjoyed a Professor Layton movie (The Eternal Diva), which was recently released on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK but has yet to see a US release. The biggest testament to Professor Layton's immense fan following though has to be Capcom Japan's recent announcement of Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney for 3DS. We don't know much about it yet, but surely it will be a clash of intellectual titans the likes of which gaming has never seen. Who could object to that?
Why it’s better than the rest: Killling bad guys with a hidden blade is fun and all, but exactly three things set Assassin’s Creed apart from other franchises: the sense of speed and freedom offered by its free-running controls; the detailed, soaring medieval buildings you can climb; and its fantastically compelling “living history” presentation. While the first game was pretty good (we liked it, anyway), the series didn’t hit its stride until Assassin’s Creed II, which tapped a setting that’s been all but ignored in games – the Italian Renaissance – and made it seem vital and dynamic and real. At the same time, it infused that setting with its own unique, conspiracy-laden mythology based loosely on the medieval Hashshashin and Templar orders.
Action and visuals played big roles in that. But more than anything else, ACII’s narrative gave us reasons to care about its characters and world, and let us explore both in depth. At the center of it all was Ezio Auditore, a charming hero who we watched evolve from a naïve teenager to a suave killer. He proved popular enough that – unlike his dreary predecessor, Altair – he gets to star in a full-fledged console sequel/offshoot, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, due out next week. This is a world that’s easy to get attached to, with fantastic sandbox gameplay to match; that it also lets players unravel a puzzling conspiracy that implicates practically every prominent historical figure doesn’t hurt, either.
Legacy: It’s too early to say for sure; AC is a new franchise, and its real breakout hit didn’t come until late last year. Along with Red Dead Redemption, however, it may have helped usher in a new era of sandbox games set in painstakingly detailed reconstructions of historical eras. We can hope, anyway.