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The video game industry is approaching middle-age. Since the days of Pong and the arcade scene, it’s grown into the gorilla it is today, bringing in billions of dollars from the many different platforms available to players. Some of the gaming’s most popular franchises are also getting old. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Mario Bros.; they’re all at the upper end of what we consider to be a millennial. Soon they’ll be annoying their friends on Facebook by endless posting pictures of their kids and filling up their feeds with pictures of cats in dresses. The flirty 40s will not be a good age for many games, which is maybe why so many of them are reinventing themselves.
Over the past year and a half, we saw three massively popular franchises refresh or reimagine exactly what kind of game they are. Resident Evil VII returned to its horror roots and changed up the perspective for a deeply original experience. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild cast off the cookie cutter design the series had leaned on for more than 20 years to bring players something fresh and bold. Then there’s God of War.
There absolutely was and is nothing wrong with the classic God of War formula. In fact, I hope other developers come along and continue to grow what Santa Monica Studio started. It’s also beloved, which is why there were so many naysayers when the new game was revealed. There are still some out there, but most have been silenced by the tremendously positive response from press and players alike. Would God of War be as celebrated if it kept true to the original formula? Maybe. Perhaps in another universe, that’s what happened and it too found itself at the top of Metacritic. But in our universe, Cory Balrog and Sony took a risk, found inspiration from their contemporaries, and created something marvelous. It’s time for Professor Layton to do the same.
The Nintendo DS is still my favorite video game device to date, and a big reason why is varied video game genres I was exposed to on it. Several days ago, as the GameStruck4 hashtag made its rounds on Twitter, I posted my four defining games with Hotel Dusk: Room 215 included. It is the game that turned me on to Japanese-style, adventure games. Without it, I would have never given Professor Layton a shot when it launched a year later. While the Hotel Dusk series is dead and gone, may it rest in peace, Professor Layton is still hanging around. Seven main entries later, it’s still largely the same as it ever was as the rest of the industry has moved on. While I still enjoy Layton titles as is, it’s not hard to see the franchise as stagnant.
That’s a common complaint with Japanese developers. Many find a formula and ride to the point where only the most niche of its audience will find it acceptable. Professor Layton & The Curious Village was a monster right out of the gate, selling more than five million copies. Then the sequel sold less than four million copies. Then less than three, less than two, and now who’s to say. Despite solid name recognition and a general appreciation of the character and developer, people just don’t seem to care. I don’t want Professor Layton to go away like some franchises at the end of the DS era; I want the series to reinvent itself.
The age of the two screen gaming device is sunsetting. The DS and 3DS had a great run and there are still wonderful titles ahead on the latter, but the immediate future is single screen. Be it Switch or smartphone, the Layton of tomorrow is on one screen.
Level-5 knows this. Two of its biggest franchises are seeing changes with how they’re played to adjust. The upcoming Inazuma Eleven will feature a completely reworked control scheme and one would assume Yo-Kai Watch on the Switch will have to reinvent its battle system. Layton, if Level-5 keeps its intent on seeing the series on Switch, will have to follow suit. Layton’s Mystery Journey's presentation on mobile was nothing more than tourniquet for the franchise, and future installments will have to embrace the strengths of whatever platform it appears on. Like Layton Brothers Mystery Room did when it released on smartphone. That was a clever little game that absolutely used its chosen platform to its advantage.
Where does it go from here? Well, there are boundless options and examples for it to follow. Perhaps it reconnects with its roots like RE VII and gives us a new adventure with just Layton and Luke. Maybe it takes a page out of Breath of the Wild’s book and trims all the fat from the series -- like hint coin searches -- and offers players a more open-ended mystery that casts off the linear narratives of the original series. Or maybe it pulls from God of War and finds inspiration in its contemporaries. Puzzle games like The Witness and The Talos Principle are branches on the tree grown from the seed of Myst. They’re also two the best the genre has seen in the last five years. I know a Layton game doesn’t play like one of those, but God of War didn’t play like The Last of Us until it did.
We know there is another Professor Layton coming this summer. That’s all we know, but until I see it I’m going to keep my expectations low. I love this series, its setting, its characters and its charm, but I know if it ever wants to see the heights it once hit, it’s going to have to undergo a transformation.