Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 20
Demo siren song

The magic of 4


I'm channeling an unlikely fusion of Andy Rooney, Jerry Seinfeld, and an imaginary NeoGAF forum poster with this one. Bear with me. 

Did you ever notice that when it comes to video games, "4" seems to be an unusually good number? More often than we might expect, it's attached to games that innovate, transcend their predecessors, establish new standards of quality, reformulate a franchise, or fundamentally revitalize an existing genre. In other words "4" (more often spelled "IV") has proven to be a rather magic number in the brief history of video games.

Consider the cases of Ultima IV, Final Fantasy IV, and Dragon Quest IV. Each represents a significant milestone in the evolution of those franchises. Each revised its existing design formula in ways that pushed the RPG genre forward. You might say there was no looking back in these series after their 4th installments pointed the way forward. All three are also seen by many players as the very best games in these long-running franchises. "Best" is, of course, highly subjective, but I think most of us would acknowledge the exceptional quality and evolutionary impact of these games when they were released.

And then there's Mario. Super Mario Bros. 3, which is actually the fourth console installment in the Super Mario series, remains the gold standard of 2D platformers nearly 20 years after its release. Even if you disagree with that assertion, it's impossible to deny the extraordinarily high level of refinement this game brought to the genre, not to mention its plethora of mechanical, gameplay, and level design innovations. Lots of players prefer Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64 was probably more innovative, but in my book Super Mario Bros. 3 reigns supreme - that is, if I leave the incomparable Galaxy out of the equation. :-)

But wait, there's more!

  • Metroid Prime
  • Call of Duty 4
  • Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  • World of Warcraft
  • Civilization IV
  • Metal Gear Solid

All are fourth installments of illustrious and wildly popular games series. Some are radical shifts (Metroid Prime and Metal Gear go 3D and World of Warcraft goes MMO); others elevate what already works, refining a complex system, adding significant features, and making big AI leaps. Each can be seen as a high water mark in the evolution of its franchise.

Of course, you might say every new entry in a popular franchise tries to move its series forward somehow, and that's often true. But I think there's something about "4" that seems to function as a sweet spot in the overall quality of many video games, and I'm curious about why that is.

By the way, GTA IV and Resident Evil 4 would have made the list, but neither is actually the fourth game in either series. I think Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time belongs on the list too, but only if you don't count Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which is a side-scrolling RPG-esque game made by a separate team at Nintendo and often seen as the ugly stepchild of the Zelda universe. I think Ocarina helps confirm my "4" theory, but I'm not prepared to face the consequences of publicly jettisoning Zelda II from the canon for such a small victory.

Am I crazy? Did I omit other "4" games I should have mentioned? You tell me.