The Ten Best Spin-off Games

Not to be confused with sequels, game spin-offs will often jump genres, even in some cases have tenuous connections to the successful game that preceded it (assuming that unsuccessful games wouldn’t generate spin-offs). While other console adaptations of existing game titles could be labeled as spin-offs, since those often have to take liberties with the source material, this list will only deal with spin-offs within the same playing field, whether on PC or on console. So, in order of latest to earliest, here are the ten best spin-off games.

Halo Wars
Halo series, 2009

Perhaps one of this list’s more controversial selections. The jury may still be out on the real-time strategy spin-off of the Xbox’s famous Halo series, but whether or not time looks favorably upon this title, and despite criticisms of an interface too simplistic for a RTS, there’s no denying that it was a commercial success given that it sold over one million copies in its first month, according to Microsoft. In the least, most critics have deemed Halo Wars a step in the right direction for console RTS games. and in the very least it proved that the Halo name still sells, whatever the genre.

Portal
Half-Life series, 2007

On the surface, this game may not seem like a spin-off. It was released as part of The Orange Box collection, but its self-contained story didn’t overtly borrow characters or settings from the Half-Life series. However, the Black Mesa science facility from the first Half-Life game was mentioned in passing, placing it within the same universe as Valve’s headline series, which had the added effect of making certain other vague references to the outside world much more foreboding. While primarily a series of a spatial physics puzzles as opposed to the first-person shooter adventures of Gordon Freeman, Portal has the same underlying grand-experiment-gone-wrong vibe to it that stems from the first Half-Life. If elements of Portal don’t find their way into future Half-Life plots, I’ll eat my crowbar.

World of Warcraft
Warcraft series, 2004

I would not be surprised if some WoW fans reacted to this by choking on their energy drinks and spitting, "Whaddya mean World of Warcraft is a spin-off?!" But it’s true. Originally a series of top-down RTS games (Warcrafts I to III), World of Warcraft is a spin-off primarily in the sense of genre, given that the massively multiplayer online role-playing game’s storyline picks up more or less where Warcraft III left off. Most people won’t know that, though, as millions more people have played WoW than the original RTS games it’s based upon. 

Age of Mythology
Age of Empires series, 2002

A spin-off of Ensemble’s more successful, historical RTS series, Age of Mythology was exactly what the name implied, namely an Age of Empires-styled game with a twist, featuring the mythos of various cultures rather than historical accuracy. It was also the first Ensemble game to feature a 3D-rendered engine rather than the prior 2D sprite-based engines. Unlike some RTS spin-offs which take a ’same game, different graphics’ approach to spin-offs and sequels, Age of Mythology started from scratch. Everything got a makeover, from the engine to the plot, and gameplay changed heavily due to player having only having three different cultures to choose from (though each had multiple gods). None of this dissuaded consumers, given that game went platinum just four months after its release.

The Sims
SimCity series, 2000

Easily the most widely known spin-off outside of World of Warcraft, The Sims is just one of the many, many simulation spin-offs that SimCity inspired, but it was the most successful by far. Though not a direct progression of the SimCity games themselves, The Sims was created by SimCity creator Will Wright and is said to take place in a "suburb just outside SimCity," providing just enough familiarity to qualify it as a spin-off. Beyond its two sequels, the Sims series wins the award for "Most Absurd Number of Available Expansions", with the first game producing seven expansions on its own. This was in addition to the disturbingly large quantity of user-made downloadable content, some of which may have violated copyright laws and/or local decency ordinances (where applicable).

The Typing Of The Dead
House Of The Dead series, 2000

At first glance, this edutainment revamping of the rail-shooter House Of The Dead series might look like a candidate for the worst spin-off list, that is until one realizes that it was one of those games that not only tried to be bad, but succeeded in the process. With dated graphics and over-the-top voice acting, this action packed typing tutor combined campy B-grade horror with… well, typing. Perhaps falling into the ’either love it or hate it’ category , the sheer audacity of the concept was enough to keep it from sharing the same critical fate that Mario Teaches Typing received.

Unreal Tournament
Unreal series. 1999

Another example of a spin-off whose popularity has outgrown its source, the Unreal Tournament series bears little resemblance to its ancestry beyond the graphics engine itself, which in turn has been used in countless other unrelated games. Abandoning the original Unreal’s single-player format and xenocentric storyline, Unreal Tournament was about one thing, and one thing only: multiplayer combat. Though nowadays the concept is no more innovative than streaming audio, it was relatively unheard of at the time to focus exclusively on multiplayer, with no campaign or storyline to speak of, but just lots and lots of maps and weapons. And armor. And power-ups. And modding tools. And… you get the idea.

Pharaoh 
Caesar series, 1999

Though part of a larger overarching series of Sierra games appropriately dubbed "The City Building Series", Pharaoh is nevertheless a spin-off of the original Caesar series of city building- and-management games, and was in fact built using the Caesar III game engine. While not as commercially successful as some of the previously mentioned spin-offs, Pharaoh and its expansion Cleopatra were well received by critics and fans alike. It in turn spawned spin-offs of its own, with less-than-stellar results, but I’m not going to hold that against it. Particularly since it also holds the distinction of being the only simulation game where strategy is based around not being eaten by a hippopotamus.

Heroes of Might & Magic
Might & Magic series, 1995

As part of that dying breed known as turn-based games, the Heroes of Might & Magic series is a relative unknown to the hardcore console crowd, as no version of its fantasy strategy has made its way to the consoles (though the third title was allegedly due to be ported to the Dreamcast.) Yet it has maintained a strong following among die-hard PC gamers, thanks largely to its tying-in to the long-running RPG series Might & Magic. Sadly, Heroes of Might & Magic hit on some rocky times in recent years, due in part to being shuffled from New World to 3DO before settling at Ubisoft, plus some unfortunate PR decisions that undoubtedly contributed to the fifth title’s negative reviews. However, recent rumors suggest that a sixth entry is coming soon for PC and console gamers alike, so there’s still hope (fingers bloody well crossed – Ed.).

Mario Kart
Super Mario series, 1992

The Donkey Kong/Mario universe has been rife with spin-offs going as far back as the days of arcade. For instance, the Mario Bros. themselves are spin-offs of the original Donkey Kong – making it an entirely valid entry for this list, but I could have easily filled this entire list with nothing but Donkey Kong and/or Mario spin-offs – but that wouldn’t be much fun. So in the end, I went with Mario Kart, because it’s a shining example of a spin-off done right. One need only look at the numerous versions and ports it has spawned as evidence. It was so successful that others quickly attempted to follow suit with their own mascot-based racers, from Sega’s Sonic R to PlayStation’s Crash Team Racing. Sure, there may be better racing games than Mario Kart, but do they let you toss turtle shells at your opponents? I thought not.

This list could have gone on listing successful spin-offs, but instead in two weeks time the focus will shift to the opposite end of the spectrum, with the ten game spin-offs that gave their origins a bad name…

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