If you planted your butt in the multiplex even once during the last month or so, your popcorn feast was seasoned with — what else? — an endless trailer loop of sequels, sequels, and more sequels. Ocean’s 13. Spider-Man 3. Fantastic Four 2. Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Shrek 3.

Outside of slasher flicks and torture porn, nothing screams “guaranteed box office” for Hollywood quite like sequels. The same is true for game publishers — well, except for the slasher thing, anyway. Faced with staggering development costs that might even make The Donald look like he’s gulped a bad oyster, major publishers make like John Cusack faced with a photo of Nicolette Sheridan, falling for the sure thing while Daphne “Psychonauts” Zuniga seethes in the back seat.

This love affair with low-risk franchise sequels is the reason why it seems like there’s always a Call of Duty, a Medal of Honor, a Grand Theft Auto, and a Devil May Cry on our hard drives.

But here’s the thing: All sequels are not created equal. In the interest of separating the cream from the crap, I’ve developed a foolproof, four-tier theory to provide a little logic and sense when the subheads multiply and the numbers following the titles start climbing into double-digits.


The Fool Me Once
Poster Child: Full Auto 2: Battlelines (PlayStation3)

Full Auto was one of the earliest games to crash into the Xbox 360, and most gamers wisely drove past the accident scene. Cars with big guns sounded great on paper; in practice, it worked about as well as “Gay, Straight, or Taken.” For the sequel, Sega has jumped the game to the PS3 (perhaps assuming that PlayStation Nation hadn’t noticed the first game) and essentially coughed up the same game, many of the same city-street levels, and most of the same problems with clipping and floaty driving physics. News flash: A game of shame won’t fly higher just because you release it twice.


The Hold Steady
Poster Children: Lumines 2 (PSP), Call of Duty 2 (Xbox, PlayStation 2)

The cake’s in the oven for the PlayStation Portable’s second birthday, and one of its best original games remains one of its earliest: Lumines, the block-rocking puzzler with the acid-trip vibe.

Outside of a hipper, more recognizable soundtrack (Beck! New Order!), there isn’t much to distinguish part deux from the game we played in 2004. (Although forcing you to arrange blocks while a video of Gwen Stefani yowling “Hollaback Girl” plays in the background isn’t just challenging – it’s cruel and diabolical.)

A Hold Steady can skate because the lingering thrill of the original experience offsets the uneasy feeling that we’re eating an all-too-familiar plate of filet mignon. Most Hold Steadys – think Call of Duty – crash and burn on time number three.


The Leap
Poster child: Halo 2

In the best–case scenario, the sequel lives up to everything the original promised, jamming bigger, better, faster, and more together into a single, amazing package. Like X2 and Godfather 2 were quantum leaps over their first installations, Halo 2 took a deep, entertaining FPS game and made it a multiplayer masterpiece.


The Fountain of Youth
Poster Child: Tony Hawk’s Project 8 (Xbox 360)

The Birdman and his bag of skating tricks long ago rolled into entertainment territory normally reserved for Freddy, Jason, and now, Sylvester Stallone. (Come to think of it, Sly’s Botox addiction has him looking an awful lot like Freddy these days). You might have expected that quality and originality would have been two of the wheels that fell off Tony’s board along the way – and, if you played 2005’s Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, you were right. But against all odds, Project 8, with its fresh graphics and the new Nail the Trick feature, actually feels fresh and new, like Tony and Bam slammed a potion mixed by Dorian Gray. The Fountain of Youth is an exception, not a rule, but when it happens, it’s a thing of beauty.

With Virtua Fighter 5, Mercenaries 2, and Devil May Cry 4 on our immediate horizon, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to bust out these categories as winter unfolds. That’s right – this column’s getting a sequel. Hopefully, it’ll be a Leap.