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A term meaning a work made after another work, but taking place before that other work.
Maybe the last entry in the series left no room for a sequel. Maybe the writers just want to explore the backstory. Either way, it's time for a Prequel, a Portmanteau of "Previous" and "Sequel": a sequel that is set chronologically before the previous work. On one hand, this allows for excellent foreshadowing. On the other, the prequel often heavily Ret Cons the backstory, it can have consequences that should have been mentioned in the original story, and it's difficult to keep up the tension when the audience knows how it ends.
For example, in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, various characters interact with others they would meet again in the original Star Wars trilogy, but in that film they shows no evidence of recognizing them. Because the second Indiana Jones film was a prequel, audiences knew he would survive, and that he wouldn't get to keep the girl.
TV Series usually wrap a prequel in a Whole Episode Flashback. A movie may get a prequel TV series. Sometimes writers will squeeze a story between existing entries in a series, making it both a sequel and a prequel. Prequels are also an easy way to make use of an Expansion Pack World and introduce new conflicts without undermining the resolution of the previous work by introducing an even more ultimate evil. Occasionally said ultimate evil can get their own prequel with a Start of Darkness.
One issue with prequels in electronic media is that if they come out years after the original, you have the problem of technology in Real Life advancing to the point that special effects, graphics, etc. make the prequel look more advanced than the original, which ends up with a Cosmetically Advanced Prequel. Depending on the series, and the circumstances surrounding it, this can be overlooked, or jarring.
Remember, the term does not mean simply anything that took place before. It has to come out after the first thing, or it's merely a previous installment. None of the Rocky movies is a prequel, because they all take place after each other.
Is often, but not always, an Origins Episode.
Compare Backstory, Flashback, Interquel. Prequel in the Lost Age is a subtrope. Not to be confused with a certain Elder Scrolls fan webcomic.
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Saiyuki Gaiden is the story of the main four's godly past lives (and in Goku's case, forcibly forgotten childhood). The author acknowledged in the first volume that the ending is obvious for anyone familiar with the main series, and used it to heighten the tension: the audience knew from the very first page that Konzen, Kenren and Tenpou are going to die, and that Goku will lose his memory and spend 500 years imprisoned. What we don't know is how, or when.
Spiral: Alive is the prequel to Spiral: Suiri no Kizuna, and mostly focuses on the serial murder of several Blade Children whose existence was missed by the Organization, and what the killer hopes to gain, involving Kiyotaka, Kousuke, Ryoko, Rio, and more.
Codename: Sailor V occupies the strange definition of being both a prequel, and the source, of Sailor Moon. This is because, though Sailor V came first; most of Sailor Moon came before Sailor V which ran sporadically and wrapped up after Sailor Moon ended.
Gundam Wing had a manga-only prequel named Episode Zero that showed formative moments from the early lives of the Gundam Pilots and Relena. The stories actually began life as a pair of flashback episodes that had to be cut when scheduling complications arose, and have the benefit of being penned by the show's head writer.
Fist of the Blue Sky is a distant prequel to Fist of the North Star, set in pre-World War II Asia. It doesn't have much to do with North Star, but stars Ryuken's elder brother and predecessor Kasumi Kenshiro, whom the Kenshiro from North Star was named after. The more recent spinoffs of Fist of the North Star are standard prequels and side-stories though, centering around characters from the original series (the 25th anniversary movie Hokuto no Ken Zero is a prequel set a year before the events of the original manga).
Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas tells the story of the previous Holy War between Hades and Athena, taking place 250 years before the original series.
Around the time the Ginga Densetsu Weed anime was made, a manga was created called Ginga Densetsu Riki, the prequel to the 1980s manga and anime Ginga Nagareboshi Gin. This tells about Riki when he was a puppy and encounters his father Shiro.
Legend of Galactic Heroes has two Gaiden series totalling 52 episodes which basically revealed the early military careers of Reinhard von Lohengramm and Yang Wen-li before the start of the series proper.
Many comic book prequels explain how things are different after a Retcon. For example, the Superman: Birthright miniseries by Mark Waid shows young Clark Kent's life in a different way than the Man of Steel miniseries by John Byrne had; the latter was canon until the former came out.
And Byrne's version displaced the previous canonical prequel, the Silver AgeSuperboy stories.
And then Clark's origin got rewritten yet again post-Flashpoint.
The ElfQuest comics had a number of prequels over the years, most notably Bearclaw. The title character was the father of Cutter, the hero of the original series. The Bearclaw series sets up many of the events which occurred before the main story began, and in particular explains the implacable enmity between the human and elf tribes which led to the humans burning the elves out of their forest home at the beginning of Elfquest #1.
"The Razor's Edge". Text story made available on the Transformers fan club website.
The Smurfs' limited-edition 50th anniversary story "The Flute Smurfers" is a prequel to the Johan and Peewit story "The Smurfs And The Magic Flute", telling what the magic flute was originally made for.
The second Star Wars trilogy, which provides the backstory for Anakin Skywalker's fall into the Dark Side and the creation of the Empire. Some viewers objected to the way the series has Anakin interact with characters he does not seem to recognize later in the original trilogy. The Expanded Universe attempts to retcon some of the discrepancies away.
This despite the fact that Anakin/Vader was in the same scene in both trilogies with only a handful of characters. To wit, Palpatine, Obi Wan, Boba Fett (using a very generous definition of "with"), Tarkin and C3P0. In each case except the last, he does recognize them, with C3P0, well when they meet in Empire Strikes Back, Vader was kind of preoccupied.
The Prequels also show a far more advanced galaxy than the Original trilogy, despite it being over two decades later. Justified to an extent as most of the Original trilogy takes place in the galactic boondocks or on Naval Ships while the Prequels are set in the main part of the galaxy. OTH, George Lucas says that was deliberate, as the prequels were a more "civilised age".
The Tsui Hark movie A Better Tomorrow III was the prequel to the two John Woo movies that would kick off the Heroic Bloodshed genre. It follows Chow Yun-Fat's Mark Gor as he goes to Saigon, falls in love, and develops into the gunslinging Badass that we know from A Better Tomorrow. And no, he does not keep the girl.
The Scorpion King is supposed to be a prequel to The Mummy Returns, although the fact that there is nothing to indicate that Mathias will turn evil appears to break that connection. However, Word of God is that the Scorpion King featured in The Mummy Returns is actually Mathias's Identical Grandson. It is probably more of a spin-off than a true prequel.
The Direct-to-Video film The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior is a prequel to The Scorpion King, making it a prequel to a prequel.
Paranormal Activity 2 is (mostly) a prequel to the first film. Its follow-up, Paranormal Activity 3, is a prequel to the second film.
Most people would be surprised if you pointed out that The Muppet Movie was actually a prequel to The Muppet Show. Unless they've actually seen them. of course, since it's blindingly obvious that many of the various characters who are friends or at least co-workers of long standing on Show are meeting for the first time in Movie.
More like a reboot. The third, fourth and fifth films of the original series were Prequels to the first two, however; the third qualifies as both a Prequel (from the Verse's point of view) and a Sequel (from that of the ape characters).
Red Dragon is a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. (The novel had already been adapted to film as Manhunter, but the original version did not fit into the film series with Anthony Hopkins as Lecter.) The same goes for Hannibal Rising.
Cube Zero is a prequel to the original Cube. The main character suffers the same fate as Kazan from the original, but since they couldn't get the original actor they're only vaguely implied to be the same person. The continuity in this series is already marginal at best due to having different creators for each entry who all had different ideas on what the mythology should be.
Several books in the Narnia series are prequels or interquels to books written before.
This is further complicated by the fact that the prequels assumes that the reader is reading the books in the published order. The Magician's Nephew, for example, is the first novel (chronologically speaking, but the 6th in the publishing order), but unless one has read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the 2nd novel chronologically speaking), one can miss a lot of the subtext and the deeper meanings worked into the novel.
While the author and most experts agree that you should read them in order of release rather than chronology, the publisher continues to insist on numbering them in chronological order, further confusing new readers.
Complicating matters is the fact that the events of Book 5 are in fact taking place during the final chapter of Book 1.
Before Narnia there were James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, published in this order: 4, 2, 5, 3, 1.
When Jennifer Fallon was writing the prequels to her Demon Child series, she had a large board labelled "These People Must Die" next to her desk, indicating characters she had to kill off before the end of the prequel series in order to avoid having to explain their absence in the original series.
Archmaester Gyldayn's Histories are another series of novellas going back even further to a Civil War known as the Dance of the Dragons that took place 70 years before Dunk and Egg and 170 years before the main series. The Rogue Prince takes place before The Princess and the Queen, making it a prequel of a prequel.
David & Leigh Eddings wrote prequels of their Belgariad and Malloreon decalogy, in which all "hidden" details, Noodle Incidents, and Unspoken Plans are explained. Interestingly, the Framing Device was a sequel, where the main characters are asked to write their memories.
Fate/Zero is a series of novels that detail the events leading up to famous Visual NovelFate/stay night. Considering the relatively short timespan between the two story-wise (ten years), much of the events in Zero had a significant impact on stay night.
When The Tripods Came, the prequel to The Tripods trilogy.
The Star Trek: Terok Nor novel trilogy; Deep Space Nine prequels set during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor.
Timothy Zahn wrote Survivors Quest before Outbound Flight; Outbound Flight takes place about fifty years before Survivor's Quest. Only a few characters overlap. Outbound Flight could also sort of count as a prequel to The Thrawn Trilogy, since the events of the novel involve a younger Thrawn becoming aware of The Empire which he later joins.
This is actually inaccurate: although in an early interview, Zahn appears to claim that he wrote them in this order (comparing the books to the movie series), he later made it clear that Outbound Flight was completely written before he even conceived of Survivor's Quest. Outbound Flight was originally supposed to be released around the same time as Attack of The Clones, but it got held back until after Revenge of The Sith came out.
The Silmarillion is an example of how good some of these can be. None of the foreshadowing starts till the end of the Quenta Silmarillion, with Akallabęth and On the Rings of Power and the Third Age.
Especially true because Tolkien didn't actually write The Silmarillion ... he wrote a lot of background material for LOTR, in many drafts and revisions, and then used tiny fragments of them in LOTR to suggest that it had its own tales and legends. After he died his son pieced together a mostly-consistent narrative out of the background material and published it. Then he started publishing the Unfinished Tales series, which were various drafts of stuff that didn't get used in The Silmarillion (many of these being earlier drafts of pieces that did get used; confused yet?).
Julian May's Saga of the Exiles has a series of sequels- Intervention and the Galactic Milieu Trilogy. Due to the nature of the series, they're chronologically later than the original series.
New Spring is a prequel to the Wheel of Time series, taking place about 20 years before The Eye of the World. What's particularly jarring is that it's actually a lot better written than the previous few books.
Red Rabbit takes a step back to the very start of Jack Ryan, Sr's involvement with the US government, though was published after Executive Orders.
Sergey Lukyanenko's novel Dances on the Snow takes place about a century prior to the events of Genome, the first novel of the series. However, the author insists that Genome should still be read first, even though the novels target completely different issues and don't feature any of the same characters (except for one mentioned off-hand).
Lukyanenko's short story Shadows of Dreams is a prequel to Line of Delirium, as it describes one of Arthur's previous failed attempts to get to Grail with a teenage girl as his bodyguard. The latter is not revealed until the end of the short story, though.
First King of Shannara by Terry Brooks is the prequel to The Sword of Shannara Trilogy. It was written decades after that series was published. Even the trilogy's sequel series (The Heritage of Shannara) had been published before the First King of Shannara came out. As with the Narnia novels, it's best to actually read the Sword of Shannara and perhaps even the Heritage of Shannara novels before reading the prequel, as it assumes knowledge and therefore acts as a spoiler to the original novels (The Sword of Shannara especially).
During the 80s, Isaac Asimov wrote two prequels to Foundation. He also wrote two sequels that retroactively made much of his output into this (the Susan Calvin-verse Robot stories became connected to the Bailey novels, and the Bailey novels became connected to the Foundation novels). Then there is the Empire trilogy, where the last fairly unambiguously is a prequel to Foundation, while the first two are a bit more debatable (they are part of the setting — though only the first is followed up on later — but due to the serializing and when the early Asimov stories were remade into novels it is a bit hard to say whether Foundation is a sequel or Pebble in the Sky/The Stars, Like Dust are prequels).
Dragon's Oath, about Dragon's past and his relationship with Anastasia.
Lenobia's Vow, about Lenobia's past.
Neferet's Curse, which relates Neferet's past.
The Provost's Dog books are set over 100 years before the rest of the novels in the Tortall Universe, and feature the main protagonist Beka Cooper, who's the ancestor to other characters George and Aly. While the main plot is very much self-contained, it does show a bit about how Tortall came to be the way it is, including the outlawing of slavery and the decline of the female knights.
The novels The Stolen Throne and The Calling are prequels to Dragon Age: Origins. The former deals with the liberation of Ferelden from under the boot of the Orlesian Empire, while the latter introduces the Expansion Pack, explains how the Grey Wardens were allowed back into Ferelden, and hints at the origins of a major character.
By the same token, Mass Effect: Revelation is a prequel to the first Mass Effect game, revealing the history between Captain Anderson and Saren, as well as how Saren found Sovereign.
Joanne Harris's The Gospel Of Loki serves as a prequel to her earlier fantasy novels Runemarks and Runelight. However, as a lifelong Norse Mythology fan, Harris likely worked out the basic plot of Gospel long before writing the other two books, much as Tolkien did with The Silmarillion and the hobbit books.
In the Amber Brown series, the A is for Amber books featured rather younger versions of Amber and Justin, before Justin moved away and Amber's parents got divorced.
The Dirty Harry parody TV series Sledgehammer ended its first season by blowing up Los Angeles, since the producers were expecting the series be canceled. When, much to their surprise, the series was picked up for a second season, they had to set it five years before the finale and called it Sledge Hammer: The Early Years.
Caprica is a rare example of a Prequel TV series (to Battlestar Galactica). The prequel is so far separated in time (it begins 58 years before BSG) that only one character, William Adama, is shared between them—and while he was unquestionably the male lead in BSG, he's a secondary (if important) character in Caprica (and the vast time difference makes things, if anything, more interesting: How does he go from Willie Adama, gangster-in-training, to William "The Old Man" Adama, hardened officer of the Colonial Fleet?)
He doesn't. He dies, and his father has another son with his second wife whom they name William. He is the one who will become "The Old Man".
Rock and Chips (originally announced as Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Chips), a prequel to Only Fools and Horses which is set in 1960, and tells the story of Joan and Freddie the Frog. It's a bit of a Genre Shift, being a rather downbeat drama with some laughs rather than the traditional sitcom of the original (and The Green Green Grass).
There's a very popular, long-running Italian police-detective show, Inspector Montalbano. In 2012, the spinoff Young Montalbano appeared alongside it, about Montalbano as a young man.
Similarly, Inspector Morse has spawned the prequel series Endeavour, about the young Morse (as well as a sequel series, Inspector Lewis, starring Morse's sergeant/sidekick). This allows more stories about Morse on TV, even though both the character and the actor have died.
The Legend of the Five Rings CCG featured two prequel sets: Scorpion Clan Coup, about the events that set the Clan War in motion, and Dawn of the Empire, which finally put the legendary gods and heroes of Rokugan's founding into CCG form.
William Shakespeare did it too. The second history tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV (1&2), and Henry V) were prequels to the first history tetralogy (Henry VI (1,2&3) and Richard III). And even those probably weren't written in order either; Henry VI 2, 3, and Richard III are almost one long play in three parts, the first part of Henry VI may well have been written a few years later.
Another Part of the Forest by Lillian Hellman was a prequel to her play The Little Foxes set 20 years earlier.
In Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis the main villain is a Soviet general called Guba, and one of the protagonists is a US special forces soldier by the name of Gastovski. The expansion pack Resistance features a new campaign set three years earlier, in which then-colonel Guba leads the Soviet invasion of a different island than those featured in the original game, and Gastovski is there to lend the locals a hand. Naturally, there are zero references to this earlier armed conflict in the original game.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is chronologically the first game in the series, serving as an origin story for the Master Sword, the Kingdom of Hyrule, and even why evil is always able to rear its ugly head again and again, particularly with regards to Ganon's inability to stay fully dead.
Tales of Symphonia takes place thousands of years before Tales of Phantasia, the game it precedes, and this is only known through references in the game, rather than being explicitly stated... such as the two worlds having the same names as the two moons of Aseria in Phantasia, the existence of Martel who guards a giant tree named Yggdrasill, the world maps in Symphonia being that of Phantasia split in two, Suzu and Sheena Fujibayashi, the Eternal Sword, discrimination against half-elves (although it's not as big a plot point in Phantasia as it was in Symphonia), Magitek flying machines (the Techbirds of Phantasia and the Rheairds of Symphonia have very similar designs, and in both games powering them up involves gaining the aid of the lightning summon spirit Volt).
In Dragon Quest III, you play what appears to be a standalone game in the series, only towards the end you end up in an alternate universe — the universe of the first 2 Dragon Quest games. Only it's hundreds of years before Dragon Quest I. At the end of the game, your hero is given the title of Loto (Erdrick in the original US translation) — which is the name of the legendary hero that the Dragon Quest I character is descended from...
The second trilogy (IV, V, and VI) also appear to follow this format, though much more ambiguously.
Street Fighter is pretty bad about this. After the constant updates of Street Fighter II, the Street Fighter Alpha series arrived onto the scene in 1995, with the purpose of fleshing out the backstory by... showing what happened in between the original Street Fighter/Final Fight and Street Fighter II. After Street Fighter III (as well as 2nd Impact and 3rd Strike) came and went, Street Fighter IV comes out and... it takes place after II and before III.
IV could substitute II in the chronology, since thanks to the RetCons, it adds virtually nothing to the chronology.
The prequel's title kinda makes sense, given that it's about the twelfth ('Duodecim' being Latin for twelve) iteration of the cycle of conflict in which the game is set (with the first game being set in the thirteenth and final repetition), but that doesn't stop it from just sounding pretentious and strange.
Devil May Cry 3 is a prequel to the first Devil May Cry game. 4 is technically a prequel too, as it still takes place before the second. In in-universe chronological order, the games go 3, 1, 4, 2 - and they've been going out of their way to deny 2 ever happened.
Ninja Theory's reboot of the series is rumored to be set before 3, if it takes place in the same continuity at all.
Castlevania had its first game set in 1691, but there have been games set before this time. And a shitload of sequels/interquels. So much so that the main climax isn't even a game yet!
The mod/scenario Fall from Heaven: Age of Ice, included in Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, is a prequel to the popular mod Fall From Heaven II. The original mod is set in the fantasy world of Erebus at the start of the Age of Rebirth. The prequel scenario shows how the previous age (the Age of Ice) was ended by a hero unifying a scattered tribe and vanquishing a god.
Halo: Reach: Since the game retells a well-known catastrophe in the franchise's backstory, much of the plot and marketing played on the drama of the Foregone Conclusion.
Several novels also act this way, including Halo: The Fall of Reach and Halo: Contact Harvest. The former focuses on the SPARTAN-II program, while the latter focuses on Sergeant Johnson and the first contact with the Covenant.
The Tale Of ALLTYNEX brings us RefleX (2008), which is a prequel to KAMUI (1999). RefleX in turn is preceded by ALLTYNEX Second (2010). Amusingly, the latter two games in the series are remakes of existing games: Reflection (1998) and ALLTYNEX (1996), meaning that retroactively, the series was still released in straight chronological order.
Five Nights at Freddy's 2 is a stealth prequel, thus explaining why Phone Guy is alive and the restaurant is still running. It actually takes place shortly before "The Bite of 1987".
Webcomic parody: In this strip of Dinosaur Comics, God publishes a sequel to the Bible, then a prequel that takes place in the universe before this one.
The Aikonia webcomic is one to the videogame of the same name.
In a way, Hivebent is one for Homestuck, revolving around the trolls' session without any input from the kids. Of course, it's later revealed that without the kids, their entire session couldn't have happened.
The Order of the Stick has had two print-only books. The first, numbered 0, is On The Origin of PCs, which shows what the heroes were doing before joining together. The second, #-1, is Start of Darkness, shows the backstory and origins of Team Evil leaders Xykon and Redcloak, along with how the Monster in the Dark ended up as their secret weapon.
The 90's cartoon short Another Froggy Evening appeared to be a prequel for most of the cartoon, where Michigan J. Frog appears in earlier time periods and meets characters who resemble the man who discovered him in the original short, but this is subverted in the Twist Ending: Michigan eventually reaches a desert island, and the castaway that sees him thinks of him as food rather than a chance to exploit him for fame. Just before the frog was put in a cooking pot, however, he was then abducted by Marvin the Martian. It turns out, happily, that Michigan's croaks are considered Martian, and Marvin and Michigan end it off with a duet.