Remastered Games are a Good Thing
(but they’re not making the ones they should)
It has become increasingly common over the past several years for popular or critically acclaimed games and series’ to get the remake treatment, and it’s obvious why. Compared to building a new game from the ground up, remastering an existing game requires much less time and investment on the part of the studio, so long as any amount of the original game is able to be reused. Moreover, they are considered safe investments, especially when you are able to charge nearly the same price as a full retail release, since the quality of the game is already well established and minimal marketing is required.
The problem is they’re remaking games that don’t need to be remade. Well, not yet, anyway. This month, for example, we’ll be seeing the remastered Bioshock Collection from 2K Games. While the original Bioshock is starting to show its age, it’s far from unplayable. Bioshock 2 still looks pretty good, and Bioshock Infinite is so new the folks at 2K Games are not even bothering to remaster it for the PC, only console.
While you could forgive this to some extent for the Bioshock franchise since the games are being lumped together as a collection, Bethesda Games has no such excuse for Skyrim Special Edition which comes out late October. Skyrim Special Edition will only include itself and its already existing DLC, receiving only slight texture and lighting upgrades, which is barely more than most GOTY bundles get, especially when noticeably missing from this offering was the game’s predecessor Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a game much more deserving of an update.
Having just celebrated its tenth birthday this spring, Oblivion is a title that is definitely showing its age. Though only a year older than the aforementioned Bioshock, Oblivion is looking much worse for wear largely due to constraints resulting from its open world nature. But more importantly than graphics, Oblivion could stand to receive a gameplay update. You see, Bethesda learned a few things between making Elder Scrolls installments 4 and 5. Skyrim, apart from being visually stunning for its time, was a much more accessible game thanks to more intuitive controls and UI, and better world design. Adding HD textures won’t make the game itself any better, only prettier, which is really the heart of the issue.
Every time a game that’s looking a little rough around the edges but is otherwise still perfectly playable gets an HD remake, it feels like a missed opportunity. Instead of expending resources slapping a fresh coat of paint on Uncharted or Gears of War, imagine what we could have if that same energy were devoted to remaking Baldur’s Gate as a true 3D RPG, or updating the original Deus Ex with new graphics and more fine-tuned controls? Final Fantasy VII, which fans have been clamoring for for years, is finally getting remastered just in time for it to turn 20 years old. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2, Chrono Trigger, Descent, and even more obscure titles like Skies of Arcadia or Beneath a Steel Sky, are all deserving of updates not only with modern graphics, but also modern design sensibilities.
When you’re a venerable gamer such as myself, one who has trudged through the esoteric adventure games of yore, binged the pseudo-3D precursors to our modern shooters at LAN parties with friends while hyped up on super-caffeinated sodas, or exchanged trash talk with someone actually in the same room as me while button-mashing my way to a pixelated blood-soaked victory, then it can be easy to forget how far video game design has actually come. If you’ve ever tried to introduce a younger friend or relative to a favorite childhood game, only to have the rose-tinted glasses slapped off your face, you know what I’m talking about. The race cars that steer like a camper, the RPGs that give you no clue where to go, all make you realize that as good as some of these games were in their day, they were mere stepping stones in history.
And this is exactly why they deserve to be remade fresh and new, with both reverence for the original, and an eye towards the future.
We’ve had precious few games remade this way, and it’s a shame. Grim Fandango was a good effort, including slightly more user friendly gameplay and sharper visuals in one of the few genres where graphics alone could be considered an upgrade to gameplay, but it still felt dated. Punchout for the Wii was a pleasant surprise. Resident Evil (technically a remake of a remake) added loads of atmosphere with modernized graphics, while fixing or replacing the more dated bits like the driving and the cutscenes. Tomb Raider: Anniversary, perhaps the best example in recent memory, completely rebuilt the original game from the ground up, with new graphics, up-to-date mechanics, new fights and puzzles that were still invocative of the old ones, all while (mostly) keeping true to the original story.
It should not be inferred, though, that all classic games are in need of remastering. Many are simply the perfect version of themselves already. Remaking any of the original Super Mario Bros., for example, feels unnecessary, especially 3 or World. A Tetris or Pac Man remaster seems almost laughable. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was in many ways the Skyrim of its time, and in my opinion still holds up. Ducktales Remastered from a couple years ago struck me as wholly unnecessary. For many of these games, the barrier to younger gamers is not playability or appeal, but simply access.
I can understand the reluctance of developers to remake games that are more than a console generation old. There’s a lot more work involved. Chances are you won’t be able to reuse any of the old art assets, and there’s no way that old engine is going to hold up. And then there’s the perfectly legitimate concern about whether that old game is still going to be relevant in today’s market. No matter how impactful or influential a game once was, unless it’s anchored to other, more current games, ideally its own sequels, it will be a tough sell to younger gamers who didn’t experience it the first time around. And if you do give the game the overhaul it deserves, will the older gamers appreciate the improvements, or curmudgeonly grumble about how it’s not the same game they remember? Is it any wonder then, that older games, especially ones that may have lapsed from the public eye, opt for the reboot rather than the remake? At least then there’s a buffer between the nostalgia of the older generation of gamers and the expectations of the newer one.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate cutting edge graphics as much as the next gamer, and Skyrim Special Edition’s release is just far enough removed from the game’s original launch that a fresh play through sounds appealing. The spectacle of well wrought visuals on the newest technology has an undeniable appeal, but I have in my (relative) maturity come to appreciate good design even more, whether it be elegant game mechanics or an engaging narrative. Having been an avid gamer for as long as I have has also given me an appreciation for the history of the medium and that, ultimately, is what is at stake.
Remasters can be so much more than the lazy cash grabs they often are. When carefully selected and responsibly made, remastered games can serve to introduce the icons of gaming history to those who weren’t there, not as mere footnotes, but as living examples. They are like archaeological digs, carefully dusting off the relics of our past and presenting them for our contemporary appreciation. At their core, remasters are all about posterity, the present and future gamers. Not us old, long bearded early champions of the scene, but the fresh faced boys and girls who are just now discovering the passion, the comradery, the community that can be video games.
They are the ones who deserve it.