As digitally-based interactive entertainment, gaming has a complicated nature in terms of continued engagement. Even if games from years ago are fresh in our mind, even if we own an original copy, the ever-present threat of degrading hardware means access isn’t as simple as plug and play. In some cases, our new televisions might not support old consoles, in others, our PCs will no longer natively support older apps. While there are some complicated and sometimes expensive ways for players to sidestep this issue, increasingly common is gaming’s reliance on remakes and remasters.
Borrowing directly from the original formula, remakes and remasters aim to update classics while still maintaining the soul of the original. These can include small changes or overwhelming redesigns, based on the will of the developer and the pressure of the publisher. It’s a complicated balancing act, and one with potentially massive implications for long-term video game preservation.
Accuracy and Nostalgia
Classics are classics for a reason, but this reason isn’t always that famous titles are precise illustrations of eternally perfect gameplay. Often the games we love most are those which advanced a genre, or which stood and did something different in a sea of similar faces. In many of these cases, games that were once fresh and exciting become unplayably stilted with age, raising the question of how much developers should aim for accuracy.
When working with a remake or remaster, developers need to consider whether they should emulate the original feel completely, to break down a game back to its component parts. Does the game stand up enough in the modern environment that players will find the old gameplay engaging, or will it only serve to frustrate? 1993’s Doom is a great example of well-aged gameplay, as creator John Romero explained to The Guardian, where players can jump into old systems and still have them feel fantastic. 1996’s TES2: Daggerfall is the exact opposite, as a game that was a revelation at the time but is widely regarded as annoyingly clunky today.
It’s a matter of asking whether players want to engage with original systems, or experience how the original systems make them feel. In action, these are two very different approaches, and there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes it might be possible to place in original and modern options, but that’s not always a viable approach. A wrong guess here can offend old players and turn away the new, so the accuracy debate is not a question developers take lightly.
Reverence Versus a Quick Buck
In a perfect world, all remakes and remasters would be developed for the love of an original property. Back in real life, however, decisions aren’t made in such a vacuum of lofty purist ideals. Sure, sometimes a remake or remaster will be a passion project, the result of years of love and labour, which we can all celebrate on an ideological level. By this same token, we can deride the titles rushed out the door, and this can be fair, but decisions like these can also be more complicated than just being based on greed.
The professional video game market as it exists today is bigger than it’s ever been, with more competition than has ever existed before. With the largest companies constantly pushing the envelope, it can be difficult for smaller or medium-sized developers to keep up. To this end, cheaper remakes and remasters might not be what we want, but they can be what a developer needs. In other words, if a choice is between release a subpar product now to support the release of a quality product later, then everything becomes a lot more complicated.
Remakes and Remasters in Action
Instead of being stuck on one side of the fence when it comes to remakes and remasters, it’s often more useful to look at the individual examples in action. With this approach, it can be easier to draw direct lines to which are worth your effort, and which can be safely disregarded before opening your wallet.
The Perfect Port
Arguably the most simple and efficient method of remaking games is to port their code over to new systems. This ensures everything plays the same, making purist’s dreams come true. 2008’s Chrono Trigger DS and 2014’s Resident Evil 4: HD are perfect examples of this idea in action. For a more pronounced example outside of video games, there’s also a recent move made by the entire online casino industry away from Flash as a platform. This meant almost all of their titles from slots to table games, and even sports betting systems, had to be rebuilt for HTML. This was an immense undertaking for both software designers and the host websites like Betway, but it also received overwhelming player support.
The Woefully Rushed
When studying poor port jobs from beloved companies, it’s impossible to overlook FromSoftware’s original effort with their 2012 Dark Souls port. Locked to 30 FPS on PC and offering terrible connection issues which undercut the game’s design led this title to become infamously low-effort. Even worse, many of the problems were fixed by a modder going by the handle Durante just a week after the game came out. As recorded by Forbes not long after release, the fix turned the game from a mess into playable, and yet FromSoftware didn’t have the care to put in the work themselves.
The AAA Rebuild
Existing in the same realm as remasters, remakes can require a lot more effort, but they can also be the most rewarding. This was the case with the Demon Souls 2020 remake of the 2009 original. While still being familiar enough for old fans to play from memory, the remake team at BluePoint games went above and beyond as always, leading to a game that is overwhelmingly recognized as both faithful and superior to the original.
Looking towards the future, the current state of the hardware and software market makes it likely that the continual need for remakes and remasters will subside. Increasingly homogenous platform code on devices like PlayStation, Xbox, and PC means that games no longer get outdated anywhere near as fast as they used to. Combined with an increasingly large community of video game preservationists, the future for retro gaming is brighter than ever. Whether the average level of quality for new remakes and remasters will change, that much remains in question.