Most video game developers are very risk-averse in the current economical climate. Studio closures and unsuccessful games have led many publishers and developers to fear trying something new, when they have the option to instead fall back onto an established series or brand. There are very few triple-A releases that are entirely new, original intellectual properties, but there is also a huge number of remastered classic games on the market. Why take a gamble on a game that may never catch on and which will no doubt be difficult to promote, when you can simply re-release an already popular game – with a few added bells and whistles.
But what are fans really gaining from these high definition makeovers, and are developers really making the most of their back catalogue? There are clear benefits from the re-releasing of old titles with a shiny new coat of paint. Of course, first and foremost is the issue of compatibility. A lot of these iconic titles were only available on now-defunct systems, or won’t run under current operating systems – so re-releasing them is the only way to make them playable on current machines. Others have become so rare that even if you did own the original console for example, the cartridge is prohibitively costly.
There are plenty of brilliant games where the gameplay still holds up even by today’s standards, but perhaps they haven’t aged well in terms of audio or visuals. Despite playability being king in video gaming, one cannot deny that the first judgement made is almost always based on presentation. Judging a game purely based on its graphics isn’t a fair reflection of course, but for every gamer who professes that graphics aren’t important, there will be at least a handful for whom it would be an instant turn-off.
Grim Fandango Remastered is certainly a good example of this issue. Double Fine Productions didn’t have to make many alterations to Grim, as the game is very well-written, features a great cast of characters, strong voice-acting and music, and intelligent puzzle design. It remains a truly great story and is still a lot of fun to play through. Sadly however, as it was first developed when fully 3D games were still in their relative infancy, the character models in particular have aged horribly. Simply by smoothing an re-working these models for the new version, Double Fine have removed one massive hurdle that would have put off a lot of gamers at first glance.
We have become accustomed to a higher level of visual fidelity, and being able to play our favourite titles in high definition does pose at least some level of attraction. It is questionable however how far this should be taken. Is just applying higher-resolution textures to existing models enough, or should games be re-drawn and re-built from the ground up, using new technology? Both methods have been adopted for different re-releases, with varying degrees of success. The best of these are often the ones that allow you to still quick-change between the new and old graphics at will, so the option to play in the original format is still there.
Of course, visual presentation isn’t the only area in which games can be remastered. Sticking with the adventure game genre, I myself had always wondered what early point and click graphic adventures would have been like with full voiceovers. Nowadays more or less all titles – in any genre – will feature expansive voice casts. But growing up, I always wondered how The Secret of Monkey Island or Leisure Suit Larry would have sounded in a talkie version. Of course, both have now received new versions, and the success of their voice acting probably depends greatly on the pre-set ideas you had in your head before you played them. Sadly, even if a top-notch voice cast is used in these circumstances, the results can’t always live up to your imagination.
Sometimes past games were hindered by the technological limitations of the time, or by poor design choices. Take the first Resident Evil – another title that has recently received the high-definition treatment – for instance. The famously awkward “tank” controls became a trademark of the series – and thought almost a pre-requisite to the success of this survival horror classic. The new HD re-release has shown us however that alternate control methods can work just as well in-game, without losing any of the atmosphere of magic of the original. The ability to choose how you want to play will likely make Resident Evil more accessible than ever, removing another barrier that once put off potential players.
That isn’t to say that this new version is perfect by any means though. As Resident Evil was already re-developed for Gamecube, this isn’t a true re-working of the original. Rather than start again and build the famous mansion and its inhabitants from scratch using new technology, Capcom chose to simply upscale the Gamecube visuals and add some extra lighting effects. Whilst it does look better than ever, it is hardly a visual revolution – simply a refinement upon a previous re-release. When laying down your hard-earned cash for this – would you expect a more comprehensive overhaul, or is a spit and polish good enough for you?
Finally, there is the issue of new additions to past games. Most new versions will be straight conversions – with as much of the gameplay left in tact as possible. But there is much to be said for the developers who decide to “plus” their title with some additional content, that adds both re-playability for long-time fans and longevity for newcomers. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars – the Director’s Cut dealt with this issue deftly, by bringing back artists who worked on it first time around, to create new puzzle scenes which could be inserted seamlessly into certain points during the existing story. This helped the whole package feel much more fresh, and gave a new reason to play to those fans who have maybe already played Broken Sword a hundred times.
Whether a remastered game is a success will be down to personal taste in the end, and will probably differ from game to game. For instance, there will be certain releases that players will buy regardless of the effort that has been made in the remastering process. Their connection and love of that game may be so great that they will re-play it and enjoy it all over again despite any remaining flaws and without any supplementary value being added to it. Then there will be other ones where players won’t feel any particular urge to dip back into that digital world without some extra incentive, such as additional levels or modes to play through.
Ultimately though, the move towards upscaling older titles does seem to have contributed somewhat to there being less truly original and unique games coming to the marketplace. And whether or not you are a fan of the latest high-definition, director’s cut to be released, wouldn’t we all rather see Capcom breaking new ground with a fresh IP? Unforgettable games that we enjoyed in the past will always be around in one shape or form, but first and foremost we need there to be new and exciting experiences coming out, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, otherwise the industry is simply treading water and regurgitating old ideas.