With so many coming out recently one could even call it an obsession. Whether you like it or not, remakes/remasters are likely to be a staple of the industry for a while. Much like in Hollywood, a combination of companies looking for a safe return on investment and nostalgia means we are seeing a lot of old classics being remade/remastered. Given this is the case, we must ask, what makes a remake/remaster good or great? And what makes it a failure? It’s not overly cynical to be wary of such releases. As we have seen with the recent controversy over GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition, many consumers feel that these are just cash-grabs that leave them short-changed.
However, it is unfair to paint all these reimaginings with the same brush. Some remakes have stood out and added more to the original story. Other games are remastered to be stunning in updated graphics. Many classics also need a revamp to make them playable for a modern audience due to dated controls. It is worth considering both the games themselves and the actions of developers and how these combine to make a good remake/remaster.
I understand that lumping remakes and remasters together is somewhat unfair, given they are two different things. But I would like to approach the topic from the angle of companies bringing old games back. Whilst consumers will differ on the specifics they prefer, in the end, most can agree that it is essential to keep the spirit of the original and release with polish.
Keeping an Eye on the Times
Ideally the gameplay should be updated to modern tastes. This serves not only to make the experience different in some way, but also to get rid of some clunky features, like tank controls, that have fallen out of favour. Resident Evil 2 went from a fixed camera to a third-person over the shoulder camera angle. There’s also a tasteful dialling down of the cheesier elements of Resident Evil, and a lean into the horror, supported by better graphics. The thought put into these changes is clear to see. It makes the game feel like one would expect if the game had been released in the last couple years, making it more accessible to new players as well as being fresh for those returning to the series.
There are also practical changes that can be made. The Final Fantasy VII remake has autosaves and checkpoints, which eliminates the frustration of going back to your previous save if you are defeated. Changes like these make the gameplay a lot smoother, without undermining the games integrity. Changing the combat from turn based to real time helped make the game feel both different, and more in line with current tastes. Developers need to be aware of the markets demands and what consumers want as expectations, taste and technology develop.
Some games almost need to be experienced with all the benefits brought by current-gen and next-gen graphics capabilities. Shadow of the Colossus, whilst not ugly when released, is only improved by being in the higher fidelity that befits the beautiful world design.
A Little Goes a Long Way
One of the best ways that developers show they care, is by adding a little extra for returning gamers. A few extra features that offer a new perspective can really add to the replay value. It also instils a sense of good will between gamers and developers, demonstrating their care and passion for the game. GTA V remastered for the PS4 added first person mode which was a brilliant idea.
GTA is a great game to add that feature to as it reinvents the carnage. The Resident Evil 3 Remake came with Resident Evil: Resistance. A 1 vs 4 game, like Friday the 13th and Dead by Daylight. It wasn’t a whole game in of itself and not too spectacular, but it showed Capcom were willing to give fans a little bit extra when getting a remake/remaster of an old game. Consumers recognise the effort put in which distinguishes the game from others that are more bare bones.
But It’s Not All about the Big Changes
An important element to a good remake/remaster is to keep a light touch. Developers don’t want to make something too different, after all, we are paying for something at least reminiscent of the original. Whilst a surprise is nice, it really depends on the game. This is why remasters are so popular. Just like Shadow of the Colossus, games such as The Last of Us and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were remastered to great effect and didn’t require much to be added or changed.
A game that maintains a die-hard fan base can air on the side of caution. Focussing on making the original the best it can be, rather than going for a more substantial overhaul. However, when making minimal changes, developers must make sure the updates are worth it for players. Check out the graphical comparison below. It keeps the cartoony charm whilst enhancing the details and resolution.
However on the flip side, consumers tend to make it known when they feel short-changed. For example with the GTA Trilogy Remaster release, the character models weren’t great, and the number of bugs was a problem. This led to a backlash from fans. The point being that you don’t need to do a major overhaul, but you need to make it worth it graphically, and tidy enough on release that it does not feel rushed.
With the story, there’s a fine line to be walked. You may prefer that the developers stay 100% faithful to the original or hope for a twist to keep you engaged. The game in question may, by its nature, lean one way or the other, depending on the fan base and popularity of the story. The Final Fantasy VII remake changed the prevalence of Sephiroth given his game culture status. This has been considered to undermine his stronger presence in the original. Encounters with him are more common and the sense of mystique is gone, but as he is such a famous character it is understandable that they went for a more ‘in your face’ approach.
The further episodes released may do something great with this character, but it’s disappointing to some at the moment. When changing the story it’s important to keep it in the spirit of the original. Respecting characters, themes, and plot points that were important to players of the original help keep them on the developers side. Think about how badly the changes to Luke Skywalkers character were received in The Last Jedi and you get the idea. If you are going to change it a bunch, you should probably just make a new game.
A Brief Comparison to Bring it All Together
I want to draw a comparison between GTA Trilogy and Resident Evil 2. Now, I’m not going to compare the new features. One is explicitly a remake, the other is a remaster. They are also both substantially different games in terms of scale. However, the main difference, and a major component to a successful remake/remaster, is polish.
Resident Evil 2 brought a massive update to the game; graphics, gameplay and world design all saw overhauls that turned out amazingly. There’s the feeling that there was a vision that was enacted and released when ready. You may miss tank controls and fixed cameras, but you can’t deny the value of the work put into the game. Changes made aside, the consumer can feel they got their money’s worth on the game.
GTA Trilogy Remaster is a different story. The graphical updates were, whilst an improvement, disappointing. Models looked lacklustre, and there were numerous bugs and problems, from the infamous rain, to spelling errors. Remastering games as large as these takes a huge amount of time and effort, but glaring errors undermine the work put in and makes it seem like they barely gave it a glance over before release. It’s hard to imagine how the rain issue was overlooked for instance.
Changes were made to update menus, improve shooting and controller button layouts that made it play like modern games in the franchise. But a lack of testing may have been the cause of bugs and glitches going unnoticed. With some smaller details like missing popular songs, it overall feels like the game was rushed out. Gamers don’t want to have the rug pulled from under them with essentially incomplete games being released. Of course, incomplete doesn’t mean it will never be finished, and perhaps future updates will make the remasters fantastic. The amount of polish at release can make all the difference between a game feeling worth the time and money, and it feeling half cooked.
Let’s Talk about Expectations
So, if we are honest, gamers can be pretty over the top. Review bombs and Twitter rants can be for a good reason, or for things that are trivial or disrespectful to the work put into these games. If we want a healthy and thriving industry, respect and empathy should be shown to others. Both industry workers and other gamers. There is a certain expectation of quality that is essential to a functional market. Calling out bad products should lead to improvements in the future, it’s happened before.
No Man’s Sky was panned at release, but through hard work and perseverance it has turned out very well. It’s not a remake/remaster, but it’s worth acknowledging that things at launch aren’t what they always turn out to be. However, to get those improvements you often need a vocal critique, but not an unnecessarily vitriolic one.
This expectation of a complete game at release is of course relevant to new games as well. But when it’s a re-release of an old property and you’re expected to spend your money on it, the companies should definitely give you something worth it. Not something that feels like it came from a purely financial perspective, rather than from a love of the game. For a remake or remaster to be successful there needs to be a sense that the Developers/Publishers respect the game and the fans.
Of course there is a large amount of subjectivity when it comes to our enjoyment of a remake or remaster. Afterall, we want different things when it comes to returning to an old favourite. How acutely we feel the differences will vary. I prefer more changes than less so the game feels sufficiently different and unique but you may disagree. What we can agree on is that when executed well, a game can maintain the soul of the original, whilst building on it. New technology means we can really get the most out of games that were more limited at the time.
It may take a light touch but finding the areas to develop can make a fresh experience out of an old game. Slight story changes and updates to mechanics especially are important, whilst being sure not to go too wild. In my opinion if it starts to look very different to the original you should probably just make a new game. Perhaps a sequel or a new franchise. Given how good remakes/remasters can be, I encourage reimaginings of old properties. However, there is a risk of games companies becoming overly reliant on them, when a new generation of creativity should be taking the foreground.