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Are Retro Remakes Getting in the Way of Amazing New-Gen Games?

Everyone likes playing the old classics on a shiny new screen, but how about more emphasis on brand-new experiences for our next-gen consoles?

by Steve Haske
29 January 2015, 11:42am

Nostalgia's a lovely thing: whenever you want to abandon life's cynical cycle of the new, it's there for you to cosy up to in the familiar sensation of timeless cherished things. Wrapped up in its folds, everything seems peachy, at least while it's still emanating warmth through your veins. That ineffable bliss also makes it the perfect packageable good, a marketable euphoria that's been up for grabs arguably since capitalism was invented.

And why not? It's fun to revisit the past. I like quoting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and digging out shitty N64 carts to play on a screen that actively discourages my ingesting anything that muddy and crude. Beyond the impacts of media on a broader cultural mosaic, this is why we have remasters. Why settle for soft, scrambled fuzz – these re-releases pointedly ask – when you can watch or play it again with updated guts, projected in pristine clarity?

Pity video game fans. After the acceleration of HD collections last generation, it can feel like every third PS4 or Xbox One game is a remaster of a previous release. Not a new trend by any means, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, since these can make games that barely fit on last-gen hardware ( GTAV, for example) really pop if you're inclined to shell out for the best version, usually one with new features in tow.

Final Fantasy VII is coming to PS4 – but it's not the remake fans have craved for years

Regardless, it appears that still-so-called "next"-gen consoles are being a bit overrun with games we've already played. To name a few: Resident Evil's just-released GameCube port, Grim Fandango (VICE spoke to Tim Schafer himself about it), Borderlands, DmC, Final Fantasy VII (no, not a remake) and a slew of others, with more companies seemingly jumping on board to re-release shinier versions of their greatest hits every day.

The question is, what's so attractive about this trend? And does all that dipping into back catalogues impact new projects designed to take full advantage of current-gen hardware? To find out, I talked with an industry insider close to a large Japanese publisher, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

Unsurprisingly, people want something to play on their new systems – especially during anaemic introductory years.

The HD remaster of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker gave the Wii U an early sales boost, but it's a new Zelda that Nintendo owners are really waiting for

"In the first year of those consoles' lifespan, there's fuck all out there, pretty much," our insider said. "People just want to feel like there's a string of support in their eyes, or a string of titles coming to their platforms."

For their part, players are adopting to the current generation hardware at a much faster rate than they did in 2005 and 2006, when the 360 and PS3 debuted with fairly hefty price tags. Both Sony and Microsoft are offering cheaper consoles this time around, changing the dynamic to reflect a sales race with an urgency that feels more exponential.

To date, Sony's worldwide PS4 sales are at roughly 18.5 million units sold, and while Microsoft's numbers from back in November pegged them at around 10 million, that figure has undoubtedly shot up over the holiday season. So if you're a publisher facing down last gen's dwindling sales chart while current hardware is thriving, what's the best way to help those new sales?

"Just faced with that – yeah, you're going to actually tell yourself, 'Okay, if I can work in parallel or if I can port this game with a few additional tweaks,' – and maybe get some support from Microsoft or Sony with libraries and dev – then that's what you're gonna do," the insider explained. "That's just a sound business decision."

The Last Of Us Remastered is beautiful, but ultimately a test of its programmers' competence with new hardware

Nor does developing a remaster automatically mean a developer is stripping away creativity from any other new game in development, particularly when the thrust of a re-release is technical. Naughty Dog's The Last of Us remaster was mostly a job for the team's programmers rather than the art team, to use one example, but the work largely depends on the aims of the finished product. A studio's best talent often won't even be used on these projects, our insider said.

"The brutal reality is: do most studios have the budget and time to get a team – and a team that will actually do a good job – to actually rebuild the game from scratch? The answer is that not many [do]. If they're that good, they'd be making Final Fantasy XV or The Last of Us 2."

Many times it just comes down to most effectively using company resources. "You don't get the A-team making a remaster," our insider bluntly confirmed.

Still, there are some re-releases that might raise an eyebrow given the amount of time between a last-gen edition and a new port, or in some cases why one is even bothered with to begin with.

Case in point: the internet exploded in December during Sony's press conference at their PlayStation Experience show after announcing that Final Fantasy VII was coming to the PS4. A second collective explosion immediately followed when the game was revealed as a bare port of the 1998 PC version with the vague promise of "system-specific features".

While the insider told me this kind of thing isn't unheard of within the old guard of Japanese publishers – in this case speculating over VII getting an exclusive re-release on a Sony system – there's also the broader consideration of what's reasonable to expect from a team working on a remastered release.

Double Fine just recently released a remaster of the LucasArts classic, Grim Fandango

"They're never going to go back to the storyboard and rewrite the story. They're never going to go back and say, 'You know what? This was too violent and there's too much emphasis on killing shit – we're gonna take all that out.' Ten years from now, when they're rebooting all over again, that's when that stuff will happen. If it becomes a three or four-year project, you could've just made a full-on brand new title by then."

For publishers, it's also a question of not alienating their fans while a new console builds sales.

"People are doing these to make money, without a shadow of doubt," the insider said. "They're also doing it because they want fans to see continuity. They don't want fans thinking that it's just like, 'Too bad, you've got a new machine, we don't want to take care of you.'"

Business practicum aside, dev teams have their own reasons for remasters. In the pre-internet days, games couldn't just be patched to fix niggling problems or add new features after they shipped; devs could only fix problems if they were given a chance to release a new physical edition (like when Resident Evil's director's cut added DualShock support for its budget re-release back on the PS One). With that in mind, devs can take another swing at things.

"It's a chance for teams to go back and take a long look at what they delivered, see if they can clean up stuff that's been bugging them and hopefully add features they think can enhance," the insider said. "A lot of the dev teams like that. It's different pushing towards a product that was already in the can, so it's not like there's a lot of unknowns."

The GameCube's port of Resident Evil has been freshened up in HD, for last and current-gen consoles

Working on these projects can be a benefit to dev teams, too, which can be crucial given the layoff-heavy state of triple-A development cycles.

"In the real world, what it's doing is giving people jobs while the base of those consoles builds up to an acceptable level," the insider said.

As far as sheer numbers are concerned, PS4 and Xbox One are probably close to being there, if they haven't arrived already. In theory, that means remasters won't be as big a necessity in 2015. But as it stands right now, it doesn't seem like these re-releases are in danger of going away just yet. More importantly for some, there's also how much a remaster costs compared to a new game – and whether or not publishers should adjust their prices accordingly.

"Remasters shouldn't be full price," the insider said. "That way it's a concession that yes, you've seen this content before. You haven't seen it this good, but you've seen it before. However, that's an exceptionally unpopular opinion, as you can imagine."

Players can always vote with their wallets, though based on anecdotal evidence in forums, any outrage over being compelled to re-buy an older game at full price doesn't seem like it's enough to sway fans salivating over the best version available.

"As long as people are buying them at full price and not telling [publishers] they can go fuck themselves, then they're gonna keep trying to put them out," the insider added.

Techland's Dying Light is focusing exclusively on new systems

At least the remaster's tangential cousin – releases for both last and current-gen hardware which could theoretically stifle game design in terms of having to design around limitations of older consoles – is dying out, following 2014's heavily cross-generational spate of offerings like Watch Dogs and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Despite its recent release (or maybe because of it) Techland's Dying Light put last-gen on the chopping block, axing planned PS3 and 360 versions when the team realised the now-comparatively ancient hardware couldn't handle what they envisioned for the game.

In any case, decisions like these bring the idea for a triple-A space where, with any luck, interesting ideas can flourish closer to a reality.

"I'm yearning for games that could offer something new in terms of gameplay concepts," Dying Light's producer Tymon Smektala tells me over email.

"I do admit that graphics and technicalities aren't as important as innovation and creativity – what we've seen in the last year were mostly rehashes of old ideas in prettier paint."

Remasters at least are older designs getting a touch-up, and that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of thought put into them. Our insider cited the PS4 port of Diablo III – maybe not quite a true remaster, but close enough – as a good example.

"The console version was just unbelievably progressive. They took your character and zoomed in the camera, they threw the old control scheme out the window and came up with a new one – they actually gave a shit; they cared," the insider said. "The team that did the UI and the design for that, they weren't given nearly enough credit. That demonstrated a level of boldness that you don't often come upon."

The 'Ultimate Evil Edition' of Diablo III, for PS4, is "unbelievably progressive"

Smektala agreed that creativity pops up everywhere in making a game: "Creativity is required in every facet of game dev work – from designing gameplay pillars of a new IP to the smallest of tweaks of the menu buttons. I have no doubt it's abundant in every studio on the planet."

The insider pointed out that no one's holding a gun to anyone's head, either – and the corporatism of triple-A is often a lot worse.

"[Reasons are] definitely not cut and dry, and of all the potentially evil things companies might do – remasters? They're not one of them. The beneficiaries tend to be the dev team first, the publisher second and fans third, which may not be great for consumers – but it's still not terrible."

Better than a factory for nostalgia DLC, anyway.

@afraidtomerge

Previously:

The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of LucasArts' Adventure Classics

Outsold and Unloved in 2014, How Can the Xbox One Fight Back?

I Played a Truck Simulator Video Game for 30 Hours and Have Never Felt More at Peace

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Tymon Smektala