It has been a bumper year for video game remasters. In the last 12 months alone, we’ve seen remasters of the current generation of Souls of the demon, Nioh, Scott Pilgrim against the world, Age of Empires III, SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom and Warcraft III – and that’s just for beginners. Science fiction fans are currently enjoying the Legendary Mass Effect Edition remasters, while The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD remaster is in a few months.
Based on the aggressive release schedule, you’d be forgiven for thinking players don’t want to play anything except remasters of old favorites. Indeed, there is a very cynical school of thought that state remasters exist only to minimize developer efforts while maximizing publisher profits. Why create something new and risky when you can make fans very happy (and ready to make money) just by porting an old game to a new console?
I recently discussed this topic on a TechRadar webcast titled Seriously? Tom Farthing from GamesRadar, Matt Philliips from TechRadar, Sherri Smith from Laptop Mag and I put our heads together to see if we could come to a definitive conclusion on video game remasters. Are they a boon for nostalgic gamers, a necessary evil for a rapidly changing industry, or a greedy cash grab?
First of all: if you have 20 minutes, you can watch our thread on YouTube and find out for yourself. It is also integrated below:
Otherwise: I took a balanced approach. Video game remasters aren’t as good as getting something new, and it’s a bit unsettling that publishers often treat them as such. On the other hand, we live in a world where the preservation of video games is appalling. If we don’t occasionally update older games for newer systems, how are we going to review them – and how will younger gamers first experience them?
Why video game remasters are bad
First of all: am I glad the Seriously? the crew let me take the middle lane when it comes to remasters. Like a lot of things in the video game world, they have very real pros and cons. It is undeniable, however, that my feelings about remasters are generally more negative than positive.
My main argument against remasters is that they instill a strange sense of loyalty and gratitude in players. Whenever a high-level remaster is announced, watch the reactions it gets. At in-person events there is a resounding applause and cheer. On social media, there are PAEANS ALL-CAPS TO THE ORIGINAL and gushing thanks to the editors for bringing back a cherished part of their childhood. (It’s almost always something from childhood; nostalgia is powerful, and editors are well aware of it.)
I’m all for people to be able to play whatever they want, on the systems they currently own. What I don’t get, however, is the breathless excitement for something players have already experienced – in many cases, dozens of times. (Ask people who were really excited about Mass Effect Legendary Edition how many times they’ve played the trilogy before.)
While remasters are indeed labor-intensive, there’s no denying that they’re generally easier to produce than creating a complete game – story, mechanics, art style, everything – from all fabric. This is true for new entries in an existing series, and doubly true for bold new IPs. The idea that developers are doing players a favor by giving them comfort food (and often charging them full price for the privilege) is a bizarre and somewhat insidious form of brand loyalty.
Big companies, with enough resources to develop a number of interesting new ideas, come up with the same old things. The audience of the game interprets this as an act of magnanimity. Audiences are playing the same old trick all over again – and when the Remastered Remastered comes out a few generations later, you better believe they’ll play it again.
Granted, no one is forcing anyone to buy and play remasters, and replaying old games is just as good a way to spend your free time as any. But it’s a little unusual how uncritical the gaming audience can be about remasters in general, given their demand for all other aspects of game development.
Why video game remasters are good
On the flip side, there’s a reason publishers keep releasing remasters: because gamers really love them. A well-done remaster really makes a lot of people happy, from the Ratchet & Clank collection on PS3 to the legendary Mass Effect edition just a week ago. Playing good games again is fun; games are easier to replay on modern hardware; a good old game is a better use of your time than a dull new game. There is nothing inherently cynical here.
However, I would say that the main benefit of video game remasters is not to replay old favorites. Rather, it is that a whole new generation of gamers can experience great games, which are often hard to come by in their original forms.
Take the recent Super Mario 3D All-Stars for Nintendo Switch as an example. This remastered collection included Super Mario 64 (N64), Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube), and Super Mario Galaxy (Wii), all in one modern package. From a technical standpoint, it wasn’t a great remaster, suffering from bugs, limited availability, and a general lack of significant improvements.
On the flip side, all three games are great entries into the long-running, kid-friendly Mario series. The most recent Super Mario 3D All-Stars game was released for Wii, which Nintendo discontinued in 2013. A young Mario fan with a Switch today may well be born after that. It’s unreasonable to expect a kid – or their parents – to stalk three retro consoles just to play a few Mario games.
From The Last of Us to Resident Evil 3, there will always be players who were too young to experience a game the first time around, or who simply lacked the necessary hardware. We can’t expect every player to become a retro collector as well. If we want new players to experience old games, publishers need to release those old games on new consoles.
Preservation of video games
Still, it wouldn’t be much of a problem if the state of conservation of video games weren’t so dire. Of the top three console makers, only Microsoft has made a significant commitment to backward compatibility – and even then, it’s not like you can play the entire Xbox / Xbox 360 library on an Xbox Series. X / S. Sony nearly closed the PS3 and Vita digital stores; the PSP store is still doomed to fail. Nintendo offers a paltry selection of retro games in its Switch Online service, none of which can be purchased Ã la carte. The Wii Shop went dark years ago; The 3DS eShop followed in many territories.
The message seems pretty clear: Video game publishers don’t want you to buy old games, even if you have the right hardware to play them. At the same time, publishers have also cracked down on ROM sites, so you can’t even download old games from third-party sources. Many older games are downright impossible for the average consumer to play, and hardly easier for retro tech-savvy enthusiasts who understand the ins and outs of emulation.
There is no easy fix for video game preservation, although it should be noted that movies face a similar problem. In fact, half of all films produced before 1950 are probably lost forever.
Remasters are a way to ensure beloved video games stay with us for generations to come. It’s also a way to make sure we go back and forth to the same handful of familiar series, instead of demanding more innovative pricing. Let’s try to find a wise balance.