We’ve been seeing a lot of Remastered editions of games lately. Batman: Arkham Asylum and City were remastered for next-gen consoles with better textures and graphics, ditto Halo 1 and 2. The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle were all redone with new hand-drawn artwork. Leisure Suit Larry was remastered not once, but twice (three times if you include Softporn Adventure, the original text-based game that inspired Larry).
Coming up in a couple of weeks is StarCraft: Remastered, a remake of a phenomenal game that had such an impact on my formative years.
But the big question is: are all these remastered editions necessary for the industry, or are they just an easy cash grab for lazy game studios?
A more modern Modern Warfare
Most recently, I completed the remastered version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who bought Infinite Warfare just to play the remastered version of Modern Warfare.
Modern Warfare has a special place in my heart, because it was the first major game I reviewed when I was a full-time game journalist back in the day and I was looking forward to revisiting it.
At the end of the game, after putting a bullet in Imran Zakhaev’s head, I have to admit I was both disappointed and energized by the remastered version. Energized because the gameplay is still superb, and the single player campaign was just amazing set piece after amazing set piece, but disappointed because I didn’t really get blown away by the graphics.
It wasn’t that the graphics weren’t substantially upgraded; when I watch those comparison videos, I can easily see just how improved the graphics are. The texture maps, the dramatic lighting, the improved smoke and Captain Price’s beard and wrinkles are all so much better looking!
But I didn’t feel it or notice it while actually playing the game. To be honest, it felt like it was just as I remembered it. I don’t think there was a single moment in the game when I thought “Wow it looks so much better now.”
Do you remember graphics?
To tell you the truth, I’ve not really been noticing the graphical upgrades of all the remastered games I’ve played. Halo 1 and 2 must’ve gotten some of the most significant graphical upgrades in recent history (they were originally released on the first Xbox after all), and you can definitely tell that a lot of work went into them.
When I first played the remastered versions of Halo 1 and 2, I hit the Back button all the time to toggle between original and new graphics. The difference was stunning.
But after a few levels, I’d get lost in the gameplay and I’d forget about the graphics. Now and then I’d hit the Back button again to be astounded, but mostly I just played the game and didn’t think too much of the graphics at all. If you took away the new graphics altogether, I’m not 100 percent sure I’d miss them or notice.
And it’s not because I’m a visually illiterate person either – I was a full-time game reviewer and I also used to work in the VFX industry on movies like Transformers 3.
I’m convinced it’s because in my memory, these games have always looked fantastic. They could’ve had pixelated textures or blocky models, but over time my memory will backfill and beautify the imagery.
When I first saw the StarCraft: Remastered screenshots, I was like “erm, what’s the difference?” because it looks just like how I remember it.
Moments that last
When you go to videogame conventions and listen to gamers talk about their favorite games, probably only about 20 percent of the chatter will be about graphics. The other 80 percent will be talking about their favorite moments.
They’ll talk about the first time they encountered a Covenant Scarab in Halo 2. They’ll discuss “the shot” in Modern Warfare, their first fatality in Mortal Kombat, or the feeling of awe the first time they walked through the gates of Orgrimmar in World of Warcraft, complete with the thumping of orcish war drums.
Moments elicit emotional responses from people, and it is this emotional response that leaves a lasting impression. It doesn’t have to be an epic set piece like the Halo 2 Scarab either; a moment could be small poignant scene like the giraffes in Last of Us, or even a single line of dialogue like most of GLaDOS’ lines in Portal.
Are graphics important for moments? Yes, but only to help convey and deliver the moment. Star Control II is pretty much just animated talking heads and text-based dialogue for the entire game, yet it delivers plenty of exceptional moments ranging from funny alien encounters to an implied sex scene with a space siren.
So far, I know I’m sounding pretty negative about remastered editions of games. But I’m really not.
Story is culture, and culture lasts
If we can just sidestep for a bit, let’s look at classical literature. One of the most epic moments ever would have to be Hector fighting Achilles in single combat.
This fight occurs in Homer’s Iliad, written sometime around 850 BC. So fascinating is this fight that 3,000 years later, people still talk about it in reverence. The fight is recreated in an unforgettable scene in Troy, a movie that grossed half a billion dollars. Achilles’ name is now synonymous with being a badass, and is slapped on a whole bunch of naval warships.
What is truly amazing about this is that the Iliad was written as a poem, and for the longest time, the only illustrations of the fight were depictions on the side of vases.
Despite this lack of stunning high-resolution graphics, the story of Hector fighting Achilles has endured for so long, proving you don’t really need amazing visuals for a story to stick. I mean, if a poem and some painted pottery can do it…
Understandably though, the Iliad persisted because it was reprinted and adapted uncountable times in the last 3,000 years, prolonging its legacy and cementing its place in culture.
Why games need to be remastered
As a storytelling medium, games have a handicap in that each edition has a limited lifespan. Consoles are not always backwards-compatible, so when your chosen console producer decides to release a next-gen machine (or in the case of Sega, outright quitting the console race) it could mean the end for the previous-gen games. As it is, I’m finding it very difficult to figure out a way to play Dragon Force, one of my favorite games on the Sega Saturn.
It’s not necessarily easier for the PC Master Race either: early DOS-based games like the Sierra Quest series will require DosBox or something to emulate the old drivers. Even so, they don’t always work either.
Compatibility issues aside, some of the older games really are ugly by today’s standards. 640 x 480 resolution? Mobile phone games run at a higher resolution than that! While I love the look of old games, can you really tempt a current-gen kid to play such an outdated-looking game, even if you promise him/her amazing stories and gameplay?
Which is why these remastered editions are so important for the industry. They keep these stories and experiences alive by introducing their splendor to new generations, and reigniting the memories of older gamers.
Who cares if they don’t really improve on the gameplay of the original? The gameplay was probably perfect to begin with. Who cares if the graphics aren’t spectacularly better? The graphics were never that important anyway.
The important thing is that these games can be experienced by future generations.
As my friend Daniel pointed out, this isn’t just reserved for the story-based games either – games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix proved that remastering fighting and puzzle games was not only important, but also well-received by gamers and critics.
Think about it. Someday, you’ll have kids and grand kids. I want to speak to the next generation and tell them of grand tales like the fall of Sarah Kerrigan. I want to hear them laugh about the bubbles that come a second too late in the underwater levels of Sonic the Hedgehog. I want them to remember great heroes like the Master Chief and the Arbiter fighting together to save all sentient life from extinction.
And I want these stories to mean enough to them that they too will treasure them and pass it down to the next generations. If remastering games is the best way to get them played again, then I say remaster them. Again and again if need be.
We were all brought up on videogames. Let their stories join with those of Homer and Shakespeare. Let them entertain and inspire humanity through the ages.
Don’t let our generation become known as one without culture.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to StarCraft: Remastered and experiencing Kerrigan’s tragic tale again, and Sonic Mania for some awesome old school Sonic action!