It’s time to rethink the remaster

Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 5:32pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

What is a remake? Is it a port? A remaster? Are all these things the same or different?

Let’s start from the beginning. The idea of a remake is almost as old as video games themselves: Taito, Atari and Konami were notorious for taking their arcade hits and making an expanded version on the many home consoles of the time. As the hardware got more complex, it seemed many developers were itching to take their classic games and bring them to a “modern” audience, with upgraded graphics, controls and soundtracks. Generation after generation, the remake remained a commonplace item in a console library, a steadily bought nostalgia grab that, with the right amount of tender love and care, could become the definitive version of the game.

As technology got more powerful, the development time of video games grew exponentially. What took a year started to take two, three, even five years depending on how perfectionist the studio was. Rather than take old games and rework them from the ground up, studios began only adding new textures or lighting fixtures. Companies wanted cheap development for a quicker sell, knowing people would buy the product. These products became colloquially referred to as remasters, the result of reapplying paint and touching up a game, rather than redoing it from scratch. 

Not every remaster is lazy. Bluepoint Studios and Vicarious Visions have made a name for themselves by taking old games and modernizing the graphics and gameplay while keeping the core experience the same. Their sales and critical reception speak for themselves: “The Nathan Drake Collection” sits at 5.7 million copies sold and a 94 on OpenCritic, while the “Crash N’ Sane Trilogy” single-handedly revived a long dormant series. Sadly, these are the exceptions within the industry. For every fantastic remaster, say “Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2,” there are five horribly made “Silent Hill HD Collection”s and “Super Street Fighter IV 3D”s. A good remaster helps bring a game into the modern era for modern audiences, but most of the time, developers release packages that prey on consumer nostalgia to try to make a quick buck. No developer is safe from the pitfalls that are bad remasters, least of all the Japanese games giant Nintendo.

Having one the largest backlogs of beloved characters and IPs in video games, it makes sense that Nintendo would consistently dabble in remasters. The Japanese giant loves bringing older games to their newest consoles for fans both new and old to enjoy. At this point, remastered ports of games are a staple of Nintendo’s yearly revenue; there hardly seems to be any time at all between each “Super Mario,” “Zelda” or “Pokémon” remaster. Most of the time, these ports are wonderful additions to a console, adding enough content and graphic upgrades to justify the games’ rebirth. But more and more lately, Nintendo has dropped the ball, bringing over a product that is no different from what existed before and demanding a full $60 price tag for the “effort.” Fans have been vocal about their frustrations with the Big N, arguing that a new “Funky Mode” or a poor side game stitched on are not justifiable reasons to charge full price for a rereleased game. 

The current uproar against Nintendo has been the odd 35th anniversary celebration game “Super Mario 3D All-Stars.” The game is a collection of the Italian plumbers’ first three 3D adventures — “Super Mario 64,” “Super Mario Sunshine” and “Super Mario Galaxy.” Fans have clamored for these games to appear on the Switch since its release, so for all intents and purposes this announcement should have been a cakewalk. It should have been impossible to mess this up.

But they did. More and more information came out after the trailer. Suddenly, these games weren’t all HD remasters, they were simply upscaled ports. Now, the ports aren’t even ports anymore, but rather HD emulations of the games. The menus were bland, the games weren’t modernized, leaving each wonky physics engine and terrible camera intact, and, to top it all off, Nintendo was charging $60 for a game that you can only buy until March 31, 2021. Artificial scarcity aside, the ports seemed like a hastily thrown together cash-grab, and believe it or not, people got mad. I got mad. But we bought the game. It was Amazon’s top selling game from the second pre-orders opened, even though everyone purchasing it knew it would be subpar. 

The only explanation for these sales is undying brand loyalty. Some people feel it with losing sports teams, game enthusiasts feel it with each unsatisfactory release. There remains this undying hope that this time, they may have changed. This time, the game truly will be well-made and the remaster will be everything we wanted and more with cutting-edge graphics and new content that still capture the essence of what we loved in the first place. It’s impossible to strike out again and again. But, surprise, they do, and each time the consumer falls for it, tripping hand over foot to purchase the latest in a long line of disappointments. The companies don’t feel the pain — a screaming fanbase is hard to hear through a wall of cash.

This type of behavior is commonplace within the industry; Nintendo is far from the only company to prey on the nostalgia of fans. It’s easy to stick a shiny coat of paint on an old game and slap a price tag on it, and it’s time we as fans stop encouraging this behavior, especially with the next generation of fans on the horizon. It isn’t enough to allow a current game to run at 4K, put “Definitive” or “Ultimate” or “Super Ultra Mega Final” edition on the box and charge the new price of $70 to play a game we already own on new hardware. Only last week, Sony got a large blowback for trying to do this exact strategy with their smash hit “Marvel’s Spider-Man” for the upcoming Playstation 5. 

So what are companies to do if they can’t use scummy practices like double-charging or providing unsatisfactory products? For starters, developers can take the “Cyberpunk 2077” route and make next-gen upgrades free for all games. If someone owns the game on the current generation, Playstation 4 and Xbox One, then they should have it to play day one for PS5 and Xbox. This shuts down companies (EA, ahem) from releasing a new “Ultimate” bundle that gatekeeps the next-gen upgrade of, say, “Control.”

Secondly, any remaster should be evaluated using three criteria: One, what made the game work in the first place? Two, what can we do to bring this game to a modern audience? Three, is there anything we want to add that makes the purchase more worthwhile? Trust in the fact that audiences would much rather repurchase a game that has had love, care and thought put into it over a buggy, unchanged mess. If you are trying to port a PS2 game and it still plays like a PS2 game, then something is very wrong. Pretty graphics and nostalgia can only carry a game so far. 

Finally, what can the audience do in order to get this message through to developers? Well, short of sitting and typing an entire article about it, you may consider boycotting the game. If the future of the series doesn’t rest on how well this remaster does, low sales figures speak volumes to a company and its profits. Poor reviews and public outcry are also very good devices to catch a developer’s attention. The companies that take the time to listen to fans and change — see Blizzard with “Diablo III” and Hello Games with “No Man’s Sky” — not only rebuild trust but are given the benefit of the doubt in future releases. It isn’t enough to ignore outcry or reply with a tweet.  

As cross-generation play becomes more of a reality, game developers must start rethinking their idea of a remaster. This includes Nintendo, the only major hardware company not launching anything in November. Most of the rest of the 2020-2021 financial year rests on “Pikmin 3 Deluxe” and “Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury,” both ports of the final few Wii U exclusives. Both claim to have added story content and gameplay/graphics improvements, but only time will tell if Nintendo forces these games to suffer the failures of mediocre remasters. They, like everyone else, must fall in line and understand: burn your fans once, shame on them. Burn them again? They’re likely to riot (virtually, that is).

Contributor M. Deitz can be reached at mdeitz@umich.edu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.