My all-time favourite movie is Apocalypse Now, the *true* magnum opus of Francis Ford Coppola; yeah, yeah, The Godfather is great too. I remember picking it up on VHS when I was younger and watching it on my 21” CRT screen. That TV was an absolute beast – people forget just how much bedroom real-estate a large 4:3 CRT took – it had its own damn cupboard!! Whilst in my last year of college I finally picked up a DVD player, which was pretty new tech at the time, and immediately upgraded my favourite movie with a new clean and crisp digital picture. The only drawback being that this was the inferior 'Redux' cut of the film. Years later I ended up importing the ‘Complete Dossier’ DVD release of Apocalypse Now from the US, which included both theatrically released cuts of the film remastered, with newly restored picture and sound along with a bunch of extras.
A couple of years ago, for Xmas, my wife gave me the special edition Blu-ray of the film, remastered in 1080p HD and with even more bells and whistles. Now, in terms of movies shifting from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, this repurchasing of home media in order to keep up with advancement in television technology is completely normal and expected. But videogames being remastered or remade in order to keep up with changing console generations, as well as adapting to better suit the latest in high-tech displays, has for some reason caused a bunch of division and contention. I’d like to discuss what I think are some of the issues surrounding this topic, obviously with my own spin and bias.
Back when I had my aforementioned 21” CRT screen I really took no notice about what resolution a videogame was running in. In fact, the only time I can remember anything ever looking any different was Virtua Fighter 2 on the Sega Saturn, which ran in its ill-used “high resolution” mode. You see, when TV screens were interlaced most videogames looked “smudgy” anyway, especially consoles like the N64, which to me always looked like a blurred mess. Once I made the move to a HD-Ready LCD screen (which only went up to 720p) I started to take much more of an interest in the display being output from my console. I began by switching out the god-awful ‘scart’ plug on my PS2 (I believe this is a European thing?) with a component cable, allowing me to run games like Shadow of the Colossus, my all-time favourite videogame, in progressive scan 16:9. This actually made a *massive* difference in picture quality! Later still, I picked up my first Full-HD 1080p screen and a PS3 connecting through HDMI for a true high definition picture. Now, regardless of how much I loved my PS2 (and still do), going back and running a component cable to output a game running in a sub-HD resolution looks *awful*, and this has provided a good reason for companies to remaster them onto modern consoles.
Of course, videogames from the PS2 wouldn’t have so much of a need to be remastered if the next console offered backwards compatibility, and thus could output an upscaled HD picture via HDMI. People seem to forget that in fact this was exactly the case when the PS3 originally came out; that £599.99 behemoth of a console also played PS2 games natively, but it did so by including the ‘emotion engine’ chips from the legacy console. The architecture of the PS3 had changed dramatically from the previous generation and the new ‘cell processor’ was simply incapable of running PS2 games, so it needed separate hardware inside the same box. I think we can all agree that the pricetag of the initial PS3’s was absolutely ridiculous, and Sony did too, especially the cost of production, and so backwards compatibility was dropped through the gutting-out of the ‘emotion engine’ from future revisions of the hardware. Sony experimented for a time with an emulated backwards compatibility, similar to what Xbox One is currently trying, but ultimately it was too hit-and-miss regarding which games would run and which wouldn’t. This obviously opened the demand for games to be reworked and remastered, and it’s a trend we see continuing today with the lack of backwards compatibility from PS3 to PS4; the architecture is simply too different!
Another reason often spouted by Sony, for instance, is the migration of players from one platform to another, like the mass move from Xbox 360 to PS4 that we’re seeing this generation. If backwards compatibility is out, then there are a number of *amazing* games Xbox 360 owners missed out on that could be rereleased onto PS4. While this might be seen as a quick and cheeky cash-cow, infact it is essential for the success of sequels relying on familiarity with previous games. If there were to be a Last of Us 2 then knowledge and experience of the first game might prove essential to fully appreciate the nuances of the new production; remasters give migrating players a chance to play catch-up and also will hopefully improve sales of the new game. Lastly, a game might need to be remastered simply because it looks awful by modern standards. There’s a funny feeling often when playing remastered games that it looks “a bit better” because in your mind, that old game you loved is already in full 1080p HD and runs fine without any framerate hitches, which is simply often not the case. Retro games and especially old games you’ve not played for years will be looked back on fondly with rose-tinted glasses, and it’s not until you see the original and remastered version side-by-side that you realise how goddam crap the original looked!!
A complaint often espoused by angry gamers is that remastering games takes away development from new productions. “Stop remaking games! Where are the new ones!?” people erroneously cry. It’s actually very rare that a large studio dedicates itself wholesale to the production of a remastered game, instead they are often given over to other developers like BluePoint to handle, so that the parent company can continue production on the new stuff. Aside from financial investment, this takes nothing away from the output of a developer or publisher, and often the new games are already bankrolled and underway when remasters are announced and released. Naughty Dog, for instance, went on record that they were not remaking the Uncharted games for PS4, but were in fact hard at work on the new Uncharted 4 due next year. This turned out to be true as Sony went to BluePoint for the development of the Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection.
Then there is the “lack of backwards compatibility conspiracy” where gamers assume companies have chosen to remove the ability to play old games *because* they want to go through the process of remastering them and selling them again. This is really just showing ignorance about the architecture of the consoles, as well as the benefits to the company of having backwards compatibility – believe me, if it could be done then companies *would* do it, such as Microsoft putting in the resources and money to get it working on Xbox One. It is a huge advantage for a console if it can natively play old games, and simply wouldn’t be worth removing simply so that you can bankroll a load of remasters and hope that they sell. “They’re charging me for the same game that I already own!” Just don’t buy it. Simple.
“I’m not playing a full game price for a remaster” is another argument, specifically concerning the pricing. Again, it shows a bit of ignorance on the part of the gamer, as they’re just assuming that remastering a game involves taking all the old assets, flipping a switch and making it suddenly all work in 1080p 60fps on new hardware. Naughty Dog were very open with all the trouble they went through to get Last of Us working on PS4, to the point where even once they had the graphics looking good, it was borderline unplayable due to a 5fps-10fps framerate!! These games often require porting to a whole new engine, new assets to be generated, textures cleaned up or redone entirely, cutscenes to be rerendered and upscaled, etc. It’s a lot of painstaking hard work, and to charge full price seems fair enough – especially when quite often these games are released as a bundle containing more than one game in a collection. I often feel sorry for the devs of remasters who must constantly read about their hard work being belittled by whingy idiots on forums.
However, there *are* some legitimate complaints that can be levelled at the flood of remasters and remakes that are currently flooding the market. For one, the choice of some games is extremely baffling! Take the recently released God of War 3 Remastered for instance, was there even a gap in the market for the third GoW game only to be rereleased!? What about Ascension, which was technically the latest GoW game; why is that not remastered too!? What about the Prototype Collection… were those games such classics that they demanded a remaster because people were upset they couldn’t play them anymore. Or Darksiders 2 Remastered, is there a third game in the works? No. Some of the games getting remade and rereleased really seem like odd choices and I imagine the market for them must be very small, potentially losing the publishers money unless they really are very quickly made and rushed out with the bare minimum of effort. Then of course there are the games that are actually sometimes *worse* after a remaster, like the Silent Hill HD Collection released on the PS3 and Xbox 360, in which it was revealed Konami lost all original assets, and the remastering team had to work with unfinished and glitch-ridden files.
Lastly, some people simply don’t replay videogames. Ever. I find this very strange personally, as I’m often replaying some of the best games several times over, for instance I’ve been through Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus each three times over at this point, and god knows how many times I’ve played Journey!! But if you’re someone who plays a game once and then moves on, never to return, the whole practise of remastered games might seem alien and strange to you, in which case I can understand the frustration when they make up a sizable chunk of the year’s release schedule.
Changing a console generation can be daunting for developers, as they effectively have to start over again getting to grips with new hardware, and its why launch titles are often so rough when viewed a year or two later. Remastering games can in some circumstances give a company time to understand the architecture of a new console, develop engines, learn how they latest hardware stores and streams assets, etc. Naughty Dog did precisely this with Last of Us Remastered, using the opportunity to see what the PS4 was capable of and how it worked, which is allowing them to make a better game than they necessarily would have done with Uncharted 4. It also gives developers who may have been hitting walls in terms of overheads during the last hardware generation a chance to unshackle their creation and present it as they originally intended. When Shadow of the Colossus was remastered on PS3, aside from the bump in image quality and resolution, it was great to finally play the game without all the framerate hiccups and problems associated with the aging PS2 hardware. Fumito Ueda’s vision finally realised as intended.
Another benefit of remastering a game is that sometimes the old physical copy, even if you have the original hardware, is out of print and hard to find. Xenoblade Chonicles 3D, for instance, gave people who missed the Wii release a chance to play a fantastic game without having to track down an expensive physical copy on eBay. It’s since been released on the eShop but for some people Nintendo’s digital distribution is like kryptonite. For this reason there are loads and *loads* of videogames that I wish they would remaster, like Eternal Darkness, because I desperately want to play them but don’t want the hassle of tracking down old hardware and used-but-expensive copies of the games. I also want to experience them in a way that doesn’t repulse me with old torn textures, smudgy sub-HD resolutions, etc.
And finally, like my precious Apocalypse Now, I just want to have the best possible version of my favourite games archived and preserved for future generations so that they’re not lost or have their worth diminished by the passage of time. So far I’ve only purchased Shadow of the Colossus twice, but if it came out on PS4 at 1080p 60fps with LOD and texture improvements, I’d buy it again in a heartbeat.