Capcom talks challenges of remastering a classic
With the rise of high-definition re-releases, many fans have likely made a wish list of titles they hope will eventually get the HD treatment. Whether they be classics from the ’90s or 2000s, we’re seeing a variety of games find new life in today’s market. Unfortunately, not every title can make that transition to modern consoles, be it for technical or design reasons.
Thankfully, Resident Evil is an exception. During a special hands-on session with the game, I experienced what it was like to return the mansion in full HD, and even got to speak with members of Capcom staff to learn about the challenges they faced with Remastered.
They certainly had their work cut out for them.
Resident Evil Remastered (PS3, PS4 [previewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC)
Release Date: Early 2015
Resident Evil Remastered is a high-def release of Capcom’s 2002 remake of the original game from 1996. Set in a seemingly abandoned mansion in the woods, the elite police unit S.T.A.R.S. must investigate and uncover the mysteries behind a series of gruesome murders. Taking control of either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, players will experience the events from their unique perspectives and uncover a greater conspiracy that will haunt them for years to come.
More than a decade after its release, fans still hold the remake as one of the best entries in the series. Blending enhanced visuals with greatly refined gameplay, RE devotees were yearning for more titles in this vein. But since the release of Resident Evil 4 in 2005, and along with the influence of the hugely popular live-action films, the series has steered toward more action-adventure gameplay and scenarios.
While Revelations and its upcoming sequel are certainly a blend of the series’ action and survival aspects, there’s still a desire for the pure survival horror experience that came with Resident Evil. And that desire will undoubtedly be satisfied here.
The most talked about aspect of REmastered is the updated visuals, and with good reason. Considering the unique circumstances of this HD reworking, many fans are worried that this might end up like a certain other botched remaster.
Standard-definition televisions and the 4:3 aspect ratio were commonplace in 2002, but those aren’t the only issues Capcom faced for the remake. Resident Evil blended 2D background images and in-game FMV (lighting, candles, and other 2D animated visuals) along with 3D characters and objects. As the 2D backgrounds were set in stone and obviously couldn’t be reworked, this made creating an HD remaster with a 16:9 aspect ratio a difficult proposition.
Speaking with producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi, he described at length the challenges the team had to tackle in order to maintain the original style during the transition into HD.
“The biggest challenge for us in raising the resolution was the backgrounds themselves and the effects in them. Originally, these had been created from still images, so there was a lot of work done by hand to the assets we had in order to raise the quality bar,” he said.
“If the original data had been large enough, this would have been a relatively easy process, but the assets we’re working with were created for a game over a decade ago, so we didn’t have a lot of high-resolution source material to work from. We had to find a way to take what we had on hand and work hard to make resolution and other adjustments bit by bit.”
In order to work around these limitations, the developers used editing and manipulation techniques to get the most out of the graphics, while retaining the ‘look’ of the original game. Most apparent of the changes are the use of cropping and pan & scan techniques. The former sections out the desired part of the image that serves as our visual focus, while the latter gives the illusion of a moving camera to keep the action and important aspects of the picture in focus.
Initially, I found the HD look to be a bit jarring. Not because I’m a purist, but I was so used to original that it was noticeable where changes were made. The static look of the original is very much an element of the game’s atmosphere, so seeing the focus shift around and certain areas of background cropped out was instantly apparent.
Having said that, I did find the HD aesthetic to be remarkable. The screenshots don’t do the visuals justice; in motion you see a number of the visual upgrades working at once, and it helps to breathe new life into the game. Granted, there are some noticeable places where the background looks slightly stretched out, but I still found they had a greater level of detail. In addition to this, I felt the new touches to the animated atmospheric details helped make the environments feel more terrifying and spooky — which was yet another challenge for the developers.
“As far as effects are concerned, these were all redone from scratch,” said Hirabayashi. “Even then, we had the original designer on hand to personally look over all of these and ensure that they were in line with his vision. We used multiple techniques depending on the needs of a particular scene. Our goal was to preserve the feeling and atmosphere of a given scene while raising the resolution. Each scene, each cut, was judged on its own merits as we determined the best way to handle them one at a time. That was a tough process. There is definitely a sort of flavor or sensibility in backgrounds created as 2D pieces that can be very hard to replicate in polygons.”
Moreover, the 3D character models have been updated as well. The texture work on all the models is significantly improved, giving them some much-needed polish and detail. But sensing that graphical changes might upset purists, Capcom has included an option to switch back to the original visuals and 4:3 resolution at any time within the options menu.
Not content with just offering updated visuals, the team looked to add gameplay tweaks and other content to the remaster. In addition to new costumes, specifically the Resident Evil 5 BSAA outfits for Jill and Chris, Remastered features a brand new control type called ‘modern’ mode. With it enabled, players can use the analog stick for auto-run and 360-degree movement without having to deal with the traditional and somewhat cumbersome ‘tank’ controls.
Now when I first heard about the controls, I felt that a new movement method would undermine much of the terror by giving players too much freedom, especially when you consider enemy AI and movement was designed around players using tank-style controls. But Hirabayashi was well aware of the difference it would make and had the team behind the remaster rework the controls while maintaining a balance.
“We spent a great deal of time fine tuning everything from the characters’ movement speeds to the button layout in order to replicate as closely as we could the tempo and difficulty of the original control scheme,” said Hirabayashi.
“I think that people who have played the original iteration of this title will much prefer the original controls as that is how the game was initially designed. That said, we know that there is also a portion of the audience who will be experiencing the game for the very first time. For those uninitiated in this series who may be more accustomed to modern 3D games and controls, I imagine they might have a hard time wrapping their heads around the original scheme. By implementing both, we are able to bring new players in without making sweeping changes to the overall difficulty.”
As one of the defining aspects of classic RE was the…unusual control type, it certainly felt sacrilegious to use an easier method of movement. For better or worse, this also cemented its reputation as a punishing game that demanded precision. With that said, I found myself taking quite a liking to the new controls after some time passed. I appreciated not having to hold down the run button to move with haste, and I also liked being able to round corners faster. But I still found myself having to readjust my movement when moving out from a different screen, which was a common problem for classic RE.
Though if you’re not a fan of the controls, or want to go for an old-school run, then you’re totally free to select the classic control type. What made me appreciate the modern setup more was how I would utilize both options at once. Modern mode also has the classic tank controls on the d-pad, and in some cases I preferred using those over the new type. While I used modern controls for basic traversal throughout the mansion, I mostly stuck with the d-pad for combat, as back-stepping wasn’t available for modern mode, and the aiming wasn’t as precise.
After spending about an hour with the game, I felt right at home with the HD remaster, which I imagine must be the best compliment you give it. While I came into this series with RE4, I ended up playing the classic games to see how they stack up, and found a new appreciation for the series. With the release of REmastered, it certainly brings up a discussion for fans about which style of game is more faithful to the series. And while that debate can be worthwhile, Hirabayashi feels both types of Resident Evil experiences can coexist.
“As for the RE series itself, we have fans on both sides of the fence. Each user has their own specific taste and things they look for in games. I don’t think we can narrow this down to finding the ‘right’ answer since there are actually a plethora of ‘questions’ we’re attempting to address,” said the producer.
“For me personally, the important part of this series is the survival horror aspect. Whether a game tends more toward the older style, focuses on action, or even breaks ground and does something entirely new, the important part is that that core element of survival horror is maintained. Put simply, the specific style of a given game is less important to me. What’s important is that survival horror ethos.”
I’m quite liking the direction the franchise is taking. It’s not too often you see publishers hold up both the past and present simultaneously, and with two upcoming releases showing the best aspects of the series’ past, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Resident Evil. With the remaster set for release early next year, it’s a great time for new players to take the plunge. But for those who want an excuse to re-enter survival horror, Resident Evil Remastered will rekindle that familiar feeling of dread.