It’s easier to recycle an old idea than to create something original. Musicians know this. Authors know this. Game developers certainly know this.
Video gaming has now reached a point where the early (and even the not-so-early) games can be looked back upon with a sense of nostalgia – a longing for the good old days of the Golden Age of Gaming. Pac-Man, Pong, Galaxian, Frogger, Tempest… these games were marching the front lines of innovation in an unestablished, and almost comically different, industry.
Wistful game geeks today have an average age of 29; they recall their early gaming days with a fondness usually reserved for first loves or lost pets. Leave it to game companies to take advantage of our doe-eyed sentimentality by selling us things we’ve already bought.
The increasingly popular downloadable platforms, like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, have been the perfect breeding ground for the “retro revival”, an update, or a straight-up rehash of a classic title that is guaranteed to sell based on pedigree alone. 8- and 16-bit games are now far too small to justify the incredible storage capacity of DVDs, or (gasp!) Blu-ray discs, so developers and publishers turn to digital distribution – the perfect spot for what are now considered bite-sized games.
Some developers simply port one of their old games from the 80s or 90s. A quick glance at the Xbox Live Arcade offerings (especially back during the early days of the service) reveals two major game categories: original games, utilizing well-established play mechanics, or retro titles.
Straight ports of retro titles usually launch at the bargain price-point of $5, while “new” games like Geometry Wars and Undertow, which borrow heavily from old gameplay conventions, are (at least) double that. However, a $10 game has a much more appealing price-point to an average, hardworking gamer than a $60 game. Will you get six times the enjoyment out of a “full” game than you will out of an Arcade title? In many cases, probably not. Thus, XBLA’s popularity.
A new kind of game seeping into our downloadable libraries is the “retro revival”. Take an old game, slap a new coat of paint and a few extras onto it, and launch it as a new game. Some are great (Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix), but some are not (Rainbow Islands: Towering Adventure!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled, Contra: ReBirth). What makes one amazing, while another festers in the glow of yesteryear?
Don’t try to make your old classic into something it’s not, and add enough new stuff to make it valid and playable today. Simple.
All the best game remakes – scratch that, all the best GAMES – combine the finest aspects of gaming history with the technological advances and ideas of today. Uncharted 2, a forerunner for Game of the Year/Decade/Century, didn’t do a single thing that had never been tried before. Woo, guns. Woo, Indian Jones. Woo, multiplayer.
The thing is: Uncharted 2 took everything that was good about gaming in the past and molded it into a sum greater than its parts. Then, Naughty Dog polished that entire experience to shine so brightly that it would be difficult for Average Joe Gamer to ever imagine anything greater, including sliced bread. And, as we all know, sliced bread is the best thing since sliced bread.
But Uncharted 2 was a unique experience. It was made in the here and now, with thirty years of gaming history on which to build. Reworking entire classic games into something current is a bit trickier; you have to capture the magic of the original.
A big problem with nostalgia is that we don’t often recall the entire experience of an old game, just particular aspects that made it suck or shine in our entirely subjective minds. With the N64′s GoldenEye 007, for example, many gamers recall their initial four-player-simultaneous FPS experience, hanging out with friends and munching Doritos while blasting each other with golden guns.
The game in question, while revolutionary and incredible at the time, has not held up well. By today’s standards, Goldeneye is nearly unplayable. (No strafing?! Where’s the other analog stick?!) An attempt to update the game today might turn out about as well as its 2004 pseudo-sequel. Fail.
Perfect Dark is in the remake crosshairs currently… all I can say is, “We’ll see.” Can’t be worse than Perfect Dark: Zero, though, can it?
Come to think of it, Bomberman: Act Zero didn’t turn out too well, either. Maybe developers should stay away from using “zero” in their sequel titles, as it may be an invitation of a similar number in its review score.
But I digress. The magic feeling of classic games does not exist in programming code, high-resolution textures, or media over-hype. It exists in our minds, our memories, and our living rooms.
TMNT: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled on Xbox Live Arcade seemed to do everything wrong. The updated graphics were dull and lifeless compared to the bright colors of the original, and the inclusion of a third dimension to the plane of movement made the entire game feel “different.” Just the simple fact that you could move and attack up and down instead of just left and right was awkward. The beloved soundtrack and comical voice effects from the original were butchered, changed for the worse, or removed completely.
Also, the remake was based off of the arcade version, not the far more memorable (read: superior) SNES port. A few bosses were jarringly different (Tokka and Rahzar vs. Bebop and Rocksteady), and a few were neglected completely (the Rat King, and the incredibly memorable first-person Shredder fight).
And finally, the game was still only thirty minutes long. Multiplayer was a joke; if one person left the game, you had to start from the first level every time, then all the other players got booted as well. No “Press Start to Play” flashing at the top of the screen, inviting other Xbox Live-ers to hop in and out anytime. There were no extra modes, and no unlockable original game. There was nothing.
A potential “must-buy” turned into a “buy-then-regret-thirty-minutes-later”. I found the original SNES cart at a pawn shop for $19.99 and didn’t experience a single second of buyer’s remorse. Where did the magic go?
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, conversely, did everything right: tight controls and character balancing. Also, the developers did an excellent job of improving the audio while leaving the good stuff alone. Beautiful HD graphics without additional frames of animation ensured the game’s timing felt as perfect now as it did in 1994. Similarly, it also featured some terrific online play. It “felt” like the original, but Capcom made it even better.
Updating a game to be fun today should take as much work as creating a new game from scratch. Otherwise, it will just be a cheap, quick, cop-out that will make the fans of the original hate you, and it won’t net you any new ones. Remember what was great about the original? Bring that back with enhancements we didn’t even know we wanted.
Treat it with the same reverence that the fans have for it. It’s not just another game to them – it was their childhood bonding with their father, or the first time they’ve been able to step into someone else’s shoes, or a way to keep their mind off of their uneventful life by freeing a virtual princess. We remember. Can you?
In a year so flushed with quality games, there is no room for remakes that don’t capture the essence of the source material. If I truly wanted to play the original game, I’d go out and buy it if I didn’t already have it. But, if developers improve upon it, I may just have to give them my money once more, and relive my childhood all over again.