The Seven Stages of Videogame Remakes

It’s been a topic at the forefront of gaming for the entirety of the last generation and a significant part of the one before. The videogame industry these days is old enough to look back and draw from its past, and in an age where some games of yore are ridiculously difficult to experience with anything approaching legality, re-releases and remakes are as commonplace as they are guaranteed to attract online discontent. In many cases, they also represent a near-guaranteed source of revenue for publishers keen on mining nostalgia, so whether you love them, hate them, or pay them no mind until one of your favourites arrives in the spotlight, they aren’t going anywhere.

I’m not here to defend the practice of re-releasing games in various stages, however. Some of that may happen accidentally as I write, but the topic has been covered to death, including on this very blog years ago. KingK also made a pretty good YouTube video on the subject earlier this year that is worth a watch. No, more interesting to me at this very moment is this idea that the quality and validity of some of these re-releases oftentimes seems to hinge on what labels people are willing to attach to each one. As with most things in life, enjoyment is regularly determined by expectation. So I feel like it’s worthwhile to break down and categorise those labels as I see them defined. Because seven is a poetic number that looks great in post headers, that is how I will attempt to divide them. This is all based on my feelings on the topic – and I can definitely see people disagreeing on the order of the categories – but I’ll try to articulate with examples as best I can.
..

Port

Your basic “Take Game A from Platform B and get it to run on Platform C” situation. Nothing more, nothing less. This is regularly seen when a period of platform exclusivity breaks and a title shows up on a competing platform within the same generation, whether that period was motivated by a publishing deal or the game in question was simply developed with one target platform in mind and the ensuing gremlins from the porting process take time to smooth over. Because timed exclusivity within the console space is a rarity nowadays, the platform that is usually either early or late to the party is the PC, but you see more variety of circumstance the lower down you go on the production budget scale. For every big-budget early access title on the Steam/Epic Games storefront, every surprising eleventh-hour Yakuza/Square RPG arrival, there’s a “Nindie” debuting on Switch first, a small ID@Xbox game flying the Microsoft flag straight out of the gate. When these games inevitably cross over to find new homes – grabbing a handy second wave of buzz in the process – they invariably do so without significant gameplay changes or extra content that hasn’t already been added to their initial versions.

The overwhelming majority of PC ports do offer more flexible graphical options due to the open nature of the PC environment (usually related to resolution, frame rate caps/unlocks, and previously unavailable visual effect toggles), just as a huge amount of Switch ports require technical downgrades by very imaginative and talented people in order to run at all (The folks at Bluepoint and Panic Button come to mind). But if that’s all she wrote, you’re looking at a bread-and-butter port between platforms. There are many who hold the untouched port as the most ideal form of game preservation, and many more who don’t see the point of a fresh release of an older game if the developers don’t update anything, but the simple fact remains that basic ports allow more people to play more videogames and they’re an unavoidable part of the landscape.
.

Enhanced Port

These next two categories are where things get muddiest for me, but I’m fairly sure I’ve got my head around them. A game qualifies as an enhanced port in my mind if there has been little to no discernible graphical work done under a game’s hood since it’s original release, thereby qualifying it as a straight port if not for one or two clear and significant gameplay changes that have been implemented. Weirdly enough, this opens the door for re-releases to occur on the same platform as their source material, a practice for which the Kingdom Hearts franchise used to be infamous and something the Pokemon main series continues to do to this day. This is definitely a curious semantic pocket of the industry, because while you can theoretically port a game to the platform it’s already on, without any noteworthy enhancements such an endeavour would be literally pointless.

Of course, most of the qualifiers for this category actually do cross over to new platforms, and as you might expect if you’ve invested in any of their recent consoles, Nintendo features heavily among them. Of late the notoriously port-happy current crop of Big N executives have greenlit a veritable catalogue of exports from the tragic Wii U to the hit-making Switch, packing little more than a resolution bump in the visuals department but almost always carrying a smattering of bullet points to set the new version apart. Hyrule Warriors packs new character skins and integrates content from multiple previous versions of the game, New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe and DK Country Tropical Freeze add new characters and abilities, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe fundamentally changes the flow of gameplay with more granular kart stats and an extra item slot per player (in addition to new characters). Older examples of this include the Gamecube release of Sonic Adventure 2 with an entire multiplayer mode in tow, the transformed controls and gameplay balance of Resident Evil 4‘s Wii edition and the enabling of the mythical “Stop n’ Swap” functionality in the Xbox 360 version of Banjo-Kazooie.


.

Remaster

For the sheer amount of use this label gets (second only to the word “remake” itself), you’d swear people would agree more on what it means. Based on a term used for decades in music production, the remaster ideally focuses on adding new textures – sometimes even models – within an existing graphical framework (oftentimes some parts of the original game remain untouched) in order to dress it up for a newer, more powerful platform. As a result, I am yet to see a remaster that doesn’t appear on a different platform from its original issue, which immediately distinguishes the category from the enhanced port. What’s more, prominent new gameplay features are not required and often don’t materialise within videogame remasters. In keeping with the musical origin of the term, new sound mixes are common companions to the visual re-skinning, though they are by no means required.

Think Dark Souls Remastered, Skyrim Special Edition and Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remaster on the humbler end of the change list (lots of new textures, some model adjustments, lighting changes), Final Fantasy Type-0 HD and Okami HD on the higher end (whole new HD models, obscenely high resolution texture replacements), and Wind Waker HD/Twilight Princess HD/Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age in the camp that plugs in new textures while also packing noticeable gameplay tweaks. Crucially a remaster rarely plays differently moment-to-moment from the last time it was released, aside from any added fluidity borne from a possible boosted frame rate. Put two assets side by side on different versions of the game and though one will look better, both will usually be in the same place and react the same way to the player’s input.
.

Atlus-Tier Re-Release

Yep, that’s right, the output from Atlus – specifically their Persona Team – deserves its own category right in the middle of the list. The original idea for this post actually stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend about Persona series re-releases and how difficult they are to properly categorise. No other prominent game developer puts so much effort – and time – into making sure an existing game takes on incredible new life without losing its identity, or even really looking all that different from a glance. Though the PSP re-release of Persona 2: Innocent Sin probably doesn’t qualify for this category – as it was more of an enhanced port – the sheer time afforded to the development teams behind each subsequent Persona re-release truly is unparalleled in this industry. After blowing away expectations for a re-release with Persona 3 FES on the PS2 in 2008, the company took 3-4 years between Persona 3 – Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4 – Persona 4 Golden, and Persona 5 – Personal 5 Royal, each time setting a standard no other publisher seems willing or able to match. In fairness, if the Persona series wasn’t so highly-regarded it would be hard to imagine a world where releasing a game that looks halfway between a port and a remaster makes you any decent sum of money. But Atlus makes these games anyway, and so far they are knocking them out of the park, each time adding unruly hours to an already lengthy average playtime. With substantial additional time sinks of the gameplay and story variety iced with delicious presentational overhauls, these packages are acid trip director’s cuts bursting at the seams with treats for new and returning players alike.

Now if you were to try hard enough, you could probably try to fit some non-Persona games into this category, but that troublesome additional story content qualifier makes things tricky. You might say Tales of Vesperia counts if you ignore the Japan-only PS3 release, as on paper the multi-platform Definitive Edition ticks all the requisite boxes over the Xbox 360 original. The only other candidate I can think of is another JRPG – the upcoming Dragon Quest XI S on Nintendo Switch – but at the time of writing it’s unclear if the improved music, battle options, voice acting and extra sub-stories will be patched retroactively into the PC and PS4 versions. This is mostly a Persona thing, cause Atlus seems to be the only company crazy enough to do it.
.

Remake

Yeah yeah, I’m including the word remake as one of the categorisations of remake, but I assure you that it’s for good reason. My main goal while doing this is, after all, clarity, and the way people tend to use this ever-popular r-word is anything but clear. To me a remake inherently implies the oh-so-common suffix “from the ground up”, putting it in its own defined tier above the humbler goals of the remaster and indicating a titanic technical effort on the part of the developers bringing it to (renewed) life. Unlike everything I’ve covered so far, a project of this scale and ambition presupposes that it has been a decent amount of time since the original release – long enough for the source game to have been out of circulation and/or fashion for a while.

The aim of a remake is usually to recapture the abstract “feel” of the original as closely as possible while using entirely new building blocks, all the way down to the physics engine powering the flow of movement. This allows for varying degrees of stylistic freedom depending on how closely the new game is attempting to mirror the old. The night-and-day differences from PS1 to PS4 inherent in Spyro Reignited Trilogy and Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogyboth piloted by Toys For Bob – represent a complete visual overhaul that hews closer to the “spiritual” line of remake, while Grezzo’s mightily impressive recreations of the two Zelda games on 3DS manage to inhabit the memories of playing on the N64 so effectively that it initially feels almost disappointing – until you see side-by-side comparisons and truly take in the tremendous differences. Remakes are also known for remixing, re-recording or otherwise rearranging audio, but that’s where the requirements stop. Most modern remakes are content achieving their mood-centric mission statement, only making gameplay or pacing changes where a well-known flaw or imbalance needs addressing. Or, in the case of the early 2000s remake of Resident Evil, just to mess with the player.
.

Reimagining

Though one of the most expensive undertakings on this page, the reimagined release seems to be enjoying a surge of attention at the moment. And for good reason, because it’s kind of a new entry in the ever-expanding mess of remake categorisation. The three most prominent examples that come to mind are all extremely current – this January’s Resident Evil 2, the upcoming re-emergence of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (which already has a remaster under its belt), and the somewhat misleadingly-named Final Fantasy VII Remake. The PS4 release of Ratchet & Clank from a few years ago probably also counts, come to think of it, as does the multiplayer half of Conker: Live & Reloaded.

The people behind these games take iconic, beloved source material and believe so strongly in updating the experience for a contemporary audience that the resulting product is essentially recognisable by name, characters and setting only. The flow and content of the story is near-unrecognisable and the gameplay is different enough that it could have anchored its own game without so much as a second glance from the public, but a reimagining still features just enough elements from the original that it can still share an exact name. More homage than renewal, the advantages of a reimagining are uniquely tantalising, as it can exist alongside its source without needing to replace it. In theory this minimises the avenues for discontent and complaints among a fanbase – as long as the reimagined release is good – but we all know what the internet is like.
.

Reboot

The logical endpoint of the idea to capitalise on existing intellectual property, the reboot is unbeholden to just about all of the restrictions I’ve outlined so far. My favourite example has to be the most recent Tomb Raider trilogy, but there’s also the infamous DmC: Devil May Cry, the less infamous Infamous: Second Son, the ill-fated Advance Wars: Days of Ruin and plenty more. A reboot is functionally a sequel/prequel in every department that matters except that it doesn’t share explicit continuity with any other games in the franchise. Conceptually, a reboot allows a developer to explore ideas that may not have fit in with an existing franchise via a narrative blank slate while enjoying the built-in interest – and likely sales – of the series name attached to the project.

Such projects are naturally fraught with danger, however, as if fans feel like a previous continuity was left unfinished you face an uphill battle to earn their affection back. Look no further than the aforementioned DmC and Days of Ruin. One way to combat this is the so-called “soft reboot” – think the critically-adored PS4 God of War – a nominal sequel or prequel in terms of story that completely overhauls just about everything else making it a videogame. As the costs of game development continue to rise and publishers look for safer ways to package their new releases, I’d expect to see more of these.
.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

So, in summary:

.
.
No doubt these definitions will continue to change with the industry, but I hope this has at least helped you consider how this kind of categorisation can help keep expectations realistic when a game’s glorious return is announced. Or at least given you an insight into my slightly unhealthy obsession with ordering things.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Anon from Croatia on July 22, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    Confirmed: Last Of Us is just a remake of Super Mario Bros World 1-1

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: