The Debate Over Video Game Remasters and Remakes

In 1959, the jazz trumpet player Miles Davis recorded the album Kind of Blue. It was a collaboration between other legendary musicians such as John Coltrane on saxophone and Bill Evans on piano. In the album Miles Davis experimented with Modal Jazz, a free-floating departure from jazz’s typical style of improvisation based on tight chord progression. The album is only 5 songs long, but they are the most important 5 songs Davis ever recorded. Kind of Blue is Davis’s best-selling album. Some critics consider it the most important jazz album ever made. Anyone with an interest in music, particularly jazz musicians, should study the album; you could even argue that any human’s life would benefit from listening to it at least once in their lives.

The video game industry could learn a lot from other industries about preserving their history.

Now imagine that Kind of Blue never got released after that initial 1959 vinyl. A milestone of music, a Colossus of human creativity, stuck on technology that the world no longer uses — well most of the world no longer uses. My father has a vinyl collection, and some of my music friends prefer vinyl, but the general population might not know what a vinyl album even is, especially the younger generations.

Thankfully, Kind of Blue got re-released multiple times on CD, which was the mainstream media of the 1990s, and nowadays you can easily find it on Spotify and listen to it for free. Many of the later re-releases have remastered the sound and added bonus tracks with alternative takes from the original 5 songs. A special 50-year anniversary edition was released and is also available to listen to.

Many LucasArts Point-And-Click Adventure games have been remastered for the PC, and they look amazing. The best part is, you can toggle the visuals back to the original look, including the original menu commands.

Our culture needs art to be preserved, especially as new media is introduced and old ways of delivering the art become sidelined. The same holds true for video games. Emulation is certainly an option, but the general video game consumer doesn’t seem to want to bother setting up an emulator, and I understand that. That leaves video game preservation up to the publishers. These companies have to decide what they want to do with their libraries of historically important games. Should they make a no-frills port to modern hardware, bundle them into compilations with galleries taken from the game’s development, or remake the game entirely?

I’ve seen a spectrum of debates about this topic. Some players believe that almost every good game from the past should be remastered, given modern controls, and given updates to its game design. No game, even the masterpieces of yesterday, are perfect. So if given the chance, why shouldn’t developers try to revisit their past works and try to correct their mistakes?

And then there are the players that see these re-releases as greedy cash-grabs, or as soulless products lacking in creativity. After all, the resources put into these remasters could’ve gone to creating a new game. If we already have the old game, then why bother rehashing the same experience? Nothing could perfectly match the original game anyway, so why bother?

These arguments pop up every time a new major game gets put back on the market. In just the past few months alone, I’ve heard these negative and positive reactions regarding The Last of Us: Part 1, Metroid Prime Remastered, and Dead Space Remake. And the issue isn’t going to change any time soon. I’m sure it’ll come up again when Advance Wars 1+2 Reboot Camp and Resident Evil 4 Remake comes out.

For this post, I’d like to analyze these positions and hopefully arrive at a more nuanced conclusion than what I’ve seen so far. I believe that both the original games and the re-releases have their own merits, and there’s no single “definitive” way to play any video game, so we might as well celebrate the re-releases and the original games based on their own terms.

This was how you had to play Game Boy Color games, in direct sunlight, so that you could actually see the screen. This method worked for its time, and I still enjoy it, but it’s not exactly approachable to modern players.

“It Sounds Better on Vinyl” …Or Does It?

Let’s return to Miles Davis’s jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue. I haven’t heard this particular album on the original vinyl, but I have heard plenty of other vinyl albums in my life to know how they sound and why there’s a crowd of enthusiasts for them. Without getting too lost in technical jargon, vinyl is a direct analogue recording of the sound, exactly as the musicians played it. CDs, mp3s, and music streaming are digital media, meaning that it’s computer code that then gets made into sound, losing small details in the process. The general sound is the same, but those with a particular ear, especially those who grew up in the vinyl era, can tell the difference.

As a newcomer to Doom, I greatly appreciated the remaster for Nintendo Switch with dual analog stick controls.

That being said, vinyl has its own drawbacks. The album can physically wear and degrade over time. The hiss, crackle, and pop might sound distracting to some listeners. You can’t take the music with you anywhere you go — you’re stuck playing it in a room. And as I said before, there are far fewer vinyl owners out there now than in the past. It’s a niche way to enjoy music nowadays. If I were a musician, I’d only put my album on vinyl if I knew I was popular enough to merit such a production.

Hearing music on vinyl is its own separate experience, with its own pros and cons. You get to hear the album as it was originally heard by its first listeners, recreating a more “historical” context. There’s a special kind of magic in doing that. It deserves to have a place in the music sphere, even if it’s relegated to a vocal minority.

The same applies for original games. Whether it’s played on original hardware, ported without any extras, or emulated in a throwback compilation, you’re attempting, to some degree, to recreate the game as it was released in the past. I wish I could travel back in time to the Christmas of 1998 and play Crash Bandicoot 2 on my Sony PlayStation, but instead I get to enjoy the digital emulated version on my PS Vita. It’s not exactly the same experience — I no longer hear the whirring of the PlayStation’s motor as it reads the disc, and the Vita’s L2 and R2 buttons are mapped to the back touchpad — but it looks close enough to get me in the retro mindset. I adore the sharp and wobbly polygons and that crunchy sound design. I still enjoy the remake found in the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, but the original version is special to me.

Panzer Dragoon, a masterpiece stuck on the Sega Saturn, thankfully got a remake to modern platforms.

Original games have a valuable place in the gaming industry, and they deserve to be preserved to the best of our ability. We get to see the industry’s visuals and sound design evolving over time. We get to see game design working around hardware limitations. We experience the different ways that developers tried to evoke feelings in a player. They are a valuable teaching tool. While the market appeal might be limited to older gamers and retro enthusiasts, it’s important to have the option available. You could argue that original hardware is the most authentic, but unfortunately the high prices of the retro gaming landscape create a gate around that accessibility. The next best option, then, is to port and create emulated compilations with the options to accommodate both purists and casual consumers alike.

So it sounds like that’s the end of the argument, right? Original games are supreme and the most we’d ever need for preservation is to just emulate. Remasters/Remakes are just lazy cash grabs, right? Actually, there’s more to it than that…

Art Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned… Unless You Get to Finish It Again

As nice as it is to play a compilation of old ROMs, we still have another barrier to overcome. Sure people can now buy these games, but they still adhere to control schemes and game design choices that people might see as outdated, frustrating, or clunky. In other words, the accessibility of the game is still limited. It’s intimidating to play old games where you don’t know what to do, or the control scheme doesn’t feel natural. I could sit on my porch and yell at the kids, “You think Mega Man 2 is too hard? Just suck it up and get good!”, but something tells me that that won’t convince them to try it. Even a gentle or charismatic attempt to persuade people might not work. However, if a game studio remasters / remakes a game, keeping a modern control scheme in mind and updating the game design, this would make the game more appealing to the mainstream audience. It might even spark interest in the original game.

The Game Boy Color version of Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is now available for Nintendo Switch owners to try. It’s a brilliantly-designed game that did a lot within the Game Boy’s limitations. However, because the Game Boy was limited to 2 face buttons, you have to pause the game often to switch items. It might feel clunky for modern players to spend so much time in the menu. As much as I love the original, I admit that the 2019 remake for the Nintendo Switch has a much better control scheme, and the game flows much faster now. I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to try the remake first.

The other problem people say about video game remakes and remasters is that they are less creative than an original video game. However, I’d like to challenge that notion. You could argue that remakes and remasters have just as much creative potential as a sequel does. Remakes allow developers to reinterpret past works, creating something new and (hopefully) just as valuable as the original piece. They can change the emotional tone, add an epilogue, or even create its own meta commentary on the idea of remaking a video game.

Let’s go back to another example from art history. Walt Whitman notoriously returned to his most famous work Leaves of Grass time and time again, producing several different versions of it. While overall it’s the same book, its tone and themes change over the different editions. There’s no “definitive” way to read Leaves of Grass. You’re allowed and even encouraged to analyze each edition as its own separate work, loosely related to the other versions. You could even argue that later editions are sequels or meta-commentary from Whitman. Leaves of Grass is not one single book, but a spider web of poems and books all connected to each other.

As much as I love the Metroid II remakes, neither of them quite capture the claustrophobic original.

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is Metroid II: Return of Samus and its remakes. The original game certainly has many flaws and limitations due to the Game Boy hardware. Even though it’s now available through Nintendo Switch Online, its design still keeps it less accessible. That being said, I have a soft spot for it, and I think it’s a unique Game Boy game. I think it has value on its own, warts and all. But here comes AM2R, which is a mostly faithful remake created and preserved by fans. The game recreates Metroid II‘s visuals (in the style of Metroid Zero Mission), expands the map, and fleshes out the details of the world. Not only that, it adds new bosses, integrates lore from across the Metroid franchise, and is constantly getting updates with new features. However, I find the fights against the titular Metroids to be finnicky and frustrating, and some additions feel out of place. Finally, there’s Nintendo’s official remake on the 3DS called Metroid: Samus Returns. It takes a dramatically different approach, emphasizing action and evolving the combat system. However, it has changed the tone of the original, and it has its own set of flaws. The fandom has struggled identifying a “definitive” way to play Metroid II, and to me, that’s perfectly fine. Each game has its own quirks. The more I play them, the more I appreciate them on their own terms.

In Conclusion

Video game remakes and remasters have been a part of the industry for years, and they will probably always remain that way. Rather than scrutinize a remake based on its faithfulness to some “gold standard” original, or disregarding an original as outdated, I believe that both games can exist without one replacing the other. Original games allow players a chance to peer back in time and experience older media, including its faults and glorious achievements. Remasters and remakes, on the other hand, allow players to see a new interpretation that might also be more accessible to them. Problems and mistakes will exist in both. You might prefer one or the other, and that’s okay. The best part is having the option to experience either kind — or for a geek like me, to experience both.

Sources / Further Reading:

One thought on “The Debate Over Video Game Remasters and Remakes

  1. I’ll gladly revisit an old favorite – especially if it’s easier to play now. Additionally, I bought the remaster of Day of the Tentacle and wouldn’t have had the time to play the clunky original which relies on some antiquated mechanics. I beat the remaster in just a few (long and very fun) days!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s