Thursday, April 4, 2024

Video Game Remakes/Remasters: Loving Restorations of Beloved Classics or Lazy Cash-ins?

G - Joe D. and I are back to talk more video games! This time our topic is a divisive one in the gaming community: remakes. Before we get to the impact of remakes on the gaming industry, have you been playing any remakes recently? And if so, how was the experience?

Joe D. - Yes. The main game in my rotation right now is indeed a remake. Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is the sequel to Final Fantasy VII Remake, and it’s the second game of a planned trilogy. With this project, Square Enix’s Creative Business Unit 1 has split the original title into three separate games. You’ll have to play them all to experience the total experience that the original had to offer. I know this may be sacrilege as someone who has enjoyed multiple FF games in the past, but I’ve never played more than a few hours of the original VII (due to lack of funds as a kid, and as an adult finding the game didn’t age well). This is a whole new experience for me, but the buzz in the industry says that these games are doing the title justice. As a new player, I think they’re great and I look forward to seeing the story unfold. This is one of those excellent examples of how remakes can be used to bring in a new audience. How about you, any recooked releases on your plate?

G - Funny you mention that…I’ve never played FFVII, or any of the other 3D Final Fantasy games, so this is a chance for me to make up for that. And I think that’s one major benefit to remakes - in practical terms, these are new games to a lot of people. 

As for me, well, I’ve actually been playing a lot of remakes lately - but of games I did play when they were first released. I recently finished the Dead Space remake and am now about halfway through the Mass Effect Legendary Edition, which is a remastered version of the original trilogy (released on the Xbox 360). 

These are games I loved when they came out. But it’s also been a while - 16 years in the case of both Dead Space and the original Mass Effect. One interesting thing to chew on is how these games play today. Dead Space still feel current, as do Mass Effect 2 and 3. But the original Mass Effect feels like a relic from a bygone era. It was fun to revisit, the way it’s still fun to play NES games. But it also feels dated - and in that sense, I think it’s mainly going to appeal to older gamers looking for a trip down memory lane. ME2 and ME3, on the other hand, really don't feel dated at all. There are even some gameplay mechanics that other RPGs should - but haven’t - adopted. 

Here’s another thing…memory isn’t necessarily that accurate. Dead Space played almost exactly the way I remember it playing, but that hasn’t been the case at all for Mass Effect 2 or 3. I remember thinking it was the best installment in the trilogy, but didn’t even remember that there were new companions. They feel like brand new games to me in a lot of ways. 

So let’s shift to the controversy. Studios are releasing more and more remakes, but not all gamers like this trend. Are remakes a healthy or unhealthy trend?

Joe D. - Your reply to my question ties into the overall issue people are having with this new industry habit (which was heavily inspired by Sony). The dichotomy is drawn between remake and remaster. For instance, Dead Space is a complete remake, which is why it feels so good to play (so I’ve heard, it’s on my list of games to buy since I loved the original), but the original may not be so smooth. If it were just a remaster, then you may feel a bit of the clunk from the 2008 game. With the Mass Effect Trilogy remaster, you have the base 2007 game in Mass Effect, just with updated visuals and the ability to play on a modern platform. Without many updates to gameplay, it makes the game feel like a relic. You’re probably not having the same experience with Mass Effect 2 because it came out three years later when 3rd person shooters were ubiquitous in the industry and had many successful examples to learn from (Uncharted, Gears of War, inFamous, Dead Space, Resident Evil 5, etc.).

When you look at a studio like Rockstar Games, which was prolific in the PS2 era, people feel a wistfulness for the golden days of game releases from their favorite studios. In the PS2 era, Rockstar put out three Grand Theft Auto games. Since 2013, they’ve rereleased GTA V three times (the original, the PS4/XBO remaster, and the PS5/XS remaster), which has led to the creation of the meme below (ignore the punctuation). 

That’s not to say that we don’t have tons of games to play, but that’s due to there being more developers out there, especially indie devs. But the years of your favorite studio putting out four or five games in a generation are gone. Naughty Dog put out four original high-quality games on PS3, three of which were critically acclaimed; Uncharted 1-3, and The Last of Us. On PS4, that number went down to three games and two remasters; Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, The Last of Us Part II, and Uncharted 1-3 Remasters/The Last of Us Remastered. With PS5 we have received the incredibly well-done The Last of Us Part I remake (completely remade with stunning visuals and updated gameplay) and a remaster of TLoU Part II and Uncharted 4/Lost Legacy. No original game, and no announcement for one.

This is a signal that costs are rising and time for development is getting out of control. GTA VI is supposedly going to cost over one billion dollars to develop. To keep some of these devs afloat, they reduce the risk by releasing games they’ve already made and know sold well. Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut, Halo: MCC, God of War 1-3 Remastered, Gears of War Ultimate, and GTA V are just a handful of examples of this. In the case of Halo, the games had some time to stew, but Ghost of Tsushima just came out one year prior. It seems like a cash-in that could be ameliorated by adding an update to the game file, and not charging full price for each release. Some studios completely butcher their remaster, like the re-release of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - Definitive Edition, which was released to a 54 Metascore, despite each individual game releasing with an over 90 meta.

On the other hand, we have faithful remakes that recapture the imagination of fans and reintroduce the original with contemporary polish. These games are usually lauded for their ability to bring the past to the present as a respectful ode to some of gaming’s favorites. These games have the budget of a new title and it shows. The Last of Us Part 1, Dead Space, Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s Souls, and the recent Resident Evil Remakes are just a few examples.

I think the issue here is twofold. There has to be a balance between a remastered release and it’s cost to the consumer vs the release of original content. The more resources placed in these remasters (unless they’re fully outsourced), the fewer placed on new titles. Also, it doesn’t cost the developer as much to remaster something, so don’t charge us full price. The other issue is the irreverent nature of some of these re-releases. If you’re not going to do the original justice (as in the case of GTA and others), then don’t do it at all. It doesn’t help that they only keep reprinting money machines (yay bad side of  capitalism) instead of dredging up some old classics that may have done well critically, but not commercially, and bringing new life to them.

I've personally stopped buying remasters and will only get remakes. So G, have you felt like any studio has let you down or frustrated you from a lack of modern releases in favor of a re-release? Do you see this as harmful for the industry?

G - I’m probably not enough of a volume gamer to feel it personally, at least not yet - and given how long development cycles are for AAA games, it’s hard for me to truly understand the degree to which remakes distract from new titles. That said, it’s easy to see how that could be a problem; even in a best case scenario, a remake or remaster is going to take time, money and human resources that otherwise could be allocated to a new property.

But let’s look at it from the publisher’s perspective: games are just too damned expensive to make, which makes it very hard to turn a profit. Paul Tassi has written extensively about how AAA budgets are unsustainable - Sony, for example, spent $300m to make a Spiderman 2 game that was limited to PS consoles. It has apparently sold 10m copies, which is about $700m in revenue - but the margin is slimmer than it appears at first glance, because you have to consider marketing and distribution costs. Marketing alone can cost $150m for a AAA game

So that’s the stick. The carrot? Well, we now have almost 30 years of 3D console games to mine for quick wins. EA hasn’t released sale figures for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, but did say it has been played by more than 20 million people. A good chunk of those are likely on Gamepass, so you have to imagine that Microsoft paid them a boatload of money to put the remastered trilogy on their subscription service. But you also have to figure that sales have been strong too. So why wouldn’t publishers want to go this route? Lower cost, faster release time - and games that have retro appeal to old gamers like ourselves and feel like new releases to the kids. 

Now, that’s a separate issue from whether this is good for the industry. My personal take is that it depends on how often publishers go to the well. Right now we are talking about a handful of beloved classics, with more on the way (including the first game I played on PS2, Max Payne). But not every game from 1997-2015 needs to be remade in 2024. 

The worry is that games will end up where film and TV already are - awash in mediocre remakes that no one asked for or wants. There will be more game remakes, guaranteed - because the incentives are too strong and because corporations have a herd mentality. And yeah, that could create a situation where new IPs get crowded out. For now, though, I’m enjoying the experience of revisiting some of my favorites from days gone by.

Joe D - Could you imagine if Mass Effect Legendary Edition completely remade the original Mass Effect game instead of simply polishing it up and bringing it to modern platforms? I think I would have moved that right to the top of my list, full cost or not. I will say though, I’m glad that Mass Effect is getting all that playtime, it certainly deserves it.

Upon reflection, I believe this to be a bigger issue for PlayStation fans specifically. As you said, it doesn’t become too much of an issue unless the companies begin dipping into the well too frequently. While most publishers seem to have a solid balance of new IP, sequels, and re-releases, Sony is relying heavily on polishing their high-quality heavy hitters for republication. The balance that PlayStation consumers had become accustomed to has been skewed significantly, making it feel like as many (or more) remakes/remasters are releasing as much as new content.

I will admit that I am pleased to see certain titles get new light shed upon them, some of which I am eager to try. Persona 3 Reload is in my sights right now. If it weren’t for Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s cultural significance and critical performance, I would probably be playing Reload right now. Two remade games (though Rebirth is more of a modern reimagining than a 1:1 remake) are at the top of my list. Persona 3 from 2006 and Final Fantasy VII from 1997, twenty to thirty years, respectively, from their original releases, is an acceptable time frame. Unfortunately, I'm not one for nostalgia and the old days of gaming. I love cutting-edge graphics and storytelling and it's difficult for me to get into an old game I have no connection to. That's why I was never able to get through the original Final Fantasy VII when I tried to play it eight years ago (sacrilege, I know). I am thankful for the remakes with which care and respect have been afforded to the IP, they've allowed me to experience worlds I would not have otherwise.

With modern console and PC backward compatibility, anything released within the last ten years should receive a free update for a remaster. Remakes are a different story, but shouldn’t be brought out of the well unless they’ve had some time in the dark. Christopher Dring of Game Industry Biz says ten to twenty years is the sweet spot for a remake. On the flip side, in the same article, he says under five years is the best time for a remaster, especially when a new hardware platform is released. They want to catch the hype of the original game while it’s still relevant and bring it to a new audience with higher polish. It makes sense financially, but I don’t care for it.

All in all, I vote a hard yes for remakes. For remasters, just make them a free update (like they frequently do on Steam)  and only charge if there is brand-new playable content alongside the update. If someone wants a new copy, it should come at a steep discount to the original price. I’m not against the practice one hundred percent, and there are people who benefit who have never played the remastered game/franchise, but I don’t want every other announcement to be a remaster. Thoughts?

G - That would be the ideal situation for fans. But I don’t see it going that way because everyone right now needs steady revenues. Plus Mass Effect: Legendary Edition did require a lot of work - not only are the graphics optimized, but there have been some pretty significant changes to ME2 and ME3. It’s true - we are not talking remake on the scale of Dead Space, let alone Final Fantasy VII. But things have been tightened up nicely.

What I could see is Microsoft (and most likely Sony at some later date) paying for remasters that go exclusively on their streaming services. If you buy into the idea that the subscription/streaming model is going to replace physical media and perpetual licenses, which I do, this solves a big problem - making sure gamers continue to see value in the service over time.

Okay, final question - since we both like the idea of remakes, what are three 3D-era games you’d like to see remade? Here are a few that spring to mind:

1. Splinter Cell Trilogy - the best stealth games of all time. For the remake I suggest turning them into one game a la Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

2. Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay - probably the best movie spinoff game I’ve ever played

3. Deus Ex - I’ve played through this one at least 4x. Now, this would have to be a major remake, as there’s no way to remaster a game from 2000

Joe D - Great question. I’m going to give you three that I’d like to see from a nostalgic standpoint, and then a quick three that I never had the chance to play and would love to see brought to the present.

1.  Breath of Fire (especially BoF III) series by Capcom - Great turn based JRPG series with memorable stories and characters.

2. Persona 4 Golden - Completely overhauled like Persona 3 Reload.

3. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and IV: Oblivion - Updated visuals, combat, and waypoint systems would be fantastic.

And for three I’ve never played that I’d love to; Chrono Trigger series, Final Fantasy VI, and The Legend of Dragoon

Regardless of whichever remakes we get, I hope that the love and respect that went into the original titles is present on their re-release. I’d love to feel some of that magic that the original developers intended.

G - it’s funny, I almost included Skyrim in my 3, as it’s my favorite game of all time. But it did get a recent remaster, which I believe is just a graphical update - no major changes to gameplay that I’m aware of. So I’m not sure that one will be in the cards for a good decade. But who knows - maybe I’m wrong! By then we might even have a new Elder Scrolls game. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.