It's been a bumper crop year for video game remasters. In the last 12 months alone, we've seen current-gen remasters of Demon's Souls, Nioh, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Age of Empires III, SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom and Warcraft III - and that's just for starters. Sci-fi fans are currently enjoying the Mass Effect Legendary Edition remasters, while The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD remaster is just a few months away.
Based on the aggressive release schedule, you'd be forgiven for thinking that gamers don't want to play anything except remasters of old favorites. Indeed, there's a very cynical school of thought that states remasters exist only to minimize developer effort while maximizing publisher profit. Why make something new and risky when you can make fans very happy (and willing to pony up cash) simply by porting an old game to a new console?
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I recently discussed this topic on a TechRadar web show called Seriously? Tom Farthing from GamesRadar, Matt Philliips from TechRadar, Sherri Smith from Laptop Mag and I put our heads together to see if we could come to a definitive conclusion about video game remasters. Are they a boon for nostalgic players, a necessary evil for a fast-moving industry or a greedy cash-grab?
First things first: If you have 20 minutes to spare, you can watch our discussion on YouTube and find out for yourself. It's also embedded below:
If not: I took the balanced approach. Video game remasters are not as good as getting something brand-new, and it's a little troubling that publishers often treat them as such. On the other hand, we live in a world with abysmal video game preservation. If we don't occasionally refresh old games for newer systems, how will we revisit them - and how will younger gamers discover them for the first time?
Why video game remasters are bad
First off: I'm glad that the Seriously? crew let me take the middle path when it comes to remasters. Like many things in the gaming world, they have some very real pros and cons. There's no denying, however, that my feelings on remasters are generally more negative than positive.
My main argument against remasters is that they inculcate a weird sense of loyalty and gratitude in gamers. Every time a high-profile remaster gets announced, look at the reactions it gets. At in-person events, there's raucous applause and cheering. On social media, there are ALL-CAPS PAEANS TO THE ORIGINAL and gushing thanks to the publishers for bringing back a beloved part of their childhood. (It's almost always something from childhood; nostalgia is powerful, and publishers are well aware of that.)
I'm all for people being able to play what they want, on whatever systems they currently own. What I don't get, however, is the breathless excitement for something that players have already experienced - in many cases, dozens of times. (Ask the people who were really excited for Mass Effect Legendary Edition how many times they'd already played the trilogy.)
While remasters do indeed take a lot of work, there's no denying that they're generally easier to produce than coming up with a whole game - story, mechanics, art style, everything - from whole cloth. That's true for new entries in an existing series, and doubly true for daring new IPs. The idea that developers are doing players a favor by feeding them comfort food (and often charging them full price for the privilege) is a bizarre and somewhat insidious form of brand loyalty.
Big companies, with enough resources to develop any number of cool new ideas, put out the same old stuff. The gaming public interprets this as an act of magnanimity. The public plays the same old stuff one more time - and when the remastered remaster comes out a few generations later, you'd better believe that they'll play it again.
Granted, no one is forcing anyone to buy and play remasters, and replaying old games is as valid a way as any to spend your leisure time. But it's a bit unusual just how uncritical the gaming public can be about remasters in general, considering how demanding it is regarding every other aspect of game development.
Why video game remasters are good
On the other hand, there's a reason why publishers keep pumping out remasters: because gamers really like them. A well-made remaster genuinely makes a lot of people happy, from the Ratchet & Clank Collection on PS3, to the Mass Effect Legendary Edition just a week ago. Replaying good games is fun; games are easier to replay on modern hardware; a good old game is a better use of your time than a lackluster new game. There's nothing inherently cynical here.
However, I'd argue that the primary good of video game remasters isn't replaying old favorites. Rather, it's that a whole new generation of players gets to experience great games, which are often hard-to-find in their original forms.
Let's take the recent Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Nintendo Switch as an example. This remastered collection included Super Mario 64 (N64), Super Mario Sunshine (GameCube) and Super Mario Galaxy (Wii), all in one modern package. From a technical perspective, it was not a great remaster, suffering from bugs, limited availability and a general lack of meaningful improvements.
On the other hand, all three games are excellent entries in the long-running, kid-friendly Mario series. The most recent game in Super Mario 3D All-Stars came out on the Wii, which Nintendo discontinued in 2013. A young Mario fan with a Switch today may well have been born after that. It's not reasonable to expect a child - or their parents - to track down three retro consoles just to play a few Mario games.
From The Last of Us to Resident Evil 3, there will always be gamers who were too young to experience a game the first time around, or who just lacked the necessary hardware. We can't expect every single gamer to become a retro collector as well. If we want new players to experience old games, then publishers need to release those old games on new consoles.
Video game preservation
Still, this wouldn't be so much of an issue if the state of video game preservation weren't so dire. Of the three major console manufacturers, only Microsoft has made a significant commitment to backwards compatibility - and even then, it's not as though you can play the whole Xbox/Xbox 360 library on an Xbox Series X/S. Sony nearly shut down the PS3 and Vita digital stores; the PSP store is still doomed. Nintendo has a paltry selection of retro games in its Switch Online service, none of which you can buy à la carte. The Wii Shop went dark years ago; the 3DS eShop has followed in many territories.
The message seems clear enough: Video game publishers don't want you to buy old games, even if you have the right hardware to play them. At the same time, publishers have also cracked down on ROM sites, so you can't even download old games from third-party sources. Many old games are flat-out impossible to play for the average consumer, and only slightly easier for tech-savvy retro enthusiasts who understand the ins and outs of emulation.
There's no easy solution for video game preservation, although it's worth noting that movies face a similar problem. In fact, half of all films produced before 1950 are probably lost forever.
Remasters are one way to ensure that beloved video games stay with us for generations to come. They're also one way to ensure that we come back to the same handful of familiar series over and over, instead of demanding more innovative fare. Let's try to find a wise balance.