Redefining the Remake
Remakes are helping to preserve - and enhance - celebrated franchises
We all have that one game from when we were a kid. That one game we know inside and out, and no matter how many times we beat it, we can always go back and find something new to enjoy or feel the comfort of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is one of the most powerful influences on the games we choose to play, and developers absolutely know this. While the last few years have seen many new IPs emerge from various teams, more and more are looking back and making something new out of the old. In an industry disproportionately impacted by generational technological leaps, efforts to restore and preserve these old experiences have become a very important conversation.
Video games are tied down to the hardware they're released on; to experience a game in a reliable way, you usually must have the hardware that the game was designed for. Unlike books, music, and film, there is no standardised way to experience every video game, which can be seen as a blessing and a curse. While the discussion about console exclusivity is an interesting one, it doesn't tackle the root of the issue: hardware.
For those wanting to revisit games from their childhood, it can sometimes be quite an expensive endeavor. As physical games go out of print, prices to purchase them from second-hand sources can fluctuate on a whim according to demand at that particular time. It can be a struggle to go back and find the games we enjoyed, so what's the solution?
In terms of 'official' solutions, the humble remake and remaster come to mind first. Over the last few years in particular, studios have seemingly taken notice of demand for older legacy franchises, with a lot of previously dormant characters coming back sporting an HD coat of paint. But the idea of rereleasing older products for a new audience is hardly a new concept. A prominent early example is the SNES release of Super Mario All-Stars in 1993, a compilation title of the original 4 Super Mario games for the NES, remade from the ground up for the SNES, featuring significantly more detailed visuals and music across the board. This idea has held fast in the industry and is still practised to this very day.
The example of Super Mario All-Stars is a relatively cut-and-dry case of what a "remake" can be considered. But modern developments have certainly blurred the lines between what can be considered a "remake" and what must be classified with the adjacent term "remaster". These two ideas have become exceptionally nebulous and arguably unwieldy when it comes to describing the different ways that companies restore their old IPs in the modern gaming landscape.
Certain re-releases such as the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection of 2012 are very good examples of the "remaster" - the same game at the core but brought up to snuff with higher resolution and general performance enhancements that come with newer hardware. During that console generation, many of these HD remasters were seen, with other legacy titles like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus of Team Ico fame getting similar treatments. With the inconsistency of backward compatibility, these are a helpful and convenient way to pick up your favourite games and see them a bit clearer too.
These sorts of remasters are still seen to this day, with recent releases including the "Kingdom Hearts - All in One Package" on current hardware that aims to put to bed the Kingdom Hearts legacy of titles being spread across every piece of hardware imaginable outside of your electric fridge.
This was an era where "remake" and "remaster" were very clearly separated from each other, and working out the difference was a relatively simple affair. When comparing the original PlayStation version of Resident Evil against the extensively detailed and rebuilt interpretation of the Spencer Mansion in the GameCube remake of the same game, you can immediately tell the newer game is a different beast entirely. Despite maintaining the hallmark fixed-camera gameplay of Resident Evil legend, the remake included narrative and gameplay elements that were cut from the original PS1 version, while still maintaining the DNA of the survival-horror experience that people know and love. Interestingly this remake, which was released in 2002, received its own HD remaster in 2014!
This style of "remake" is also still seen to this day, with games like 2019's The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening as a prime example. This release brought a previously handheld-exclusive Zelda game to a home console (yes the Switch is a hybrid but you know what I mean), enabling it to come into its own audience in a new generation. By maintaining the traditional top-down view of the original game, Nintendo enabled Link's Awakening to compliment the pre-existing Zelda games on Switch with an alternative flavour that does not compete necessarily with the majesty of Nintendo's 3D offerings, while experimenting with a charming new art-style.
For all intents and purposes, the examples given so far have shown themselves to be cut-and-dry instances of each type of rerelease. But recent efforts from developers and leaps in technology have ensured that returns to old franchises are able to do far more than they initially intended. Let's return to Resident Evil, and in particular, the trio of recent remakes in the franchise, in Resident Evil 2, 3 and the upcoming 4. While the original remake for Resident Evil was far more in line with the faithful examples mentioned above, Capcom's concerted effort over the last few years has united this trilogy of well-loved classics under a modernised umbrella of over-the-shoulder shooters. For Resident Evil 2 and 3, this marks a significant change in perspective and massively changes the way that the game plays out on an interactive level.
In spite of the different take on actual gameplay, the lore and story of the original Resident Evil games are respected and remade faithfully in a way to allow new audiences to access these old stories; any additions made to these remakes are generally done to add some extra wrinkles that feel neatly woven into the fabric of the original game, rather than changing the direction as a whole. Because of this approach, Resident Evil 2 was nominated as Game of the Year in 2019, alongside many other categories in the same show, it was big. Resident Evil 3 was developed as a companion piece to 2, to reflect the PS1 game, but was generally received fairly lukewarmly compared to its older brother. However, it was clear to see that Capcom were interested in getting players to re-experience the origins of Resident Evil after the breakout success of Resident Evil 7 in 2017, and that rollercoaster has not stopped yet.
Resident Evil 4 looks like a more radical departure from the source material, and this might be exactly what the title needs. Resident Evil 4 is heralded as one of the landmark video games of the sixth generation of consoles and has been a staple on modern platforms ever since; Resident Evil 4 has a legacy, and the remake looks to be injecting a new flavour into this classic that will surely bring a new and interesting way to experience such a well-loved title. With both games existing on the same system and both being able to be played, this distinction is important. Many were sceptical of Capcom needing to remake Resident Evil 4, and it appears that effort has been made to ensure that their worries are addressed, one way or another. I greatly look forward to re-experiencing this masterpiece through a new lens.
This leads us nicely to the other side of modern-day remakes, the big one. If there is one game throughout history that was arguably the most wanted remake in the entire industry, Final Fantasy VII would have been a contender. Final Fantasy VII was a landmark title in the PlayStation library and was singlehandedly responsible for establishing the franchise outside of Japan. It was the first game to be released the same as it was from Japan; for North Americans, this meant jumping from Final Fantasy III (which was actually Final Fantasy VI) to Final Fantasy VII. And for those in Europe, it was their first real experience with a Final Fantasy game that wasn't a watered-down spin-off. Luckily the legacy of Final Fantasy gets far easier to follow after this point.
The original Final Fantasy VII is lauded as one of the most influential games not only of its generation but of all time. A story that stood the test of time and while looking back on it, it can be easy to pick out the flaws and mistakes of the era, it has masterfully stood the test of time, with the protagonist Cloud becoming an honourary mascot for the franchise in crossover material like Super Smash Bros.! With a story that engaged millions and one of the most famous moments in video game history, it's absolutely no wonder why people were clamouring for a remake. With films like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children showing us intricately animated versions of our favourite characters, the stage was set for a remake to reimagine the original game like this.
Square Enix knew this and so used the iconic opening to the original game in a 2005 tech demo for the PS3, which only intensified discussions. Square was playing with fire at this point. Behind the scenes, things were steadily coming together, before the climactic reveal in 2015 of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, a multi-part series bringing back the classic and retelling it they envisaged those years ago.
And after years of waiting, the game was unleashed onto the world in early 2020 - of course, a game as culturally significant as the Final Fantasy VII Remake was released during one of the most defining parts of the last few years. And this so-called remake very quickly revealed that far more than just a remake was hiding in its two-disc packaging; despite being called Final Fantasy VII Remake, it has taken far more liberties with its source material than most of the other games mentioned.
In terms of gameplay, a more action-oriented system is introduced to emulate the fluid and action-packed fights of Advent Children, with each party member having their own distinctive fighting style that helps to set them apart. Maintaining the iconic materia system of the original game, Final Fantasy VII Remake is a bold new take on the well-loved original game that stuns in almost every way, from visuals and music to gameplay, it stands as a testament to the ambition of the original game.
Beginning as you would expect, the introduction of a meta-narrative partway through the game that examines the position of the audience in the retelling of a story as beloved as Final Fantasy VII definitely raises some questions about the type of game we might be playing. The introduction of the ambivalent Whispers creates an intriguing sense of push and pull within this game's story and is nothing short of ambitious as Square plays the risky game of changing one of their most well-regarded stories. When the characters in the game threaten to deviate from the original path of "destiny" (otherwise known as, the original game), these ghosts come in and shift the pieces around so that the story can continue as directed, for good or for bad.
By the end of the game, the writers have managed to accomplish what many thought was impossible, making us guess what the next game might hold. Final Fantasy VII is arguably one of the most spoiled games of all time, with the death of Aerith being one of the most famous plot revelations in gaming history. You might not know about the intricacies of the Nibelheim incident, but you do know that Aerith dies. By making the game as they have, Square-Enix has left fans theorising about whether or not she will face the same fate in the next instalment as well as the direction the rest of the series is going.
Which, for a title going by the name "Remake", is a remarkable achievement. This decision to radically change the story has no doubt ruffled feathers among the community, but I feel like the team behind Remake should be applauded for not going down the easy route. It would have been an easy sell to follow the same story throughout the trilogy, but the choice to create something brand new for us to wait on is ambitious. We can only hope it pays off in the end. With the second part of the trilogy set to be released this winter, entitled Rebirth, it won't be too long until we see the fruits of their work.
Square has even managed to blur the lines with their release of Crisis Core: Reunion, a game that has redesigned combat systems, a new user interface and redubbed cutscenes with the new voice cast, yet still maintaining the identity of Crisis Core, a different type of effort to remake itself. These two games help to show the cracks in the rigid definitions of "remaster" and "remake" as they currently stand.
I think after looking through these various games, it's easy to say that the blanket terms of "remaster" and "remake" are a bit too rigid in their definitions to create satisfying categories. With advancements in technology, we can see developers returning to their old games and being able to use these generational leaps to bring back their titles that may have been held back by older hardware, showing us the true scope of their ambition.
There are lots of things that can be learned from games from the past, and modernising these experiences is a great way to get new players to experience the history of lots of long-running franchises. While we see more and more developers try to rush an HD remaster of a beloved title with mixed results, it's important to focus on the very best of these games and not settle for less. Everyone should have a chance to play the games that started some of the biggest franchises today.
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