Remakes have to walk a tightrope between pleasing purist fans of the original and finding new audiences (and the cash in those audiences’ pockets), and the game that pleases both camps entirely is rare.
From one perspective this is surprising. Games chosen for remakes are usually the best of the best, so how hard could it be to update the technology and fix a few small, universally acknowledged flaws from the original? On paper, not that hard. But updating ten- or twenty-year-old graphics, soundtracks, and gameplay mechanics aren’t as simple bringing a blurry camera lens into focus. You have to redraw new sprites and backgrounds, reorchestrate new musical arrangements, and determine how gameplay will work with new control schemes (and modern gameplay expectations and levels of patience). It’s unlikely that the people brought on to such projects will be the same A-teams who worked on the classic originals or even the modern equivalents at the studio in question—why put your best creative minds on a remake? All they’re doing is updating some stuff, right? The best people quite reasonably get assigned to higher profile new games, not special editions.
And so pandemonium ensues among purists when faced with the rather strange-looking new sprites for the mobile Final Fantasy VI. It was always going to. The original SNES art was so pixilated that it couldn’t develop as detailed an aesthetic style as today’s graphics. The new graphics have no choice but to attempt a more detailed style, and that new detail will inevitably make the game look significantly different, so even if the new style was unabashedly bold and brilliant, some fans of the original would be displeased. And bold and brilliant is unlikely to arise from the B-team put on a remake project, if only because B-teams are rarely given that kind of creative license.
One graphics move in recent remakes produces a win-win scenario, however, and that is the option to switch graphical styles between the updated and original versions. Hardcore purists can play entirely with the pixilated originals, casual audiences can stick with HD graphics, and anyone who wants to can switch back and forth for the fun of comparing and seeing which they think looks better in any given situation. I’m in the middle of a Halo Anniversary co-op campaign (on Legendary) and every time we have to restart after a double death, we switch graphical styles. It’s fun seeing how far graphics have come in ten years, and it’s interesting to see where the original creators chose to invest in more graphical detail and the ways in which the added capabilities create atmosphere. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition does this too, and it works just as well there. I would love to see this become standard on remakes (and various forum discussions on remakes that don’t offer this option suggest that I’m not alone). The Secret of Monkey Island: SE extended this choose-your-version approach to sound, with voice acting (tapping actors from later games in the original series, deftly avoiding any major fan outcry there) and updated soundtrack for the HD version and old-school MIDI sounds and a lot more silence in the retro mode.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is a game that demonstrates how gameplay can be effectively updated for a new generation of systems and players. It reduces some more notorious aspects of grinding, such as long, uneventful sailing sessions and tweaks in some fetch-quest tasks and interface clunkiness that were quite unpopular in the original, including “the soul-crushing banality of the game’s final quest” (though some argue these aren’t fixed quite enough). Okami for Wii is an example of another excellent kind of gameplay update—a game that worked fine on the PS2 but whose gameplay just cried out for the Wii Remote and made the Wii version definitive the moment it arrived.
There are quite a few games I can think of that I’m unlikely to play unless they’re remade, either because I don’t have access to the original systems (or operating systems) or because obsolete aspects of the gameplay are enough of a struggle to return to that they outweigh the benefits for me in 2014. Wind Waker was one of these games until the HD remake. I didn’t get to Resident Evil until the GameCube. I was on the fence about the original Halo but the Anniversary edition made the decision easy. Deus Ex, System Shock, and Morrowind are games that I missed the first time around and probably won’t play unless they get updated. I probably won’t complete another playthrough of Final Fantasy VII unless its control scheme gets updated, if for no other reason than the prospect of 70 hours of navigating with a D-pad rather than an analog stick makes me very, very tired.
So what do you think? What games won’t you play (again or for the first time) unless they’re updated? Why? What do you think about updating (and toggling) graphics and sound? How about gameplay? What games are worth replaying only with significant revisions to grinding, interface issues, or more modern control schemes? And what needs to stay the same even if it means alienating portions of modern audiences? Can you think of updates that have ruined classic games? Where did they go wrong?