I know that you come to me for bold, decisive, unambiguous thinking, unfettered by the internal censorship of political correctness and namby-pamby obligations to be as broad and accepting as possible, but I have to admit I’m really ambivalent about ‘Remastered’ games.
There’s been a bit of a glut of them lately. Grim Fandango, Fahrenheit, Resident Evil, Majora’s Mask, to name but a few. With the ever-increasing barriers to entry posed by top-of-the-line tech, there are more gaps in the triple-A release schedule than there used to be, and those fatcat bastards probably see a lot of appeal in cynically hustling up extra cash with less effort. But on the other hand, the important thing is that these games are preserved in some way for future memory, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with making money unless you’re extorting.
But wait, let’s jump back on that first hand again, because there is an element of extortion here, isn’t there? A lot of us still have copies of these old games that were bought perfectly legitimately in the first place; we just can’t run the sodding things any more because new consoles and operating systems seem to think of backwards compatibility the way human beings think of syphilis. In an ideal world, one not so obsessed with the new and shiny, every updated version of a gaming system would happily run any piece of software from any previous iteration, and game shops would stock the old classics side-by-side with the new hotness.
And also the sun would come out every day and we’d suck cherryade from the tear ducts of smiling unicorns (we’re on the other hand again). I’m not so obstinate as to fold my arms and refuse to accept something that’s 70% good just because I think it should be 100% good. You can’t blame the developers and publishers for the fact that technology keeps marching on, and there were a lot of games that were created while systems were still horrible that through no fault of their own now require that horrible code to function – gaming on Windows 3.1 springs to mind. Perhaps we should show some gratitude that the owner of an old work put the effort into wading into the trough of convoluted guts that is old code and updated it so that we can all share in the old enthusiasm.
BUT WAIT (switching hands again); this turns developers and publishers into the gatekeepers of nostalgia, the old titles we have access to are entirely dependent on their whims. And there’s no guarantee that the original creator of the work has the same enthusiasm for it as the audience. I know that there’s an awful lot of shit I’ve left on the internet that’s now really, really hard to find or get running and I know that I’m silently grateful for that, but other people may have liked them and may have nostalgic memories, and who I am to tell them they’re wrong?
Even worse, of course, is the other way around, when the creator of the original work has enthusiasm for it that was not reflected by the audience, and so we enter a bizarre world where Fahrenheit gets a remastering but Prince of Persia: Sands of Time does not. Worst of all is when the original creator isn’t involved in the remastering at all and the corporate owners are just hastily buffing something people seem to like and throwing it out for the quick buck, as with the Silent Hill 2+3 HD re-releases.
No, on reflection remastering might be an utterly pointless exercise. If a game holds any nostalgic appeal at all, then someone, somewhere will have found a way to get it running on an emulator or suchlike, and that’s a far more democratic system of preservation. Except whoops, hang on, I’m feeling the urge to spread my cheeks and hop back onto the first hand. Emulation falls short in one respect: Remastering usually comes with improvements, not just the old game made available again. Old bugs can be fixed, new features can be added (as with Grim Fandango Remastered‘s mouse and non-tank control options), the old pixelly graphics can be smoothed over. We can play something that’s more in line with the creator’s original vision, hampered by less of the limitations they faced back in the day.
Well, as I stickily transfer my sore hole to the other hand one last time, let me counter that argument with four devastating words: Star Wars Special Edition. It’s like I said, the creator is not necessarily the best judge of their own work, or the most enthusiastic for it. The first experience the audience had with a work is the one that sticks; they aren’t going to find it as much of a revelation a second time just because you added CG dinosaurs.
Even if the creator isn’t George Lucas, doesn’t have two enormous slabs of honey-smoked pork where their hands should be, and all they’re doing is adding higher definition to the old pixels and blurry textures, that still feels like a hiding to nothing. If you start updating your game’s graphics to allow it to be competitive again, where does that stop? You’re going to have to do that again every ten years or so; your game’s never going to be perfect. Besides, the more that graphics improvements plateau, the less impressive it will be to update it. Switch back and forth between old and new graphics in the Monkey Island remake and you’ll see a pretty fucking significant change; do the same thing in the Fahrenheit remake and if you briefly looked away at the moment of changeover you might think you hadn’t pressed it at all.
And it’s not the graphics that are selling a remastering, it’s nostalgia. Once a creation has been released, bought and critiqued and become part of our shared culture, then the creator has no right to dictate how the audience are permitted to enjoy it; some people prefer to listen to music on old LPs than on high-quality media because they find the hum, pops and scratches pleasing, more evocative of better times past.
Old classics have a greater responsibility than merely being fun or looking good; they’re part of a historical record. It tells us something about the creators and the society from which they arose. And for that, they need to be preserved with warts intact. Someday it might be useful to know that PC gamers in the late 90’s had to put up with shitty tank controls. Maybe after the robot uprising when the resistance needs people who can control hijacked dreadnoughts.