A Fresh Coat of (Lead) Paint: The Ups and Downs of Remakes
Last Friday, we got treated to a little news from the friendly folks over at Nintendo and Game Freak. Their oh-so-special reveal was this: their 2006 classics, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl Version, are getting a remake!
You may notice that I don’t sound very enthused… Er, that is to say, type very enthused. Well, there’s a reason for that… I don’t consider myself a Pokémon fan. I hear little bits and bobs about it from friends who are interested in the series, but I don’t go out of my way to play the games, collect the cards, or watch the anime…
But, fact is, I should be more excited for this game than anyone. The original Diamond Version was the first game I ever pre-ordered (from Target, I even still have the little reservation card and big stylus with Dialga on top that they gave you), and there’s still a poster on the wall of my old bedroom at my parents’ house with all the Generation 4 Pokémon on it, listed in alphabetical order. It’s one of precious few games that I both owned in my youth and still have the case for; I just couldn’t bring myself to recycle it like I could so many other clunky boxes back then… And, most importantly, I played it to death. I went through the extra effort to find every Pokémon, even the hard-to-find legendaries, and I even restarted it immediately once I finished it just so I could pick another starter and go through it again. I’d been a massive fan of the series ever since I first played Blue Version when I was just a lad… The Game Boy Advance was out by that point, and I had a few of the console’s latest and greatest, like Game & Watch Gallery Advance and Golden Sun… And yet, I couldn’t tear myself away from Pokémon. To this day, I don’t know what was so addictive about it, but young me was beyond hooked… A more appropriate word would be mystified. And when Pokémon Ruby came out that next year, it became my new addiction right away… And, four years later, Diamond was just the same.
But this so-called Brilliant Diamond, fifteen years later, is not the same.
I won’t attack anybody who chooses to buy and play the game, or any of the ones I’m about to list… I recently spent money on a copy of Shrek 2: Team Action for the PC, so I don’t have the credibility to tell anybody how they should spend their hard-earned dough. But, I do feel that it’s important to address some of the issues with this remake… No, remakes and ports in general, that I’d prefer not become an industry standard; if nothing else, I can at least make some people consider their decisions more carefully, and that’s good enough for me.
The first real problem that comes with these rereleases is…
#1: Straight Ports; the Laziest Possible Option
These have been coming out non-stop since Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, so I should address exactly what I mean by ports, here; straight copies, with absolutely nothing, or very little, changed from the content of the source game.
Before I start criticizing these, I should first make it clear that home ports from Arcade are almost always okay. This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, yes, bringing a game from a multi-thousand dollar arcade machine onto a console that costs a couple hundred is nothing but a good move. Some versions of a port will be better than others, of course – just don’t play Mortal Kombat on the Game Boy – but overall, arcade ports, at least as a concept, are a good thing; imagine if Marvel VS CAPCOM 2 had never made it onto consoles! I don’t even want to think about it…
This goes for a good chunk of collections as well. Though some give more value than others (CAPCOM’s Mega Man Zero/ZX Collection is a markedly better deal than the split collections of the Classic and X series), a collection is usually a great way to experience some old favorites compiled together on the cheap for fans of the series, developer… Whatever’s being compiled. A collection can manage to be poor, of course, depending on just what it brings together; Square Enix’s Collection of Mana only has three games, and no bonus features apart from a music player, so it ends up feeling a bit barebones. A collection can also be poor if it performs abnormally badly, and there’s no more famous example of this than a vanilla Playstation Classic… Mmm, that sweet jumpy frame rate in Tekken 3 (caused by Sony choosing to include the PAL version of the game, which is locked to 50 FPS instead of NTSC’s 60, along with turning frameskipping on) flows just right. However, the most important thing that determines a collection’s value is its pricepoint – Super Mario 3D All-Stars may have set a little better at a forty-dollar cost, but setting it to $60 didn’t do the collection any favors, and with the controversy Nintendo got for choosing to time-limit access to the game, it really could have used that extra push.
All this being said, collections and ports have less and less value every year, and no game shows this off better than CAPCOM Arcade Stadium, which is both a collection and an arcade port; it loses a lot of credibility purely from how it makes itself available. Separating the different games into DLC packs? Not a particularly nice move, especially in an era where even the weakest available hardware can emulate every single one of the games in the collection. Back in the PS2 days, when emulators were still in very infantile stages (comparatively) and PCs cost a lot of money for very little power, it made sense to come out with collections like Taito Legends – “Wow, a big pack of arcade games, most of which were either never released in my country, or if they were, there’s precious little chance of finding an intact machine nearby? Sign me up!” But nowadays, every single game that comes in the CAPCOM Arcade Stadium, along with hundreds upon hundreds of others, can easily be ran – with all the same features – on a piece of *** laptop (my early Vista-era HP Elitebook does the job), Playstation 3, Wii U, or a cheap model in the Raspberry Pi line; oh, and completely for free! So, while it may be a nice option for those that don’t know any better or strongly value the convenience of a pre-packaged collection (and that’s a legitimate stance to take, of course), everyone else should give it a pass.
One particular port is a little hard to rate, and that’s the Scott Pilgrim VS the World: The Game – Complete Edition. On the one hand, it changes absolutely nothing from the base game, so those of us who kept it on their PS3 or Xbox 360 (or emulate it with RPCS3) get next to no benefit from the rerelease. On the other hand, being able to actually buy it again is a big plus, and it getting a physical release from Limited Run Games (which is running out soon – get it while you can, the aftermarket price will skyrocket before long!) alone clinches the deal… Though a more streamlined physical release would have been nicer (were it just a digital port, it’d be hard not to worry about a repeat delisting rearing its head), what we got is still a great option for a game that never had it before. So far, Scott Pilgrim’s situation as a delisted, then relisted game is very unique, though you can expect to see more of it come as time goes on. If we get more like this, then my general opinion for titles like it is that they really need a physical release of some kind as an option with their relaunch to be good; otherwise, the risk of losing it again is still always there.
Straight, singular ports are perhaps the worst kind of all, though they tend to be pretty rare – most will at least go for the remaster route just by increasing the resolution a little. Sadly, some don’t, meaning the one and only reason to buy something like the Switch digital port of ACA NEOGEO Fatal Fury Special is to show support for SNK as a company; purchases like these can potentially fuel future games (I was tempted to buy the Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection even though I own all six games – seven if you count the DS Zero Collection separately – for just this reason), but without that kind of motivation, you might as well be throwing your money into a sinkhole; at least then, you get to see it spin around a bit as it goes.
#2: Remasters; Like a Port, But Slightly Cleaner
What classifies a game as a remaster is it having the same – or mostly the same – gameplay (for example, games that receive revised control schemes and rebalanced mechanics are still remasters) and story (if there was one to begin with), but cleaned up visuals of some manner; it could just be an upscaled resolution and nothing more, or it could completely overhaul everything from models to the engine itself. There’s more of a clear line in this category when it comes to just which remasters are worthwhile and which aren’t, but it doesn’t just come purely from how much work went into the remaster – it comes from just how much the remaster improved the source game. Take a comparison within the same series as a shining example of just what I mean, here – 2015’s Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, and 2018’s Dark Souls Remastered.
Scholar of the First Sin (or SOTFS, for short) is such a great remaster that it elevates the original game – which many consider to be the worst of the series – to a level where it can not only compete, but may actually eclipse its brothers; I ended up liking SOTFS better than either of the other Dark Souls games. Not only did it completely overhaul the visuals with cleaner textures, better colors and massively improved lighting (turning areas that were criticized for not matching the darker lighting in the pre-release trailers into much closer approximations), but they also rebalanced many of the enemy placements, added new weapons, threw in a new NPC to better explain the story, added a new ending, and as icing on the cake, the remaster also runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS (on newer consoles and PC), a much-needed boon over the original’s slightly stuttery 30 FPS.
Dark Souls Remastered (or DSR), on the other hand, changes nothing when it comes to the mechanics or story… All it managed to do was boost the resolution and framerate. This still makes it a superior version to play over the original – try playing Blighttown on the PS3 cut, with its single-digit framerate, and you’ll be very thankful indeed for the remaster – but it’s especially disappointing considering what they could have done. After the great changes to SOTFS, many people expected DSR to make changes to infamously bad endgame areas, like the Bed of Chaos and the Duke’s Archives, but the only balance change that ended up being made was the addition of a bonfire near the difficult-to-reach skeleton blacksmith… The lack of extra additions is especially irritating because of the reason the endgame areas were considered poorly made – the developers ran out of time and money, and had to rush those last areas a bit. This was, of course, forgivable in the original release, but why upon a revisit to the game did they not even try to bring back some of the content that was cut? So few were the gameplay changes that the original level scaling is still in place, so players who want to abuse newbies in early areas by running ahead without leveling up to grab high level armor and weapons can still easily do so; a problem that was fixed in one way or another in both sequels… Overall, DSR didn’t make anything worse and is still the best choice for newcomers to the game, but neither did it bring about any renovations to a foundation that really could have used them; that makes its $40 price tag a bit hard to swallow for fans of the original. This same point sits for all “standard” remasters – I may massively prefer the Hyper Drive Edition of Mighty Switch Force! to the original, but I do have to acknowledge that it’s ultimately the same thing, and players of the original game don’t really need it.
…And then there’s the type of remaster that just makes the original game worse; perhaps the most infamous example being Konami’s Silent Hill HD Collection. There are a lot of articles and videos that will go into much further detail than I can (I recommend this one in particular, if you’re interested), but as a brief summary: the remaster majorly messed up the all-important fog rendering (not only making it less thick, so you see things you aren’t supposed to, but having tons of very obvious pop-in to boot), practically went out of its way to bring in the worst possible assets from other versions (like the original Xbox version’s worse cutscene videos and lower quality music), replacing a sign from the original Silent Hill 2 with one using Comic Sans (which was unintentionally a brilliant decision, as that font invokes just as much horror as Silent Hill), and included a new, significantly worse dub for both games; and while you can at least go back to the original voices for Silent Hill 2, you inexplicably didn’t get any such option for Silent Hill 3. Obviously, this kind of remaster should be sealed in a lead-lined drum and buried deep underneath a landfill somewhere, with a bunch of Engelbert Humperdinck albums and copies of E.T. for the Atari 2600.
#3: Remakes; A Mixed Bag Through and Through
Remakes practically have to be ranked by individual games rather than lumped into categories, because of just how much may – or may not – change… There is criteria that they can be ranked on, but that mostly comes to observing the changed content and determining whether it has improved or not, then building a final criticism based on the overall quality of all the changes.
A remake that could be called “fantastic” would be something like Square Enix’s 2017 remake of Romancing SaGa 2; it strikes a perfect balance between improving upon the original (with high-res backgrounds, beautifully animated boss sprites, a brand new high quality English translation – which is especially important because there surprisingly isn’t a fan translation available for the original SNES version – and a couple of extra character classes and dungeons) and maintaining what made the original so good (much of the original spritework is retained, as well as the fantastic SNES music, and the gameplay mechanics are just as tight and innovative as ever); and the $25 pricepoint (and the fact that Squenix hasn’t been afraid to put it on sale from time to time) is the cherry on top.
A remake from the same company that didn’t set quite as high a standard was the 2014 mobile port of Final Fantasy V; Final Fantasy VI was also ported to those systems the same year, and shares in all of the problems. The gameplay was more or less intact, and the music was too – VI’s port used the PSX audio, which was worse, but it was far from an offensive choice. Where did they go wrong? In two key areas… The first problem was the graphics. Between using weird, pseudo-3D chibi designs for all of the characters, backgrounds that look like they took the original sprites and put them through Adobe Illustrator’s “Image Trace” function to quickly vectorize them (for those not in the know, converting directly from pixels to vectors allows a picture to be scaled up in resolution infinitely without losing detail, but you lose so much detail in the initial process of conversion that it’s almost never worth it), and a big, ugly UI that uses a stock font with no personality, the remake ends up looking horribly unpolished; especially since none of its visual assets mesh properly together. The second problem? Both games were subject to issues with save corruption: yes, you could potentially lose all of your save data to a glitch that you had no control over… But maybe both of those things could be forgiven, because the remakes did include some extra content, like new character jobs in Final Fantasy V, a and a music player, a new translation and bonus endgame dungeons in both games. Why, then, is this version considered to be so poor?
Because all of that extra content came in with the 2006 Game Boy Advance remakes, which don’t have any of the 2014 version’s garbage graphics or save corruptions. What’s more, there exist (free) enhancement patches for the GBA versions that fix what few bugs remain and add back in the proper SNES music… And, you can buy a cartridge of these versions for the same price. This gives us a clear picture of what really quantifies a remake’s value – whether it can compete with another version… This brings us back, full circle, to Pokémon.
A Pokémon remake that’s gotten a lot of praise was the Generation 4 – the same generation as the original Diamond and Pearl – release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver Version. Not only did this release scale up the original Game Boy games into new, higher quality sprites, but it didn’t even reuse sprites from the same generation for many Pokémon, instead opting to create new ones for all of the original game’s 251 creatures. The remade music was catchy and sounded great, and they added some great new features, like letting your leader Pokémon follow behind you, a big customizable Safari Zone, the (included) PokéWalker accessory acting as a little bonus game as well as a pedometer, the Berry Pots item letting you grow berries in a convenient and portable spot rather than having to use up limited soil and constantly return to an area… There was a lot to like, and for a game that let you go between two different regions (a feat that hasn’t been attempted by Game Freak or their cooperators since), it felt very feature-dense.
Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl… There’s not a lot to look at just yet. All we really have to go on is the one trailer that we were shown; and yet, there’s a lot that we can discern from it. Starting with a graphical critique will be the most damning evidence I can provide, so I might as well start with that…
The latest Pokémon remake and the Final Fantasy III remake share a similar graphical style, though Final Fantasy III does look a little bit nicer overall… If only a little. Both games use a chibi-sylized look for their characters, with more realistic (though still smoothly stylized) scenery to contrast. But why would I choose to compare these two games specifically? I’ll tell you – the Final Fantasy III remake first came out in 2006… On the Nintendo DS… The same year that the original Pokémon Diamond and Pearl Versions were released. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a chibi style, at least in theory – not every game has to look like Cyberpunk 2077, and some chibi games look really good, like Keroro RPG: Kishi to Musha to Densetsu no Kaizoku – but if your remake, which is being released fifteen years after the original game, doesn’t even look as good as a game that released at the exact same time, why did you even bother? You could argue that they wanted to keep a bit closer to the graphics of the original game, but even for that, it’s quite poor – especially since the last remakes, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire Version, turned a 2D game into a 3D one without looking (as) bad. However, this only applies to the overworld portions of the game – a major portion, as it compromises all of the non-battle gameplay, but the battles do look quite a bit different… Though that ends up hurting the game more than it helps it.
On the one hand, the 3D in the battles looks much better, and if they’d kept the same look for their overworld (the way it looked in Sword and Shield), there would be a lot less criticism levied towards the early impression’s graphics… But it still deserves some criticism, because it’s yet another case of Game Freak reusing assets – ever since X and Y, when the series first ventured into 3D, all games that followed used the exact same models and animations, and this remake will make Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl the sixth set of games (X and Y, ORAS, Sun and Moon, Let’s Go, SWSH, and now this) to use those assets. Say what you will about the gameplay of series like Call of Duty getting stagnant, but at least that series doesn’t use the same exact guns, characters and sounds over and over again. Again, yes, it’s more about style than raw graphical finesse, but when games like Final Fantasy XV (a game which looks as good in action as the pre-rendered cutscenes of Final Fantasy III) can go through the effort of making new models for old monsters like Cactuar and Tonberry, why can’t Game Freak?
(Before people chime in to remind me of Game Freak’s lower budget, SNK managed to create stunning new lighting, sounds, physics and textures for the upcoming King of Fighters XV, and they’re not exactly rolling in money right now either)
And the one other thing we can really discern from what we have so far is the pricepoint – there’s no doubt in my mind that this game is going to launch for $60. With the price hike of mainline games Pokémon Sword and Shield, along with not only the Let’s Go spinoff, but also Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX (itself a remake) and New Pokémon Snap all being set at $60, I would be very surprised if this remake didn’t go exactly the same route… That’s only a handful of things that we know, but what we have doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture, and it’s doubtful that any of this is going to be substantially changed when the game comes out.
All this for a game that was just fine without it? Diamond and Pearl certainly had some flaws upon release, but Platinum cleaned many of them up quite nicely, so this remake wasn’t really necessary. There are a lot of people who are really excited about this game and have been expecting it for a few years now, but I don’t know how they can look at it as a good thing – it’s like they weren’t looking forward to a remake really touching up some things up about the original, so much as they were just waiting for it to eventually be remade; as if there were a timer on these things, and if the games don’t get remade, then we’ll never get to enjoy them again… Fact is, everything that made the originals great is still great, and everything that made them flawed is still going to be there in the remake. The one and only argument you could make in the game’s favor is that the remake is the only way that younger, newer audiences will be able to experience it, which is kind of like arguing that there’s no point in watching any of Toho’s older Godzilla films because TriStar’s 1998 Godzilla brought it stateside for us: no, it is not acceptable, the originals are worth tracking down and experiencing in one way or another, and the newer releases deserve to fade into obscurity. The right people will find the originals, and only those unwilling to experience classic media will miss out… And who needs them?
When all you can make is rehashes of the same thing, what have you made?
This applies to entertainment of all sorts, not just games – when you dip so hard back into pre-existing media with things like Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, the latest Star Wars (episodes VII-IX), or The Murder of Twelve (the 51st book in the Murder, She Wrote series… Yes, 51st), you’re limiting how innovative you could have been otherwise… You could argue that completely new works would struggle to reach the public, but risk is an element of business – if your idea is good, it’ll survive by natural selection; remember, Mario didn’t exist until 1981’s Donkey Kong arcade game… No matter how successful, everything has to start somewhere. Remakes and reimaginings (and, to a lesser extent, sequels) are thusly somewhat unnatural; like life support, they can prop up media that never would have earned its chance without that licensing seal stamped onto their covers. They can be a wonderful chance to revisit something with deep flaws as well, but the potential for abuse is always there, and these days, reboots have never been more popular… The only way we can discourage the bad ones from repeating themselves is by labeling them as such, resisting their pull, and encouraging others to do the same.
This article isn’t intended as some rallying call to end all pre-existing franchises – I’d surely be very upset if Dragon Quest reached an ultimate end – but as a personal critique of certain traits in ports, remasters and remakes that I find praiseworthy or irritating. What are some of your favorite – and least favorite – rereleases, and why? Let me know in the comments below!