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Playing it again: remastered games vs. remakes vs. reboots

Video games don’t die any more: you only have to scour second hand game stores, online auction sites or ROM repositories, and there’s every chance that even the most obscure of games are still in existence in some form, somewhere.

But now it seems that not only do games never die, they’re increasingly being reborn and renewed. Like James Bond or Doctor Who, or Spiderman movies, they appear as new incarnations, prettier, shinier and with added bells and whistles.

A prime example is Shadow of the Colossus, which is currently riding high in the gaming charts, despite being originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005 and receiving a HD remaster for the PS3 in 2011. In much the same way that Hollywood continually reboots existing franchises and turns to old TV properties, so the games industry is busy re-releasing old games, either in classic compilations or as remastered games, remakes and reboots.

This year is no different and 2018 marks the return of several classics, with Devil May Cry HD Edition, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Edition, Dark Souls Remastered, Burnout Paradise, and the long-awaited Final Fantasy 7 remake all scheduled for release this year.

What counts as a ‘remake’?

The first instances of the gaming ‘remake’ were conversions from arcade coin-ops to the new-fangled home consoles. Differences in hardware meant most conversions were ground-up rewrites, and were often compromised due to the limitations of this early hardware. However, remaking a game was also an opportunity for developers to shave off any rough edges and add new features, such as extra levels or gameplay modes better suited to gaming at home.

Arguably the best company at reinventing and refreshing old franchises is Nintendo, which has been porting its old games to new hardware for decades. In 1993 it produced one of the most acclaimed remake packages with the surprise release of Super Mario All-Stars on the Super NES. The cartridge included visually enhanced versions of four NES Super Mario games, and was itself ported to the Wii in 2010 – in turn bringing the original 25-year-old Super Mario Bros. to a new generation of players.

Gamers have been treated to other, somewhat unexpected remakes over time, with titles like Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary for the PC. Released on the title’s tenth birthday, the remake featured the ability to play with the either the enhanced or original graphics. It was itself re-released for the Halo: Master Chief Collection in 2014.

Some of the more recent remakes include Ratchet & Clank, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, Yakuza Kiwami and WonderBoy: The Dragon’s Trap, a full on-reimagining of the 1989 Sega Master System original, with lovely hand-drawn graphics. Fans of survival horror can also look forward to a remake of Resident Evil 2, coming soon.

The advent of mobile gaming has also seen a slew of old games being remade for phones and tablets, often with enhanced graphics and revamped control systems. Prime candidates for this treatment are JRPGs like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and chapters from Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy –- all bona fide classics.

How is a ‘remaster’ different?

With each passing generation there have been gaming upgrades that benefit from the power afforded them by new hardware. Indeed, it’s the very nature of game creation that means a game released on one hardware platform is normally better suited to its descendant. Developers often push the envelop a tad too far, releasing games that run at variable frame rates, with screen tear, pop-in, poor anti-aliasing and so on. Invariably, when tweaked to run on the latest hardware you experience the game as it was really meant to be seen.

An era of ‘HD’ updates and ‘remasters’ became popular with the arrival of the PS3 and Xbox 360, when machines were capable of generating 1080p imagery. Popular series such as God of War, Prince of Persia, Hitman, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear and Jak and Daxter were released as HD collections.

This trend has continued with the latest generation of remastered games, which are now being retrofitted with Ultra HD assets and engines capable of presenting the game in stunning 4K. The arrival of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, not to mention 4K-capable PC GPUs, has seen a swathe of games receiving aesthetic upgrades, often as a multi-GB patch. But even without an update, these new consoles can often make last-gen games run that bit sweeter, with faster load times, higher frame rates and better anti-aliasing.

Some of the recent big-name efforts include: Full Throttle Remastered, The Last of Us, Okami HD, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remaster and L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s ambitious cinematic detect-’em up.

And where do ‘reboots’ fit into all this?

Once a successful gaming franchise has been established, it takes more than a poorly-received installment to kill it. The Tomb Raider series has enjoyed two major reboots over the course of its 22-year existence, while Doom and Wolfenstein: The New Order have breathed new life into slumbering franchises.

After a ten-year hiatus, Fallout 3 reignited the much-loved series, leading to New Vegas, Fallout 4 and the in-development Fallout 5. And, in a similar vein, the turn-based strategy series X-COM had to wait 11 years for its 2012 PC reboot, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which has since sired two expansions and two full sequels.

Well-known franchises like Resident Evil, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield also reinvent themselves — to lesser or greater extents — on a regular basis. So even if your favourite game hasn’t been updated for a while, you just need to be patient. It’ll no doubt get resurrected one way or another.

Most remastered games, remakes or reboots are an opportunity for developers to take full advantage of the power and performance that a modern gaming system, like a PC, can provide. They add to an already wide variety of games we can play, offering us a taste of the past but with a suitably modern twist.

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