Looking Back for Something Good

Posted December 1, 2021 by Justin Benedick

Recently a few classic games were re-released that have gotten a lot of buzz and attention. I’m talking about the N64 titles on the Switch, Sonic Colors Ultimate, Grand Theft Auto Trilogy: Definitive Edition, and a few others. Considering I usually gravitate towards those types of titles, it has me thinking of what makes a good remaster, remake, or re-release. I ask myself: what should I look for? How do I know that this is not some studio trying to “cash-in”? I am guessing I go for these titles since I see other brand-new triple-A titles get over-hyped, released broken and/or becoming a disappointment. There was a period of time where games came out working just great, didn’t have large patches, and didn’t try to “nickel and dime” at every opportunity.

I do feel that I need to clarify the type of releases I am talking about. I am talking about those games that were released long ago and have been updated and polished up to be re-released for modern systems. There are few ways that a game can be re-released, so I’ll cover the three big categories. A remaster is basically when the developer uses the original source code and materials, and the game is modified and rebuilt for modern systems with new features. The beauty of a remastered game is that its functions, sounds, and looks are preserved. I believe I once read a developer say something like “If it took 30 seconds to get from A to B in the original then the goal is to do the same in the remaster.” A remake is basically recreating the original game from scratch; it could be completely different under the hood. An emulated title is just the original title that runs within a virtual version of the original hardware, the classic titles on the Nintendo Switch and compilation collections operate this way.

Honestly, I would equate the experience of a good re-release with that of watching a good classic movie that has been polished up for Blu-ray. The picture is clean, the audio is clear, and there are extra features on the disc like director’s commentary and behind-the-scenes features. The movie will be dated a bit, but a classic is a classic for a reason, it’s good. Like putting on a classic Connery James Bond movie in HD. The media is repackaged to work for modern technology. The classics get support for widescreen, internet features, all previous DLC (if any), bug fixes, display improvements (anti-aliasing, resolution, framerate, etc.), and quality of life improvements. A developer can’t go too far with changing the looks or the presentation would look “off”. A good example is that a game would have a limited draw distance so to work around it a developer might make it look like there is a fog that can set a gloomy mood in an environment. When a remaster comes around it would be tempting to remove the previous limitations (now you can see through the fog), which changes the atmosphere of the game. When it comes to removing previous limitations, the remastered game should be able to perform without hiccups, stutters, and be able to run at a full frame rate. At the end of day, you get a complete classic game that that runs smoothly on your system that you can easily enjoy.

You could say it’s just nostalgia fueling the demand for these titles, but I think it’s more than that. There is also the case for game preservation that can be made. I think the bigger case can be for lowering the barrier for new fans and to share experiences with those who missed out on the originals. A short time after the old NES games were released on Switch, I saw an interesting photo on my Facebook feed. The photo was of my niece Sidney in front of a tv holding a switch controller, with the victory screen of the original Legend of Zelda.

Proof BEan’s niece beat ‘The Legend of Zelda’ for NES

Later, there were more photos of other games including some NES titles and Tony Hawk HD (remake of the original two games). It was simply my brother sharing an experience with his daughter and bonding over a game that is around 20+ years older than her. This wouldn’t have happened if it required several trips to eBay to buy original equipment, fixing it all up and trying to plug in adapters to get it to show on screen. It was just a download and a click to go back in time a bit. When I asked my niece about playing the older games, she thought it was interesting and fun to see what games were liked back in the mid-80’s and how Legend of Zelda started out.

For me personally, these re-releases do allow me to visit some games I passed on or that flew under the radar. One example I can think of is Sonic Colors which originally released in 2010 for Wii but got a recent remastered version. Back in 2010-ish when I heard about it, I didn’t have a positive impression of Sonic games. When Colors was announced for Wii, the reputation of the 2006 release and Unleashed (the “werehog” Sonic game) were fresh in my mind. Also, the novelty of the Wii was wearing off on me. I passed on that game only to find out later it was actually good. So, when the remastered version came out it gave me a second chance to try it, and I am glad I did. I fully enjoyed a full game at a discount price without any issues.

Not every solution to bringing back the past can be found on a storefront or in an official capacity; mostly this is due to the malleability of the PC. Simply put, a great game will have that dedicated fanbase that will keep playing for a long time, and during that time technology will change. The gaming PC does evolve – new technologies come in, operating systems get updated, displays get more vibrant, and sometimes that classic title will not work how it should. Adjustments may need to be made. It wasn’t long ago that screens were square boxes and the CPU only had one core. Now we have 4K displays, multiple core processors, and such. So, there has always been ways to take that classic and modify some config file or apply some homemade patch to fix some problem or to improve some aspect. There is someone out there that says, “Hey to get this game working on the latest version of Windows and widescreen, edit this file.” There is always some dedicated fan who is willing to put in the work to get that game working and/or modify the game to improve that classic. I could go into mods in general, but I think that is a whole other discussion.

The other non-official solution comes in when the fanbase has source code to play with. The source code is essentially the basic building blocks of any program or game. Some developers release the source code for their old games under a public license (basically a contract that says “have fun, but don’t sell it without talking to us”). ID Software is a prime example and they have released source code for their classic series like Doom, Hexen, and Quake. The community took that old early-mid 90’s DOS source code and built upon it. There are plenty of source ports of those classics like ZDoom, Brutal Doom, Chocolate Doom, Skulltag, and others. You can easily find one of these new versions, import the game data into the port, and have the game feel like new. When the source code is not available, some would start off from scratch and turn it into a community project. It would be a new engine using the old game assets, with the classic gameplay, new features, and everything in the open. One example that comes to my mind is OpenRA which is a recreation of the engine used in the old Westwood RTS classics like Command and Conquer, Red Alert, and Dune 2000. OpenRA is not exactly 1:1 with the originals but for the price (free) it’s a solid RTS multiplayer game and its always expanding its feature set thanks to a dedicated fan base. There are other examples like ScummVM, FreeNukum, OpenTDD, OpenLara, and more (see full list). No matter how the source codes got into the community, once it’s there, it can be built upon with new features and for newer systems. Sometimes to avoid any legal issue, someone would develop new game assets to create a new community title. The only examples I know of are Xonotic and Warsow which are both based off versions of the engine that ran Quake.

To be honest, I would recommend trying to find a title that would remind you of days gone by. Something that could hold you over until the next AAA title comes by. Just try to think back and ask yourself what you could have passed on? Do you want to find out how a long-storied franchise got its start? Is there a title that you can think of that makes you wonder why it has the reputation it has? I would recommend this, take some time in whatever digital storefront (Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, GOG, Steam, etc.) you prefer and do some exploring for the classics. Don’t be afraid to use search terms like “collection”, “remastered”, or “classic”. If you find something that catches your attention, do some research. Look up reviews on the original. See what was changed or added. Make sure you read reviews. Its best to inform yourself. Don’t be afraid to dig, you might find gold.