Is there a grander reason as to our current infatuation with the videogame remake beyond mere nostalgia?
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Like seemingly most of the Internet, the unrelenting hellscape of lockdown existence was briefly shocked into something resembling joy a few weeks back by the announcement that Activision and developer Vicarious Visions were finally going to remake Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. Sure, I may still have my PlayStation 2 and a complete set of the series imperial period on that system I infrequently bust out for a session or six, but it’s still Tony Hawk! It’s my childhood, and specifically the parts of my childhood I don’t own physically right now and I guarantee would feel extremely clunky and limited to go back to after nearly two decades of the revert, flatland tricks, and no “BIG DROPS” mechanic! To get to revisit all of those locations but with the quality-of-life improvements of later Hawk titles, visuals that aren’t hemmed in by fifth generation console limitations, and 90% of the original soundtracks? Sign me up for 10 copies!
Right now, the videogame industry and its audience are high as all hell on remakes of older-gen games. Often labelled as “remasters” despite technical and coding issues necessitate developers rebuild these games from the ground up even when they’re not getting the radical reinvention treatment of Final Fantasy VII and the Resident Evil 2 and 3 remakes, it seems we can’t go a few months without a new one being announced to much fanfare and ballyhoo. And whilst remakes have been a part of the gaming landscape all throughout its history – two high-profile mid-2000s examples being Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Tomb Raider Anniversary, – they’ve exploded in popularity in recent years. It starred small, the announcement of FFVII during “the E3 of dreams” back in 2015, to be followed in 2016 by Bluepoint’s 1:1 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. Then, in 2017, the Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy became the biggest selling PlayStation 4 exclusive of that year in an absolute runaway, and the floodgates released in droves.
In just the last 24 months, there has been *deep breath* the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Resident Evils 2 and 3, MediEvil, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fuelled, Yakuza Kiwami 2, the campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Pokémon Let’s Go, Eevee! and Pikachu!, and the long-delayed official completion of Black Mesa. Meanwhile, still to come just this year we have the aforementioned Tony Hawk, cult 2003 cel-shaded conspiracy shooter XIII, cult 50s alien invasion B-movie homage Destroy All Humans!, Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, Mafia: Definitive Edition, and just last week saw the release of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition. But that still doesn’t sate the appetites of some folks, since a whole new cottage industry of listicles proposing new candidates of games that NEED remaking yesterday is in boom. (I am not above this and would like to use this space to loudly scream “TIMESPLITTERS TRILOGY REMAKE.”)
So, with remakes currently like Hansel, one may be wondering, as I have been, why that is? Why are we all so in love with videogame remakes?
The obvious answer is nostalgia, duh. That 20-year cycle having now finally caught up to the late 90s and mid-00s with movies, music, TV and games all mining properties, sounds and trends of that era in the never-ending ouroboros known as popular culture. Everyone wants to feels 10 years old again, extra especially so during a worldwide pandemic that makes going outside even more terrifying than usual, and so retreating into things that made one happy back in the day is a natural inclination. The promise of that thing you liked but in pristine graphical fidelity so that it looks like how you envisioned back when it was new and you were young – rather than the chunky, polygonal, pop-in-laden truth of the matter – too enticing to pass up.
The second most obvious answer is that gaming, the medium and the industry which works within it, has been horrendous when it comes to preserving its history. Backwards compatibility used to be a standard feature of each new generation of consoles, but was largely phased out by the seventh generation – admittedly due to complex console architecture and cost-based reasons, though a frustrating bummer nonetheless – and console life cycles rarely push past seven years before being abandoned for the newer, shinier and more expensive toy on the block with meaningful post-cycle support for the old generation quietly dropped not long after that. In many cases, particularly since publishers get super litigious super quickly when the word “emulation” makes its way to their ears, these big fancy remakes are the only easily-accessible and legal way to experience gaming history, even though said history will never fully resemble how it was back in the day through these remakes no matter how accurate they purport to be. (E.g. the minor furore over the N-Sane Trilogy fiddling with Crash’s hitboxes across all three games.)
Perhaps another more cynical reason profiting off of those first two answers can come from the fact that AAA gaming has been growing ever more expensive as the years roll on. The notoriously shady and private industry often refuses to disclose official production costs regardless of how successful their game ends up being, but industry analysts and their guesstimations don’t paint a pretty picture. A game like Red Dead Redemption II was estimated to cost anywhere between $80 mil and $100 mil, and that’s without taking into account the money spent on its all-encompassing saturated marketing campaign. That’s a lot of money to splurge on the one game, especially given major publishers having spent much of the past decade smothering the AA industry – that sweet spot between shoestring indie and wannabe cultural behemoth where more cult properties and genres used to thrive – like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2. Remaking an old game, especially if you’re not going the radical reinvention route, provides publishers with all the blueprints, assets and code (even if those need to be remade), and built-in brand recognition to push out a safer bet on a lower budget without having to risk new ideas or cocking up the revival of a dormant IP.
And on that note… maybe the current landscape and catastrophic state of the console AAA industry is actively feeding the desire to turn back the clock? At the risk of sounding exactly like a moaning grandparent scared and confused by what The Kids are into nowadays, blockbuster gaming has largely stagnated across this generation with a marked increase in blatant trend-chasing. Samey sandboxes morphing into samey looter-shooters morphing into samey battle royale cash-grabs and so on. The dreaded live-service model of design turning many of them into repetitive grind-a-thons akin to those early days of MMOs where one doesn’t so much play for fun as punch in for work like a second job. New franchises or exciting radical revivals running counter to current industry trends were in short supply, creating this feeling of there being little meaningful change to hook interest. And, of course, microtransactions and loot boxes and always-online connections and other predatory bullshit mechanics overtook everything they could find, even single-player sandbox RPGs. None of this is to say that there haven’t been great games and exciting innovations and what not – it’s an overly generalised statement befitting an overly generalised view of the industry – but the rot that set in as the previous generation rolled on has only gotten mouldier and more all-consuming with this present one.
So, for those alienated by what the industry is otherwise selling, there’s something enticing about the ability to revisit classics (and “classics”) from one’s childhood in an easily acquirable manner. A chance to go back to a time when gaming was “purer,” as it were, shorn of the capitalistic bullshit that’s weighing down the industry right now. This, of course, is also a nostalgia-blinded view – 90s gaming in particular was a long succession of trend-chasing; Crash Bandicoot was developed under the working title of “Sonic’s Ass” – and a lot of the novelty in revisiting franchises like Spyro and MediEvil today is that their gameplay feels fresher than they did at the time largely due to their genres having fallen far out of favour in gaming’s mainstream. Not to mention the dissonance in pairing up state-of-the-art graphical recreations of games that, more often than not, play with the same mechanical clunkiness of something designed well over a decade ago (but that’s a whole article in of itself).
And that’s also without getting into how AAA publishers are already running around corrupting what should be sure pure things by crowbarring in microtransactions and loot boxes to 20 year-old games that didn’t have them, or reselling 10 year-old DLC separately at an inflated price from what it retailed for at the time, or shipping trilogy pack discs with just one game on-disc and the other two as a mandatory massive Day 1 patch. Shortly after that Pro Skater 1 + 2 announcement, Activision had to release a statement denying that the game would have microtransactions at launch, although they still left the door open to patch them in later on. The first half of that statement should be a given, since both games launched 20 years ago when the entire concept of microtransactions didn’t exist, but Activision have already proved that they’re ready and willing to milk quick bucks and muck up sure things when they dropped microtransactions into Crash Team Racing last year.
So, the honeymoon period may already be over for the videogame remake but I can’t help but remain excited for each new one that’s aimed right at my personal nostalgia for all the (non-capitalistic) reasons listed. Yeah, comforting nostalgia. Yeah, gaming’s crap job at preserving its history meaning that I have to store my PlayStation 2 and its temperamental controllers in a bomb-proof safe every time I’m done with it. Yeah, the refreshing nature of playing a AA game that’s not trying to monopolise my entire life schedule. And, yeah, my being a crotchety old not-a-man/woman largely disillusioned with this current moment in gaming. There may be a dissonance inherent in their very concept, and the games industry may be working its damndest to poison them for everyone else with their capitalist bullshit, but I’m still gonna ride for them until I get my TIMESPLITTERS: BACK IN TIME TRILOGY COME ON, DEEP SILVER!
Callum Petch has seen America with no clothes on.