Revitalizing Classic Games: The Importance Of Innovation In Remakes

Revitalizing Classic Games: The Importance Of Innovation In Remakes

Directors and Hollywood studios have been remaking films for decades. Many of these remakes are among the best films of all time: The Thing, Heat, Scarface, A Fistful of Dollars, The Departed… the list goes on. Each of these examples examines and recontextualizes the original story, creating a recognizable but—vitally—distinct end product. A good remake maintains the core essence but offers a new perspective on the same events. It’s a path that video game developers seem reluctant to follow, threatening to lock the industry in a creative rut. Nostalgia continues to exert its iron grip on pop culture, urging us to pay full price for games we’ve already played.

Among the least inspiring of film remakes are those that are overly committed to the original work. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho springs to mind, as does Disney’s current campaign to senselessly clone its animated back catalog into live-action format. Sony’s first-party studios have taken a similar approach in recent years with remakes of last year’s Shadow of the Colossus, Demon’s Souls and The Last of Us: Part 1. While these remakes are undeniably fantastic games, they are almost entirely out of their timeless original concepts – preserved almost entirely like precious museum pieces – rather than new ideas.

Developer Bluepoint Games

Developer Bluepoint Games brings amazing and valuable visual craft to its remakes of old games spanning multiple generations, but its commitment to perfectly replicating the original experiences means each is still trapped by the limitations of its previous console. The world of Shadow of the Colossus feels barren by limitations rather than design, while both riding and climbing remain as clumsy as they were on PS2.

Demon’s Souls’ setting is split into video game-like zones that frustratingly stick to the one checkpoint per level, rather than adopting FromSoftware’s later (and superior) approach to campfire placement and immersive world layouts. These are two of the loveliest remakes of all time, but ultimately it’s money for new graphics. It’s hard to imagine how much more interesting these games could be if new and modern ideas were appropriately applied to them.

But at least Bluepoint worked with games that really benefited from a huge visual upgrade. Naughty Dog’s 2013 survival horror classic remains very strong in its visual direction – particularly its PS4 remaster – and as such it’s difficult to see exactly what the creative point of the remake of The Last of Us: Part 1 is At least it was a chance to weave the Left Behind DLC into the main game for a seamless story, but we didn’t even get that. Instead, it’s almost identical to the game many of us have bought and played twice before.

It’s hard to imagine how much more interesting these games could be if new and modern ideas were appropriately applied to them.

I worry that the upcoming Resident Evil 4 will also fall into the same trap. Developer Capcom has a phenomenal track record with Resident Evil 2, which completely reimagined the PlayStation 1 classic with modern graphics and – most importantly – gameplay. But the rules of its over-the-shoulder horror template were set with the original Resident Evil 4, a game engineered so perfectly that it not only still holds up well, but defined the principles that almost every third game today -Person action game follows.

So what exactly needs to be reworked about Resident Evil 4? Why didn’t Capcom go for Code Veronica or the original Resident Evil, both of which would benefit tremendously from the same bold reinvention treatment used for RE2? I can’t help but wonder if the Resident Evil 4 remake will simply follow Sony’s lead and be a clone with a fresh coat of paint.

In a similar place is Dead Space, the EA horror game so inspired by the Capcom classic that it’s been dubbed the “Resident Evil 4 in Space” even among its developers. Like RE4, the original Dead Space is holding up well today, so much so that – graphics aside – it was often hard to tell the difference when I played several hours of the upcoming remake for IGN First in December. Luckily, EA Motive has added several new ideas to this visually enhanced version, including mechanics from Dead Space 2, as well as new side quests, redesigned weapons, updated level design, and some small adjustments to the story.

So while the remake undeniably comes close to an experience that’s readily available on Game Pass, so much so that it feels more like an enhanced edition, there are new experiences to be found. I hope there are more of these in the hours I still have to play, but I also can’t help but wonder how Dead Space would look like with a back-to-concept stage approach. Maybe a first-person perspective, or a greater emphasis on survival over shooting?

So why are so many video game remakes different than the bold reinterpretations that are movie remakes? The clone-like process becomes understandable when you take a closer look at industry trends and challenges. We’re asking for much more lavish production values, so projects cost way, way more than they used to. In response, entertainment culture as a whole has become increasingly nostalgic. Businesses, whether they be film and television studios or video game developers, are looking for pre-existing worlds and characters that have a proven track record of success and come with (almost) guaranteed popularity and massive sales. A decade ago they were franchises, hence the explosion of things like MCU and Call of Duty. Today, studios need even safer bets. Hence remakes.

Video game remakes not only have an established and die-hard fan base, but also a package of development benefits. A huge amount of preliminary work has already been completed; Characters, story, locations, mechanics—the pre-production “creative vision”—it’s all there. And in many cases the tools too, as remakes are often developed in engines that the team is already very familiar with. A remake is by no means cheap to make, but without the need for those initial pre-production costs, it can be a lot more cost-effective than an entirely new game. And, crucially, the money raised by a “safe” remake can then be invested in a much more expensive, ambitious project. In a world where AAA development costs have skyrocketed, it’s understandable why remakes are becoming increasingly popular.

In a world where AAA development costs have skyrocketed, it’s understandable why remakes are becoming increasingly popular.

Perfect Recreations of Old Games

But if developers want to deliver perfect recreations of old games instead of bringing in new creativity, there’s an option: remasters. It’s a format that’s gotten a bad rap thanks to the terrible quality control in things like the old Silent Hill HD collection and more recently the Grand Theft Auto trilogy and Blade Runner remasters, so it’s not surprising that some studios are looking for complete remakes as better guarantees of quality. But remasters don’t have to be subpar. Last year’s fantastic Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 Reunion is the perfect example of how old games can be polished without the need for a full remake.

Updated textures, character models, lighting, UI, and new voice acting have been “overlaid” on the old game for lack of better wording. It’s still the 15-year-old PSP game that fans love, but it looks darn close to something released in recent years. It’s also selling for $50 — $20 less than the biggest new games — and will probably still make a profit. When we talk about giving old games the update treatment and keeping the exact same experience, I can’t think of a better blueprint.

And on the other side of the Crisis Core coin is Final Fantasy 7 Remake, a prime example of the kind of ambitious remake I want to see more of. It has its development safety net – the characters, events, locations, weapons, and story beats that older players are deeply nostalgic for – but it reinvents all of that with a decidedly modern approach to gameplay and narrative. It might be a bit too wild with its changes to be the benchmark for all remakes, but it’s one of my favorite games of the last few years because it brings a new perspective to the JRPG classic.

That then brings us back to Resident Evil 2. For the remake, Capcom kept the core ideas of the original game: playthroughs for Leon and Claire, the RPD police station and its backtracking formula, the lab hidden underneath, and the puzzles required to progress are. But all of that has been reworded in a way that doesn’t feel like a dose of nostalgia, but rather a hit of modern survival horror. The flow of exploration, the relentlessness of Mr. X, the desperate and bloody combat, even the rewritten dialogue and story beats; it’s all extremely fresh. That makes it the gold standard for remakes, and I hope it’s the inspiration that other studios will look to in the future.

With that in mind, it’s not hard to look at a few games and see their massive remake potential. As Sony Santa Monica ponders what’s next for Kratos, it would be fantastic to see the original God of War PS2 adventures remastered with the engine and mechanics of the Norse saga.

A third-person brawler version of these classic bosses and environments would be awesome, not to mention a more mature narrative take on Kratos’ Angry Era. I’d also love to return to Rapture in a BioShock remake that tightens up its combat, offers more character build choices, and replaces that notoriously awful final fight with something more appropriate. Maybe Andrew Ryan could even stop you swinging that golf club, representing the ultimate expression of BioShock’s themes of player control.

There are many remakes on the horizon, and it’s exciting to imagine what new experiences they will offer. What will an open world bring to The Witcher 1? What will the development of the cinematic presentation bring to the original Max Payne games? How will Silent Hill 2 surprise us again? Hopefully these remakes will be helmed by directors as bold and inventive as John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, rather than being content with simply creating ray-traced replicas of gaming classics we’ve already played and paid for.

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