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Respecting retro game constraints in the age of remakes

Details born of compromise are often significant for art and atmosphere

Remaking older games might seem straightforward — after all, the blueprint is already there in the original. The whole structure of a game already exists, with all of its art, sound, music, design, characters, and gameplay. Remakes bring with them opportunities to address perceived flaws or to restore features that were cut or compromised. Remakes can also introduce new players to a game, while still having to consider those who played the original. Good luck navigating all that.

Accompanying the question of how a remake will be made are questions of when and why. Remakes of retro games demonstrate how constraints of technology, capital, and time impact art styles, designs, and game feel. As remakes bring ever higher polygon counts and ray tracing, let’s embrace the distinctiveness of retro games.

For example, the calls for a port of 2009’s Demon’s Souls started early: Once Dark Souls became a success across platforms and over multiple generations, it wasn’t a surprise that players looked for Sony to share the wealth and release Demon’s Souls from its exclusive home on the PlayStation 3. When a fully remade Demon’s Souls launched together with the PlayStation 5, many fans saw it as a triumphant return, a platform exclusive that served as a showpiece for the graphical power of the new generation. So what if there were grumbles about changes to the voice acting, art style, and architecture? Demon’s Souls had completed its trek through console generations, from sleeper hit to hot new thing.

But there was substance to those grumbles. As Polygon’s Michael McWhertor pointed out, there was hardly a straight line of improvements from Demon’s Souls (PS3) to Demon’s Souls (PS5). It’s not a surprise that a consistent frame rate of 60 frames per second looks and feels good for a game that requires precision timing. It’s great that so much detail, from a reorchestrated soundtrack to DualSense haptics, contributes to the epic feeling of fighting the Storm King. But players might still want to pick up the original game if they want to experience Boletaria rendered in a stark, medieval style rather than a neo-Gothic one. It’s not so much a question of which version is superior as it is the fundamental differences between them.

Pixel art illustration of retro game cartridge

Remastering and remaking the atmosphere of retro games is a tricky and often contentious business. For example, Silent Hill 2 lost most of its iconic fog in its HD remaster. While this revealed the game’s world in more detail, it also took away some of its character. In the case of Silent Hill, more is less. Silent Hill’s fog is a trademark part of the series, essential to its visual identity and deeply important to its world and plot. The fog is a fantastic device, obscuring the player’s view, requiring more focus on what one can hear rather than see.

The altered fog in the remastered Silent Hill 2 even drew comment from series art director Masahiro Ito, who speculated that hardware differences between the PlayStation 2 and PS3 might be at the root of the change. According to Ito, the PS3 may have had more trouble with certain types of textures used heavily by Team Silent in the PS2 original. Technological progress isn’t always a straight line, especially when, as in Silent Hill 2’s case, the team behind a remake or remaster doesn’t have access to the original source code. Even if a team intends to faithfully modernize a game, crucial elements may be lost in translation.

When the responsibility to remake a game is placed in the hands of fans, as it recently was for Jankenteam in its 2021 remake of Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX, they can be acutely sensitive to those details. But even then, a desire to update the aesthetics of a retro game can have unintended effects on gameplay. Alex Kidd in Miracle World (1986) is a classically unforgiving platformer of the old 1980s school. The main character has a floaty jump, slides slightly on landing, and has to get within a few pixels of enemies to deliver a knockout punch. Any slip-ups, poor timing, or just plain bad luck puts players down a life and back at the start of the level. Extra lives aren’t particularly abundant, and a “game over” really means it, bouncing players all the way back to the title screen.

Pixel art illustration of retro game controller

Players of the 1986 game would fight with the controls to make Alex move with the precision required. Jankenteam opted to hew as closely as possible to those original controls for the remake, imprecise as they were and now are again. But the team also compounded the game’s difficulty with its updated sprites and animations. The new art lovingly renders Miracle World DX in a detailed, colorful style, which is welcome compared to the blocky pixels and occasionally eye-searing color combinations of the 8-bit original. However, the addition of extra frames of animation and the decision to not match sprites with their original size makes it even more difficult to judge where Alex needs to be for a punch to land. While playing the remake, I found myself getting closer to enemies than necessary, which often led to a swift death. While the new art is easy on the eyes, it’s more difficult to read.

When thinking about games like the recently announced remake of Dead Space, I wonder how desires to use the technological toolkits of a new console generation will affect the star of the show: the USG Ishimura. Sure, the doomed mining ship is a setting, but the place has character. It’s a wonderful mixture of Alien’s Nostromo and Event Horizon’s ... Event Horizon. As players guide the voiceless Isaac Clarke through its sections, stomping through so many whooshing automatic doors, being carried up and down cargo elevators, and decompressing in airlocks, the Ishimura feels like a place, rather than just space. On the one hand, Dead Space could be coldly regarded as a series of hallways and arenas. On the other, its designers worked within the constraints of both hardware and genre to fill those spaces with claustrophobia, anticipation, and danger. As players wait for each door to unlock, there’s a moment to fear what may lie on the other side.

Resident Evil 2 Safety Deposit Room Hip Pouch location Image: Capcom via Polygon

As demonstrated in Capcom’s 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2, there’s fun to be had if players can choose between slowly opening a door and bashing through it. I’d like to think of those options as having different effects on story and gameplay compared to the original’s menacing, creaking doors. When the new senior producer of Dead Space says that the team at Motive is working to “modernize the game,” I wonder how differences like that will figure into the process. The new creative director has mentioned how impressed he is with faster loading from SSDs on current-generation consoles, saying that his team’s “intention is to offer a fully unbroken experience [...] an uninterrupted sequence shot, from the start screen to the end credit, without interruption.” I hope that the game’s pauses and quiet moments, some of which may have originally been in place to mask loading times, are kept in mind, if not intact. New SSDs may give designers the ability to have every door whoosh open as players approach, but there’s fun in anticipation.

Even if a team is working with the latest tech on the latest platforms, there’s no such thing as being free of constraints. The history of games doesn’t consist of a linear progression. Retro games have the particular shape that they do because of a combination of factors and design choices. Remaking them isn’t a simple process of updating them for new hardware, but is instead a process of difficult translations, substitutions, and decisions. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to ditch talking about remakes in terms of updating or modernizing. Instead, maybe we would be better off thinking about how remakes are inspired by, but differ from, their originals. There’s room for both on our shelves and hard drives.

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