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The Edo period scenario in Live A Live

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Square Enix’s HD-2D style lets classic games be themselves

Live A Live lives again in its beautiful new remake

Image: Square Enix/Nintendo
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Nintendo and Square Enix’s remake of the cult 1994 role-playing game Live A Live is one of the more interesting reissues of the last few years. Mostly, that’s due to the source material itself. Live A Live, which was previously never released outside Japan, is a sort of portmanteau game, a playable Cloud Atlas that spans a number of bite-size scenarios from prehistory to the far future, taking in Imperial China, the American Wild West, and Edo-period Japan along the way.

It’s a fascinating curio that takes the format of 1990s Japanese RPGs to places those games didn’t usually go — not just in terms of the varied and colorfully cliched settings, but in terms of its loose, parallelized, nonlinear structure. It’s not always successful, but it’s clearly readable as a kind of eccentric, experimental rehearsal for director Takashi Tokita’s ensuing masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. That, in addition to its previous inaccessibility to most Western players, makes it a very worthwhile release.

Live A Live is also interesting because of the vehicle Square Enix chose for the remake. The game has been remade in “HD-2D,” a kind of style template within Unreal Engine that Square Enix created, alongside developer Acquire, for 2018’s superb retro RPG Octopath Traveler. Square quickly saw the potential in HD-2D for both new releases and rehashes; it has since been employed for the new tactics RPG Triangle Strategy, while a remake of the venerable 1988 classic Dragon Quest 3 is underway.

A scene on board a spaceship in Live A Live Image: Square Enix/Nintendo
A town scene in Octopath Traveler Image: Acquire/Square Enix
A castle scene in Dragon Quest 3’s HD-2D remake Image: Square Enix
Characters meet by candlelight in Triangle Strategy Image: Nintendo

Clockwise from top left: Live A Live, Octopath Traveler, Triangle Strategy, Dragon Quest 3

Put simply, HD-2D places 2D, pixel-art sprites within 3D environments that mimic the look and feel of classic, hand-drawn backdrops while allowing for smooth camera moves and advanced lighting and atmospheric effects. Placing 2D characters in 3D worlds is nothing new — the Paper Mario series is a good example of how a successful aesthetic can be spun out of these clashing elements. HD-2D’s strength lies in how skillfully its components are blended together. The 3D worlds are wrapped in pixelated textures for consistency with the character sprites, while the lighting seats the 2D characters believably in the scene without emphasizing their flatness. The color palette draws from the rich, jewel-like tones of the 16-bit era, and exaggerated depth-of-field gives the scene a dreamy, tilt-shifted, diorama-like look. It’s at once miniaturized and epic — nostalgic and modern.

It’s a gorgeous style that goes beyond a pure retro look to create something timeless — an extension of a classic ’90s video game aesthetic into the present, which deepens and enriches it whilst staying faithful to its original character. Live A Live is our first look at how HD-2D works when applied to an actual classic RPG, rather than a brand-new release, and it shows how effective the style is at letting an older game stay true to its period idiosyncrasies, even as it polishes it up for a new generation of hardware (and players).

Principally, this is down to the treatment of the characters. Live A Live’s sprites have been redrawn in greater detail for this remake, but they still move and behave in the same way. The exaggerated form, the huge, emotive eyes, the sparing, decisive animation frames — they communicate as much, but also leave as much to the imagination, as the original sprites did. We relate to them in the same way.

A fiery combat scene in Live A Live Image: Square Enix/Nintendo
Characters get sucked out of a spaceship airlock in Live A Live Image: Square Enix/Nintendo
A mountaintop kung fu training session in Live A Live Image: Square Enix/Nintendo
A Wild West gun battle in Live A Live Image: Square Enix/Nintendo

This has long been a problem specific to updating games of this era. How can you make them more visually rich without filling in details that might clash with the details in players’ memories and imaginations? On a more fundamental level, how can you avoid changing the very tone and form of the original? HD-2D solves this elegantly. Live A Live looks beautiful on a modern screen, but it still moves, plays and feels like a game from 1994, with the distinctive rhythms and ellipses of the era, in both gameplay and storytelling style. As it should do.

Live A Live is also a perfect choice to show off HD-2D’s range. As the game cycles through different settings, characters, and gameplay styles, skipping from ninja stealth to deep-space intrigue, it’s like flicking through a catalog of lost cult classics, each steeped in its own distinct (and distinctly mid-’90s) genre influences. The HD-2D art brings them all to life without trampling on their simplicity or innocence. It’s hard not to play this tasting menu of a game without wishing to see other classics of the era handled with such imaginative care, reimagined and preserved at the same time. Hopefully Dragon Quest 3 won’t be the last HD-2D remake we see.