The Same Game, Prettier

A tried-and-true way to make more money from the same movie is to re-release it in a new format, for the diehard fans who want to own every single version of a piece of cinema. For a while, this meant buying—and re-buying—the same film as it migrated through VHS → DVD → Blu-ray → Blu-ray 4K, with sprinklings of extra footage or bonus content added along the way. With some older films, they would also remaster them by upscaling and cleaning up the footage1, or in some cases like the original Star Wars trilogy, digitally alter scenes and add special effects to attract new audiences. Disney has taken this 2 steps further by systematically recreating their classic cartoons into live-action movies, to mostly middling results.

Where movies go, so do video games. For the past 2 console generations, Nintendo/Sony/Microsoft have padded their sales by reselling old titles from previous console generations. As they’re usually run on emulators, these games often offer some amount of filtering and graphical tweaking, as well as various quality-of-life improvements like in-memory save states and fast loading.

Slightly more effort is some of the remasters that receive inline cosmetic upgrades. The Last of Us is probably the most infamous example of a title with multiple remakes, where each release reworked character models and textures while driving higher frame rates and resolution on faster hardware. Halo: The Master Chief Collection compiled 6 games and updated their graphics and multiplayer modes, but kept the primary gameplay and storylines the same.

Then there are true remakes, where the overarching story is the same, but the graphics, sound, and gameplay elements are updated to modern gaming standards. I just played through the remake of Super Mario RPG, which kept the characters and plot but rerendered all the graphics in high-definition 3D2. Resident Evil 4 was already a great game; its remake touched up everything from graphics to gameplay systems to control schemes and was good enough that it won a couple of awards despite its lack of originality.

All of this is to say that it’s hard to come up with new characters, new stories, and new gameplay. The cost of new games, adjusted for inflation, has stabilized for the past decade at around $60–70. Yet, the development budget for AAA titles continues to balloon, and making the economics work often means tapping into auxiliary sales via DLC and microtransactions. At the same time, since it takes millions, or tens of millions, units sold to break even on these titles, they’re further derisked by recycling known characters, settings, and gameplay mechanics. To those ends, Sony already came out and announced that they have no new IPs to release this year, while Microsoft tried its hands at making wholly original franchises, only to shutter smaller studios and purchase franchise-sustaining developer Activision. Nintendo—well, Nintendo will milk Mario and friends until the heat death of the universe.

Game development economics have hollowed out the middle. Whereas the B-tier titles of yesteryear struck a balance between development costs and expected sales, the market has bifurcated into AAA titles on the high end, and indies on the low end. The former features high production values and plenty of made-for-trailer moments, but are increasingly reduced to sequels and spinoffs that reuse proven gameplay formulas. The latter typically has much more freedom to explore new styles of gameplay and aesthetics3, but are comparatively low fidelity and typically sell at lower price points.

These remakes and remasters have filled that mid-tier void. Gamers don’t like being charged the price of a AAA title for cosmetic improvements4, but it still takes time and effort to update art assets, tweak gameplay systems, and touch up a game to modern standards. Yes, it’s still mostly a cash grab, but there’s a craftsmanship to remasters: you don’t have a massive budget to create eye-catching spectacles, and you don’t have the indie freedom to explore in completely new directions, yet the fanbase that you’re banking on to drive sales expect a tasteful homage that can live up to their nostalgia.

When done well, though, they get to introduce new generations of gamers to some of the classics—in a slightly more palatable form.

  1. The Criterion Collection specializes in precisely this niche.

  2. Well, the Switch only outputs to 720p, so it’s technically HD but barely.

  3. A good recent example is the poker roguelike Balatro.

  4. Although Nintendo certainly tries; their remakes sometimes launch at full price but typically don’t hold that price for long, in contrast to their core Mario and Zelda games which don’t go on sale for years.

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