There’s a certain irony here. The following article was published in July 2012 on the Tech Fixation website and is being revisited, tweaked and sharpened up so that it can be re-published for your reading pleasure 12 months later. Why? More HD remasters have been released since the original article and there’s been the PS4 announcement where there’s a possibility we’ll not be seeing reworked games again, but more on that later. For now, just read through, pretend it’s your first time if you’ve seen this before, and appreciate it for its technical merits at the time.
To kick this article off, and rant slightly about some things that bug me, playing an HD remastered game is not retro gaming. I am not a fan of retro gaming, particularly when it seems to only consist of sidescrolling shooters, basic jump and climb platform games, and anything that’s a Ricochet clone. I grew up avoiding patterns of flashing bullets on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amiga, and whilst they were great at the time, things have moved on since then. Being really pedantic, the retro tag should only be applied to something over 15 – 20 years old (thanks Wikipedia for that one!), so for the current generation, a lot of PSOne games on the PS Vita will be retro games. It’s got an HD display, multi-touch screen, online capable software, dual analogue sticks, and most of this will not be used by the PSOne games. I’d rather have the money being spent developing PSOne emulation moved to enhancing remote play, or even marketing how great the Vita is. Alright, I’m done moaning. For now. [Edit: I’ve not changed my opinion here, still wish Sony would put some advertising muscle behind the Vita, it’s a great little device].
HD remasters have been coming out steadily for the last couple of years, mainly on the PS3, but are now starting to appear in larger numbers on the Xbox 360, and in most cases have been selling well. The gaming community seems quite divided on them, are they a good or bad thing? There’s one side that bemoans the soulless-ness of games companies cynically cashing in on their old IPs and not having to bother with investing in new game development (though they seem happy to buy into the CoD, Madden, Fifa and Tiger Woods franchises every year); and the other side that praises the efforts of developers to bring their franchises to new generations so that classic games are never forgotten (and maybe don’t always see how moving a game in a new direction isn’t always bad). Whichever camp you fall in is not going to affect whether they’re released or not, and the chances are (I hope) you’ve played at least one of the remasters to give you the opinion you have.
I lean towards the positive side of having these remasters, mainly because I’ve been able to play games I never got round to during the PS2 and Xbox years. Maybe it’s my dislike of retro gaming going into overdrive, but whenever I’ve traded up to the next generation of console I’ve not gone back to playing older games, even if the backwards compatibility is there, and this has meant with the move to the current generation I missed a couple of high profile releases from the end of the last console era. There’s also the fact I was a PlayStation fanboy who wouldn’t defile my house with an Xbox, so gaming experiences have been written off before they had a chance to show how good they’d be.
Have a think, how many of the following did you play on PS2 or Xbox?
• Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Warrior Within, The Two Thrones
• God of War: 1, 2, Chains of Olympus, Ghost of Sparta
• Splinter Cell: 1, Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory
• Ico, Shadow of the Colussus
• Sly Cooper: Thievius Raccoonus, Band of Thieves, Honour Among Thieves
• Ratchet & Clank: 1, Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal (the US titles were so much better than the EU numbering!)
• Silent Hill: 2, 3
• Metal Gear Solid: 2, 3, Peace Walker
• Oddworld: Strangers Wrath, Munch’s Oddysee
• Medal of Honor: Frontline
• Tomb Raider: Legend, Anniversary
• Resident Evil: 4, Code: Veronica X
• Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Renegade, 3
• Beyond Good & Evil
• Devil May Cry: 1, 2, Dante’s Awakening
• Hitman: Silent Assassin, Contracts, Blood Money
• Zone of the Enders: 1, 2
I think I played about half during the PS2 golden age, but that didn’t include the God of War franchise, Sly Cooper, or the Splinter Cell sequels. And this is unforgivable, but I’d never played the full game of Shadow of the Colossus (even picking up the remastered copy I’m only half way through despite it being a lovely game). All the titles in the list are available to buy or download right now, and they are brilliantly priced with most being £20 ($30) for a full collection, and because of the reworked versions I’ve now played around 16 of the games I missed.
What I like about this current run of HD remasters is that the games being chosen don’t vary too much from the gameplay style we get from the current triple A titles. Some show their age a bit, Ratchet & Clank 1 doesn’t have a strafe option that’s in all the other games, and Sly Cooper has a lives system that I don’t think I’ve seen in a game for about 5 years, but the majority are great to play and look fantastic with the reworked visuals. In particular God of War 2 is stunning, Hitman: Blood Money looks like it’s the groundwork for Absolution, and it’s amazing how the developers have brought the PSP games details out so that they can be played on much larger TV screens.
This leads us nicely to the technical side of the remasters and the studios that have done the work to get these up to scratch. Probably the best ones are the MGS, God of War and Ico Collections, all of them done by Bluepoint Games who seem to spend a lot of time and care getting the best out of the original assets. Next up would be Just Add Water who have done the Oddworld updates (maybe with the best examples of character model upscaling I’ve seen), followed by Idol Minds who handled the Ratchet & Clank collection (as well as being the studio behind Pain). What stands out with these studios is not just the HD overhaul, but the smoothness of the games, lack of screen tear and the slickness of the revamped presentation. Shadow of the Colussus has really benefitted. According to people who played the original there was a lot of slowdown whilst battling the Colussi, this has been completely eliminated. And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the graphics that are done, audio is overhauled and re-recorded in some instances (MGS HD on the Vita), the source code is optimised, and new engines developed so that the older games will work with the newer hardware. It might sound obvious, but it’s not just a case of picking a game and burning it to a blu-ray for sale, there’s a lot of detailed work needed.
However, and this is where I understand the cynical, money-grabbing side of the argument, not all developers lavish the care and attention these games deserve. Most high profile in its failure is Konami/Hijinx Studios and the Silent Hill Collection where Silent Hill 2 is missing the fog from the town. The very thing that gives the game the atmosphere is gone, caused by the updated coding, but passed through QA anyway. This has been patched on the PS3 but took nearly 2 months to arrive and is unlikely to fix the loss in sales. The Xbox 360 version had the work on the patch cancelled citing technical issues and resources, it will never be fixed. Next up, Resident Evil 4 came in for some bad reviews, the gameplay was still there but the graphics were pretty poor. This could have something to do with the fact that the PS2 game was an inferior port from the GameCube version (according to the developers), and that version was the one used for the remaster. And lastly, combining bad graphics with poor gameplay comes the Prince of Persia Trilogy. I have genuinely never been so happy to trade a game in, Ubisoft made a mess of these and I could not force myself to finish the third game.
That said I’m glad that we’re getting the chance to play most of these games again in an updated format. There are plenty of people out there, usually trolling forums, that think we should all break out the old consoles and just play the originals as they should be experienced. But that’s missing what’s great about the remasters, I don’t have dig out and setup my PS2 and drop the resolution on my TV to sub-HD. I can enjoy the games I’ve played before and see them looking better than I remember (which is so often not the case with memories of games), and trophies/achievements add the incentive of doing things differently to how I’ve done them before, or finding all the secrets and collectibles. For the ones I’ve not played before I get to appreciate how good some of these games were for their time, and in the case of God of War, experience the full story arc without having to manage different pieces of hardware and track down second hand discs and UMDs.
It’s a matter of preference on whether you want to play an original or remaster, much the same as whether you prefer vinyl, CD or MP3. If the developers didn’t give the go ahead and work on remasters then there would be no choice for gamers, and it’s sad to say that some of these great games would be consigned to words and pictures in articles instead of being played and experienced.
What is the future for this market though? The PS4 announcement talked about streaming PSOne, PS2 and PS3 games to the new console so gamers would have access to the (near) entire back-catalogue, is this really going to happen? Dave Perry was a bit vague during the presentation about timelines and feasibility of PS3 games appearing, which could mean there are issues with the architecture of the PS3 and getting the games on to servers for streaming. There’s also the problem of variable broadband speeds for the majority of the world where the visual quality will not be the same as having the console directly linked to your TV, and will suffer from fuzziness and digital artefacts on-screen (there’s a piece I wrote for Tech Fixation when they were back on Tumblr about Sony, Gaikai and OnLive that discusses this in more detail, I’ll repost it if anyone wants to read, let me know in the comments below). I don’t doubt Sony is working on getting these games to PS4 this way, but will it be the best way to enjoy them? Or is it intended to be more of an accessible archive of gaming history where very few people will actually use it but the experiences are preserved forever? If they can sort the tech I’d be front of the queue to get classics like Timesplitters or Parappa the Rappa streaming to my PS4, there are times I really fancy playing something nostalgic.
Thinking about the retro gaming comment at the beginning, the definition is for something being 15 – 20 years old. We are in this timeframe for the 32-bit era (and approaching it for the 128-bit era), should we now be considering reboots instead of remasters? Devil May Cry, X-Com: Enemy Unknown and Tomb Raider have both gone down this route to freshen up the franchises and re-define the gameplay experiences of the originals with current gen hardware. They’ve generated some fan backlash but that’s unavoidable, as humans we reject change automatically, and it shouldn’t be a reason for a developer not to go ahead with a good idea.
I think I’d prefer the reboot route. I’ve loved the remasters but they seem to have been there to fill a gap this generation after backwards compatibility was removed to cut console costs, and that sounds like it will be irrelevant for the next generation and beyond. Here’s hoping the tech is able to deliver on the companies promise and there won’t be need for 4K versions of the Resistance Trilogy in the future (though I would probably buy in to that!).