The tiers of remakes
Remake. The term strikes fear into the hearts of all, because you know you’re in for a ride as soon as you hear it, and it might not be a good one. Someone has decided that your favorite movie or game or show needs to be recreated completely, because for whatever reason the original just isn’t good enough any more.
To be utterly fair, if you’re looking at your favorite stuff with a critical eye, this is frequently accurate. Your favorite stuff is not sacrosanct, and there are times when it completely deserves a redo to be more accessible or just plain better. My affection for older games does not render them immune to the ravages of technology, and bringing them up to date both graphically and mechanically could do wonders for several. I’d love to see the original Phantasy Star games brought together into a fully remade form, for example.
Yet for every great remake in any medium, there are some truly atrocious ones. So let’s look at what can be done with remakes, the tiers that can be aspired to, from the worst to the best.
The Ruination: Misunderstands key themes and characters, coming off as a poor imitation of the original
This is something you see most often in film remakes that completely miss the point of what made the film worth watching, but it’s present in video games as well, especially in certain classes of fan project. Pretty much any project that aims to “re-translate the game, only correctly” is fundamentally starting from this point, because it confuses translation with localization. Sure, Final Fantasy VI had a translation that suffered due to Nintendo’s content policies, but a literal translation makes everything come off as stilted and awkward rather than the nuanced and flowing story we actually received. The end result is a confusing mess that not only does the recreation no credit, but actively makes it seem weaker by comparison.
Herein lies the sin of this tier. They aren’t necessarily bad, but they don’t stack up in comparison to the earlier title, often seeming actively worse and appealing mostly to people who have never played or watched the original. The whole thing comes across as a cash grab even if it isn’t, and rather than updating a classic it diminishes both itself and the source material. These are the projects best left alone altogether.
The Pointless: Offers no additional insight, adds and removes elements in such a way that the net effect is no better
At face value, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes seems like a great idea. It’s the Metal Gear Solid 2 engine dropped into the first game. Along with re-recorded dialogue and a bunch of needlessly changed cutscenes, no real changes in overall room layouts to make use of Metal Gear Solid 2‘s tricks, none of the VR missions from the original… you get the idea. Rather than being an enhanced version, it winds up feeling like the original with some glaring alterations, as if you went back to your childhood home and all the furniture was rearranged. Also your parents looked like completely different people.
Again, it’s more than possible to have good games show up here. The Twin Snakes was a good game, because a bad remake of Metal Gear Solid is still, well, Metal Gear Solid. And the core of the thought process here is solid, that you want to have something more on display than simply the original game with a quick coat of paint slapped on it. The problem is when this ambition starts carrying over to “fixing” the game, often times correcting issues that didn’t need correcting or helped contribute to the game’s charm in the first place. Heck, sometimes the fixes actually cause more problems than the original state.
Feel sorry for these remakes. They aimed for the best and wound up falling short. That’s pitiable, not contemptible.
The Nomenclature: A remake in name only, changing so many elements that it is no longer recognizable
These sorts of remakes are the ones that are usually just classified as reboots, because they are in every way completely new games – but they’re trading on established names. Tomb Raider isn’t a shot-for-shot remake of the first Tomb Raider, but it’s meant to kick everything back to the start and completely redo the series from the ground up. Yet any lingering affection you may have had for Lara Croft is irrelevant here. All that matters is the name, even if this Lara doesn’t resemble the original Lara in anything but the broadest strokes.
Films and shows also crop up in this category, as well; they use the name but bear only the thinnest resemblance to the original. Whether or not you liked the Robocop remake, it certainly wasn’t in the same ballpark as the original’s hyper-violent critique of its contemporary society. The name and the plot elements were all there, but none of them moved quite the same.
While there’s nothing making these remakes bad, there’s also nothing making them good. They are outside the cycle, so to speak. They exist in their own category. It means a lot of freedom, but it also means that a lot of the usual metrics for determining how good they are as remakes doesn’t apply. Both to their credit and doom, they must stand alone as their own creatures, and one can only hope they are up to the challenge. Several are; some aren’t.
The Technical: Functionally the same as the original, but updated for newer technology
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD is not a remake by the strictest definition. Everything on the game disk was released elsewhere. All it really does is make the game playable on the PS3 with better graphics and some content that previously had not been seen in North America, which is nice but hardly vital. If you already have a copy of the games in question, this remake doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason to go ahead and pick it up.
Technical remakes exist in every medium – movies made with older special effects that can now be remade to look better, comics that can have the benefit of coloring (or, in the case of webcomics, redraws by artists who have improved over time). When done properly, these remakes are in no way worse that the originals, but they’re also not really any better. They’re just prettier. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be happy to have something with a new coat of shiny, but any flaws in the original will still be present here. All that you get is a fresh coat of paint.
The Expanded: Adds additional material, corrects mistakes, and fundamentally alters the experience
The Final Fantasy III remake is not the same as the original Final Fantasy III. The characters are given names and identities, the story is expanded significantly, damage calculations and enemy groups are significantly altered, and several classes have their functionality radically overhauled. It keeps true to the spirit of the original and remains recognizable, but the changes have their ups and downs, even though the net effect is generally a positive one.
Rather than changing the original until there’s no point in holding on to the name, these remakes change the original significantly with an eye toward correcting issues and giving people more game to play through. Several of the early Final Fantasy remakes have gone this route, adding new play modes, new character options, and a variety of tricks to ensure that you can get more out of the game than simply an upgraded set of graphics. But in this category, those changes come at a price, frequently altering parts of the game that worked fine before or making unnecessary changes. Elements that had previously balanced the game are removed without explanation, replaced with new elements that don’t work nearly as well or offer a weaker overall experience.
Remakes at this level are still good, and usually fun to play through. They can’t quite replace their source game, however, because the severity of the alterations make them feel like a well-played cover instead of a new incarnation of that first game’s magic.
The Replacement: Improves upon so much of the original that it supplants its predecessor
I cannot play Mega Man X any longer. Up until a few years ago it was one of my favorite games in the franchise, and something I liked to hold up as an example of tight and engaging game design. Now, though, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X exists, and that makes it impossible to sit down and enjoy the original, because literally everything its source game does the remake does better. The good aspects of the original all carried over, and the changes all make the game more fun to play and offer more ways to clear through everything.
These remakes are rare, not just because good anything is rare. In order to create a remake that functionally replaces an older title, you have to pull everything out from its moorings, scrape off everything, and add in more besides. It’s not enough just to tweak balance, you have to recreate the game in such a way that it still feels familiar but also allows for new play experiences. You also have to do so without functionally making the game into a copy of its sequels or changing it beyond the point of recognition. And since you’re only going to bother remaking a game that was good in the first place, you run the serious risk of taking something good and completely ruining it.
When it works properly, though? You wind up with a game that feels new while still being older, picking up all of the accumulated history in a newer format and with a leaner setup. You wind up with a game that maintains the spirit, but has the heart of something new. A lean, alert creation that offers all the benefits of a remake without any of the drawbacks.
It’s always the goal. Even if most remakes wind up falling short earlier in the schematic.
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As long as a remake is actually you know…REMADE in a sense than I’ll be fine.
Where do yearly franchises like sport games or the Dynasty Warriors series fit, I wonder?