Remasters are a solid part of any publisher’s release schedule these days. Starting last generation with the God of War Collection, the “HD Remaster” was a way to bring older titles to modern platforms while increasing image quality. In Sony’s case it minimised the effects of cutting Backwards Compatibility from the Playstation 3 and provided a bridge from the PS2 crowd that had defected to Xbox 360. In recent years it has given companies like Nintendo the chance to recoup investment on games developed for less successful platforms like the Gamecube. Now they focus less on “HD” but improving performance, and packaging hits together for a second shot at the charts. They’re also cheap to outsource and can keep a franchise alive between big releases. Unfortunately a disturbing trend is starting to creep in; they aren’t just updating the technology behind scenes, but altering stylistic and creative choices too.
A prominent example of this is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD on the WiiU.
Wind Waker made quite a splash when it launched on the Gamecube. One of the first Cel-Shaded games, the look was divisive but it’s part of the reason the game aged so well. Link often looks entirely two-dimensional, rendered in thick acrylic with heavy and flat shadowing that merges beautifully with the environments and hand drawn puffs of smoke. The game was ahead of its time, launching when the industry was all about realism. When Zelda returned for Twilight Princess, Nintendo adopted a style closer to Ocarina of Time.
Now let’s look at Wind Waker HD.
The same character models and general design remains, but there’s a modern lighting model here. The entire cel shading effect has been reduced by the presence of softer lighting and shadows. It might be a mistake generated by the remastering process, but given Nintendo’s admitted disappointment with the public’s response to Wind Waker, it’s likely they intentionally softened the effect for the re-release. The problem is that by destroying the flat cartoon look of the game, it exposes the age of the character models far more. Wind Waker HD is technically superior to its WiiU counterpart, but there are frequent moments where the original looks cleaner and bolder, despite its limitations.
A more recent example is The Bioshock Collection, which contains a remastered Bioshock 1 and 2. Great effort has been put into revising the original game’s geometry, increasing the polygons in a lot of character and environment models. Texture quality is also massively improved over the original console releases, while time has been spent preserving the way classic Bioshock gameplay should feel. Unfortunately, one small artistic change has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the tone of the game. Originally, scenes in Rapture were flooded. Everywhere you looked, the floor was coated with a layer of seawater. These have been mostly removed in the remasters. Water still flows from pipes and appears at inopportune moments, but the feeling of water and the ocean everywhere has been stripped from the environments. Everything looks a lot drier.
This might seem like a petty complaint, but it represents an important part of the look and feel of the setting that no longer exists. And this is Bioshock. A game revered not just for its graphics, but for its overall visual design, and its perfect unison of look, feel, and narrative. It is one of the most respected and beloved games of the modern era, and the first game on most people’s lips when you ask the question “Are games art.” It raises serious questions for the archival of digital media, and the ability to keep playing these games in their original form in years to come, when even Bioshock can’t survive untweaked.
Even now, with the launch of the Return to Arkham Collection, we see similar retcons taking place. One of the more subtle changes, the collection is showing tweaks to the colour grading that mostly affect Arkham City. Asylum is graded and rebalanced, but largely in keeping with the game’s original look. City isn’t so fortunate, and a great effort appears to have been made to make the two look more consistent. The biggest change affects Batman himself who, after appearing in a tradition Black cowl and cape in Arkham Asylum, took on a blueish tone in City. While the blue toned Batsuit from City was the source of some complaints, it was in keeping with the look of the game, and the tone of the game which was lighter and drew more from source material in Batman’s 70s era. On the surface, it’s another small change, but it represents another classic game being altered to meet someone else’s creative vision, years after the fact. In this case it makes the games less distinct also, removing creative evolution that occurred between the two releases.
These changes are in some respects, understandable. Warner Bros. aren’t just thinking of Return to Arkham as two individual games, but a foundation of a franchise. A franchise that didn’t have a lot of luck on its last outing. Both Bioshock and Wind Waker suffer from a problem of keeping up with modern technology. Lighting and particle effects have come a long way, the temptation to tweak is very real, particularly if the tweaked is easier to implement than faking a lighting model from the early 2000s.
As long as we avoid a Star Wars Original Trilogy situation and the unaltered releases are still available in some form, changes are acceptable. Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is probably going to outlast the PS3 versions by quite some distance, but it is a very authentic port. This isn’t the case for all games. Wind Waker HD is, for most consumers, the only way to play that game right now. In time this will be true of Ratchet and Clank, God of War, and many other console exclusive remasters. That’s why we need to step back and ask what Remaster releases are for. Do they exist to respectfully convert the titles, to preserve and future proof them so future generations can share the experience, or do they exist to improve and edit the source material like a second draft. These are very different approaches, and they have very different implications for games as an art form.
So far the publishers have avoided this topic, choosing instead to prioritise budget. What they really want is to sell the game again with minimal hit to the wallet. This creates a problem, as the ultimate question of how authentic the job should be is then left in the hands of the porting house. By refusing to answer this question, publishers are letting quick-and-easy budget conversion studios make the decision for them. That’s not a professional and respectful way to treat a work of art.
Publishers and developers need to take charge of this situation. Remasters need to be given a little more oversight, someone to consider these questions. Studios should feel free to embrace the opportunity to make changes, but when these changes interfere with the creative vision of the original product, preservation and distribution of the unaltered material needs to be a priority too. So far, only Microsoft has met this challenge, with their Halo Anniversary remasters offering both a total recreation and a straight port in the same package.
Early in the life of Film and Television, huge swathes of content was destroyed due to ineffective or negligent approaches to archival. The games industry needs to tackle this problem while the medium is still young, or risk losing some of its history forever