BY ALEX WAKEFORD
In the absence of backwards compatibility during the early years of this console generation, there has been something of a gold rush for remasters of beloved classics.
This week, Universally Speaking considers what the next console generation holds for the future of remasters.Over the weekend, I found some time to sit down and dive into Crash Team Racing – a sentence that I don’t think I’ve said since the early 2000s.
The orange bandicoot is still dominating the charts across Europe and was, according to the official EU PlayStation blog, the best-selling game on the PS store in June.
This is not at all unusual (nor, indeed, unwelcome). It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that the number of remasters we’ve seen over the course of this console generation has gone into overdrive – with still more to come.
But with the next generation of consoles just a year away, what do some of the features promised by Microsoft and Sony mean for the future of this method of bringing our nostalgic favourites back to us?Remastering is far from a new or novel concept in the industry, a landmark moment in the development of this trend was quite undoubtedly 2011’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (abbreviated from here as CEA) – released on the tenth anniversary of the original game that transformed the FPS genre and launched the original Xbox.
As the industry’s top narrative specialist in localisation, we certainly understand the weight the likes of an immersive storyline has in the hearts and minds of players. This is undoubtedly part of what made Halo a prime candidate for a remaster.
But there’s more to it than that…
CEA launched with a unique feature that set it apart from its peers, as the player was able to press the ‘back’ button on the controller to switch almost seamlessly between the original version of the game from 2001 and the 2011 remaster.
This wasn’t just a visual change as it also extended to the game’s music and sound effects, these too having been updated with a more modern flair.
One of our own specialisations here at Universally Speaking is audio, and we absolutely sympathise with the immense challenge of ‘updating’ audio while staying true to the original essence of a game’s intangible appeal that became unforgettably iconic.
In this, CEA is almost exactly as you remembered it, with Saber Interactive having built the game to effectively run two engines side-by-side.
Minor additions were made to CEA that are visible in the remaster, including…
- Skulls, optional gameplay modifiers – a staple of the series since Halo 2
- Cinematic Terminal videos explored more of the franchise’s extensive backstory, tying into the following year’s much-anticipated Halo 4
- New Easter Eggs, referencing the fiction (as seen below, where a previously plain display now shows Linda-058 – one of the Master Chief’s fellow Spartan-IIs, who is also frozen aboard the Pillar of Autumn after suffering mortal wounds during the fall of Reach).
CEA proved to be a great success and the big question in the Halo community quickly shifted to “Are you going to remaster Halo 2?”
This was a particularly prevalent hope because, in 2010, the multiplayer servers for Halo 2 – the game which effectively launched online console gaming back in 2004 – were closed down by Microsoft.
The answer to that question would arrive three years later, when 343 announced Halo: The Master Chief Collection for Xbox One in 2014. This bundled together all of the mainline Halo games onto a single disc, complete with all of their respective features.
As this is an area that fall under our own purview, I can’t help but think of the incredible responsibility the QA department must have felt with this – particularly as Halo 2 was celebrated by the community for its glitches. 343 sought to ensure that they preserved that part of the experience for veteran players. It’s quite incredible how remasters can completely change the QA process.
Those folks who made sure they shipped the complete experience of four whole games, while making sure that it was broken in all the right ways… they’re unsung heroes, truly!
Over the last few years, 343 has continued to support this hub for Halo‘s legacy. Fan-favourite spin-off Halo 3: ODST was enhanced and added, and flighting for Halo: Reach has begun as 343 looks to bring The Master Chief Collection to PC for the first time.It could be said that the success of CEA was something of a ‘lightbulb moment,’ proving to the industry that remastering a beloved classic could work and prove financially successful, emboldening others to do the same.
Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched without support for backwards compatibility, meaning that your suite of games from previous generations could not be played on current-gen hardware.
Losing something that had hitherto been a staple of both consoles over the years was understandably the source of much disappointment.
This has, to an extent, been remedied over the last few years; one of Microsoft’s major announcements during their E3 2015 press conference was their backwards compatibility program, which has since expanded to cover more than 600 titles across the original Xbox and Xbox 360.
Over on Sony’s side, things have been more complex. The PS4 cannot run old discs, but select PS2-era classics have been successfully emulated and added to the PlayStation store. Users are also able to stream PS3 games with the PS Now cloud gaming service.
Many would argue, however, that the simplicity of just being able to put in a disc you already own and play that game is a greater convenience that gives Microsoft an edge.During this long-term process, remasters became (and still are) a smash hit.
The absence of backwards compatibility undoubtedly contributed to what has become something of a gold rush of nostalgia.
This is a trend that is not limited just to games, but film and television as well – due, in part, to the prevalence of soft reboots bringing old favourites to the current generation of viewers.
I daresay my own backlog of new games would be much smaller if I wasn’t so compelled by the wealth of childhood classics now suddenly available to me again with their fresh coats of paint and minimal strings attached. That’s undoubtedly part of why they’re a huge market success.
These are typically smaller-scale projects that don’t cost quite as much as a new game (both to make and to sell), so it’s very easily framed as a win-win situation for all.Looking ahead, Microsoft’s next console – ‘Project Scarlett’ – was announced at E3 this year.
Along with their emphasis on the console’s power, they noted that it will support four generations of content. It was further confirmed that Scarlett will host an optical disc drive, meaning that we’re not making the full leap to digital just yet and your physical media from those four generations will be functional.
“When I look at my Xbox One today, it’s probably the most compatible console I’ve ever had. So we thought about our design for Project Scarlett, we definitely wanted to make sure that we were compatible across all the generations – not just with the games, but the accessories.
[…] For us, it’s really us respecting the purchases that our gamers have made on our platform. Some of these games, people brought a decade ago; in our digital ecosystem, you’re gonna turn on Project Scarlett and the entitlement’s gonna be there. You can go download the game and play.” [Phil Spencer, Xbox – ‘Phil Spencer On Project Scarlett, Backward Compatibility & Project xCloud’]
Meanwhile, it is hitherto confirmed that the PS5 will play PS4 games, though it remains unknown whether the storied classics of its previous generations will be supported and available in this fashion.
This presents an interesting situation for the market of remasters, as part of the industry is pushing forwards with the intention of making already existing media available on its next platform – meaning that they will receive treatment that makes them functional on modern hardware (as Spencer notes, this is not “easy”), which is obviously very different from the process of remastering a game.
As a result, this naturally obfuscates the ‘need’ for remasters – at least, for now, on Microsoft’s console platform. Your nostalgia comes at no additional cost.
What this means for Sony is unclear. They continue to see immense success with their remasters of the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro franchises, and if their next console doesn’t support titles from pre-PS4 generations then pursuing this model with other iconic classics is very much in their interest.Many years from now, it will be odd to look back and consider the cultural impact and history of remasters.
Development costs for new games are getting larger, so naturally it is easy to look at the opportunities a remaster – which does not require as much time and budget – offers in terms of the financial boost that comes with winning over nostalgic old-timers and bringing in new fans.
But these are games that are considered definitive for a specific period in video game history; they are a representation of some of the best of what developers could make with the technology, resources, and time that was available to them.
With that in mind, to what extent do ‘modern’ additions and changes made to remastered versions of these games detract from their source material?
To what extent are these products – these cultural artefacts – still what they were?
For Microsoft, it would appear that it’s no longer a question they have to ask with their approach to Project Scarlett; their own foray into remastering Halo has shown that they are able to ‘have their cake and eat it’ by allowing players to switch between classic and modern visuals, sounds, and music.
But, for the rest of the industry, this feels like a pertinent question to ask on the doorstep of the next generation…
What are some of your favourite remasters? Is there one you’re looking forward to, or one you want to happen? How do you find them compared to the original?
Let us know in the comments below!
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