Restoring The Classics

That Jesus Fresco...

Restoration, Man!

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We talk a lot about classic games, we older gamers.

There’s a certain level of intellectual deconstruction that goes on when we do so; we talk about design and connection. Sometimes we look through rose-tinted glasses at games, blissfully unaware of the impending doom that will come once the harsh realities hit us that such games may not have held up very well; this is an inevitable part of the march of progress. See the likes of Turok 2 as an indication of this – I adored this game back in the N64 era. It was beautiful and melancholic, with just the right amount of humour in the weapon design to be special. But compared to the FPS games of today? Turok 2 is a game I should have left in my memory; enjoying the notions of my younger self enjoying the chaotic and messy design and crude combat mechanics. Time has not been kind and the world has moved onwards too much to salvage the remains of the good memories I once had; it looks old and worn. A game of an era, that hasn’t really managed to live beyond its era.

That said, the world today now sees us looking back at eras past, looking for clues midst the rubble of generations that rose and fell, of games that may have survived or been preserved intact. This is not an easy task because sure, some of the old pixel art games from the SNES and Mega Drive eras have held up somewhat respectfully; some of the PS1 games too like Alundra and Grandia and Tombi!, because the art style was rigid and slick enough to be able to withstand the onslaught of the onset of three-dimensions. We look at these games and we revere then; and re-released, they come off as games that haven’t really aged that badly. Like Yoshi’s Island, sometimes there’s a case to be made for letting something remain intact – it just looks better that way.

The other side are the 3D games such as Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy 7, Parasite Eve 2 and Resident Evil 3. Games from the earlier era of 3D, and an era we have surpassed at warp speed. Some of us can get beyond the rusty old visuals with the odd tearing and blurring at the game underneath, but we’re a minority of connoisseurs. We can forgive that, we lived through it and we understand that those steps were necessary on the path to where we are now. But we’re a dying breed; as time marches onwards it becomes ever easier to blind ourselves to the past and expect more from the classics, especially when it comes to visual quality. We don’t want to see a faded artwork, one crumbling and peeling due to the ravages of time. We want to see them restored to their full glory once more, to look as good as we think they looked then and yet retain that same sense of wonderment and quality that we remember.

Of course, this is hard and when it comes to restoration in the art world, you expect it to be done by experts who can be sympathetic to the source material; hence the reliance on the Jesus Fresco as a lead image. Yeah yeah, I know it was a cheap shot but what can you do? It’s a perfect fit for this complex and thorny debate.

Thing is, the industry does often farm its ports and HD remasters out to the lowest bidder, and this doesn’t always seem to work out that well. After all, we remember the fuss that was caused by the bodge-job of Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 in the HD ‘Collection’, right? I mean sure, the games themselves still hold up remarkably well considering their age. But when it came to the sympathetic and intelligent update of the graphics and the games engine itself, something went terribly, terribly wrong. Things were missing, things weren’t included and in some cases, increasing the draw distance ensured we saw the fog from the olden days of their PS2 incarnations was hiding a multitude of sins, as details were unfinished and unconnected to anything. It is details like that which cannot be ignored when you are asked and paid to restore a classic piece; it has to be a complete job, not a mere superficial varnishing. The people in the know will notice, and those coming in as newcomers will rightly ask why these things are there – or not, as the case may be – and not feel the draw and attraction that once captivated a generation of gamers to their cause.

Of course, there is another issue and it is one we saw when Activision “updated” GoldenEye 007. I remember late night four-player sessions of this game on the N64 and I remember it clearly because the game itself was brilliantly and cleverly designed. At a time when movie tie-ins were always seen as quick, cheap cash-cows that didn’t come with any guarantee of quality or relevance to the source material, GoldenEye 007 was faithful and sympathetic to the source material on which it was based. Throw in great challenges and one of the most crazy multiplayer experiences of the era, and yes, it sticks in the memory. So when the update to the game was revealed and the first change was that the likeness of Pierce Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig, you immediately knew they had no intention of sticking within the confines of its classic roots. The update instead strayed too far, wanted to be something new and yet instead ended up as something much, much less as a result. It was like taking the Mona Lisa and then whitewashing the canvas so you can instead do “your” version of the Mona Lisa. There’s a case to be made for asking why you wouldn’t just use a brand new canvas, rather than paint over the old one.

Another similar issue comes from Yoshi’s Island; a 2D platformer that is incredible in its nuance and complexity. There are little details within the game that just lift it and make it special; from the cry of Baby Mario to the jokes, references and Easter Eggs. Secrets, little subtle details in the foreground and background, mechanics and gameplay devices with multiple intelligent uses and all seemingly painted onto this whimsical pastel-coloured canvas; a child’s drawing book of naive, yet subtly imaginative brilliance.

Yoshi’s Island – design brilliance. But that makes it so fragile too.

Now imagine if you will Nintendo came out into a conference tomorrow and announced they were going to do an HD Remake of Yoshi’s Island. No doubt some of you would be thrilled and delighted; a remastering done by the original authors of the work? How could that possibly go wrong? Well… that’s just it. How CAN it go wrong? And what if it does?

Yoshi’s Island first landed in 1995 and it hasn’t really changed at all over the years; the little subtle additions in the GBA port were non-intrusive and even added to the experience, but even there, that was done in 2002. It has been ten years and no-one has added anything in that time, and it stands tall on its own as a testament to good game design. However, do the people at Nintendo now really understand all the brilliance of this game? This is not a game with one or two things that need to be preserved; it’s a complex mass of lots of little great things all rolled together into one game. To remake this game in HD would require manpower and money to ensure not one element of its old design was left untouched; every little detail must work as it used to, and faithfully restored into HD. Even the framerate, severely impacting on many engines which sometimes run a little too fast to be of any real use – something the recent Sonic the Hedgehog games have been learning to its cost. Everything, right down to the blurred flutter of Yoshi’s feet and the sweat of its brow as it pushes something, from the terrain to the minigames. Yes, Nintendo are more likely to get it right than farming it out to the lowest bidder – but it’s still not a straight-forward task, and if they do make a mistake and we see it, wouldn’t that defeat the entire point of updating it in the first place?

You see, it’s easy to demand an HD Remake of a game. But it is another thing entirely to actually do it.

For its not easy as it sounds; for every Beyond Good and Evil HD there is a Resident Evil 4 HD. One game that is done faithfully, sympathetically and with a real understanding of the poignancy of what made it such a critically loved game the first time around. And one game that is ported to HD quickly with no regard to the quality of the title, because it is being sold on the back of its name alone and they hope you are suckered into purchasing it before you realise what a terribly cheap job that they did on it. Some games have details that were there by design and others that were either quirks of the consoles at the time, or just little mistakes that felt right, like the little details in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D being kept intact. Sure, they could have fixed them up, the shortcuts and the quirks that let people snoop around otherwise inaccessible areas earlier than they should. But it is also part of the games mythos, part of what made it a great game. People revere these mistakes and actually come to accept them as part of the package, the imperfections become a perfect part of the piece. Fixing them just doesn’t really do them justice when they have not only been forgiven, but critically and artistically de-constructed over many years regardless of the intent or not. Flaws that hurt the game of course are another matter and this is where the remake journey gets decidedly more difficult; how can you really differentiate the two? Do you restore or fill in? There’s a line and it isn’t always as clear-cut as it first appears.

Some HD Remakes or remasters do end up adding to the experience, and we must not believe all HD remasters are doomed to fail. We have seen Beyond Good and Evil, Star Fox 64 and Tomb Raider: Anniversary. The latter of which throws up one final element that further muddies the waters.

For you see, Tomb Raider: Anniversary was actually a pretty awful remastering. It wasn’t faithful to the source material at all at first glance, everything had changed to make it fit in with the new storyline arc that Crystal Dynamics had envisioned when they got the series. Dialogue has changed, bosses were now set-pieces, puzzles were very different, secrets were relocated and even Lara, who had once been flirtatious and coy in the original PS1 classic was now another generic tough gal cold hard threats of violence to any flirty comment action heroine that we had seen a million times over the last decade. On paper, it’s horrifying to even suggest that Tomb Raider: Anniversary should even be compared to the PS1, a game which delivered arguably the most brilliant snippet of science-fiction dialogue in gaming ever, as Natla prepares her creation to kick-start an evolutionary race once more. I’ll add it here;

Natla: Back again?
Lara: And you, for the grand re-opening, I assume?
Natla: Evolutions is in a rut. Natural selection at an all time low. Shipping out fresh meat will incite territorial rages again; it will strengthen us and advance us, even create new breeds.
Lara: A kind of evolution on steroids then?
Natla: A kick in the pants. Those runts Qualopec and Tihocan had no idea. The cataclysm of Atlantis struck a race of langering wimps – plummeted them to the very basics of survival again. It shouldn’t happen like that…
Lara: … or like this.

A fantastic delivery by the two voice actresses at the time ensured this didn’t feel jarring at all. Even though the game had gone from archaeology to science fiction in a flash, it was a fantastic concept. To change it, as they did, was almost sacrilegious. But of course, this would be to again miss the point of Tomb Raider: Anniversary. It wasn’t a remaster, it was a modern re-telling and the debate of evolution and revolution that had at the time of the PS1 surrounded the blistering pace of technological advancement had all but gone. It was no longer a relevant discussion to have in the context of a new, modern audience. The world had changed and the games market had changed. Tomb Raider: Anniversary could not afford to be retro. It had to be on-par with modern games. And it was. In every respect, Tomb Raider: Anniversary was a fantastic game – it absolutely was not faithful to the original Tomb Raider in anything but a few names and key locations; it paid lip-service to its roots, rather than trying to latch on and hope the vacuum its pout created on it would carry it onwards.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a game that breaks all remake rules. But still wins.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary wasn’t a remaster, more a remake. Like updating Othello with modern dialogue and settings. As long as the core feel of the game remained intact and just enough of it paid its respects to its roots, then that was enough. It was a game that broke almost every rule of a remake, and yet in doing so ensured that it was, in effect, a valid entry and a brilliant update to a classic game. It could have been so different, of course. But sometimes you have to know when to break the rules; just remastering a game visually can be so shallow, and what of those who played it originally? It won’t really challenge them much, just be a trip down memory lane. Some games can’t be seen to do that. They have to keep challenging, and sometimes that means taking big risks to get those big pay-offs.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t always the answer. Some things need no tweaking whilst others do. It is impossible, or otherwise incredibly hard, to really find a middle ground between traditionalists who demand a faithful reincarnation of what they remember and know to those who believe if you must restore something, it needs modern materials and paints and tools to make it stand out and noticeable in a world where some artworks are all too easily forgotten in the brashness of the commercialised world; where dirty toilet seats pass for Modern Art and command half a million pounds. Restoration of an old game, like restoring a masterpiece, needs time and money and people who understand and relate to the material. You need specialists, people who are capable of the task at hand and willing to take the insurance hit should it go wrong.

Like the Jesus Fresco, you just can’t have just anyone touch up a classic. And that’s a big problem for an industry struggling with costs. HD Remakes and remasters once seemed like a cheap and easy way to generate money from their back catalogues. But as they find their old masterpieces, the realisation is sinking in that some of these things are going to require a more professional, sympathetic eye than they first envisioned. We have had too many problems and poorly done revamps, from the shockingly lazy Resident Evil 4 HD to the frankly insultingly poor Silent Hill HD Collection, and right to the recent let-down of the Hitman HD set. We can see that these games are not the sure-fire money-spinners that they had once proclaimed them as. The deeper we go and the more valid classics they find to push to the fore, the more there is a need to give them proper dignified treatment, a revamp by people who will ensure a proper job is made in updating it, within the rules or without.

In essence, the industry is fast realising that even its cheap money-making schemes are going to cost them more in the end than they ever envisioned at the start. Great for studios who can specialise into this area. But terrible when you consider that it is the expense and potential PR disaster that may now begin putting off some developers and publishers from getting their old classics restored.

If they don’t get the right people, you’ll end up with a Jesus Fresco. Famous? Sure. Everyone knows your name.

But for all the wrong reasons…

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