The video game remaster and re-release is one of the most maligned trends of recent years. Their announcement is often met by cries of annoyance at their prevalence, their release with complaints surrounding their price… and yet their absence often has fans of the series calling for the ability to revisit them on modern hardware.
Of course, so much of this relies on the game in question and the quality of a given remaster. The surprise release of a Prototype bundle for current generation consoles was met with a collective shrug and a sigh at its poor performance, but many people are eager to return to the original Uncharted trilogy later this year and fully expect it to present a pristine 1080p image with practically flawless performance.
In an ideal world, backward compatibility for even niche titles would nullify the need and desire for companies to revisit these older games, but with such vastly different hardware from one generation to the next and manufacturers who have come and gone from the industry, that’s simply not possible.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to all of this is the vested commercial interests of the game’s original developers and publishers. On the one hand, re-releasing a game is a fantastic opportunity to make a little bit more money off an older title, and if it can be relatively easily upgraded in the process to provide a tangible improvement over the original game, then all the better. But there are limits to this seeming generosity.
Last week saw the release of God of War 3: Remastered, which brought the game from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4 with a 1080p60 retrofit for the more powerful hardware, but it’s a game that now lives in isolation. When God of War 3 was originally released, it was preceded by the God of War Collection, which brought the original two games to PS3 and kicked the current trend of re-releasing older games on newer hardware, but it doesn’t feel as though God of War 1 and 2 are likely to make the jump to the PS4, let alone the two PSP games.
Those games and many others have the chance live on with PlayStation Now, but that particular service is far from set in stone and liable to see an ever-evolving roster of games. So where does that leave God of War in a decade? Will Ico and Shadow of the Colossus be consigned to forever live only on the PlayStation 2 and 3, even as The Last Guardian is being revived on the PlayStation 4? Will Shenmue be forever the preserve of Dreamcast owners?
Though hardly altruistic, there have been some noble efforts in the past two decades – largely since the move from cartridges to optical media – to offer backward compatibility natively on successive consoles. The PlayStation 2 had the original PlayStation chips built in to do just that, while from the Gamecube to the Wii U, Nintendo have used a consistent evolution of the CPU and GPU that allows for native play of previous generation games, while also re-releasing their back catalogue in various forms for each new console. Even when hopping from one CPU architecture to another, Microsoft have been able to create translation layers for their Xbox 360 and now their Xbox One to play the previous generation’s games.
Even with such features, the same problem persists. Eventually there comes a point where games are left behind. In the music industry, albums that were originally out on vinyl in the 60s have been released as cassettes, CDs, digitally remastered for further CD re-release, turned into MP3s for iTunes and its ilk and are now streamed via subscription on the likes of Spotify. Citizen Kane, The Third Man or Blade Runner weren’t trapped on film, but proliferated via VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes and maybe even Netflix – though their catalogue is far from universal. But if you want to go and play the original Project Gotham Racing or you for some reason have a hankering for Blinx: The Time Sweeper, it will have to be on Xbox or Xbox 360, and if you want to play Journey a decade from now, chances are it’ll have to be on a PS3 or PS4.
The PC is, in many ways, a beacon of hope in all of this, partly thanks to Microsoft’s refusal and/or inability to remove legacy support from Windows. Most games since the dawn of Windows XP will run with relatively few issues on a more modern PC and operating system, but there are often workarounds for earlier or troublesome games to restore compatibility. There’s even Good Old Games which specialises in securing licenses and keeping classic games available for sale and compatible with the latest Windows, despite having evolved from CD Projekt Red’s pet project into a more fully formed PC game marketplace.
Better yet is the PC’s ability to take on the mantle of preserving games, regardless of their original platform. When classic LucasArts point and click adventures stopped working with modern computers, ScummVM sprang up and turned into the definitive station for classics of the genre. The brute force of modern processors mean that emulators exist for everything from the NES or Mega Drive to the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and we’re even seeing the burgeoning development of PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and 3DS emulators.
But they all live in the somewhat murky waters of installing custom firmware on PSPs or making use of exploits and homebrew in order to enable the Wii U’s innate backward compatibility to the Gamecube, which is otherwise blocked by Nintendo. The creation of and use of emulators by reverse engineering in the name of preservation have been enshrined in EU and US laws, to varying degrees, and there’s even a campaign to let us alter games reliant on online technology, so that we could continue playing older online-centric games using unofficial servers. Using emulators to play games that you have not purchased is, of course, illegal, but things get even trickier once the concept of abandonware comes into play, where games are no longer for sale, is no longer being supported or the original companies no longer exist.
Really it has to fall to those original creators and rights holders to do the responsible thing and look to preserve their legacy. id Software have made a tradition of releasing their engines in open source, right up to id Tech 4, while Bungie released their classic FPS series Marathon as freeware, and Revolution Software made their point and click adventure Beneath a Steel Sky and its source code available to the ScummVM team.
The games industry is always consumed with this drive towards the next big thing, pushing the boundaries ever further in a quest to out-do what went before, but we might find that in the decades to come so much of what went before is also being left behind.