It’s like a rift has opened up in the space-time continuum, catapulting players back to the 2000s or earlier. Empty space‘s ominous space station, the plague-stricken villages of Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime‘s sleek sci-fi interiors: These are the virtual playgrounds of some of the top-rated video games of 2023, and they’re all remakes or remasters. Their paths have been trodden by many players before, but now they shine again and perhaps feel a little different too; sharper, faster, more responsive – yesterday’s classics reimagined with today’s technology.
The video game remake is nothing new, but it takes a new, more extensive place in the release calendar and therefore in the minds of players around the world. If you check out a critical aggregator like Metacritic to find your next gaming experience, chances are you’ll get away with a title that was first released 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. Fancy a game of tactics? Give then Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp a shot. A first-person activist? The recently released System shock remake should do it.
However, sometimes it can feel like time is speeding up, like the ever-shrinking gap between the initial release and remake, remaster, or re-release. The third highest rated game of the year on Metacritic is the “Complete Edition” of the critically acclaimed RPG The witcher 3Released just eight years ago for a generation of consoles many players still use today.
The witcher 3 shows the semantic smoothness that comes with reanimating the past. “Complete Edition” primarily refers to the new high-resolution textures and higher frame rate, so it’s neither a large-scale remake nor a true remaster (a term generally applied to many older titles). It’s better described as an “upgrade,” one that brings the presentation in line with what players expect from today’s consoles and PCs. This “Complete Edition” is perhaps more than anything a smart piece of marketing, updating the experience just enough to resell it to players while maintaining the brand’s continued cultural relevance.
However, remakes generally go far beyond upgrading or remastering original assets (3D models, textures, animations, and the like). Rather, they recreate a game from scratch, sometimes close to their ancestors (as with Resident Evil 4) and, in others, introducing more fundamental changes to the game mechanics, if not the story (the remakes of resident evil 2 And 3 swap fixed camera angles for a more modern third-person “free camera”). The upcoming remake of another survival horror classic, silent hill 2, it looks like it will take the latter approach by introducing, according to producer Motoi Okamoto, a “more immersive” camera and, interestingly enough, combat that is “more fun than before”. This detail will confuse some purists (like me), who see the original’s punishing combat as an essential part of the storytelling.
As video games age (they are now well over 50), so does their audience. The medium not only contains a rich history of beloved titles, but also an older audience that likes to revisit them. In short, the current fashion for remakes, what cultural critic Simon Reynolds would describe as “retromania,” is here to stay. Atari CEO and Chairman Wade Rosen said nearly the same thing in a statement denouncing the company’s acquisition of Night Dive, maker of the recently released System shock redo. To Rosen, the developer has “proven expertise” in “commercializing retro IP”, highly valued traits for a company like Atari looking to leverage its extensive back catalog.
While it’s natural to be cynical about the relentless renewal of the old ground, these remakes do more than enrich established companies. Video games, like movies and music, are subject to trends. Currently the most popular games are all-consuming open-world beasts or infinite “live service” experiences (both at once in the case of GTA Online). What the current crop of remakes does is allow players to look past such trends to enjoy more focused, arguably tighter experiences. For players of a certain age, these remakes can remind them of what first drew them to the medium. For younger gamers, they offer a chance to see how designers of yesteryear imagined its capabilities, only now with more pixels and better hardware. It’s not that video games are necessarily devoid of ideas; some turn out to be timeless.