Remaster Disaster: Take the Nostalgia, Leave the Rest
Remasters and graphical overhauls are all the rage right now. Starting with Crash Bandicoot and slowly gathering speed up to Final Fantasy VII, fans are reveling in developers finally heeding their calls to remaster their old favourites. We all have these “old favourites”, games that gave us our first taste of triumph against an unrelenting boss. Even some that spoke to us when nothing else did and left a lasting impression on our lives. Sometimes “old favourite” can even be applied to games we didn’t like that were instrumental in forming our tastes.
I played Myst as a child. For those who don’t know, it’s an action adventure puzzle game that starts with you on an abandoned island with lots of handwritten notes from the people who were once there. It was designed at a very much adult level of difficulty. So by “played” I mean 5-year-old me opened Myst, ran around the island in confusion and never managed to solve a single puzzle. My older brother had slightly better luck but only when getting help from an even older family friend who was in his early teens. Myst is a game that’s seared into my nostalgic brain.
When I think of an isolated atmosphere I think of how alone I felt on that island. Lost and confused, the howling wind cutting through my bones as I searched over and over again. Desperately looking for the clue that would make everything fall into place, something I never found. Although the way it made me feel has stayed with me 22 years later, I’ll never play it again. My biggest fear is that I’ll find the puzzles really easy and that will retroactively remove some of the magic from the memory of playing it as a child.
I have that same fear for the recent wave of game remasters. I loved Spyro as a child – I still rant about how difficult some of those egg thieves were to catch – so naturally I picked up the Spyro: Reignited Trilogy the day it came out. My inner child squealed in delight as I realised the dialogue was exactly the same. More importantly I could still recite it word for word.
Spyro appeared on screen exactly how he looked in my memories, my imagination having bridged the polygonal gap from blocky blob to adorably impish dragon. After speeding through more levels than I’d ever managed to complete as a child I put down the controller and never came back. Since then Spyro has drifted out of my catalogue of game memories. It’s no longer something I loved as a child. It’s now something I played as a remaster and felt ambivalent towards.
While I enjoyed both games, neither Spyro nor Myst had a serious impact on me. No, younger me gravitated to the Final Fantasy series for that. How I expect to feel after playing a good game now is directly influenced by how I felt playing those games as a child. Final Fantasy VIII is – and always has been – my favourite.
As an adult who’s studied game design, I can point out flaws in the mechanics. As an adult who’s experienced more stories, I can tell you about its glaring narrative flaws. And as an adult who’s well… an adult, I can tell you about how Squall is actually a really annoying emo teen who needs to grow up and maybe go to therapy. But none of those critiques take away from the experience I had from the first- or second or third- time playing it. They’re an analysis of a game that’s disconnected from playing the game itself.
Even replaying it now, it’s my childhood expectations that I play with, not my adult analysis. Final Fantasy VIII was the first time I dove into a world of mercenaries, rebellion, fighting for your beliefs, and the coolest characters 9-year-old me had ever seen. I wanted to be a member of SEED when I grew up. You know, minus the whole orphaned, mercenary with memory loss part, but definitely with the GFs, world saving, awesome-music-having, bit.
There’s an urge to return to these kinds of experiences. Since they meant so much when we were younger, and the lessons they taught us were so powerful, that surely they’ll have the same impact on us now. There’s also the belief that the current generation needs to experience them too. Which frankly can only lead to the games equivalent of having little kids watch your favourite childhood movie and at the climax asking if they can go play with your phone.
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Kids today could (and probably do) have the same reactions to The Witcher 3, Fortnite, or even Final Fantasy XV that 90’s kids had to Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII. They won’t get the same experience from these classic 90’s games that we did. Just like 90’s kids didn’t get the same experience from Pong or Space Invaders that 70’s kids did.
I’m sure that Final Fantasy VII’s remaster will be hugely popular. Even I want to see Sephiroth’s descent depicted in a new graphical glory. But I’m concerned that it’ll start chipping away at the memory from when I first played it. Some characters and places won’t be how I imagined them to be. There’ll be the sudden introduction of voices and dialogue which, no doubt, will be delivered differently to how I originally read it. The broad strokes will be right, but they’ll lose… something. Some magic that only exists when your imagination fills in the gaps. Even if it looks and sounds exactly as you imagined, the game won’t be what you remember.
Playing old games now is an exercise in modified expectations. We know that the graphics are bad. We know we’re coming to an old game, so there’s a level of acceptance of bad design practices, lack of interactivity, missed story beats, and all the usual hallmarks of a loved game from your youth. New games are expected to be better, to have advanced. Not just in graphics but by learning from the design pitfalls of their predecessors.
The problem with remakes is they try to straddle both sides of old game and new game expectations. If the developers change from the old game to improve on what we now recognise as bad design, players will be disappointed that it strayed from the original. If the developers don’t change the game, players will be disappointed when they hit these bad design decisions and their new expectations make them realise the flaws.
Further Reading: Final Fantasy VII’s Remake Could Unmake It’s Influence.
New games are released constantly. Game design practices improve and advance every year, but here we are, giving our memories a highly anticipated overhaul that’s more likely to doom them than to return them to their former glory. I’m worried that the remakes will overwrite my original memories of my “old favourites”. Where once I had a near magical experience that affected how I saw the world, now I’ll have a catalogue of criticisms and unmet expectations. We’re killing our “old favourites” one at a time, when we could let them live in our memories, and make “new favourites” instead.