Thursday, May 27, 2010

Revisionist history: on the mertis of updating classics

Yesterday's update to Half-Life 2, which "modernised" it by plugging it into the newest version of Valve's Source engine, got me to play through nearly half of the now-classic shooter in one evening - pretty good, considering that usually when I game I tend to play in smaller bursts.  Featuring updated visuals and audio, achievements, and a few tweaks to the gameplay, I was happy to replay the game out of sheer novelty value, even though I'm also halfway through Deus Ex: Invisible War and Unreal Gold.  However, I also came across a number of bugs which, while relatively small and insignificant on their own, eventually ended up tarnishing a game which I have poured over a hundred hours into over the years, and that has really defined gaming this decade for me.

This got me thinking about why we seem so obsessed with re-releases, updates, and the like, to gaming classics especially.  It's one thing to have an update that fixes bugs, but often it seems like we're sucked into spending our money on games purely because they give us a fresh coat of paint over some old thrills.  That's not to devalue the original games, but I can't say that there aren't a dozen or more remakes I've played solely because of visual refinements.

In some cases, these sorts of refinements are necessary.  Old games, such as Bionic Commando, look and feel dated by today's standards, not just because of their visual styles, but because the limitations of the technology actually get in the way of some of the game's playability.  Swinging from platform to platform is a lot easier when you have a smooth, graceful animation rather than a choppy, three-frame one; the Rearmed version of the game is certainly appreciated here.  Updated audio and controls serve a similar function, since often our nostalgia for a game ends up tainting our memories of it.  Some games do age gracefully, but at the same time I would never play Duke Nukem 3D ever again if it wasn't for the awesome EDuke32 mod.

Ah, memories.  Huh?  What do you mean, "it's been updated"?

At the same time, though, one has to wonder what sort of value comes out of these updated versions.  We all hold fond memories of classics like Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Doom, etc., and in fact, often it's hard for us to think of anything other than the original 8-bit version when those names come up.  I certainly don't imagine Super Mario All-Stars and its updated version of Mario Bros., and I doubt anyone else really does.  Sure, nicer graphics can be a plus, but for games that have such an iconic look, it almost feels like sacrilege to make changes to something so hallowed in the annals of gaming history.

There's also the case of updates fixing bugs and changing controls.  One of the reasons I really dislike the updated version of Mario Bros. in Super Mario All-Stars isn't due to the visuals, but due to the fact that the game's handling has been changed quite a bit, and some levels have been altered.  It looks different, but I wouldn't care so much if it didn't play so differently either.  Even things like the distance Mario can jump and the speed he can run have been altered, and this makes for a game that is frustrating when one is so used to the classic version.

Moreover, there's the slightly more philosophical point that changing a game, which is so iconic and important for the development of the medium, is in some sense morally wrong.  This is of course a highly subjective angle to take, but I think we need to consider what we are attempting to do when we remake a game: we're altering something which people already consider to be classic, and perhaps by that token, perfect.  Is it really a good idea to take something that already worked so well, and then try to make it "better"?  It seems to be a form of revisionist history: by updating a classic, you also infer that the original wasn't as good as it could have been.  At least some remakes, like The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, include the original game as well as the updated one, so that the original isn't overshadowed or lost

Allowing you to switch between the original and updated games at will,
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is respectful of its source material.

What purpose does "modernising" a game serve in most cases, other than cashing in on the nostalgia of older gamers?  If I can play a Flash version of Zork, do I really need or want to pay for an "updated" version featuring full graphic illustrations?  Updating a game for compatibility is all well and good, until you start to change things that are fundamental to making a game what it is.  For some, that might mean taking Pac-Man out of the arcade and onto your Xbox 360; for others that might be updating the graphics; for yet others, it could be that producing a sequel to a classic is insulting.

This argument is akin to remaking films such as King Kong in order to take advantage of new technology, a new audience, the old audience, and an existing brand all at once.  Unfortunately, turning to film for answers doesn't seem to help much.  There are some great examples of film remakes, such as the aforementioned Kong, but others, like the updated Friday the 13th, serve only to tarnish the original.  It seems that Hollywood hasn't quite figured it out either.

In any case, I'm confident that Valve will patch up what is perhaps one of their most famous games; it simply won't do for them to have so many visible bugs, especially when they're now trying to sell it as a closs-platform product.  With the emergence of auto-patching via digital distribution services like Steam, it means that Valve can effectively choose to rewrite what is a landmark title for all of gaming, and I can't help but be reminded of George Lucas and his Special Edition versions of Star Wars.  Unfortunately, unlike Star Wars, I can't just save my old Laserdiscs or VHS tapes; short of disconnecting myself from the Internet, Valve has free will to continually define what their game is.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]


  1. I would try the updated hl2 if it weren't for the fact that I played through the entire series just a month ago. A couple of achievements won't lure me back in. Other classics I still play - like Doom which I played today on my old laptop. No need for any improvements there as it's pretty perfect the way it is.

    The monkey island special edition update was indeed great for the fact you mentioned - switching between old and new. I switched between every new screen I saw, for both visuals and the updated audio. It was quite something to hear the original music and the remastered themes.

    Games they need to remake (simply because they don't work on anything past win98) - LBA2 (little big adventure2) and GRIM FANDANGO (especially this one) People these days need some grim fandango in their life.

  2. I was playing xcom last weekend and mulling over the sorry state of the many knockoffs and homages to this great game. Although I'm not a fan of remakes and reinterpretations, I couldn't help but wish that the original game could be tweaked to better run on my modern rig. I'm afraid that the limited graphics have suffered from ever-increasing monitor sizes to the point where images and text are becoming too blurry for comfort. The visual difference between xcom and a "newer" title like Fallout is now quite noticeable.

  3. According to wikipedia, Einsestein wanted the soundtrack of his film Battleship Potemkin to be updated to fit each generation that was shown his movie. Maybe that's where gaming has to go. Making games relevant for each generation would be a noble ideal in which name to update classic games. But that's beyond switching 2D for 3D, midi for mp3, beyond the cash-in of these remakes.