Opinion: What does it take to justify a videogame getting remade today?
After The Last of Us' controversial remake, we wonder: what does it take for a remake to justify its own existence?
The Last of Us just can’t escape controversy, it seems. Naughty Dog’s recent remake The Last of Us Part 1 has divided fans and critics alike, namely due to how similar it plays to the original game. The new game undeniably looks better, with remade cutscenes, character models and environments that bring it closer to the likes of The Last of Us Part 2 visually. However, the bones are the same. Some of the enemies might be more intelligent, sure, but very little besides visual fidelity separates the original game from its newer remake.
We’re living in the golden age of videogame remakes. The Resident Evil remakes go the extra mile to feature new actors, a completely different style of gameplay and more fleshed out environments. The Last of Us Part 1 outclasses these remakes in the looks department, but a perceived lack of ambition weighs it down. Just how far does a remake have to go to justify its own existence these days?
Sometimes, it just depends on who’s making it
Let’s be honest: not every game studio out there has the resources of Naughty Dog, which happens to be a flagship studio operating under the ever-widening PlayStation umbrella. A lot of gamers are feeling the itch to go back and revisit titles they grew up playing, and most game companies are doing their best to tap into that demand today. Games like Lollipop Chainsaw and Suikoden are popping up on modern platforms after years spent away, but they aren’t getting full-fledged remakes because game studios can only spread themselves so thin. Instead, they’re getting remasters - a term that usually covers games with slightly updated graphics being ported over to new platforms.
A remaster doesn’t need to have gameplay improvements, but they would be very welcome. The key goal here is to slap a higher-definition coat of paint on an older game, and make it more widely available to players who might not have a PlayStation 2 or Nintendo 64 lying around anymore. The Last of Us itself was remastered and re-released for the PlayStation 4 in 2014, featuring updated visuals and bonus features. Sound familiar? Similar HD remasters were all the rage during the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 console generation, and we’re already seeing a repeat of that with 4K remasters.
A game like Lollipop Chainsaw might get away with a simple remaster for modern consoles given its passionate, but ultimately niche fanbase, but a franchise like Resident Evil calls for a wider scope. While a remaster of Resident Evil 2 was likely to find success, it still would’ve felt like a missed opportunity after all these years. The 1998 game hasn’t aged well in many aspects, so Capcom took the opportunity to whip something up from scratch based on the original and call that a remake, and it become one of the highest-selling games in the franchise’s history. It's also one of the best horror games you can play today.
How did Resident Evil 2 get away with it, when The Last of Us Part 1 didn’t?
Remakes come in all shapes and sizes
With The Last of Us Part 1, Naughty Dog wanted to free the game from its original technical limitations - that meant no big changes, just a few upgrades to bring it up to par with its sequel. The core game is the same, which means that there isn’t a whole lot of new stuff here to tempt returning players unless they’re diehard fans. Resident Evil 2’s remake avoids this by giving players an almost entirely new game to play. It’s familiar enough that fans of the original can still gape at new environments and character models, and cry, “Hey! I remember that!” The remake also turns back the clock to redeem many of the game’s original flaws - from frustrating tank controls and fixed camera angles to borderline hilarious writing. The 1998 game is a classic, but much like every other 1998 game, it’s a bit more difficult to play today.
Time is obviously a factor too. Some games need remakes simply because they’re not available on modern consoles and haven’t held up well to the baptism of time. Take Demon’s Souls - the very first entry in FromSoftware’s now-thriving Souls franchise. Not only does its PlayStation 5 remake bring much-needed gameplay improvements to the original game, such as rebalanced item drop rates and omni-directional rolling, but it also boasts a staggering jump in visual fidelity. The game wasn’t released too long ago - only in 2009 - but there is a clear and physical difference between both versions of the game that you don’t have to squint at to notice.
The value of a remake hinges on that difference in the eyes of the public, and sometimes that extends to remasters too. When Nintendo announced a remaster of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, criticism was levied against the game for its only marginally improved visuals and outdated gameplay elements - despite this not being a large-scale project for the company. Rockstar Games drew public ire when it announced the remastered Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy for exactly the same reason. It didn’t help that the trilogy ended up launching as a buggy, glitchy mess. That never goes over well.
And then there’s the big one: Final Fantasy 7 Remake, an extremely ambitious remake that goes above and beyond in reviving the original - to the point that it now consists of an entire trilogy. Not only does the remake deliver a clever twist on the original’s combat system and expand upon Midgar, but it quickly reveals itself to be a sequel of sorts - an unprecedented move that almost makes the 1997 game required playing beforehand. This remake has guts, with timey-wimey twists that set it apart from its peers entirely.
When a remake is announced, we tend to cross our fingers and hope that it adheres to the spirit of the original. Final Fantasy 7 Remake proves that you can still do that without being totally faithful to what came before, seeing as its story already includes some pretty drastic changes. This direction will always be controversial, but it also gives an old game something new to say. In a way, it’s the ideal remake - even if it operates on a scale unfeasible to smaller developers.
The Last of Us Part 1 isn’t a bad game by any means - it’s just too early and too expensive for a lot of people. Diehard fans of Joel and Ellie’s adventures will likely fork out to experience this game with all of its refurbishings (full disclosure: I did), but anyone else will have a hard time justifying a US$70 price point for a remake that arguably has less content than its predecessor. Reminder: The Last of Us Remastered on the PlayStation 4 included its Left Behind expansion and multiplayer mode, but this remake comes without the latter - presumably because there already is another Last of Us multiplayer project in the works at Naughty Dog.
Videogame remakes are always going to be an incredibly subjective thing. Some argue that Resident Evil 4 doesn’t need a remake given how much the original holds up, but others can’t wait for the remake’s better controls and updated visuals. Everyone wants a remake to be an almost complete departure from the original; to be as different as possible while retaining a comfortable sense of familiarity. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to approach something they love with fresh eyes? That’s an unfair expectation to be sure, but some remakes reach for those heights anyway.
Others, like The Last of Us Part 1, settle for reintroducing old games in a new coat of paint. Neither approach is wrong, but one is definitely more interesting than the other.