Why HD remakes are hard to do well.

Posted: June 25, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology


HD de-master?


I find the closer I get to middle age, the more nostalgic I become for things from my childhood.  Fortunately for me, this comes during a time that will probably be known in art history as the “remake” period.  Every movie, show and video game from my childhood is being remade with the newest technologies.  Sometimes though, new is not improved.  These remakes range from the fantastic Mario and Zelda HD/3D versions to the obvious cash-milking efforts put out by Square-Enix.  The quality of a remake isn’t always the direct fault of the people doing the port though.  They may have been sabotaged 20 years ago by poor foresight.


Games are hard to hold onto.

Until only very recently, it was cost prohibitive to keep the original assets for games.  All of the content that goes into making a game is many hundreds of times the size of the final game ROM or disc image.  You have all the uncompressed sound files and images used to make the textures, not to mention all the stuff left over from testing and earlier versions.  The assets used to make a game like Final Fantasy VII were probably in the tens to even hundred gigs of data.  In 1997, this would have been most of the storage space available for the entire company.  So deleting the assets would be necessary, unless they wanted to buy dozens of new hard drives to develop a new game.  Storage was expensive as well, meaning that this was not realistic when only the final game image would be needed to later port to other systems or re-release the game.

The problem with this though, is that with only the final game data, you cannot ever put things removed or downgraded back into the game.  The original art used to make the textures is gone, so you can’t make them look any better without creating them from scratch all over again.  The same goes for the sound files, character animation data etc.  Simply put, you have to remake any part of the game you would ever want to improve.  So what do you do?  The following are the approaches developers take to reviving old games for new profits.


Emulate your own game.

The simplest method is just to do what many of us do with our computers, phones and tablets.  You use software to emulate the original system and play the original ROM as it was released.  You can use effects and shaders to improve the image and sound slightly, but you can only get so much from the original source.  This is the method that Squeenix uses for Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games.  With the exception of a few like FFIII and IV, which are remakes and X-X2 which have redone textures and music, the other games are just emulated versions of the originals.  This method is very simple and I have suspected on multiple occasions that the developers just stole work already done by fans and put it on the market.  For example the Steam re-release of FFVII has a number of bits in its files that bear a striking resemblance to several fan mods, made to make the game run on modern PCs.  This is basically the money-grabbing bottom-of-the-barrel for remakes.


Mod your own game.

Fortunately for developers, a lot of us players have been at this a long time.  We never had any more than the final game, so we’re used to extracting the assets and replacing them with custom content.  So most developers just take advantage of what other people have already solved and use existing tools to pull apart the game and upgrade the assets.  This is ironic and absurd on occasion, as many of these games developers were vocally against modding at the time of the game’s original release.  Yet when the promise of more money for work already done arises, they will gladly steal the fruits of the labor they once decried.  Ah humans.  Fortunately this leads to much better looking products like Resident Evil 4 HD and the aforementioned FFX-X2.


Remake the game, with or without reverence.

This can lead to the best and worst of game remakes.  Some, like Super Mario 3D world, completely reinvent a game in a way that is true to the original and adds new fun.  Others, like Goldeneye on Wii, completely lose track of the original in the changes, becoming a separate and often inferior product.  The major downside of this is that it almost always takes more money and resources than making the original game.  It only took a handful of people to make SNES games, while making a 3DS game takes many, many more.  A gamble like this is easy for a large company like Nintendo, but poses a much bigger risk for license-holders who are not a worldwide institution already.


Fortunately, this is nearly an issue of the past.  Hard drive space is now huge and cheap, allowing most studios to keep multiple backups of the original game assets.  This is why Infinity Ward can casually toss in an HD remastered Call of Duty 4 with the upcoming game.  It probably took them very little effort to pull out the original data and update it to run nicely on new hardware, adding some modern effects in the process.  So if you are younger than 25, your childhood is probably safe.  Halo and God of War will be able to be infinitely remastered for the next 1000 years.



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