The term ‘remastering’ has previously been the domain of music and film, where it refers to improving the audio and video quality for a re-release in theatres or on home formats (i.e. Blu ray, CD etc.). With film in particular this process makes a lot of sense, where original film strips are subject to unavoidable wear and tear over time, and where home formats today require the original film to be scanned in at a higher resolution and to a higher standard than with their predecessors. Video games on the other hand are produced with exclusively digital assets, and so the use of the term ‘remastering’ doesn’t really mean the same thing. With video games we have become accustomed to releases which improve upon resolution, frame rate and (rarely) the assets themselves.
The arguments for remasters are many, from the sides of both publishers, developers and consumers. From the publisher’s perspective, bar the obvious financial motivations, they can gauge interest in an IP, which will eliminate some of the risk when it comes to making the decision for a new game. A recent example would be the HD release of the Resident Evil remake, originally a GameCube exclusive released in 2002. Though only a port of a game which was itself a remake it has without a doubt been successful, selling over 1 million copies globally in three months according to Capcom, despite launching as a digital-only title in Europe and North America. Due to its success Capcom have since announced a HD port of Resident Evil Zero (2002) and a remake of the fan favourite, Resident Evil 2 (1998).
For consumers the benefits are perhaps less apparent, but no less significant. For some, remasters are a way of revisiting games they have already played, sometimes appealing to nostalgia. For others, remastered releases are a way of getting to play games that they missed out on, whether because they were never released on a console they owned, or perhaps because the game simply never showed up on their radar at the time. The success of the PlayStation 4 in Europe and North America implies that a significant number of people have migrated from the Xbox 360, which was the lead platform of the previous generation in terms of sales. Those people would likely have missed some of the best games released on the PlayStation 3, such as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and the Uncharted series. Fortunately, the excellent remaster of The Last of Us on the PS4 and the upcoming Uncharted series remaster will cater to those wishes and give people a chance to play those games.
It is also important to note that some games are also released, often at the end of a console’s life cycle, with ambitions which go beyond the capabilities of the system for which they were released. These in particular benefit from a re-release on more powerful hardware, with examples being the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection on the PlayStation 3 and the remastered release of The Last of Us on the PlayStation 4, both of which suffered from uneven frame rates on their original systems. I tend to compare these situations with a film being released on DVD and Blu Ray. The DVD will be a perfectly watchable version of the film though it will lack in clarity, whilst the Blu Ray should be a more accurate representation of the film’s original print.
Of the arguments against remasters, there are two which are most often discussed. Firstly, that working on a remaster will take away resources from a development studio which could be better served making a new game. Whether this is true or not is debatable because, as mentioned above, studios sometimes use remasters as a way of gauging interest in a new release. There is therefore no guarantee that said studio will risk developing a new game without that knowledge, as there may be a higher risk of failure. It is very likely that had the Resident Evil remaster not sold as well as it did, we would not be seeing a remake of Resident Evil 2.
The second argument is that remasters are simply a cheap and lazy way of squeezing customers for more money. Whether this argument holds water really varies between releases. It can be argued that certain remasters, including the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD and Okami HD releases for the PlayStation 3 were genuine efforts to showcase the original intents of their respective developers, however other releases no doubt have purely financial motivations. When the Silent Hill HD collection was released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2012 it was immediately apparent that it was an extremely poor port. Furthermore, it was arguably designed to get the many fans of the classic survival horror franchise to re-buy Silent Hill 2 and 3 whilst putting as little effort into the release as possible. This has been seen more recently with the Prototype HD Biohazard Bundle, with ports of Prototype and its sequel which at times run at lower frame rates than on their original systems.
Remasters are destined to continue, and they will continue because they sell. Fans respond well to remasters which they feel treat their IP with respect, and they respond with appropriate criticism when they feel they have not. The Silent Hill HD Collection did not sell well, very likely due to the fact that it’s faults were highly publicised upon release. As with movies, remasters of video games are important for the industry, bringing a wider audience to some of the best games, and enabling others to realise their artistic and technical goals which may not have been possible at the time of their original release. Consumers are right to remain wary, however, and right to criticise those ‘remasters’ which exist for no other reason than to exploit a fan base for profit.