Remastered video games: Good or bad?

Is upgrading the graphics on older games like colorizing black-and-white movies?

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read

This holiday season, we're seeing a trend toward classic games presented in close-to-original form, but with their original graphics rerendered at the higher resolutions today's consoles and displays use. Is this a great way to make older games more accessible, or is it, like colorizing black-and-white movies, widely considered a bastardization of the original art?

Unlike film or music, video games age badly. Technology changes, screens get bigger, and the host games of even a few years ago look positively primitive to the jaded eyes of consumers. Despite this, we've still seen some vintage games enjoy a second, or even third life as iOS arcade classics, hermetically sealed retro downloads on GOG.com, or even those vintage-game-filled joysticks that plug directly into a television.

What we're seeing more than ever of this year is a little different: classic games presented in almost their original form, but with redesigned graphics, or at least with the original graphics rerendered at the higher resolutions today's consoles and displays use.

The most recent example, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, takes a 10-year-old game for the original Xbox console and strips away the old graphics, replacing them with brand-new art. The actual underlying character and level information is exactly the same; it's like the skeleton of the game got its epidermis stripped off and replaced with a newer, better one.

The original and remastered versions of Shadow of the Colossus. gamingbolt.com

It's a step further than most of the other recent rerendered games go, which mostly take the original texture assets and re-output them at higher resolutions with some minor tweaks. In the past few months we've seen new versions of two God of War games, Ghost of Sparta and Chains of Olympus; art-house classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus; a couple of older Resident Evil games, including the Sega Dreamcast's Code Veronica; and a trio of Metal Gear Solid games (Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater, and Peace Walker). On the portable side, there's also the Nintendo 3DS version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. None of these is a remake, or even as radically repackaged as the new version of Halo. They're all essentially the original games with remastered graphics.

Actual remakes of games are rare, the most notable one I can think of is the Nintendo GameCube version of the original Resident Evil, which really did re-create the entire game from the ground up. That was much more in the spirit of the best movie remakes, such as "The Departed" (a version of the 2002 Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs") or "The Thing" (the 1982 John Carpenter version, not the recent re-remake).

Rerendering the old graphics and putting a vintage game on a PS3 or Xbox 360 disc (or making it available as DLC) certainly succeeds in making classic games more accessible to modern audiences. But, is that a good thing? It's the same argument made years ago over colorizing black-and-white films, a trend for a while in the 1980s and '90s championed by, among others, Ted Turner (whose later Turner Classic Movies cable channel itself shunned colorized movies). Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel called it "Hollywood's new vandalism."

"They're coming to colorize you, Barbara..." dvdtalk.com

Is it fair to level the same criticism at these rerendered games? They're certainly easier to consume this way, and it's hard to imagine younger gamers being all that interested in the primitive graphics of even five or 10 years ago. But at the same time, there's a certain awkwardness to these remastered games. They certainly don't look like they were built to be viewed at 1080p resolution, and even with the original graphics up-rezzed, there are plenty of things that remain anachronistic about them, from control schemes to level design to animation. They are, like colorized movies, experiences that seem disconnected from time, neither new nor old.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate a classic game is to see and play it the way it was originally intended. An older style of gameplay may come off as disappointing when melded with modern graphics, making these games less satisfying than they could be. Certainly no one in his or her right mind would want to colorize or add dialogue to "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Metropolis," or other silent films.

It's easy to make the counter-argument, though. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in particular look great on the PS3, and the addition of stereoscopic 3D adds a new level of interaction with these very spatially oriented games. The 10th anniversary edition of the first Halo game has gotten a much more extreme graphical makeover than the other examples, and it's shocking to see when you hit a button on the Xbox 360 controller to switch to the original graphics, which you can do at any time. Partially because Halo games (or linear first-person shooters) haven't changed that much over the past decade, it's easier to jump right into it, and the actual gameplay has aged fairly well (but there may be a slight cloud of nostalgia there).

Do the benefits of rerendering and remastering older games outweigh the shortcomings? Would you rather play the original version of a classic game than a remastered one? Am I being entirely too harsh by comparing this trend with the colorization of black-and-white films? Weigh in in the comments section below or vote in our poll.