Chasing the Lightning in the Bottle
Video game remakes are popular, desirable, and often pull a lot of journalistic eyes. We’ve seen a significant uptick in major franchise remakes/reboots/remasters in the past 2–4 years, almost always accompanied by media scrutiny, fan anticipation, and cautious industry eyes. Since 2017, there have been over 40 noteworthy remakes, remasters, and reboots in beloved old-school video game franchises — and dozens more that come from more niche or indie titles. When games like Crash Bandicoot, Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy 7 — all legendary video game titles and franchises — are being remade and released to critical and consumer success, I cannot help but ask one simple question:
Why? Why are these games so popular? The existence of a strong market for them is obvious; why is it so strong?
The easy answer is, of course, nostalgia. We all look at positive experiences in the past through a set of rose-tinted glasses; I’m no exception. I, to this day, hold that Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy has some of the best lightsaber combat of any Star Wars game in existence, which skews my opinion of the game more positively than it may deserve. I would preorder a loving remake of the game on announcement day — but the game has some fundamental problems that other people might find too much of a turn-off. These old games are loved for a reason, but nostalgia alone doesn’t cut it. It’s not a nuanced enough rationale for the demand for remakes.
I propose that the source of the remake thirst in the video game market right now has three primary branches: accessibility, unrealized potential, and community seeking. All of these branches bleed into nostalgia, but all of them also have facets outside of it that significantly impact how people respond to remakes. There’s a reason we keep trying to recapture the old lightning in a new bottle.
Accessibility is important, but it’s often neglected in the gaming community. While tools like emulator software and ripped game files can somewhat open up options for modern gamers, there are many old games that simply aren’t playable for the average person anymore. If you want to play classic Crash Bandicoot or Final Fantasy 7, you have two options: hope you can get a functioning console and game copy, or emulate it (with mixed results). Remaking old games opens the door for old fans and new ones alike to experience games that contributed to the growth and shape of modern gaming culture.
If we were to compare old video games to old movies, we could say that it’s easy to find an old movie online or play a DVD in a Blu-Ray player — the barrier to accessibility is low. With an old game, if there isn’t a stable emulator and ripped game file set, you’re screwed without the right console, with the right compatibility, or a good port.
I’ll be the first to admit that modern emulation software significantly eases this pain, and will do so more effectively as the communities behind these projects become more adept at parsing the engines and systems of consoles new and old. However, many of these systems are not stable, and some people don’t want to take the risk using software and files of questionable legality. What options are left to them?
Untapped potential is something that bears some explaining. All of us that play games have at least one game we love, but wish could have been released at the peak of the developers’ ambitions. A game that is already great, but had so much more that could have been done to take it above and beyond. Remakes offer older titles the chance to reach for loftier ambitions than the technology of the time (or their original budget) would have initially allowed.
You could say we want old video game favorites to pull a Gandalf: they’ve died, faded, and gone away — but one day we’ll see them return out of the blue, more powerful and radiant than ever before.
The example I used in the image above, the Resident Evil remakes, are a good example of taking already decent gameplay and survival fundamentals, and leveraging modern technology and funding to revitalize and improve upon the audio and visual fidelity that makes this brand of horror game so enthralling. This remake used modern tools to bring Resident Evil 2 closer to its perfect form. The success of this release not only encouraged further remakes of the franchise (which raises concerns of milking the franchise for easy money, but such cynical perspectives fall flat if the actual product is stellar), but proved that this kind of product is desirable.
On a personal note, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon DX took one of my favorite childhood titles — Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team (GBA) — and released it on the switch with a gorgeous artistic revamp, the inclusion of modern Pokemon mechanics (namely Mega-Evolution), and a slew of quality-of-life options that make the dungeon-crawling experience even better than I remembered it. As a remake, that title is the example I’ve personally dropped too many hours into, and it’s an outstanding example of a remake pushing an already fun title to new heights. I highly encourage fans of Pokemon, dungeon crawlers, or general Nintendo Switch owners to try it out.
Community seeking is my final branch of desire, and it’s the one that I need to define a bit before moving forward. The overall gaming community is vast, varied, and multicultural (ideally), but we all gravitate toward certain niches or certain franchise-oriented communities. We’re all familiar with gaming super-communities like the Super Smash Bros. community and the entire World of Warcraft player base — massive groups of like-minded people that care deeply for their chosen game(s), and want to interact with others like them. Human beings naturally seek community, and this is no less true in the gaming space.
So how do remakes come into play?
I want to ask you a question, and I want you to leave your answer in the comments below. Is there a game, or multiple games, that you have heard a lot about and wish you could experience for yourself? Alternatively (and more likely) have you played a game and desperately wanted a friend to play it too, so you had someone to talk about it with? These instances are examples of community seeking in the community.
The example depicted above, Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee, blended the mechanics of the wildly popular Pokemon Go mobile game to remake the first generation of the franchise, opening the door to a new casual player base. This helped grow the Pokemon community and gave newbies an accessible entry point to the franchise. It encouraged further community seeking.
How about another example, one I can personally attest to?
I started playing the Fire Emblem games after watching a certain Twitch streamer play Fire Emblem: Awakening on stream soon after its release. Long-time fans would talk about older titles, titles never released in the West, and I felt left out of that part of the community. When Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of Fire Emblem Gaiden (the second game in the franchise, originally released in March of 1992 — before I was born — in Japan only), I was given the opportunity to experience that story and an improved version of that gameplay for myself, paired with an absolutely stunning soundtrack (courtesy of Takeru Kanazaki and company) and art style (courtesy of Hidari). The opportunity this remake gave me allowed me to become more integrated into the community, and it encouraged me to bring new potential fans into the fold as well.
More fans means a larger community. A larger community means more potential buyers. More potential buyers means more love for a franchise — remakes are an investment that can not only pay itself off easily, but sow the seeds for an even more successful future release.
And so we’ve reached the end of the article. While nostalgia is absolutely a leading reason for the deluge of remakes we’ve seen in recent years, I’ve done my best to make a case for more than that. We want remakes to experience things we hadn’t been able to before, to grow our communities, and to see the things we loved as children be built anew. There’s more nuance to this remake-loving market than simply saying “oh, I liked this game as a kid”. Video games are all about the experience.
Maybe it’s just me, but I want to share the best version of that experience with anyone who will listen.
Thank you for reading my article. I encourage you to leave your thoughts, opinions, comments, and counterarguments in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you have to say!