Remakes, Remasters, and the Myth of Gamer Illegitimacy

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I often say that I’ve been playing games since I was a toddler, but that’s a lie. I grew up poor; we didn’t have money for luxuries like video games and especially not consoles, so while I trained my thumbs on Super Mario Bros. and spent countless hours exploring Donkey Kong Country, after that everything gets a bit spotty.

If I were anybody else, I’d ask, “who cares?” You’re a gamer if you play games, full stop. It has nothing to do with how long you’ve played or what games you’ve played or whether you’ve gotten every heart container in Ocarina of Time. But I’m me, a woman who’s been writing about games professionally for over two years with an imposter complex so wide you could land the Great Fox on it, and I can’t keep from feeling like I know nothing about anything.

Toejam and Earl, Toejam and Earl Productions, Sega, 1991

Toejam and Earl, Toejam and Earl Productions, Sega, 1991

Of course, I spent those years of my life between the Super Nintendo and the PlayStation 2 I got for my seventeenth birthday playing games. I went to friends’ houses and spent hours on Toejam and Earl and Final Fantasy X, not to mention every wrestling game with a character creator I could get my hands on. I played and replayed Pokémon Yellow, Silver, and Crystal. And though games were too expensive, we could afford magazines. I burned through Nintendo Power and PSM, reading and re-reading the walkthroughs to games like Ocarina of Time and Silent Hill, two games I’ve never actually played through. The walkthrough to Silent Hill gave me nightmares, as I’m sure the game would have done if I’d ever played it.

But despite my interest, despite me making it work, despite the fact that writing about games is literally my job, I still feel like I don’t know enough. People my age make references to games I didn’t have access to as seminal classics, and I know I’ll never get around to playing them because I have to keep up on what’s happening now, too. I’m being buried under an avalanche of an ever-increasing catalog of games I must know to be part of every conversation.

Part of this unique struggle is that games, comparatively, are a new medium. The classics–those seminal games that influence everything that’s coming out right now–were made in recent memory. Their creators are likely still alive. So when I admit that I’ve never played Metal Gear Solid (any of them, not even the recent one, which came out when I was so busy with low-paying freelance work writing about games that I had no time to play them at all), people are shocked. You must play them to understand stealth, experimental storytelling, the possibilities for controller manipulation, Kojima’s genius, they say.

And sure, I accept that they’re probably pretty good. And I know an absurd amount about them, for never having played–it was part of my job to know about them, so I spent hours researching titles like Metal Gear Solid and Thief–but I’ve never played them and probably never will. Maybe that means I’ll never understand modern game design, but mostly it means that I’ve mastered dodging out of any conversation about Kojima before I have to confess that I hate stealth games and have no interest in trying them.

Of course, people will pressure you to see films like Citizen Kane or read A Tale of Two Cities, but quiz the average person and you’ll find that few people have. Why engage with old media when there’s so much to keep up with today? The difference is that the must-play games are within our own lifetime–most people my age grew up on these titles, while I struggled through The Lion King and Donkey Kong Country again and again because they were all I had. Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy VII are the games of our childhoods, not the games of some far-off golden age.

As I’m writing this, I wonder if confessing that I’ve never played the titles deemed most important is damning, despite the time I’ve spent writing about, studying, and playing games. We all know that being a woman writing about games is like traveling through a minefield where people on the sidelines are actively cheering for you to step on one. I’ve loved games since I was young enough to still be biting my NES controller out of frustration, I love them enough now to sacrifice the time that might be spent playing them to write about them instead, but I don’t know if that’s enough.

Shadow of the Colossus, SCE Japan Studio, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2005

Shadow of the Colossus, SCE Japan Studio, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2005

And my lack of access is just one part of the barriers. The Shadow of the Colossus remake announcement at E3 kicked off another never-ending discussion of whether nostalgia is ruining–or if not ruining, hindering–creativity in the gaming industry. Do we need another sequel, another remaster, another remake? Why not just go back and play the original, which is excellent in part because of its janky camera, ghostly environments, and clunky controls?

The answer is simple: because some of us didn’t play it back then. And when you look at reviews of The Last Guardian, the most recent game from Fumito Ueda, which languished in development hell for so long that nobody expected it to come out, it’s clear that the flaws that are so endearing when seen through nostalgia goggles just don’t hold up to modern standards. If you’ve already battled your way through the clunky controls and malevolent camera, you already know the excitement you’re in for. If you haven’t, the experience is less than positive.

Shadow of the Colossus is another one of those brilliant games I’ve never beaten. I started it, got through three or four of the colossi, and gave up because I didn’t feel like I was fighting the enemies but rather the frustrating controls. A remake is exactly what I need–a smoother entry into a game that is undeniably important, aesthetically gorgeous, and yet barred by being a product of its time.

Reliance on nostalgia hinders growth, certainly. But this is an industry fixated on regurgitating the same things that we loved as kids, with an emphasis on understanding what makes today’s games great by playing the predecessors, all of which came out in recent memory. If we’re going to insist that you need to play the classics–even the more recent classics, like Shadow of the Colossus—why not make them more accessible to those who aren’t playing through nostalgia goggles? And if you’re really concerned about the remake, those clunky controls will still be there; this will just give players the opportunity to experience the game without frustration.

And therein lies the problem. These classics inaccessible to people who are just getting started, or people like me who grew up with four buttons and a D-pad and no more. Though I’ve adapted to twin-stick and mouse and keyboard, games with tricky controls, clunky stories, and outdated technology aren’t accessible to new players. I missed the era where so many people learned to manipulate the clunkier mechanics of early PlayStation 1 and 2 games, and it seems like a ridiculous skill to try to pick up now.

Diablo, Blizzard, 1996

Diablo, Blizzard, 1996

But remasters aren’t always accessible, either. As Betsy Brey points out in this piece on Diablo III‘s reimagining of Tristram, there is something missing from something made to appeal to nostalgia. We may enjoy it, as newcomers, but our expectations color the experience. Can we ever understand the magic of beating the devil the first time, or are we doomed to know he’s coming? When I finally play Shadow of the Colossus, will I compare it to Breath of the Wild? Is it possible to work backward without nostalgia, or am I doomed to always carry the unpopular opinion that today’s games are more satisfying, easier to pick up, more accessible? But even that’s not always the case.

I think a lot about how a friend tried Gone Home as one of her first 3D video games. It’s a simple game–you explore and interact with objects to discover the story. But there’s no explanation of how to do that, so when she had to rotate an object, she couldn’t figure out how. We like to tout games like that as great examples of what games can do, excellent entry points for people who don’t play games regularly, but even something with a simple premise is tricky if you don’t already speak the language.

I, and I’m sure many others, feel like my interest in games somehow lesser because I literally did not have the money to pursue an expensive hobby. Is my knowledge of contemporary games hindered because I will likely never find the time or interest to finally play Earthbound? Do these hours spent watching GDC talks and reading pieces about level design in an attempt to convince myself that it’s okay for me to write about games matter even a little?

I’m surely not the first person to struggle with this. I surely won’t be the last. Legitimacy is a strange thing; while others can confirm that what we do has value or that our opinions are sound, it doesn’t really matter unless we can tell ourselves that, too.

So I’m telling you, as much as I’m telling myself, there is no bar you need to meet to qualify. If you’ve played nothing but Sailor Moon Drops, great; you are an expert on Sailor Moon Drops, and I probably have something to learn from you. If you’ve played every game released between 1997 and 2007, that’s awesome. I trust you and your opinion.

And if you, like me, spent your childhood poring through magazines and pressing the buttons on arcade cabinets as they flashed for you to insert tokens, pretending you were playing, your opinions count too.

Remakes and remasters might be a thorn in the side of those who’ve been gaming all through their lives, but perhaps they’re not for you. I look forward to finally playing Shadow of the Colossus, a game I watched a friend’s older brother play on an old projection TV in a basement, even if I find it lacking. I was too afraid to ask for the controller to try it out in case I was bad. Now I don’t have to.

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About Author

Melissa Brinks is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast. She has an affinity for cats, cooking, gardening, and investing copious hours of her life in fictional worlds of all kinds.

6 Comments

  1. I hope that the remaster does it for you. SotC is one of the most amazing-looking games that I’ve ever seen; while I have yet to actually play it myself, it is astounding just to look at and be engrossed at the sheer scale and mystery of it all. If the artbook for it ever came out in English, I’d buy it on the spot.

    • I hope so too! I really enjoy the experience of watching others play it and I did make it through the first few colossi, but dang, those controls and camera are really a nightmare. I’m excited for the remake and hope it’ll let me enjoy the atmosphere and artistry of the game with less of the frustration.

  2. Thank you for this. There are a lot of games I never got to play – or even hear about – growing up, and there are STILL a lot of games I can’t play or afford to play now. My current computer can only handle so much and it’s the only gaming system I have. I’m pretty happy with the games I have, but it is frustrating to miss out on so much, or to feel like I have to play catch up to so many classics. It’s nice to read about someone talking about the whole thing.

    • I’m glad it’s something that resonated with you! I think a lot of people feel this way to some extent, and as people who love games but maybe come to it late or poor or busy, it’s really difficult to participate in conversations when it’s assumed you already played everything everybody else has.

  3. I respectfully disagree with the accessibility argument. The main problem with increased “accessibility” through standardized expectations of gameplay is that it reduces variety. Most modern, accessible games are very similar in how they handle and how they’re played, and many are near identical. Adapting to different control schemes and player physics is part of being a gamer, and part of what makes it fun. People who need games to be simplified in order to conform to any specific ideal of how a game should play or be played, don’t come off to me as people who truly enjoy games. They’re missing the point, and they’ve made gaming as boring as fast food (mass produced for the lowest common denominator). Games should not be be made homogeneous for the sake of “accessibility”.

    And I really don’t see where you’re coming from in regards to the controls being bad in sotc. Agro (the horse) could use some work, but aside from that, the controls are fairly reliable (just for comparison, Ezio in ac2 for the 360 is much more prone to random and infuriating misbehavior than Wander in sotc for ps2).

    And I’m not looking through rose tinted glasses either. I played sotc for the first time in the late days of the 360/ps3 generation (having played many games on 360. Never got around to getting a ps3), and just played through it again two days ago (I have not completed it on hard yet or done most of the time trials this second playthrough though). BTW, odd coincidence, I’m actually in the middle of my first ever playthrough of earthbound. (I played zelda lttp after finishing sotc a few days ago, and now I’m on earthbound, passing time while I save up for a graphics card, which I can just emulate sotc without. I have an xbox one but…. idk, mods, variety and control make pc a better option. and I don’t want to buy games twice. I will get a ps4 later though, for the exclusives, and probably a ps3 for gow3, demon souls and uncharted (and maybe the Jak collection though I already have it for ps2). I’ll emulate for twightlight princess, skyward sword and botw, though. I don’t like the idea of single game consoles, or where nintendo’s been going since the introduction of the wii).

    Though back to the topic of the remake (and not the tangent I started on), if they’re going to the trouble of recreating the entire game from scratch (not just controls, but assets and probably code too), then why are the people in charge of this against the idea of adding new content (this is the question that should be asked, and is the topic that I was searching for when I came across your article). The original developers were designing the game to have 24 colossi, instead of just 16, and hand nearly completed most of the models and the concepts behind the fights (conceptually Ueda wanted 48, but that would maybe be excessive. But 24 were in development and the cut colossi were nearly complete). I don’t see why the missing 8 titans couldn’t be added to the remake, and the map modified and arenas built to integrate them into the game (something that I’ve read that the people in charge of the new project are adamantly against). It just seems like a wasted opportunity, imo.

    btw, I’m not against the redesign of the controls, but I disagree that older games are not accessible. Tens of thousands if not millions of people have successfully played, beaten, and enjoyed these games, and many still do. The lack of skill, or maybe attention span, of some groups of (extremely casual and peripheral) gamers is not a reasonable argument against the quality and playability of these games, as they are. And maybe not every game is meant to be “accessible” to every person who might possibly consider themselves to be gamers, lest all games become first person shooter candy crush mmorpgs, complete with microtransactions and day one dlc. (50 shades of grey isn’t “accessible” to me, personally, for instance. I don’t think it should be rewritten in a futile attempt change that. Whatever it is that made the book what it is would be lost in the process)

    Sorry, btw, if my rambling here is unwelcome. I’ve been awake for more than 35 hours for the fist time in almost a decade, so I’m probably not thinking straight. That being the case, the points that I’m trying to make (that good games, and really anything decent, needn’t be watered down to make it more accessible to a wider audience, likely in an attempt at chasing easy profits; and that if today’s developers are going to create something derivative, it would be wasteful and lazy to not use the opportunity to add new or missing content), may have become lost in the garbled word wall that I’ve just spent the better part of an hour constructing in my semi-delirious, sleep deprived state.

    • Hmm. I think that the crux of your argument here is based in large part on a misunderstanding of what I mean by ‘accessibility.’ I don’t mean easiness–I think there’s value in difficult games, including the ones that I don’t enjoy. There’s a reason I didn’t mention Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden or any similar title. I chose Shadow of the Colossus because it’s a Good Game (caps intentional), a game that we tout as one of the best examples of form and function, a game that we use as proof that yes, games can be art, and yet its controls are completely inaccessible (read: poorly mapped, overly complex, with the infamous Team Ico camera that makes it near impossible to look at what you want to look at) to most new players.

      I’m not asking that these things be “simplified,” as in made easier. I’m hoping that remakes like the upcoming SotC one instead prioritize making seminal titles accessible (read: smoother, simpler to parse, more responsive). And, as my article said, the old control scheme won’t be lost in this process–the developers of the remake are keeping the old control scheme for those who want it. It’s a win-win, because more people will be able to play a much beloved game and those who want the pure experience (that is, the one that frustrated critics back in 2005, which you can read about here) can still have it.

      I know that 360/PS3 era doesn’t feel like nostalgia to you, but those consoles came out ten years ago–in fact, just one year after SotC’s release. With how fast games move, that’s a very long time. And from what you’ve said (admittedly this is an assumption), it sounds like you’ve been playing games for most of your life, meaning that you’re not the demographic I’m talking about when I say that games are inaccessible. If you already understand the language of video games (three-dimensional space, for example) and the basic controls, you might find some frustration in SotC, but not as much as, say, somebody who’s been told that it’s the pinnacle of game design but has never played a video game before. Surely you can see the difference there?

      With regard to adding additional content, I have to ask why that’s necessary. Ueda himself said the story is finished, and throwing in more colossi seems as much like an attempt at encouraging people to spend money as a remake. Ueda’s moved on from SotC; anything that is added to the game now doesn’t match what the game is, making it feels honestly more superfluous than recreating the game so more people can experience it.

      Nowhere in this article did I say that people don’t enjoy or play old games. This article is about the fact that people are often seen as less legitimate gamers if they haven’t, which is ridiculous when the barrier for entry is so high. Nobody is advocating for games to be easier, nor for first-person shooters to no longer be first-person shooters–that’s frankly a ridiculous claim, and not every remotely related to what I wrote, which is primarily about how, as a poor kid, I couldn’t play the games I wanted to, and why remakes and remasters are good for people like me. A remake of SotC doesn’t erase the original, Candy Crush existing doesn’t mean that Prey ceases to exist, and somebody having a different gaming experience than you doesn’t make them any less passionate about games than you are.

      (And, for the record, Fifty Shades of Grey IS accessible to you, but it’s not FOR you–there’s a difference).