Why We See More Remasters Than Remakes

With the success of 2017’s Crash Bandicoot: ‘N Sane trilogy and the great deal of anticipation already surrounding the soon-to-be-announced Spyro trilogy, one may wonder why remakes aren’t a more common industry practice. Many popular games from the previous generation have been remastered for current platforms, so why not do the something similar in remaking a slew of classics? The nostalgia factor runs strong in the gaming community, so a good remake is almost guaranteed to make money. The thing is, though, remaking an older game is much more difficult giving a slightly aged title the ol’ remaster treatment. Remakes are bound by expectations that remasters aren’t. Unlike remasters, remakes must provide an experience that’s clearly distinguishable and better than the original. Failure to do so always results in fan backlash and disappointing sales figures. Successful remakes are inherently difficult to create and so developing is a much more risky venture.

A true remake is much closer to an adaptation than a relatively simple remaster. Gaming standards change rapidly and noticeable changes are often expected when remaking an old classic for a modern gaming audience. The 2016 versions of DOOM and Ratchet & Clank are remakes that meet this expectation perfectly. Both games retain the core of their forebears, but modernize where necessary. Ratchet & Clank (2016) visits many of the same places and story beats as the original, but diverges by introducing new weaponry and all of the mechanical improvements the series has undergone over the past fourteen years.

DOOM (2016) takes the remake treatment even further and gives players classic DOOM as a modern game. The core of the original games is retained: slaughtering demons with a large arsenal of weapons while strafing around at a breakneck pace. It then builds on this by rewarding exploration and encouraging players to fight in close quarters via the “glory kill” system. It successfully evolves the core gameplay along with the story and presentation, and was widely accepted and praised as a result. Both of these games exemplify what fans expect of remakes; they retain the essence of their predecessors while also updating them for modern players. On the other hand, the recently released Secret of Mana remake is a prime example of a remake that utterly failed to meet such expectations.

Square-Enix tried to go the Crash Bandicoot: N’ Sane Trilogy route with Secret of Mana: update the overall presentation while leaving the core gameplay exactly as it was. The problem with that approach is that Secret of Mana isn’t Crash Bandicoot. Unlike Crash Bandicoot’s brand of action-platforming, there are plenty of modern top-down RPGs available that offer a deeper and more complex experience than 1993’s Secret of Mana. If this remake was going to compete with them, it was going to have to do follow its peers’ example and update the gameplay to keep in line with modern standards. This didn’t happen and players are now left with a game that is bland at best and inferior to the 25-year-old original at worst. Despite being advertised as a remake, it fails to justify itself as one. It doesn’t offer an experience distinct from the original, doesn’t necessarily look any better and it doesn’t build on the original gameplay in any meaningful way. It’s failed to meet expectations and is doing poorly as a result.

Between the DOOMs and Secret of Manas of the world, we have the likes of the Crash Bandicoot N’ Sane Trilogy. Since the changes it introduces are largely cosmetic in nature, it could be considered more remaster than remake. Unlike Secret of Mana, however, the gameplay wasn’t left completely untouched. It introduces Coco as a playable character, overhauls the save system and tweaks the jump physics in order to standardize them across all three games. The result is an experience that is distinct from its ancestor which, according to the expectations that govern remakes, functionally renders it as a full remake rather than a simple remaster. It is basically Crash Bandicoot if it were made in 2017 and that’s what makes the difference.

Remakes are still rarer than remasters because remasters are easier. Graphical and sound updates are the only expectations a remaster has to meet. It can be the same game it was years ago because that’s all it needs to be. They can be made quickly for less cost and less risk. Remakes, on the other hand, can succeed on a greater scale than most remasters, but require more time and actual development if they’re going to make that happen. They must offer the same visual upgrades while also updating the gameplay in a way that makes the original’s core feel fresh and fun again. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, making it all too easy for a remake to wind up panned and forgotten instead of a widely praised success. In the current industry climate, this often renders remakes too risky for their own good and keeps them rare. Still, success often inspires attempts at further success; if upcoming remakes like the yet-to-be-announced Spyro trilogy continue to enjoy success, perhaps true and worthwhile remakes won’t be quite as scarce in the future as they are now.