In video games, what’s old is new again; or, from another point of view, what’s new is pretty damn old. The game currently running on my Xbox One X, the console that Microsoft released last year with the boast that it was the world’s most powerful ever, isn’t one of the latest productions conceived for this generation of hardware, like “Assassin’s Creed Origins”. It’s “Crackdown”, a game from 2007 in which steroidal supercops leap and bound around a future metropolis as though loosed from the bonds of gravity.
When I get bored with “Crackdown”, I may switch over to “Fable Anniversary”, a remake of a satirical comic adventure from 2004, or to “The Witcher 2”, a role-playing game based on a set of Polish fantasy novels, which was first released in 2011. All three were added last week to what Microsoft calls “Xbox One X Enhanced”, a scheme which takes classics from the recent past and repackages them in a souped-up, fabulously high-resolution format.
The backwards-looking trend doesn’t stop, or even start, with Microsoft. On Sony’s PlayStation console, the biggest critical hit of the past month has been “Shadow of the Colossus”, a stunningly produced, strangely elegaic game which originally appeared in 2005, in which a lone horseman traverses a deserted land slaughtering huge, sorrowful-looking monsters. Nintendo, the third of the major console manufacturers, is similarly keen to demonstrate how much life there is in its back catalogue. Since the appearance of its Switch console last year, which converts from a portable games machine to a set-top box, Nintendo has released a series of remade or remastered games. Some of them – “Mario Kart 8”, “Splatoon 2” – are gussied-up versions of games that appeared on Nintendo’s earlier Wii U. Others, such as “Payday 2”, relaunched last week, or the forthcoming “Dark Souls”, come from an earlier generation of consoles, re-engineered for an audience desperate for games to play on the go. So numerous are these remakes that, whichever console you own, you could easily have spent the last few months playing nothing but re-releases of old games.
There are two reasons for this passion for recycling. The first is that the video-games industry is risk-averse: like Hollywood, it often prefers to sell a sequel or a reboot, for which audiences already exist, than break new ground. Many consumers are equally conservative in their tastes: indeed, each new version of the most popular videogame franchises, from “Call of Duty” and “FIFA” to “Assassin’s Creed” and “Madden NFL”, is so similar to the last that it might as well be a remake.
The second is the conflict between gamers’ fondness for nostalgia and the industry’s reliance of technological change. Console manufacturers attract customers with constant advances in their hardware, so that old models are swiftly replaced and old games drop quickly from sight. Yet, as in other areas of geek culture, from comics to sci-fi, gamers are obsessed with cultural history. Serving that appetite justifies remakes of classic games. This enthusiasm is catered for by services like GOG.com, or Good Old Games, which sells games for PC dating back as far as the 1980s, in versions optimised to run on modern machines. Microsoft’s enthusiasm for enhancing old games could be part of this trend, although cynics might contend that it’s because they failed to develop enough new material for the Xbox One.
The best remasters and remakes approach their originals with a devotion that revivifies them entirely. “Shadow of the Colossus”, which looks gloriously lavish and fluid in its new incarnation, is one example of a classic restored for a new market in transformative style. A more nuanced example is “Skyrim”, which has been remorselessly reissued by its publisher, Bethesda, on nearly every new system to appear since its release in 2011. I’m still playing the reissue from last year on my Switch. Although the game is the same, the console’s portability transforms this 100-hour fantasy adventure into something more manageably episodic.
Sony went one better. When “Skyrim” was released for its PSVR virtual-reality headset, it became another thing altogether: a frighteningly complete exercise in immersion, whose rains of whistling arrows and giant killer spiders, viewed in 3D, were thrilling and nightmarish at once. This was not a case of an old dog performing new tricks. Suddenly, this hoary old game felt like the future again.