Remake Culture

The thing about a video game is that, unlike a classic film or song, certain portions of it age differently.

From Capcom, box art

As the Film Industry continues to bank on remakes and converting popular stories into film, consumers are beginning to question their relationship with media that is essentially a remake of an old one that they have already seen. What makes a remake good or bad? This question becomes even more interesting once you apply it to video games because even the definition of the remaking process comes into question. A movie is remade by giving it a new script and a new visual look. A video game is remade by doing both of those things but also overhauling the interface and game design to fit modern sensibilities. Take a game like Metroid Prime, which is essentially Super Metroid except in 3-D. That statement applies to the aesthetics, but does it also apply to the game design and technology? It’s a totally different game. Core elements like types of weapons or old maneuvers like the double-jump remain; stuff that doesn’t work in 3-D like the Hyper Run ability are abandoned. The concept of remakes becomes murky for games because there are so many different elements to consider. If a developer just releases new content but no new game design elements, then it’s considered an expansion pack. If they change the game design but keep the same plot, it’s a patch. What is the point of even remaking a game when conceptually its sequels, expansions, and patches could all be considered the same thing?

From, cover art

With remakes it’s a question of what should be changed, why it should be changed, and then how to go about doing that. With music, most remakes are simply considered covers. An artist will take an old song and add their own unique take. There are the classic examples like Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower," but modern examples like Alanis Morissette’s cover of "My Humps," the Gourds’ version of "Gin & Juice," or a Youtube fan video of Modest Mouse’s "Baby Blue Sedan," all set a single standard for a musical remake. You have to do something new with a familiar song that’s equally if not more appealing than the original. In some of those examples, the song was getting old and unfamiliar to the current generation. In others, it was simply a very different take on the material. Determining the quality of a musical remake is dependent on whether or not the new version brings something new to the table.

From hotmoviesale, box art

In film, the standard also factors use of new cinema technology like CGI. Films have never been a bastion for totally unique stories. Most early films were based on theater or literature. Remakes came into existence almost as soon as there was an excuse to start making them. Once sound could be added to film, Hollywood went back and turned numerous popular silent films into “talkies." The arrival of color meant that the same classics would again need the same treatment. Often the scripts and actors would be different, but the core story and even title would remain the same. CGI and modern special effects bring about this need for changing the past once again, a remake of Jason and the Argonauts today can achieve the visuals that its script envisions much more readily than the original could. New technology allows a classic film to have a new visual appeal for today’s generation because it’s the way they’re used to films looking. With technology, the visual experience is constantly improving so that a new way of seeing a story is always being achieved.

From, banner of website

In video games, these two dual standards of technology and newness can be seen in many popular remakes. Metroid: Zero Mission or the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube do a good job of fulfilling both the importance of improving the visuals but also making sure that this makes the game new in its own way. They are graphically superior, deviate from the original game at certain points, and their designs have been overhauled to fit modern sensibilities. That’s the third element that a video game must contend with in a remake: the design itself. Zero Mission features a guide system for its map to make things easier and uses controls that differ from the original NES version to accommodate the Gameboy Advance. Resident Evil for the Gamecube improves its script, voice acting, and pacing to create a superior retelling of the original experience. A kombo article outlining their Top Ten Remakes argues similar merits. The Prince of Persia remake is basically the same game but with better graphics, time trials, and way points. Tomb Raider Anniversary has superior graphics, better movement controls, and yet recreates many of the old levels while adding new ones. All of the originals were good games in their time but our expectations for what video game experiences should be like has changed significantly since then. The thing about a video game is that unlike a classic film or song, certain portions of it age differently. No one is particularly keen on playing a game with archaic movement controls because developers have perfected moving in 3-D environments. It’s just a trial and error process to go from using a D-pad to get around in Tomb Raider to moving via dual-anlaog. Aesthetic or plot differences can make a video game remake necessary like a film or song, but they also have to factor in someone being unused to the design. It’s not just not thinking that they’re pretty enough that becomes an issue; it’s that younger audiences might not even understand how to play it.

From, movie poster

Yet no matter what the medium that the remake is being created for, there is another factor that goes beyond just modernizing the presentation or giving a unique interpretation of an old tune. You have to offer something to fans already familiar with the old version. One of the best examples of someone whose work has been remade countless times over is William Shakespeare. The way those plays continue to stay relevant today is the fact that their scripts can remain the same but totally change by adjusting the context. An essay praising the culture of remakes mentions Orson Welles. Before he made Citizen Kane, he put on, “a 1936 Macbeth showing the absurdity of segregation by offering an all-black cast before a backdrop of Haitian voodoo; Julius Caesar reimagined in 1937 as a warning about the rise of fascism, the noble Romans clad in Mussolini-style military uniforms.” Welles gave a new twist on these plays because, by changing their context, the entire meaning becomes both relevant and more insightful to modern problems. A blog comparing failed film remakes makes the distinction between the Matthew Broderick version of Godzilla and the 1990s remake of The Brady Bunch. The Godzilla movie fails because it tries to be the 1970s version of Godzilla instead of just distilling the essence of it. The The Brady Bunch film succeeded because it offered something to the fans: the movie places the 1970's values of that family in contrast to the 1990’s as a kind of touching satire. What distinguishes the good remake is that its new version still has something for people who are already familiar with it.

Depending on how cynical you want to be about this topic, it can be argued that everything is just a remake of some other story, game, or song. Gears of War is just Space Invaders in 3-D. The Star Trek remake is just The Iliad in space. Every advance that is celebrated in popular culture is a product of something original being built on top of something familiar. A remake is just being honest about its origins.

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