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Classics Live Again: The Art of Downloadable Remakes

June 11, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

One of the areas of gaming culture that has progressed in leaps and bounds during this current console generation is the digital download. This development is occurring irrespective of platform, with all three major consoles, and even the handhelds, featuring varied libraries of downloadable games and content.

Without the potentially stifling expectations and overheads that come with full-fledged retail releases, developers working on these platforms are able to do so with elements of daring and idiosyncrasy -- with some of the more talked-about and successful games, such as Braid, PixelJunk Eden and World of Goo being as much mini-supernovae of creativity and inspiration as they are out-of-sync with mainstream gaming conventions.

Parallel to this, the download platforms also provide a new avenue for publishers to re-release selections from their back-catalogues for the pleasure of nostalgics, canon-hungry gaming historians and new audiences alike.

Nintendo's Virtual Console service, as well as early games to appear on Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade platform, would often be direct ports or emulations of titles from a variety of older consoles, from Super Mario Bros. to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

However, with the success of these downloadable platforms, and the progression towards more original content, it has become increasingly common for classic franchises to receive radical updates, or even full sequels (such as Capcom's multi-platform Mega Man 9) that offer more than mere nostalgia.

Indeed, in a case of cross-pollination, established publishers have tasked small, up-and-coming studios with the development of these games -- creating the phenomenon of European or North American developers being trusted with respected Japanese franchises.

Developers such as California's Backbone Entertainment (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix), Washington's Tozai Games, and Sweden-based Southend Interactive (R-Type Dimensions) and GRIN (Bionic Commando Rearmed) have recently collaborated with companies like Capcom and Irem to bring some of their properties to the current gaming audience. These releases act as confluences of the issues surrounding the downloadable gaming platforms, and concerning re-introducing older games to newer gamers.


Regarding the beginnings of these projects, there is no blueprint. Backbone Entertainment used its relationship with Capcom, gained from porting a large amount of the company's classic franchises to the Xbox Live Arcade platform, to discuss the opportunities offered by XBLA and PSN for more interesting remakes and relaunches; this initiative resulted in original, fully-realised installments in the 1942, Commando and Street Fighter II series.

Southend/Tozai's R-Type: Dimensions

Tozai and Southend's R-Type Dimensions game, a remake of the first two entries in the arcade-based space shooter series, was more of a labour of love, born out of equal parts connections and passion.

Key members of the Tozai staff, such as President Sheila Boughten and Chief Advisor Scott Tsumura, had backgrounds in various localization-savvy developers, such as BulletProof Software and Microprose, which came in handy once they set up Tozai as a developer. Boughten explains:

"Scott worked with Irem many years ago and was involved with the development and marketing of R-Type when it was first released in 1987. Plus, Brett Ballow, who is responsible for product management and design at Tozai, is a huge fan of R-Type and R-Type II -- in fact, he owns the stand-up arcades! So we started development on [similar Xbox Live Arcade remake] Lode Runner and parallel to that we were looking at some other options, and R-Type came up rather naturally."

In contrast, Simon Viklund, creative director behind GRIN's Bionic Commando Rearmed, admits that his new version of Capcom's 1988 NES title is "primarily a marketing release" for the studio's full retail 3D reboot of the series.

Capcom were initially interested in merely porting the original in anticipation of GRIN's new game, but Viklund asserts that "the more we discussed it between the companies... Capcom saw the potential in the game and eventually decided to put more effort into it."

Each case presents the interesting situation where projects are given over to small, enthusiastic teams with much investment in the game -- not only in a career sense, but as consumers of the original properties. Those involved profess to being fans of the franchises, and admit to an ambition to communicate this to the current gaming community.

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Anatoly Ropotov
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No word on emulation techniques used in some of these games?

Neil Gower
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High quality downloadable remakes like SSF2THD and BC Rearmed are great, and show that a good game idea can be kept relevant with a fresh coat of paint every now and then. The only thing holding this sector of the industry back now is the business end.

Case in point, one of the issues affecting the prices the market will bear for downloadable games is DRM. The DRM on PSN games (just like Steam games, and I expect WiiWare and XBLA are the same) means that although you can back them up, you can only restore them to an "activated" system. So unlike a Bionic Commando NES cart, in 20 years there's no guarantee that you'll be able to dig up your copy of BC Rearmed and find an old PS3 on eBay to play it on, because who knows if you'll be able to "activate" it.

These kinds of restrictions contribute to the perception that downloadable games are disposable, which diminishes their perceived value to the customer. Loosen up the DRM and I think downloadable games (the good ones at least) can command higher prices and enjoy a larger market share.

Anatoly Ropotov
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Neil: First of all you have to prove that players care about DRM.

The pricing of these games makes them impulse purchases, so you disregard DRM when you buy them.

There was some analysis on how many players have launched their games in 6 months after purchase. Unless it's a CoD4 or TF2 - the answer was in lower tens of percents.

BUT. As soon as some major content network will go down - be it BigFish Games, Sony or who knows what, then of course it will go down.

BUT. Free to play online games also do not have any guarantee on how long the game servers will be actually running... Players understand they could lose their stuff with several months warning, but they live NOW and not care about their spiky club in 6 months from now (as it'll become obsolete anyway).

Anatoly Ropotov
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Crap, there's no way to edit comments? That's so lame. Hey Gamasutra, how about we could edit our comments for 3 minutes???


BUT. As soon as some major content network will go down - be it BigFish Games, Sony or who knows what, then of course it will go down. This will disrupt many gamers communities bringing them fear their games will be lost forever... Unless the company will not decide to provide them with de-DRM which is probably impossible due to licensing agreements with developers. Or may be it is. Anyway, you might remember the big scandal around some music company that wanted to turn off their DRM servers (it was some MS service). Same will happen here and that epic failure will discredit entire DRM. The sooner it will happen, the faster players will start caring about DRM and it will get dropped - everyone will move to "games as services" concept anyway.

Tom Newman
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I am a HUGE fan of classic remakes/revivals. There are key games that will always be compelling, regardless of the flavor of the month. These few games that really stand the test of time need to be kept alive, and I think the current delivery method of the downloadable titles is great. The pricing of $5-$15 is perfect, as that's about what I used to spend in the real arcades for just one visit.

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Mega Man 9 was cool, I think more classics should get old school sequels on XBLA/PSN.