Classics Live Again: The Art of Downloadable Remakes

By Mike Leader

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.

Beginnings

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.


Re-introduction

One of the most immediate issues facing these developers is the gulf of time separating their chosen game from the 21st Century audience. Most visible in the changes made for these remakes is in the graphics, as the teams redevelop with HD-savvy eyes in mind -- often to great acclaim, such as the sumptuous redrawn sprites for Backbone's Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.

However, there is just as much concern given to "under the hood" design choices. In most cases, they are adapting from source material which is over 20 years old, or working in genres that have either fallen out of mainstream favor, or have evolved far beyond their roots. Not only are these games now competing with bigger games, with more refined graphics, but there have been also fundamental changes in game design and game consumption.

Whereas both arcade and console based games in the late 1980s and early 1990s were mostly geared around short, intense experiences prolonged by steep learning curves and challenging difficulty, recent games are buoyed by save files, allowing even the more narrative-light titles to provide much longer, and often easier playthroughs. Backbone creative director Micah Russo lays out the predicament thus:

"Series like Commando and 1942 are timeless because of great gameplay... but what does get tricky is that gamers' expectations, tastes, and even the language of games have all shifted over the years."

"For example, whereas games were punishingly hard twenty years ago, today's gamers have a much different tolerance for that style of difficulty. A can of worms is opened based on this change. Do we make gameplay elements easier? Should players die less? Do we give players more lives? Do we add checkpoints or create a custom save system?"

Likewise, R-Type and Bionic Commando are equally remembered for their unforgiving gameplay, which is tied into their unique game design choices. The original R-Type was a horizontal space shooter which required pattern recognition and practice to master, something potentially off-putting for players more used to steady progression.

When Tozai and Southend came to reintroduce R-Type I and II as R-Type Dimensions, they took this into account by introducing the Infinite Mode, which effectively gives the player unlimited lives.

"We did concentrate on making the user experience more accessible", explains Brett Ballow, "because R-Type the game is inherently more difficult. You have to memorise how the stage works to truly be able to progress through the game. We wanted to create different avenues for the player to be able to unlock the whole game, and start from different areas in the game, say if they found a later level to be their favorite, they should be able to start there. The Infinite Mode we introduced partially to help novice players access the complete game, but also as a real game mode where they could concentrate on improving their leaderboards score."

Similarly, Bionic Commando Rearmed added an easy mode, as well as infinite continues. However, one potential sticking-point facing GRIN in their development of the game was not only central to the source's initial appeal, but was also its central gameplay mechanic. The classic NES version of Bionic Commando appeared during a time when genre expectations were less firm, and conventions were yet to be solidified.


Capcom/GRIN's Bionic Commando: Rearmed

At a first glance, Bionic Commando is a side-scrolling action-platformer, with stylistic similarities to other games of its time like Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden and Contra.

However, unlike those games, the central character does not have the ability to jump; instead, the player must rely upon a grappling arm to traverse the level. Since 1988, however, the mechanic of jumping has become integral, especially in games that are based around platforming or exploration.

When asked about this potentially restrictive aspect of Bionic Commando Rearmed, Viklund is firm, saying "I think that anyone who thinks that a platform game requires a jumping ability is narrow-minded. Bionic Commando is not just an action game -- it has a fairly prominent puzzle dimension too. By trading the ability to jump for the ability to swing you are forced to think in new ways: suddenly you need to look at ceilings and overhead platforms for the way forward. The inability to jump... highlights the bionic arm, the core mechanic of the game, and it is therefore a brilliant design choice."

"People don't realize that limitations and simplicity create freedom, because you can look at a situation and know exactly how to solve it -- because you know what you can and can't do. Piling capabilities on top of each other doesn't create freedom -- it only creates an abundance of choices and in the wake of that: confusion."


Believing in the Classics

The commitment to, and confidence in the source materials' strengths displayed by these passionate teams is key to the appeal of these remakes.

Again, this is the intersection of classic franchises and low-risk downloadable distribution, of well-worn nostalgia and inclusive reintroduction. The latter binary is exhibited by all involved, with Russo describing Backbone's unofficial motto as "we recreate the game you remember", yet still explaining that:

"We also think of them as relaunches rather than a remake. The games we create are accessible and appealing to gamers who haven't played the originals, and also faithful to the properties for old school fans to reminisce with. The second part is pretty easy for those of us that grew up playing these great franchises at home and in the arcade."

In essence, these projects are not narrowly aimed at the niche retro market, but are bidding for wider appeal.

Release and Recognition

The attention to detail and care put into these remade games were rewarded with a positive reception from both critics and consumers. Bionic Commando Rearmed and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix have received some of the most consistent and praiseworthy reviews of all games on the download platforms, and were singled out in many retrospective end-of-year lists for their graphics, soundtracks and gameplay.

Equally, both games were particularly successful, with Bionic Commando Rearmed shifting over 130,000 units in its first week (across PC, PS3 and 360) and SSF2HDR enjoying 250,000 downloads in its first month despite being released in a cluttered fourth quarter window (and despite another Street Fighter title, Hyper Fighting, already being released on XBLA, though not on PSN).


Capcom/Backbone Entertainment's Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix

Crucially, the credit for these successes was democratically dispersed, with the developers and other collaborators receiving their due praise. Reviews of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix would cite the artwork of Canada's UDON Entertainment, soundtrack work of game music fansite OverClocked Remix, and meticulous tweaking and balancing work of lead designer David Sirlin as some of the game's best qualities. Indeed, Sirlin's interview appearances, and in-depth articles on the development process of the game, raised his profile in the gaming community.

Likewise, Simon Viklund, originally tasked with composing the soundtrack for GRIN's upcoming retail remake of Bionic Commando, was granted his first creative director role for Rearmed.

Even so, he took the job "because it was a chance to work on the remake of one of my favorite games -- not to make a name for myself". Nevertheless, the project gained him some exposure as a developer, as well as experience working in tandem with Capcom and other colleagues:

"I had full freedom to indulge my ambitions, but needless to say I had to run every major idea by Capcom and have it approved. Rearmed is very much a display of Japanese and Swedish forces combined. We had Capcom's original concept, my ideas on how to improve that concept, [Capcom illustrator] Shinkiro's comic style art and GRIN's brilliant technology and effective development pipeline. It was a great collaboration."

Russo describes the production process of Backbone's titles in a similar way, explaining that "we'd often take a first stab at a design direction, then get some feedback from Capcom leading us to refine our approach".

He also adds, "These types of projects give you a pretty well-known starting place to work from, along with ample opportunity to be creative in how you enhance that core game essence for today's gamers".

This healthy process of collaboration, and recognition for the developers' work, allows the enhanced remake projects to be viable for companies like GRIN, Backbone and Southend not only because they forge professional links, but also raise their own profile in the wider industry.


When asked about their games in relation to original, independent games such as Braid, which uses the download platform as a stage for innovation and expression, the developers display a pragmatism and self-determination. Southend, in particular, use their projects with Tozai, such as R-Type Dimensions and the recently-released Lode Runner, as a way of financing their own, more innovative projects.

CEO Anders Jeppsson describes this as a liberating shift in the industry. "This new niche of smaller downloadable games was a godsend to many smaller developers a few years ago, when, at the time, there was no real way to sign a game under five to 10 million dollars."

"One flop and you're basically out at that price... And spending three-plus years on the same game was definitely killing a lot of the creativity in the business. So, for us, XBLA, PSN, and VC is a fantastic way to continue to do what we love most: develop small, tight, well polished gems for the masses."

Viklund, on the other hand, is wary of the viability of simple innovation in today's marketplace, saying the following:

"I don't think innovation is rewarded with high enough sales figures for publishers and developers to dare put all their efforts into that. Remakes, reused concepts and sequels are still the sure ways to a steady cash flow. If consumers want innovation they need to vote with their money -- but I'm not sure innovation is what they want. If it was, Halo 3 wouldn't outsell Mirror's Edge."

"People don't want new IPs and new concepts. They just want good games -- regardless if it's a remake, a reused concept, a sequel or something entirely new -- and that makes the argument in question pointless."

It is true that the download platform presents another avenue for developers to create good games, without the necessary posturing of the experimental games circuit, or the budgetary baggage of mainstream retail gaming.

Concerning the download platform as a viable alternative, Tozai's Sheila Boughten says, "If a title like R-Type Dimensions came out at retail, it would probably at the lowest be $19.99 or $24.99 out of pocket for the consumer," and concludes that "there would just be no way to get it out at retail without taking a loss."

The future for download platforms

Even though their potential for harboring small, successful games is confirmed, the standing of download services such as WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network is still going through crucial evolutionary stages. Indeed, there are issues with pricing.

Even though games often cost the equivalent of a cinema ticket, or a couple of alcoholic drinks, the intrinsic value of the games is a hot topic, with many vocal gamers passing judgment on the titles based on pricing.

This is not helped by the method the platforms use for payment: Nintendo and Microsoft employ a points system, where the consumer must pre-load currency onto their account in set amounts, which in the case of all but Sony is converted into more abstract "points".

In the case of Wii's Virtual Console platform, pricing is structured along console lines, with North American NES titles at 500 points, SNES and Sega Genesis titles at 800 points, and Nintendo 64 titles at 1000 points. With Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, however, the pricing is a little more oblique, creating situations where Bionic Commando Rearmed sells at 800 MS points, or $10, whereas Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix has a 1200 point, or $15, price tag. Boughten, commenting on R-Type Dimensions' 1200 point cost, says:

"I don't want to downplay price at all. I think consumers have every right to be concerned about price, but I think that from a development standpoint, if consumers are looking for games that aren't simple ports, there should be some tolerance and understanding that there are time, cost and resources that goes into making that really happen."

Once again, downloadable games find themselves at a junction, here between the progressive, inclusive nature of the platform and the reluctance of consumers to fork over their cash for digital content. Perhaps, like with early attempts to legally monetize MP3 downloads, it is hard for many to ascertain the value of product when it is without physical form.

However, as time moves on and the games industry develops its own heritage, history and canon of must-play classics, platforms like XBLA and the Virtual Console provide a sense of context and continuity. Boughten draws comparisons with other media:

"If someone's really a true video game fan, we think that just like in the case of movies, or classic books, it's good to go back and really educate yourself, to have a deeper understanding and enjoyment. The old classics deserve that."

Games like Bionic Commando Rearmed, R-Type Dimensions and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix intersect with the gaming industry's past, present and future. Their perspective is firmly focused on past classics, with innovations or qualities that have stood the test of time.

Their approach is to adapt, like a savvy modern staging of Shakespeare, or a cleaned-up reprint of a Golden Age Hollywood picture, presenting and re-introducing the work for a new audience. And, lastly, their production introduces us to the designers and developers of tomorrow, whilst highlighting the download platform as the future of gaming distribution.

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