NEW YORK — Out with the new and in with the old. Video game producer Morgan Gray believes the video game industry needs more remakes.
And he’s not just saying that so people will buy the Wii version of “Tomb Raider: Anniversary,” the decade-later remake of the first Lara Croft adventure, set for release next month.
“Remakes are essential,” he told GameFile in an interview at a hotel-suite demo last week in Manhattan, while other reporters swung their hands through the Wii version of “Anniversary.”
“We have all witnessed remakes of movies that have been modernized for us to digest that came out 50 years ago before we were born,” he said as a point of comparison. If games are to achieve the same timelessness, the classics need to be easily accessible. But anyone who has tried to play certain 3-D gaming classics from even just five years ago — let alone tried to get someone who didn’t play them at the time to put up with outdated controls, graphics or camera-work — know that it’s hard to appreciate them.
“It’s too hard in games to go back in time to play a really old game,” Gray said. “It’s almost like trying to de-evolve. How do I think like a Cro-Magnon? You can’t do it. If they keep getting remade and redone but modernized, the central core of their experience can be experienced by more people down the road, and then as an industry and an art form, we can have classics handed down.” (For the record, he thinks the old 2-D classics are more accessible and less in need of remakes.)
For the last year, Gray’s colleagues at the Redwood City, California, development studio Crystal Dynamics developed what is as close to a shot-for-shot remake of an older game — in this case the 1996 PC version of “Tomb Raider” — as anyone has made. Over the past four months, “Anniversary” has been released on PC, PS2 and PSP. It’s adopted a more modern control scheme, letting players move Lara less like a tank. But levels have been designed to resemble the originals. Weapons have been dropped in essentially the same locations. The boss battles have been amped up with modern production values and given more fanfare, in what Gray describes as “our nod, our wink at the screen” to signature battles like Lara vs. the T-Rex.
Gray was involved in initial planning for the game and then got in more deeply about seven months ago to produce the Wii edition. The Wii game adds motion-sensitive archaeological puzzle-solving, requiring players to do etching and rubbings to twist columns and align symbols.
When the project started, there weren’t that many other remakes out there for Crystal Dynamics to study. While it could be argued that each new “Zelda” or “Mario” is a remake of the earlier game, the few titles that were specifically designed to restore an old title include “Resident Evil” (a 2002 GameCube remake of the 1996 PlayStation original), “Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes” (a 2004 GameCube redo of the 1998 PlayStation “Metal Gear Solid”), “Metroid: Zero Mission” (a 2004 Game Boy Advance remake of the 1986 “Metroid” on the Nintendo Entertainment System), “Conker Live and Reloaded” (a 2005 Xbox remake of the 2001 N64 “Conker’s Bad Fur Day”), and a handful of “Final Fantasy” re-creations.
When Gray began work on “Anniversary,” he went back and played some of those titles. He watched some major movie remakes too. Of those games, he said, “I think my favorite remake was ’Res Evil.’ I think the number-one thing it did well was it captured the abject horror you experienced the first time you played it, that ’wow this is freaking me out.’ ”
He took careful notice about what the remakers kept and what they disposed of. He felt the controls and camera were improved just a little to show an improvement. But what they kept — stuff that could easily have been ditched — was even more instructive. “They kept the fundamentals,” he said, noting that the remake still only let players save their progress when they found carefully placed typewriters. “[The remake’s developers] didn’t go for ’save-anywhere,’ ” he pointed out. “For their game it easily could have made a nod to save-anywhere, which is a new technology. Except at their heart, they understood ’Resident Evil’ is a horror game. And part of that horror comes from the pacing between where I saved, when am I going to save again, and what am I going to be facing in between.”
Gray had more trouble with the “Metal Gear” remake, which he said felt like it came out too soon. And the “Conker” remake struck him as the product of mistaken priorities. Camera control wasn’t significantly improved, while the graphics were. “That’s one [where] I don’t think they embraced what is fundamentally important and [instead focused on] what was superficially important,” he said.
And what did he get from the movie remakes? “Peter Jackson’s King Kong” provided a warning. To Gray, the lesson was not to get too hard-core, not to love the source material too much. He believes Peter Jackson tried too hard to bring personal, favorite themes — namely the beauty-and-the-beast romance — of the original “Kong” movie to life in a way that turned some people off. “Where the original movie left things as an undertone or unspoken, he threw it right up there on the screen, and that might have been too much for people.” How was that applied to “Tomb Raider”? “We can’t go crazy into Lara’s relationship with her father … and where she works. There’s a lot of exposition that we could put in that would feel great for us fans, but it would have been going overboard, and that was certainly a pivotal ’King Kong’ lesson to be learned.”
Naturally, a balance is needed. Be faithful to the old one, but not too faithful. Don’t fall too much in love with the original and only play to the old fans. And beware of changing times. Technology didn’t just evolve after Lara debuted; even the game-ratings system did. Gray noted that when the first game came out, “you could impale her on a spike, have blood shoot out everywhere.” Nowadays, publisher Eidos wants only the content that gets a modern T rating. “We still will break her body as she falls. But we couldn’t make the spine-crack sound that everyone remembers. It was very frustrating. That is a huge omission from our game.”
Does that last bit sound ghoulish? Gray and Crystal Dynamics just wanted to keep things true, to make a marketable hand-me-down for a new generation. And now, Gray requests, can someone please do the same for the original “Fatal Frame”?
More from the world of video games:
One set of old games that has just been made a little more accessible to a new generation are the titles of the Neo-Geo, a gaming console released in 1990 that was notable not just for its horsepower but its price of $599 for the system and games that could cost about $200 new. Those titles will now be available for considerably less on the Nintendo Wii’s Virtual Console service, which already offers old games from Nintendo systems, Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx 16. The first three Neo-Geo titles for the service, made available on Monday, are “Art of Fighting,” “Fatal Fury” and “World Heroes.” All are available for $9 or 900 Wii points. …
Earlier this spring, Rockstar Games’ “Manhunt 2” was denied a rating in the U.K. by the British Board of Film Classification and issued an “Adults Only” mark by the U.S.’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a rating that Sony and Nintendo won’t permit for a game made for their systems. Over the summer, Rockstar Games modified the game and resubmitted it to the ratings groups. The ESRB has given the new version an M, and the game is set to come out on Halloween. But this week, the BBFC again denied the game a rating. In a statement, BBFC Director David Cooke said, “The impact of the revisions on the bleakness and callousness of tone, or the essential nature of the gameplay, is clearly insufficient. There has been a reduction in the visual detail in some of the ’execution kills,’ but in others they retain their original visceral and casually sadistic nature. … We did make suggestions for further changes to the game, but the distributor has chosen not to make them, and as a result we have rejected the game on both platforms.” Rockstar Games issued a reply on Monday, stating: “The changes necessary in order to publish the game in Britain are unacceptable to us and represent a setback for video games. The BBFC allows adults the freedom to decide for themselves when it comes to horror in movies, and we think adults should be similarly allowed to decide for themselves when it comes to horror in video games, such as ’Manhunt 2.’ ” …
In other European news that may affect American gamers, Sony Computer Entertainment of Europe announced late last week that it will launch a 40GB version of the PlayStation 3 on Wednesday. The system had launched around the world in versions that had either 20GB or 60GB hard drives, with an array of differences that included built-in WiFi in some and not in others. In July, Sony announced a drop of the U.S. 60GB model to $500, which cleared the way for a $600 80GB model. That was followed by news that the 60GB would be phased out, and with that rumors began to fly of a new cheaper model being prepped for a $400 price point. No such announcement has been made of a new model for the U.S., but the SCEE introduction of a 40GB for the European market offered a hint of what might be afoot. The European 60GB has been selling for 499 Euros. The new model will sell for 399 Euros, the equivalent of $140 less. Left out of the new European model will be two of the system’s USB ports and, more significantly, backward compatibility of the PS3 to PS2 games. If such a model is introduced in the U.S., gamers who want a single PS3 unit to play PS3 and PS2 games best pick up a unit already on the market, though buyer beware that only launch units of the PS3 were fully backward-compatible. Newer units released this year only work with select titles.
For the latest in video games, check out our Multiplayer blog, which includes a video dissection of the new “Guitar Hero” controllers and a cry for help from someone who just wants to be Master Chief for Halloween.