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classics from even just five years ago — let alone tried to get someone who didn't play them at the time to put up with outdated controls, graphics or camera-work — know that it's hard to appreciate them.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"?
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