Rewind Selectah Why remastering the past is good for gaming's future

Rewind Selectah Why remastering the past is good for gaming's future
At Toronto's Fan Expo in August, the biggest lines were not for stars of Wars and Treks but to score a few minutes of next-gen playtime with the upcoming PS4 and Xbox One consoles. Yet one of late summer's hottest games was DuckTales: Remastered (pictured), a high-def update of a hit 1989 NES platformer based on a beloved Disney cartoon about an aged miser of a mallard named Scrooge McDuck.

It wasn't a nostalgic anomaly, either. Perhaps intended as a chaser before the latest Splinter Cell, Ubisoft released Flashback HD, an upgrade of the 1992 sci-fi platformer by their French brethren Delphine Software. The new version was even helmed by original designer Paul Cuisset, and greenlit because the current Ubi execs were fans of the cult amnesia-meets-alien conspiracy 16-bit original.

In early September, the 1990 Sega Genesis Mega Man-inspired side-scroller Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse got an HD "reimagining" (with original developer Emiko Yamamoto onboard) quickly followed by Kingdom Hearts 1.5 RE:mix, a definitive HD update of the fan service series' beginnings, mashing up Disney with Final Fantasy.

Each new console generation has tended to make the previous one obsolete even if its catalogue was filled with classics. Gamers move on. The Xbox 360 and PS3 were quasi-backwards compatible — the former had about half its predecessor's games made playable while the original PS3 model was fully backwards compatible but had PS2 functionality removed to lower the price point. But backwards compatibility has been abandoned altogether for the PS4 or Xbox One.

This is where these remixes and remasters come in. Plenty of old games are available via services like Nintendo's Virtual Console, Xbox Live Originals and PSN's Playstation Classics. But without graphical and design enhancements, gamers, especially younger ones, can be turned off by their standard definition (which looks terrible on an HD set) and sometimes-dated gameplay.

So if an HD update can convince folks to play last-gen triumphs like Fumito Ueda's melancholy masterpieces Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Ubisoft's terror-era propaganda parable (albeit with a pig sidekick) Beyond Good & Evil or Capcom's wolf god wonder Okami, then it's an undeniably good thing. (All these boast stylized art direction and great design, lengthening their shelf life, but still benefit from upping the texture resolution and other tweaks.)

That said, not all remasters are created equal. Flashback HD, while nicer looking, is widely considered a failure that makes our glasses seem rose-coloured. It actually goes too far in trying to appeal to today's audiences, adding a voice to a previously silent lead, but with bad voice acting and a worse script while gameplay tweaks push mindless shooting over the original's more cerebral puzzling. (Though at least the original is included.)

DuckTales: Remastered, on the other hand, boasts new hand-drawn art for the characters and backgrounds that looks as good or maybe better than the source cartoon and not only added voice actors to flesh out the narrative, but hired the show's surviving cast. The original NES levels and gameplay are kept as-is, but bolstered by new areas and slightly updated controls. Even the music was redone as orchestral compositions based on the original 8-bit chiptune score.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 RE:mix is a similarly ambitious update combining the original's Japan-only "Final Mix" version from 2007 alongside RE:Chain of Memories, which was a 2008 PS2 remake of the 2004 GameBoy Advance game Chain of Memories. As a bonus feature, they've included a cinematics-only 358/2 Days, turning the 2009 DS title into a three-hour movie.

The stylized graphics have been smoothed while still retaining the original polygonal look, and the gameplay has been slightly updated. But what really matters is that the Square-Enix-meets-Disney games remain as absurdly epic and intensely Japanese as ever — and that gamers who have only ever heard of the original may now be able and enticed to play it.

Classic books, movies and TV shows have always persisted in pop culture, allowing the past to put the present into perspective. But too many classic games have been left behind by console technology's constant forward momentum. By strengthening their appeal to today's audiences without ruining their raison d'être, these remasters deepen gaming culture by bringing the medium's best works back to the future.