HD Re-skins are Ace. Discuss.

by on September 4, 2013

As food connoisseurs are fond of saying, the first bite should be with your eyes. Before you take that literally and start headbutting your dinner plate or sticking forks in your eyes, I should point out that what they mean is that presentation is paramount. If something looks like dog shit, no one is going to want to eat it. Well, except maybe dogs, because they’re weird like that.

Anyway, for me, games are the same. While I don’t literally bite them, I do gorge my senses on them. I consider them a feast for the eyes and ears, a natural endorphin. And the first thing I judge them on, before I’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty of critiquing them, is looks. Further examination of story and mechanics will have a great and powerful influence upon that initial judgement, of course, but the aesthetics are always my first point of interest.

Then it’s how they feel to play. Not how they make me feel (that comes later), but rather how they feel in my hands. How do the characters move? How slick is the action? How clunky are the menus? This stuff matters, because it directly impacts my enjoyment of the game, regardless of the appearance. It’s because of this that I just don’t dig retro titles. Being a gamer of 32, I am aware that, to a certain kind of games fan, that statement is the equivalent of me calling their newborn child ugly. But the simple truth is that I don’t hanker after what has gone before. I certainly remember enjoying retro games, and wouldn’t attempt to suppress such happy memories. But, playing them now? Not so much with the awesome.

To my eyes, uncultured as they may be, retro games are ugly, and they’re ugly because they’re old. They’re clunky, often slow, not usually particularly deep or intricate, because they’re old. It’s not because they are bad games – far from it. in fact, some of my fondest memories are of childhood favourites like Simon the Sorcerer, Spy Vs. Spy or MegaMan. I loved them, still love the memories of them, but I don’t want to play them right now. Not one bit.

Which is why I love HD re-skins. Many don’t, particularly the purists and retro connoisseurs, citing them as a sure sign that developers are running out of ideas, or need a quick money-maker. And they’re entitled to that opinion, of course. It’s understandable that so many people have such a fondness for what used to be, for things they grew up with – but much of it is sense memory only. They remember how a game used to make them feel, or associate a happy childhood memory with a particular title. Quite often, when you actually get your hands on a game that used to wow you as a child, it simply isn’t all that anymore.

The popularity of 8-bit and 16-bit graphics may be something that never dies (and is propagated – and rightly so – by the indie community), but as a mainstream gamer who supports the indie scene even though it’s not often my first port of call when shopping for something new to play, my passions lie in the modern. In fact, the more modern the better. I like checkpoints and HD graphics, I like flashy cutscenes and celebrity voice-overs. I don’t know why, and I’ve no desire to analyse the reasons or quantify my personal tastes – I know what I like.

Vagrant Story

But there are games I have fond memories of. There are games I see through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and think, “Yeah, I’d play that again.” Unfortunately, when I do finally play them again, I get frustrated quickly. The controls don’t feel intuitive, the menus are too slow and ponderous, the mechanics are antiquated, the checkpoints are ruthless, the voice work is iffy and the graphics are passable at best. Unfortunately I only remember games through those rose-tinted specs; I don’t see games through them.

Which is why I welcome the HD re-skin. Hell, there are games I pray will see HD re-skins. I want a HD Legacy of Kain collection, I want Breath of Fire, Vagrant Story, Fear Effect, and Suikoden; I want Siphon Filter and Dino Crisis and Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts. And I want them all in HD. Shiny, glorious, 21st Century HD. Not only that, I want their archaic controls fixed, clunky menus streamlined and dodgy voice-acting re-synced. I won’t stand beside the purists and say, “But I remember this game when it was all about the gameplay and not the graphics.” I don’t want the trade-off at all. I still want the gameplay, but I want it improved and I want it to look gorgeous and sexy and smooth at the same time.

I should point out, in case it hasn’t been made clear, that I’m talking about re-skins, not re-makes. I’m talking games with a new set of clothes, not games that are made in a modern way but try to recapture the same lightning in a bottle that made the original so good. There is a big difference between a remake and a re-skin. It’s huge.

Recently, there was (I thought) an unfair level of criticism aimed at the Ducktales revamp. Why? It’s essentially the same game, with tweaks to improve the gameplay and make it ever so slightly more modern, and a beautiful new look that captures everything that made us love the original, but doesn’t look like pixellated arse. That’s a re-skin. Like Monkey Island and Beyond Good & Evil, a good re-skin can take an old game and make it sing.

Flashback HD, a remake, drew flak for its added voice work and uneven design, which, in fairness, I have to agree with. The added dialogue is unnecessary, and annoyingly distracting. But I grew up with Flashback. It’s the first game I ever loved, the first game I ever finished, the first game I really remember. The HD version has little of the charm of the original, because of course the original’s charm stemmed from its uniqueness and its – at the time – lack of cliché. Had Delphine simply recoated the original with brand new cladding, I’d have been much happier (though many others still wouldn’t). As it is, Flashback HD is a swing and a miss. The developers wanted the best of both worlds, but all the things that fans forgive the original Flashback for are forgiven because the game is 21 years old. You can’t forgive a six-month old game for the same failings, even if it does look pretty damn good

I’d rather the original game with a new coat of paint than a game built using a modern engine and archaic conventions, but remake or not I’ll play the modernised version of anything I used to love – and I’ll take the modernised version over the original every time, because that’s where my preferences lie. I’m not so enamoured with from-the-ground-up remakes, but I love HD re-skins because – whether or not you might believe they’re soulless money-spinners, or that they’re indicative of a lack of imagination – they take something I loved (loved, past tense) and make me love it again. How could I not want that?