Does getting excited about re-released video games make you a sucker?
Today, you can buy Okami, one of the most celebrated games of its generation, on your Playstation 4, Xbox One, or PC. Not including its original 2006 release as one of the last great games on the Playstation 2, this marks the third time Okami has been re-released: first in 2008 on the Nintendo Wii, and again in 2012, remastered for HD displays on the Playstation 3. This latest version updates it even further, adding support for 4K displays, working to make the game look as good as possible on modern high-end screens, without fundamentally changing it or remaking any part of the game. There will be people eager to spend money on Okami for a fourth time. (Who? I don’t know. Not me, though. Definitely not me.) There will be people buying it for the first time. Ultimately, Okami gets to live a little longer, to stay relevant on hardware that people will likely still have ten years from now. After that, though? Maybe they’ll have to buy it again.
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2017 was a year full of good video games that could have kept you busy from January until well into 2018. A funny thing about this year, though: you could have also easily spent it playing old games re-released on current hardware, as a wave of excellent remastered titles arrived month after month, from big names like Final Fantasy XII to little-played gems like Dragon’s Dogma. Re-releases aren’t really new, but in 2017 it was really popular to sell you a bunch of games all over again. Put like that, it sounds a bit like a scam — and it kind of is, and kind of isn’t.
Video game re-releasees have always been popular for publishers because they’re easy money. Games get rereleased far more often than movies, mostly because games are forever tied to the platform they were initially released on. Unlike movies, which have a standard format that you can safely assume you won’t undergo a seismic shift for at least twenty years with an advance in technology that you probably won’t have to make in your lifetime — video games are an arms race. You’re expected to keep up, to eventually be swayed to a new console, which will have a new library of games, which will subtly encourage you to leave your old library behind. Or, if you’re lucky, have it sold back to you again.
Currently, the Xbox One is the only modern console that has considerable support for games that came out on older versions of the Xbox, with support for a large swathe of (but not all) Xbox 360 games, and a handful of original Xbox games. For anything outside of that, you either need to hold onto your old gear and games, or just hope it gets re-released for a console you own now.
For you, this is a massive inconvenience, and for companies like Nintendo, it’s a chance to make bank. Sometimes, publishers work with developers to make these re-releases worthwhile — cleaning them up so they look good in HD, bundling them with any and all downloadable add-ons that weren’t included in the original release, and selling them at a lower price point, roughly $20-40 as opposed to $60 for a new release. This is the most common and best practice, and can help a re-release stand its ground amidst all the buzzy new stuff crashing in all the time. Sometimes, however, a game will just simply be lifted wholesale from an old platform to a new one. Which isn’t always a bad thing, if it turns out, you really like the platform.
A massive part of what made this year a huge one for re-released video games was the Nintendo Switch, which in its first year became a haven for older games seeking new life. I’ve happily downloaded new copies of Skyrim and L.A. Noire, two games from 2011, onto my Switch, and would happily do the same for plenty of other games that I can only dream about having on the go (every Zelda from Windwaker to Skyward Sword; most games that only were released on the Wii U). Enthusiast publications openly gushed about games they would happily buy again if they were brought to the Switch.
Despite how easy it is to view rereleases as cynically exploitative of gaming’s constant push towards new hardware, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would complain about them. Like when a classic film is remastered for Blu-ray, or a 35mm print is restored to be screened in theaters, a re-released game is a chance for something dormant to come alive again, for under-appreciated works to find their audience, for new fans to be welcomed to the fold, for a chance to experience a work without it being visually crippled by how much better screens are now. Coupled with the Internet, that life extends further — social media discussions that never happened around a game can happen now, original criticisms can be reappraised, and you can finally tell your buds I told you so when they finally play PaRappa the Rapper.
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Like a lot of things adjacent to the tech world, video games move too fast for anyone to really get a good, clear-eyed handle on what they are. It’s a scene still actively trying to shake off its enthusiast roots, a culture that for much of its early years came with the expectation of unquestioning fandom. This means large swathes of gamer culture is still more invested in what’s coming than what has happened — consider The Game Awards, a yearly spectacle that aspires to be something akin to the Oscars for games, but is primarily watched because it showcases exclusive video game announcements. There is still little room for any sort of remove when talking about games. Re-releases are as close as we can get.
Video games, long sequestered from the mainstream and often unapproachably dense, have been historically received and evaluated in a vacuum and swiftly forgotten. (The preservation of video game history has very few advocates.) Generally speaking, games culture was cloistered and did not intersect with the rest of pop culture outside of the works that influenced the people who made them — stuff like Star Wars, Blade Runner, and J.R.R. Tolkien. In 2017, however, it’s hard for anything to be that isolated, and more eyes on more games is ultimately a good thing. Let’s see if Okami holds up.