Rundown (10/17-10/23) Re;Masterpiece

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Wherein I discuss the dubious distinction of a masterpiece, yet another Sony PC port, another accursed acquisition, and a doubtfully definitive rendition of games that probably should be better. 

Something that bugs me about the discourse around gaming history is how people tend to attribute the influence and impact of a title as part of its inherent quality. Meaning that if a game was a massive success and inspired others, then it, to an extent, needs to be celebrated as a masterpiece or all-time classic. This is a mentality that has been fed to me for… two decades, maybe, but it is one that I simply do not agree with. While it is important to recognize the historic value of something— what it contributed to its artform— that is not necessarily related to its quality.

To give one rudimentarily basic example, Super Mario Bros. is a foundational game, easily one of the ten most important games of all time. But the title has slippery and unrefined movement the likes of which would be heavily criticized if they were replicated in a modern game. The lives and continue system is more frustrating than anything, and is a remnant of an era where game length was propped up by arbitrary difficulty. As a speed-based 2D platformer, the title is ultimately held back by its 4:3 aspect ratio. 

The game’s color choices and sprite work were both born from limitation and, despite being ‘iconic,’ the game would look far better if the color palette was upgraded and its sprite work was less born from limitations. However, it was the most influential game of the 1980s, so it gets a pass and earns a place in the pantheon of the greatest games of all time. Even though just about every subsequent 2D Mario title surpassed it in level design, presentation, and controls. Even the not-so-good ones like New Super Mario Bros. 2 are, nostalgia and history aside, better games.

Jumping ahead 9 years to example number two, while I think Super Metroid is a great game, anybody who says the game is ‘bereft of flaws’ is an utter fool. I am not talking about its 24-bit graphics or its proto-genre level design. I am talking about how the game controls could use some remapping and retooling, how some secrets are a bastard to collect, and how the game is a victim of screen crunch. Super Metroid is a pseudo-widescreen game because of the chunky black HUD at the top of the screen, which makes the game feel claustrophobic and, at times, unfair due to the limited screen real estate.

I literally ended my 2020 review of this by musing over how I wish there was a remaster that cleaned up and modernized some of this game’s shortcomings and made it the masterpiece people keep saying the game is. Sure, there are fan mods that aim to achieve that, but they are inherently limited by being mods by amateurs and fans with their own perspectives and preferences. 

That’s the crappy thing about fan projects like this: Nothing is definitive, nothing is official, and it is incredibly difficult to point at one of these projects and claim it is a fully superior version of the original game. I’m trying to think of instances where this happened, and only two come to mind. 

The Christian Whitehead versions of the Genesis Sonic games were inarguably improvements on the originals. They fixed a few issues, added a few things, and made the games in widescreen, doing all one could realistically do to make these games as good as possible, without making any contentious changes.

Similarly, the Lizardcube remake of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap doubles as a superior remaster of the original Master System title. While it overhauls the UI, expands the aspect ratio, and features several quality of life upgrades, such as being able to hold more healing items, it still retains everything the original offered, while fixing what could be seen as its biggest problems.

Or to summarize the point of this preamble in this concluding paragraph: I wish that more old games got light remasters, or touch-ups, like this, that only change what needs and should be changed. Unfortunately, the only ones who really can be trusted to do this are insane diehard fans with an encyclopedic knowledge of the original and a stellar understanding of game design. People who are both rare and might also be insane in the bad way.

Starting with a happy story, Sony is continuing their efforts of bringing their years-old PS4 first-party titles to PC with God of War 4 (2018). The title will hit Steam on January 14, 2022, will come with several enhancements and neat features, like ultra-widescreen mode for the crazies, and will be available for another, more global, audience to play, as the PC is truly the most global platform of them all. This is great news, and even though I am not particularly fond of these… ‘distinctly masculine AAA western experiences,’ I am still glad to see this highly acclaimed game be given a second life. 

That being said, my immediate reaction upon hearing this news was: “Well that’s crummy. Much like with the Uncharted PC release, Sony is bringing the latest titles to the platform without giving PC players the full context for the series. They should start with the original trilogy, if not the compilation God of War Saga (2012), if they are going to bring God of War 4 (2018) to PC.”

However, that thought was quickly thrown into the toilet after I looked at the official announcement page, and read that God of War 4 (2018) sold 19.5 million units… which is preposterous, and makes it one of the best-selling games of the modern era. Seriously, this is insanely impressive, especially for a Sony published title, as the only Sony game that broke the 20 million mark has been The Last of Us (2013) if you count the combined PS3 and PS4 sales.

This is a number so absurd that I thought it might have sold more than the entire God of War series before that and… it didn’t. As of November 2020, the series sold over 51 million copies, so it’s not even close. Still, when you consider how many re-releases and games the original— let’s say 32 million— covered, it is still an astounding feat, and speaks volumes of how much this title resonated with the gaming zeitgeist. 

That, and this figure speaks volumes to how, when you mark titles down to $20, you can easily make a couple extra million sales. Personally, I expected this price drop to be reflected with the PC release, but instead Sony is charging $50 for this super successful 3-year-old single-player game with no additional DLC. I would ask why Sony is doing this, but they did the same thing with Days Gone, which cost $50, despite being a $20 game (quality-wise). So I guess this is just Sony’s schtick with their PC ports. Kind of like how Nintendo and other developers handle Switch re-releases. Except instead of a Switch tax, it’s a Steam tax.

Shifting over to a sad story, GungHo Online Entertainment has sold Grasshopper Manufacture, and the buyer was none other than the massive Chinese game publisher, NetEase. As for why? I’m not really sure, as the announcement was laced with vagaries. The general takeaway from this is that the developers of No More Heroes, Let It Die, and a litany of other quirky titles, is now under new ownership, which may or may not have a large effect on how their games will fare going forward.

While I do not know enough about NetEase to have a strong opinion about them, they are a Chinese company, and must adhere to whatever the Chinese government tells them to. Which is a problem, as China is a country run by trash people with wretched ideals. And unless their government undergoes a massive paradigm shift, I don’t really want them to have much influence over anything, let alone the video game industry.

Though, going back to the whole acquisition angle, I truly cannot figure out why this arrangement happened, other than the fact that NetEase wanted to acquire an acclaimed Japanese developer, and Grasshopper management was not happy being under GungHo. Which would probably make sense, given how Grasshopper experienced massive turnover a few years ago, before things ramped up for No More Heroes 3 (2021).

After being rumored and flaccidly announced, Rockstar Games finally showed off what Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. It is the latest overhaul of Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), featuring new visuals, refined gameplay, and other to-be-specified changes. It is a collection I have been curious about from a historical perspective since word about it first broke, and now there is… less than a minute of gameplay footage to chew on.

Now, I would encourage people not to pass judgment on these titles until they are out, available for analysis, and broken open by crafty individuals who know the original titles extensively well. …However, Rockstar released this trailer with the awareness that people were going to pass judgment based on their first impression, as is the modern way. And based on the snippet they showed, what they showed in lieu of a deep dive trailer going over the changes present in a game launching on November 11th, the results are a bit more… mixed than I expected.

What I like about the original 3D GTA trilogy is how the games are… cartoony. The original developers knew that games could only look so realistic on modern hardware, and when looking back at these games, everything looks like a plastic playset and everyone looks like an action figure. I personally dig this style… and the remasters ‘sorta’ maintain it. Every character has a colorful sheen to them, are rightfully not aiming for photo-realism, but there is a large degree of variance with the proportions, facial designs, and overall model quality with what they showed here. Some character models, such as CJ’s, look quite good. While mission-related NPCs, such as the southern gentleman from Vice City, look like a political caricature rendered in 3D.

As for the environments, they took some clear artistic liberties to make the worlds feel more fleshed out and realized with little details such as new wallpaper in homes, placing doodads on tables for environmental flavor, and adjusting the proportions of certain things. Clearly, a lot of work went into recreating these beloved worlds, but the texture artists went with more of a realistic look, and I am not sure if that was the best approach. The people in the remaster look decently cartoonish, but the worlds look like they are from a late PS3 early PS4 title that was aiming for photo-realism.

What they showed does not look bad, but… when you call something the Definitive Edition, you need to go all out and ensure that what you are making is… definitive. I don’t know what it is about so many remasters where they clearly were not given the time or budget they needed to be everything they could be. Even though remasters are one of the safest and easiest ways to make money in the games industry, albeit not a LOT of money, I frequently see ones that either do not do enough or lose something in the process, and I think this is a mixture of both.

It does not seem like the dev team had enough time or budget to remake the game to modern standards, but it also seems like Rockstar management wanted the game to look dramatically graphically better over the original. This puts it into something of an uncanny valley for me, and I am left with the impression that fans could or have done better already by modding the original titles. Which, for the record, Rockstar stopped selling, meaning it is ethically okay, morally correct, and overall righteous to pirate the original PC releases.

That’s about it for this week, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some editing and play some Metroid. Also, I spent WAY too long on getting this header image ready, because I was stubborn, did not want to install an NES emulator, and got confused by all the different NES palettes that exist!

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