Videogame classics: reboot, reimagine, renovate, or just remember?

By Garnett Lee, Jun 24, 2011 5:00pm PDT

One of the big stars emerging in the post-E3 2011 buzz is none other than Lara Croft. It's been a long time since she demanded the spotlight with such urgency. But this is not the Lara we've come to know over her many adventures. Nor is it even some "new and improved" model. After resuscitating the all but dead corpse of Ms. Croft with three very well done Tomb Raider games (Tomb Raider: Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld), developer Crystal Dynamics has thrown the old lady out in favor of a total reboot of the franchise. It's a bold approach, and one that seems poised to pay off in a big way for them.

Lara is but one of many videogame stars potentially due for some work. Microsoft plans a big celebration, and a completely updated version of the original, for Halo's ten year anniversary. But, as Weekend Confirmed listener 'strangejames85' noted and we then discussed on this week's show, it's just one of an impressive list of titles that came out that year. The industry has come of age, and along the way accumulated an ever expanding library of classics. Now we just need to figure out what to do with them.

Noah Hughes, creative director at Crystal Dynamics chatted with the PlayStation blog about the approach to the new Tomb Raider. He said that they learned a lot working on those three earlier games but "to be able to distill everything we want to do with the franchise into an entirely fresh take is inspiring." Creatively inspiring for them perhaps, but, as I spoke to in my preview of Tomb Raider, what they want to do with the franchise doesn't align with at least what this fan wants done with it.

Therein lays the challenge in tinkering with such established figures. If you're Crystal Dynamics, wanting to develop a game in somewhat the same vein as Tomb Raider, you'd be foolish not to trade on Lara's name. Such is the franchise-driven nature of the videogame world. But doing so runs the risk of running afoul of fans, many of whom remember things only through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.

Living up to those memories is a tall order, and plenty reason to steer clear of the "reimagining a classic" route. In an ironic twist, Crystal Dynamic's first turn at Tomb Raider stands as one of the best examples of how to do it right. Anniversary struck a near perfect balance of capturing the scenes and magic of the original games as we remembered them translated through the language of a modern game engine.

Pulling off such a feat requires a full-scale development, and it comes with no guarantee of being able to recapture the magic. If anything, living up to memories poses an arguably tougher task than creating new ones. I also wonder how many I'd be happier remembering as they were. Take that 2001 list. I loved Paper Mario, Max Payne, Jax and Daxter, and Devil May Cry among many others, but a large part of those fond memories comes from having played them in their time.

Halo probably falls into that category for me as well. Maybe that's as much because what's changed the most over the past decade (or more) is presentation capabilities. Since we entered the era of 3D gaming (yes, despite what the display makers may tell you, we've been gaming in 3D space for a good while) the experiences we get have settled into fairly well defined categories. And as shooters go, I feel pretty certain Halo will stand up well on that front.

So does the team working on the upcoming HD version of the game. As we learned in our Halo Anniversary preview at E3, the game literally runs two game engines, the original Halo engine to run the game mechanics and AI, and a shiny, new rendering engine on top of that to make it look pretty.

If it works that well, though, I'm back to wondering whether it isn't better simply left alone. The rushed to answer is the matter of access, as system backward compatibility went from hotly debated topic to inconsequential footnote this generation. But if that issue so quickly faded away, doesn't it stand to reason that those who want to play those old games must have the consoles to play them on as well?

Sony will help answer that question with the growing slate of HD remakes it has on the PS3. As much as I'm dying to revisit Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in HD, I'm unsure how many walks down memory lane I really want to take. They run the risk of overwriting my fond memories already there. And every minute I spend there is one I don't have for a new experience.

Maybe it doesn't have to be exclusive. Maybe it's easy enough to knock them out this way; I can have my Ico, you can have your God of War, and we can all be happy. But the pull of nostalgia can be hard to resist as well. As difficult as we see it can be for new creative games to find an audience, might we be better to smile as we remember those old friends while playing the games we'll look back on in coming years?

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