Video Games Go Wild for Reboots

Hits like ‘Super Mario Bros.’ and ‘Zelda’ aren't just revived because it’s what gamers want. Reboots, remakes, and reimaginings are often about system compatibility—and money.

It’s well known that the film industry has something of a creativity problem. It seems like everywhere you look, there are ads for sequels, remakes, and reboots. But it’s not just Hollywood that plays it safe by returning to the same well over and over again; the video game industry does it, too. In some ways, the game industry is even worse.

Of the 10 best-selling games of 2013, only one was a fresh face: Disney Infinity, and considering how steeped in recognizable branding that game is, it barely counts. Original names like The Last of Us made a splash, but they couldn’t match the sales of the sequel juggernauts. A console generation brings with it a wave of new ideas (most of which will be franchised in the coming years), but for every new protagonist are two more familiar faces.

But sometimes familiar faces can surprise you. The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the largest video game show in America; it’s where game companies bring out their big guns and justify their existence to the world. For Microsoft in 2014, this meant showing the new Call of Duty, a Halo collection, and other entries in established franchises. There were some interesting new titles as well—though most of them were low-budget independent projects—but the biggest surprise was a reboot of Phantom Dust, a game for the original Xbox that only sold 70,000 copies.

The desire to remake and reboot games comes in part from a major difference between games and movies: old games are harder to play than old movies are to watch. An old VHS or DVD will play on any compatible player, but even a brand new Xbox copy of Phantom Dust won’t play on an Xbox One (or any competing console). Anyone who wants to play old games has to acquire the system to go with it. Nintendo and Sony have programs to bring old games to new platforms, but there’s no guarantee that a particular favorite will return.

And sometimes developers want to see those games come back as much as fans do, so it’s up to them to do that work. “There are gems from the past—sometimes they were loved and sometimes nowhere near enough people got to play them—and I think it’s a great opportunity to go grab these games that had excellent design and give them a chance in the modern era,” Ken Lobb, creative director at Microsoft Studios tells me.

There are tons of remakes out there. Nintendo has been doing them on its handhelds for more than a decade. The Game Boy Advance saw four different Mario games remade with the Super Mario Advance series. To coincide with the launch of the DS in 2004, the company released Super Mario 64 DS, a remake of the beloved Super Mario 64. Nintendo’s update not only provided enhanced graphics but added new playable characters and extra challenges. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, considered by some to be the best game of all time, was remade for the 3DS in 2011. Another Zelda game, The Wind Waker, was remade just last year for the Wii U. Nintendo has also been alternating new and old entries of its storied Pokemon series; last year’s X and Y versions will be followed this year by remakes of 2003’s Ruby and Sapphire.

But not every game can just be remade. There are times when we remember our experiences through rose-colored glasses. Bringing an old game essentially as it was to a new console could backfire, when people realize things weren’t actually so great. Such was the case with the classic Nintendo 64 first person shooter GoldenEye. As the first big console first person shooter, the game was a milestone, but it was designed around a controller that only had one analog stick. While it came with multiple different preset control styles, it was still an inferior system. Anyone who has played any modern console FPS knows that a second analog stick is required for any serious precision.

So the original platform was a limitation. Combine that with the relatively bland level design and you have a game that many (myself included) loved back in the day but would struggle with now. In that case, upgrades are needed to bring the design in line with those golden memories. In fact GoldenEye was remade/rebooted for the Wii in 2010.

“We’re better at game design,” says Lobb, who is behind the Phantom Dust reboot. “In the time from Phantom Dust to now, there’s just more that we know. For example, it takes three and a half hours to get into building decks [the central gameplay hook]. It was something that bothered me a little back then, but in retrospect it was one of the biggest mistakes of the original game. You want to get people into the idea sooner. If we just did a remake, we’d end up with the same problem. More people having access to the soul of the game is something we need to address, as well as telling the story in a more modern way.”

Crystal Dynamics Creative Director Noah Hughes has a unique view on this, having worked on both a remake and reboot of the beloved Tomb Raider franchise. “Tomb Raider: Anniversary took the 1996 game that started it all and re-told the same story on a new generation of consoles,” he tells me. “It had a different game engine, and with this came some new gameplay mechanics. Tomb Raider 2013, on the other hand, was a complete reimagining of Lara Croft.”

But the line between remake and reboot is blurry. The new Phantom Dust will tell the same story as the 2004 original, but Lobb still considers it a reboot, albeit one focused on design. “Let’s keep the parts that were great, fix the parts that were wounded, and then remove the parts that didn’t help the game much,” he says. Rebooting it will allow the developer to make a game from the past feel like it was meant for the present, whether it tells the same story or not.

However you define remakes and reboots, it’s clear that this is happening more. The Prince of Persia series has been rebooted twice since the turn of the century, first with 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and then again in 2008 with Prince of Persia. Medal of Honor was rebooted back in 2010, but failed to stand out as a serious competitor to Call of Duty. But 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown rebooted the 1990s PC game series and won several Game of the Year awards. Others have been released—such as 2010’s Splatterhouse and 2011’s Mortal Kombat—but never more than a couple each year. Until 2013.

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Last year, there were four big name reboots: DmC: Devil May Cry, SimCity, Killer Instinct, and the previously discussed Tomb Raider. Of these, Tomb Raider made the biggest splash, and it has sold more than 6 million copies. A sequel was unveiled at the Microsoft E3 conference. As was a follow-up to the new Killer Instinct, which was definitely the biggest surprise reboot of last year. That series was last seen in 1996, and fans had been clamoring for a new entry ever since. But it wasn’t until last year’s E3 that Microsoft announced the reboot as an Xbox One launch title. Although a new pricing model caused early controversy, the final product was very well received and a sequel has been announced.

Lobb, who worked on the original Killer Instinct titles back in the ‘90s, spearheaded that reboot as well. But whereas he was an integral part of KI’s design, he was not on Phantom Dust’s development team. He was just a fan, albeit one in a position to bring it back after its commercial failure. He had been trying for nearly a decade when the stars aligned.

“I reminded Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] that I loved the game, over and over again, and somebody tweeted at him, saying, ‘Hey, we should do Phantom Dust!” And because a lot of people follow him, others came piling in on top.” This spurred Creative Director Adam Isgreen, who also worked on Killer Instinct, to outline of a Phantom Dust reboot—just in case. Two weeks later, Spencer passed by and asked about it. Lobb jumped at the chance and got the greenlight to find a developer to work on it. And though he won’t say who it is, he’s very excited with the team he’s got lined up.

“There’s something magic about a game coming back from 10 to 15 years ago,” Lobb says, but he doesn’t just apply that logic to games. He mentioned the upcoming Gotham TV series and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as other examples of beloved properties coming back; things he was and is excited to see return. That’s the secret key to all of this, the thing that makes it viable: the viral power of a rabid fan base.

“If you have people that are excited about your product, they want to have other people be excited,” he says. “It’s important. You can toss some fuel on the fire and have these people with genuinely excellent memories of something act as part of the process. Like with Killer Instinct, we want to find some people who love the game as much as we do and let them be involved and get the experience of building the game.” And that’s the kind of thing that he hopes with take the game that only sold 70,000 copies and make its reboot a million-seller or more.

And if it succeeds, we’ll be seeing even more of them. Lobb admits that Phantom Dust’s existence is partially thanks to Killer Instinct’s success, there are other games he’d love to revisit. The remake craze is now being complemented by these modernized experiences.

2014 has already seen a major reboot with Thief, and later this summer Warner Bros. will be releasing a reboot of the 1985 arcade game Gauntlet. As gamers age and older games become cherished memories, developers want to try their hand at franchises they remember, possibly working with the characters that inspired them to join the industry. And if they’re excited about their work and passionate about their projects, then it doesn’t matter if the franchise is brand new or forty years old.