Why do game reboots face more skepticism than their music and movie equivalents?
As art reflects culture, so one art follows another. What happens in music, in film, in literature increasingly crosses over to games as trends and fashions prevalent elsewhere become incorporated into our pixelated pastime.
Revivalism is a prominent characteristic of so much cinematic action – consider the various reboots or remakes of RoboCop, Total Recall, Clash Of The Titans and the forthcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie for evidence of this evergreen means of turning old assets into new money.
But to deride all such projects as unnecessary, underwhelming or downright despicable is to blinker oneself to select highs born of repackaging the past. 1986’s The Fly saw director David Cronenberg inarguably improve on Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original, while 21st century takes on Dawn Of The Dead (2004) and King Kong (2005) possessed plenty of reasons for positivity. Even George A Romero remarked to Time Out that Zack Snyder’s Dawn… remake was “better than I expected”.
In the same interview, though, Romero commented that Snyder’s version of his 1978 zombie watershed was “more of a videogame… it’s like Space Invaders”. And gaming, after all, is in a constant state of reimagining its own landmarks – even if, so far, its palpable hits are out-punched by critical misses.
Gaming is in a constant state of reimagining its own landmarks – even if, so far, its palpable hits are out-punched by critical misses.
Hip-hop is one of music’s freshest forms of expression, and its history is as short and as dramatic as gaming’s. In 1972, Bronx-based DJ Kool Herc introduced the method of mixing from break to break into his sets – he called it the Merry-Go-Round. The dancers at his parties became breakdancers in the press, b-boys and -girls, and thus essential foundations for hip-hop were laid. In the very same year, the Magnavox Odyssey, regarded as the first commercially available home games console, went on sale in North America.
Today, several of New York hip-hop’s hottest hopes, the players on the ‘Beast Coast’ stage, are orbiting the 1990s for inspiration. Joey Bada$$, The Underachievers and Bishop Nehru are taking cues from Nas, from Wu-Tang, from Mobb Deep. Given the comparable history, it’s perhaps no surprise to see gaming look back just a couple of decades to stir ideas for new projects.
Recent releases for Syndicate (2012), Mortal Kombat (2011) and Splatterhouse (2010) have represented franchise reboots for games that first emerged in 1993, 1988 and 1992 respectively. But of these three, only Mortal Kombat came away as any kind of commercial success, selling two million in its first month compared to Syndicate’s rather more modest figure of 150,000 copies sold globally.
Syndicate’s poor performance didn’t take away from the pride developer Starbreeze felt in reviving a classic 1990s title. Speaking to us in the summer of 2012, studio CEO Mikael Newmark commented on the vocal backlash to the title’s transformation from a tactical turn-based affair to a firstperson shooter: “If we didn’t do an exact copy of the  game, they’d hate us. If we did do an exact copy, they’d say we didn’t innovate. They were never ours to win. It was a battle lost from the get-go.”
One has to wonder why any developer would go into a project knowing they’d face substantial resistance to taking something that a sizeable group of ‘net-vocal gamers hold dear and turning it into something different. Just this year, Eidos Montreal’s Thief revival met with receptions ranging from cautious praise through indifference to outbreaks of despair.
Where retrospective rap music and revivalist videogames typically fail to correlate, then, is in their reception. Joey Bada$$ is generally praised for his throwback tropes, for the old soul resident in the wiry frame of a 19-year-old with potential to spare. Yet Thief clearly isn’t a universally welcomed reboot. So why do developers continue to gaze into gaming’s misty past for new projects?
Because, every now and again, the winning combination of contemporary appeal and nostalgic power manifests proudly – like Cronenberg’s The Fly, filtered through Xs and Ys and analogue sticks – and you get a game like 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown and 2013’s Tomb Raider, which relaunched the adventures of Lara Croft to a raft of critical acclaim.
Crystal Dynamics’ intention with the new Tomb Raider was, in global brand director Karl Stewart’s words: “…[to] reimagine it in a way that feels like people can understand who [Lara] is as a personality, and not just as the girl with big shiny guns who came onto the scene in 1996, looking the way she did.” They succeeded, drawing praise for the game’s presentation of a more human than ever Lara, vulnerable and afraid. Not a Tyrannosaurs in sight, though.
If the ’90s are to be mined further for reboots, there are some titles crying out for the promise of new technology. If you never kicked out at a childhood chum while BMX-ing in the woods, evidently you weren’t playing Road Rash in 1991. Burnout developer Criterion expressed interest in reviving the franchise in 2012. Nothing yet, but with Criterion a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, and EA owning the IP for Road Rash, the ingredients are in place. For now, series fans can turn to DarkSeas Games’ Kickstarted Road Redemption.
While we’re contemplating reboots, where’s Cannon Fodder? Sensible Software’s 1993 top-down shooter was a revelation on the Amiga, and the series’ most-recent iteration, 2011’s low-budget Cannon Fodder 3, went some way to recapturing the joy of the original, albeit at the expense of any real longevity. Codemasters has at least hinted that it could resurrect the game on mobile.
And what about Earthworm Jim? The game – first released in 1994 – went HD in 2010, but if someone with the imagination of Tim Schafer or Michel Ancel was let loose on the property, the results could be spectacularly entertaining. And then there’s Snatcher. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ Raiden-versus-Snatchers bonus stage whetted our appetite. Just so long as any remake is more Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, 1978 edition, than it is 2007’s dull Craig-and-Kidman vehicle, The Invasion.