Green Hill Zone is a lush landscape of idyllic waterfalls and chequered loops, geometric palm trees swaying under Sega’s trademark blue skies.
The first stage in the original Sonic the Hedgehog is a legendary place and made a striking first impression on release in 1991. Masato Nakamura’s music cemented the opening level of Sonic in the consciousness of players forever – a debut comparable to Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 in its timelessness.
Five years later the level returned as a background to a 3D Sonic brawler. Then again as a colourful tennis court in a Sega-themed sports game. Then again, recently, rendered in plastic bricks in a LEGO title. And again as a photorealistic rendition in a multimillion-dollar film starring Jim Carrey.
What is it about Green Hill Zone that begs for 30 years of endless reimagining? Is it simply nostalgia? Classic level design? A desire to replicate the classics with new technology? Whatever the reason, the games industry can’t seem to get enough of remaking its most celebrated moments.
In 2001, just six years after the release of the original Resident Evil, Capcom remade one of their biggest hits. The affectionately dubbed REmake was a full reimagining of the horror classic – a critical smash that pushed the technical limits of the Nintendo GameCube hardware. It was warmly received by fans, which prompted another reworking: a HD remaster released in 2015. Video game audiences had quickly developed a deep nostalgia for a very recent prior generation of games and consoles.
Recently, there’s been a slew of direct remakes of classic games from the 1990s. Duck Tales, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and Castle of Illusion have seen shiny new versions in the past few years, with some of these games even offering the option to flick back to the original game at any time, allowing players to directly compare versions from moment to moment. This feature reveals that the skeleton core of the game is exactly the same – it’s the skin that’s different.
Nostalgia’s a powerful force – one that shouldn’t be messed with. The ‘core’ of a video game needs to remain for a remake to be considered successful. Super Mario All-Stars on the Super Nintendo, a collection of remakes of the first three games from the NES era, is infamous for changing the physics of Mario’s jump – a heinous sin for a character who started life known only as ‘Jump Man’. A core component of classic Mario was lost. It didn’t matter how pretty the redrawn sprites and environments were if Mario’s hop didn’t feel right.
But this elusive core can consist of more than just gameplay. The much-heralded recent remake of Final Fantasy VII essentially changed the combat of the game from a turn-based role-playing game to a real time action. It was a drastic shift in gameplay, yet the game somehow still managed to capture the spirit of the 1997 original.
Developers Bluepoint Games are masters of capturing a classic game’s soul. After great success with their version of Shadow of the Colossus, they released an astonishing remake of the beloved, notorious Demon’s Souls as a PlayStation 5 launch title – a work that transformed a graphically dated 10-year-old game into a showcase for the latest in console technology.
“We try and keep the core of the game untouched. With Demon’s Souls, that’s the gameplay, the logic, and the AI, and then everything else is stripped away,” Gavin Moore the game’s creative director stated in a 2020 interview with Polygon. “As long as the core remains, and we’re true to the original vision, then we feel comfortable adding stuff into the game.”
In the pre-internet days, release day was the final point of development for a game. Mistakes were in there forever. Now, the release is just the beginning, with constant updates the norm in the industry. Some games are in a continuous state of change, with vast differences in content and gameplay features from month to month. These ‘live’ games have proved to be hugely popular, with titles such as Fortnite, Fall Guys, League of Legends and Apex Legends drawing in staggering numbers of players and related revenue.
Aside from being an absolute nightmare from a game preservation point of view, the prevalence of live games has meant that some of today’s biggest titles are in a constant state of remake from day one. Fortnite famously destroyed its entire world in a real time event witnessed by millions of online players, and Call of Duty: Warzone recently nuked its map of the fictional Verdansk and sent all the players to the fittingly named Rebirth Island. This very public wiping of the slate shifts the concept of the video game remake into a new territory – one not driven by nostalgia or technology, but by the constant need for new content.
Some things don’t change. Players still define what the core of the game actually is. When Bungie released their 2021 content roadmap for their sci-fi shooter Destiny 2, they made sure to explicitly address some common complaints from faithful players of the original. Similarly, No Man’s Sky is a game that launched in a state that disappointed players on release, but has since been constantly iterated on to great acclaim, building a healthy player base. This endless remaking can be a sensitive balancing act, with loyal players unafraid to voice their displeasure when developers stray too far from the essence of the title.
Currently undertaking this delicate operation is Dead by Daylight, an online slasher game that pits one player, playing one of a variety of pointy weapon-wielding maniacs, against a group of other players, playing the blood-splattered survivors. Originally released in 2016, the game features character designs and environments that now look more than a little creaky. So, Dead by Daylight is being remade while still live – characters and stages are being completely remodelled with modern lighting effects and up-scaled textures delivered through regular updates.
Remakes are here to stay. Rumours of a The Last of Us remake (the original was released in 2013) is making waves, while Bluepoint’s next big project continues to be a heated topic of discussion around the internet (and a carrot dangled endlessly in front of increasingly desperate Silent Hill fans).
But maybe the future lies in demakes? In an industry obsessed with technological advances there’s something comforting in knowing that while we wait for an inevitable remake of Dark Souls, we now live in a world where we can play a ZX Spectrum version in its place.