Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

The best video game remakes reinvent the classics, they don’t just revisit them

The video game industry has remake fever. While the idea of redoing a classic game is nothing new (see something as old as 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars), we’re currently experiencing a wave of remakes as developers revisit some of the best games of the 2000s and beyond. Last year we got The Last of Us Part I and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy Reunion, while 2023 will see games like Resident Evil 4 getting a full redo hot on the heels of Dead Space. Like a Dragon: Ishin, Advance Wars 1+2: Re-boot Camp, Silent Hill 2, System Shock … the list seemingly grows with every passing month.

With so many remakes filling up 2023’s game release calendar, I find myself asking a simple question: Why? That’s not a cynical question directed at the overall concept of remakes, but rather one that’s worth asking on an individual project level. Why is 2023 the right moment to reboot a series? What will this remake do to deepen my understanding of the original game? Are more modern graphics enough to justify a retread into a 15-year-old game that still plays well by today’s standards, or would that time and money have been better spent moving forward?

Related Videos

With studios taking entirely different approaches to their remakes, the answers to those questions can vary from game to game. There’s no singular formula to determine what games could benefit from a second life, but recent projects show us the difference between something that’s additive to its source material and something that’s simply a fun nostalgia trip. There’s no shame in the latter, but games like Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part I show us that revisits can provide so much more than a technical makeover.

Why now?

I began going down the remake rabbit hole while playing Dead Space, EA’s new reimagining of the 2008 horror classic. In my review, I struggled to find what the project offered that I didn’t get out of my first trip to the USG Ishimura. The original Dead Space still holds up remarkably well from a gameplay perspective and its visuals, while dated, are perfectly legible by today’s standards. I had as much fun as anyone stomping necromorph heads in, but I walked away feeling like I’d consumed a product rather than engaged with something deeper.

The 2023 version of Dead Space does bring some notable upgrades to the table. It’s a technical spectacle, it fixes the original’s very dated zero-gravity sections, and its unique content warning system feels truly innovative. But even with newly recorded dialogue, I didn’t get the sense that the remake was interested in pulling more from the original. When speaking to the team behind it back in September 2022, I asked if they felt there was any significance to gaming’s current sci-fi horror wave, noting that horror historically functions as a commentary on social issues. The developers weren’t sure themselves, noting that their approach simply came from “being fans of Dead Space.”

Issac Clarke exploring ruins in Dead Space Remake.

That stands in contrast to Sony’s controversial The Last of Us remake. Though the project largely felt like a way to squeeze more money out of PlayStation’s most acclaimed IP, there were some undeniably strong reasons to return to the game in 2022. Its story resonated differently both in the context of its sequel and an actual pandemic. Though virtually no dialogue was changed for Part I, I still saw existing story beats in a new light due to the timing. HBO’s live adaptation of the series was right around the corner too, giving newcomers an easy way to catch up on the games without jumping through hoops. The technical parity between both games made sure that the two parts seamlessly weaved into one another as well.

We more recently saw Square Enix take a similar approach with Crisis Core: Final Fantasy Reunion. The PSP remake aimed to connect Zack Fair’s story to the world of Final Fantasy VII Remake by giving it a visual boost to match. While that was largely successful, especially as it made a fairly difficult-to-find game playable again, it did leave me asking some questions at the time as Remake tells a radically different story than the original Final Fantasy VII. The new version of Crisis Core links to the latter, but not so much the former.

Even when the goal is simply to bring a dated game up to speed, there’s an art to naturally stitching together experiences separated by decades.

Keeping above the plateau

The most common flavor of game remake focuses on the idea of making an old experience feel modern again. The genius of 2018’s Shadow of the Colossus is that it takes a celebrated PS2 game that hasn’t aged well and makes it look and feel new again with much-needed tech improvements. That allows it to stay faithful to the original, keeping the emotional response of playing it in 2005 consistent with today. We saw an even more drastic version of that this year with Colossal Cave, which transformed an influential text adventure into the fully 3D experience that players perhaps visualized while playing the original.

A colossus with a club.

Dead Space takes a similar approach, though the jump in quality doesn’t quite feel as pronounced due to a technology plateau that began around the Xbox 360 era. That’s something that creators are going to butt up against more and more in the coming decades, as canon games better stand the test of time.

For instance, there are currently rumors floating around that Sony plans to remaster or remake 2016’s Horizon Zero Dawn in some form. While that’s a questionable insider scoop at the moment, the idea of such a project does expose how difficult it’ll be for publishers to justify expensive double dips for games that don’t really need the shine. Despite being a generation old and lacking quality of life improvements present in Horizon Forbidden West, it’s hard to imagine a new version of Zero Dawn radically changing or adding to the experience.

If remakes are going to continue being part of the industry’s bag of profitable tricks, studios may want to seek new ways to justify revisiting relatively modern games. To its credit, Sony had a unique approach to that idea with The Last of Us Part I. The PS5 remake is loaded with best-in-class accessibility features, ensuring that more players than ever could experience its story. That approach alone justified the project’s existence, even if it wasn’t a reason for all players to pick it up. It exists as an important cultural preservation project, keeping a key part of gaming canon accessible to as many players as possible.

A white arrow shows Joel where to go in The Last of Us Part I.

A truly great remake can reach those heights, introducing new players to a game rather than just serving existing fans. Accessibility considerations are a key way to accomplish that, but there’s another creative entry point that has largely gone untapped in gaming to this point: the retelling.

Retelling vs. remake

There’s a nuanced difference between remaking and retelling. In a medium like film, it’s common to build on the bones of a preexisting story rather than refilm another shot for shot. Doing so allows writers to recontextualize classic tales, finding a universal truth that still applies to the modern world. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio doesn’t just copy the fairy tale beat for beat; it offers a searing commentary on how fascism rises to power by taking Pinnochio’s unquestioned commitment to authority to a logical extreme as he’s transformed into a soldier whose trained not to ask questions. Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man transforms a pulp horror classic into a contemporary story about gaslighting.

In both examples, old stories are transformed into something new. Artists find contemporary threads and pull at them to bring new depth to old work. That practice helps classic stories from getting lost in obscurity, keeping them part of an ongoing conversation.

Final Fantasy VII Remake Cloud

So far in the medium’s short life span, the gaming industry has proven not to be too interested in examining its stories in that vein, opting for HD remasters or straight remakes instead — though there’s one notable exception. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a true retelling of the original PS1 game, using its general structure and characters to tread new thematic territory. Rather than hit all of the same story beats, it serves as a meta-commentary about the hubris of trying to remake something as beloved as FF7. It takes that pressure and uses it to create a story about testing destiny, as its heroes literally fight to break out of a fate predetermined in 1997. That story gives players a new understanding of the original rather than repeating a story they know inside and out.

Though Final Fantasy VII Remake is the closest video games have come to matching how other mediums handle “remakes,” its polarizing reception might explain why developers aren’t too eager to reimagine older games in that way. FF7R garnered critical praise, but it also had its fair share of naysayers in the form of protective fans who expected a scene-for-scene remake — something Square Enix does plan to accomplish via Final Fantasy VII: Ever Crisis.

If the video game industry is going to explore a more radical approach to remakes, it’s going to require that players be less precious about their favorites (a tall task in a time where an “All Genders” bathroom sign in Dead Space’s remake triggered a tantrum). We have to allow developers creative room to break classic game stories apart and re-examine them through a modern lens. Stories are meant to be retold, not just passed down, bringing new interpretations to classic texts.

And if you don’t like that approach, you can always play the original.

Editors' Recommendations

PlayStation VR2’s best launch game isn’t the one you we’re expecting
fantavision 202x impressions hands on psvr2 outer space fireworks

With the PlayStation VR2 out now, all eyes are on Horizon Call of the Mountain. The action-adventure title is Sony’s first big exclusive for the platform, acting as its tentpole launch title. While it’s a must-buy for anyone picking up the device on day one, it's more successful as a strong technical showcase for the headset rather than as a fun game that stands on its own. If you’re looking for the latter, you’ll want to check out PSVR2’s real hidden weapon: Fantavision 202X.

『FANTAVISION 202X』 - ゲームプレイトレーラー

Read more
PlayStation Plus just set a new first-party precedent with Horizon Forbidden West
Horizon: Forbidden West

Sony revealed the games coming to PlayStation Plus Premium and PlayStation Plus Extra this month on February 21, and it's the best month that the service has had since it launched in the summer of 2022. Not only are some great PS1 classics like The Legend of Dragoon and Wild Arms 2 coming to the service, but Horizon Forbbiden West is getting added as well.
Horizon Forbidden West coming to the service one year after launch is a big deal because Sony has been resistant to putting recent first-party PS5 games on its subscription service. While it's still not adding first-party titles on day one like Xbox Game Pass does, this is possibly our first indication of how Sony will handle adding its own games to the subscription. It's not the only PS4 and PS5 title coming to the service this month either, as the following strong lineup of games was also confirmed to be coming on February 21.

The Quarry (PS4, PS5)
Resident Evil VII Biohazard (PS4)
Outriders (PS4, PS5)
Scarlet Nexus (PS4, PS5)
Borderlands 3 (PS4, PS5) 
Tekken 7 (PS4, PS5)
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4)
Earth Defense Force 5 (PS4)
Oninaki (PS4)
Lost Sphear (PS4)
I Am Setsuna (PS4) 
The Forgotten City (PS4, PS5) 
Destroy All Humans! (PS4)

Read more
With Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, Netflix finds its video game voice
The playable characters of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home all standing together.

As we are in the earliest stages of Netflix’s foray into the games, the company is still trying to discover what a “Netflix game” really feels like. We’ve seen ports of fun console beat ’em ups and enjoyable puzzle games, but I don't feel that those really define the platform’s emerging identity. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, on the other hand, does. A sequel to a 2014 narrative adventure game set during World War I, it's a thoughtful and emotional journey that naturally reflects some of the film and TV content available on Netflix.
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home | Official Teaser Trailer | Netflix
It’s both highly educational and a solid sequel to one of Ubisoft’s most underrated games. Like Before Your Eyes, narrative is a clear priority, as is the distinct visual style that would work even if this was a traditional animated show. Netflix is known for evolving prestige TV and defining what storytelling in a streaming-focused series could be, so it would benefit from giving its exclusive games a similar focus. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home might not be a perfect game, but it’s a solid example of what a premier Netflix game could look like in the future.
War stories
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, like its predecessor Valiant Hearts: The Great War, is a narrative-focused adventure game that hops between several stories from soldiers (and a medic) who served during World War I. Familiarity with the first game is helpful, as some characters reappear, but not necessary as the sequel tells a new story mainly focused on the Harlem Hellfighters, a group that fought with the French after the U.S. joined the conflict. It’s a story about the horrors of war and the family and friendships that wither through it all that focuses more on human stories rather than the bloody combat that games typically like to highlight. 
While its story doesn’t feel quite as intertwined as The Great War’s, Coming Home is still enlightening, shining light on parts of the war that aren’t typically covered in your standard history class. I’d even recommend it as a good entry point for kids learning about World War I, especially because the game features plenty of collectible objects and facts that allow players to learn more about the battle. Like the best content on Netflix, it’s a creatively rich and additive experience.
It does all that with a minimalist style, as its characters speak in pantomime, only saying a word or two as a narrator eventually cuts in to fill in narrative blanks or give context on the state of the war. While it might seem disrespectful to represent such a brutal war in a cartoonish manner, the horrific moments stand out all the more clearly as a result. One particularly memorable set piece doesn’t contain any dialogue. It has the player walking across the bottom of the sea as you see bodies and ships from the Battle of Jutland sink to the seafloor. It’s equally awe-inspiring and horrifying, bolstered by Coming Home’s distinct visual style.

The gorgeous 2D art is colorful, looks hand-drawn, and almost feels kid-friendly despite how grave the subject matter it’s portraying is. Netflix is home to some great animation, so it would also make sense for that artistry to apply to its games. On the gameplay front, Coming Home is comparatively simple. Players use touch controls to easily walk around, climb, and interact with objects throughout the game to solve simple puzzles. Occasionally, some minigames with unique mechanics, like treating and patching up soldiers’ wounds, spice up the game. It is approachable in design and never particularly complicated, but that also means the gameplay never gets in the way of its storytelling and art.
The biggest downside to is that it’s regularly interrupted by loading screens. Even though they were very brief on my Google Pixel 7XL, they dampened some scenes’ artistic and emotional flow.
What makes a Netflix game? 
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a beautiful narrative-focused game that feelsat home on Netflix. It demonstrates how titles with compelling stories can be just as engaging on a phone as they are on PC and consoles. That mentality is a perfect match for a platform that made a name for itself mostly through serialized, story-driven TV shows and movies, and now also offers games with strong stories like Desta: The Memories Between, Before Your Eyes, and Immortality. 

Read more