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Rewind/Remake (B Side)

It's no wonder most genre fans have an involuntary twitch whenever they hear the word "remake." I don't need to go into examples - if you're reading this, I'm sure you're already thinking of one (or many) that utterly missed the original work's point, or was only tenuously connected, or veered into a more "test audience-friendly" direction. And yet there are legitimately beloved remakes that have largely supplanted their predecessors in popular consciousness: The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), Battlestar Galactica (2004), Westworld (2016)... If we include works that respond to, while also recreating, the originals, we can include things like Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1986)... although musical adaptations probably deserve their own category. 

With such unpredictable results, why do remakes happen? Setting aside the purely commercial reasons often trotted out as conversation-terminating cliches ("to make money" applies to all art produced under capitalism, whether it be original or repurposed), we can assume that a remake's creators saw an inherent quality in an original work they wanted to build on, which could mean better realizing unreached potential or simply a desire to return to a beloved setting - a concept Andy explored in last week's post. The former isn't necessarily out of pure artistic integrity and can be as simple as "a version in color with actors modern audiences will recognize." Remember the 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho? Probably not, and there's a reason for that. Additionally, works that present new adaptations of earlier source material, rather than building from an existing adaptation, would also fall in a different category: no one considers The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to be remakes, despite being preceded by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) and The Lord of the Rings (1978), respectively.

Effects-heavy genre films, at least, have understandable technical reasons to be remade: some ideas simply couldn't be well-presented at the time a work was originally created. Of course, some classics are considered such because of their lower-tech charm and artistry: Clash of the Titans (1981), for instance, was a swansong for legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, showcasing a master of the medium at the height of his skills. The 2010 version, on the other hand, features the same kind of CGI creatures as any other genre film of its era, and failed to stand out in any way. But when it does work (those examples I gave at the beginning), it can capture the imagination and take hold. High-concept genre works can also be remade in a way that keeps the central premise, but shuffles specifics like characterization, setting, and so on. Modern parlance refers to this as a "reimagining," rather than a true remake (Battlestar Galactica being the most prominent example), but the approach predates the term by decades, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) being one of the most celebrated examples.

Electronic games, though, have an additional motive for remakes: availability. Classic film and TV can be reissued in subsequent formats without major changes. (In the case of DVD and the advent of home widescreen, changes from the VHS era were undone, bringing films closer to their theatrical iterations). Games, though, are dependent on their hardware, and are locked away from new audiences with the next console generation, unless specific steps are taken to carry them over. Home machines are now sophisticated enough to emulate older machines, but they still look like older games, which may alienate newer audiences who aren't seeking nostalgia or historical verisimilitude. The seventh console generation (PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and Wii) saw the rise of the "remaster" with certain titles of the previous generation, presenting games mostly unchanged from their previous iteration, just on modern hardware and with higher quality graphics. But as assets and engines started to show their age, some publishers chose to rebuild everything from scratch: enter the video game remake. 

As with the "reboot" the concept is hardly new: one of this blog's most-cited games, Temple of Apshai Trilogy, was a 1985 remake of three older titles. Arcade classics, in particular, were frequently remade for home consoles far more powerful than the original games' designers could have ever dreamed. Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, Xevious, and even Frogger all had 3D remakes... and that's just on the PS1! This glut seems to have been short-lived, however, with indie games reviving 2D presentation and a growing interest in retrogaming through YouTube commentaries and the speedrunning/randomizing communities. And, as with their cinematic counterparts, a lot of the "feel" distinctive to these games came from choices made to accommodate their primitive technologies. Remakes that look and play like modern games can get lost amongst those titles and, being remakes, are limited in the changes they can make. To use a modern example, look at some of the response to recent remakes of Shadow of the Colossus and Demon's Souls. But, again, this isn't necessarily an approach doomed to failure, as evidenced by the massive popularity of Final Fantasy VII Remake, as mentioned above.

Another approach is the "enhanced remake," essentially keeping a game's original mechanics and perspective, but totally revamping the graphics and allowing for a wider range of playstyles. A good (and successful) example of this approach would be the 2008 title Bionic Commando Rearmed, which used the classic 2D platform approach of Bionic Commando from a decade earlier, but added a sense of depth to the visuals, as well as revamping features such as the health system and a wider range of interactable objects - all of which brought the game more in line with modern sensibilities while maintaining the "feel" of the original.

That's the approach I would like to see for my dream game remake, applied to the 1985 Commodore 64 classic Paradroid by Andrew Braybrook, who had previously made Uridium. Its premise is an inversion of the classic "body-jumping mental invader" sci-fi trope, where the player tries to stop a robotic uprising by jumping from one automaton to another and regain control of a rogue spacefleet. It's also incredibly addictive, with a blend of action and puzzle that keeps you going "just one more try..." late into the night. There have been a few attempts at remakes and homages, mostly unofficial ones done by fans, but the even most recent of these is over fifteen years old. With the recent popularity of games like Among Us, it's a perfect time to offer Paradroid's "Imposter" game play in a single-player format. Or maybe an update could offer cooperative multiplayer, with players working together to take down the mechanical menace. The main thing would be to keep the "top-down" perspective vital to the Paradroid experience. While seeing the individual robots simply as rounded shapes bearing model numbers was undoubtedly a concession to the technology of the time, it also conveyed the sense of working at a command system in a control room. Having said that, the images displayed of each robot model you see before attempting to hijack it could be redone and elaborated upon with descriptions of their function and personality. Smarter AI would also be welcome, with the enemy robots gradually becoming suspicious if you act outside the parameters of the model you're currently inhabiting and even summoning others to help when they conclude you're a threat. Add to that variable difficulty levels (something "crackers" offered in pirated versions of the game) and possibly even a level editor so users could build their own ships to befuddle their friends, and I think you'd have a hit suitable for any platform, including mobile ones. At the very least, it would allow me to play on something other than the Commodore emulator... not that I plan to stop doing that any time soon.

When thinking of a film I'd want to remake, despite the existence of many far more deserving candidates, the one title that keeps coming to mind is 2009's Pandorum, which I can only assume is as much related my love of the Ren and Stimpy episode "Space Madness" (the concept to which the term "Pandorum" means in the film) as it is to any of the movie's actual qualities. The story feels like a mashup of different scripts because that's exactly what it was: a colony "sleeper" ship that's deviated from its scheduled plan, breakdown and paranoia among the crew, the colonists themselves mutating and developing a new post-human  society (okay, that last one is unclear: they seem to be mindless monsters until... they're not?), all leading up to a pair of "twist endings" about the both the protagonists and their situation... it's all stuff that was in dozens of classic Doctor Who episodes - but maybe that's why I can't help but see potential in it. I particularly like the idea of the "above/below" structure of the ship's crew trying to hold onto the familiar, structured lives of rules and order (while undermining and subverting that structure to their own gain) alongside the colonists themselves adapting to their new situation and building a new society apart from the humanity they left back on Earth. Maybe something like I'm describing would be an entirely different movie... so let's call it a "reimagining."

No matter how we think of them, remakes have always been a part of the media landscape and always will be. And, like anything else, good ones are generally remembered (or, eventually, re-discovered) and lesser ones sink to the bottom of collective consciousness, utterly eclipsed by their predecessors. But it's always a good mental exercise for creators: how would you do it differently, if you could? This can be a good starting point when you're having trouble building something from scratch. And, if you do choose to develop past that point, it will become much more "your own" after all the specifics of your situation and goal are applied. Plus, if you're working from something you know they like, it's a good way to reach new and prospective audiences. Give credit where it's due, and drop the phrase "inspired by" whenever necessary. We all yearn for both the safety of the familiar and the excitement of the new - it's the conflict that drives us as creators and audiences.

And, finally, there's the "next-generation sequel" approach, which brings in many of the qualities of a remake without undoing the previous work.... but that's a discussion for another time.

- B

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