A Tale of Two Revivals

Lately Capcom has been one of the best all around publishers in the business. Their games have mostly been of high quality, and time and again they prove that they listen to and want to please their fanbase. The strange twist to all of this is that Capcom is legendary for relying on sequels and familiar franchises, yet two of their recent success stories have come from sequels (of sorts) to two of their oldest franchises, both of which were deemed risks. I am referring of course to Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Mega Man 9. These games are two different takes on the retro revival, and each demonstrate the successes and difficulties that can arise when trying to sell them. Is one better than the other, and which is more likely to be imitated in the future? Let’s break them down and take a look.

Bionic Commando: Rearmed
Rearmed is what you might call the more “traditional” approach, and unlike Mega Man 9, is an actual remake. It takes the cult classic NES version of Bionic Commando and brings it into the 21st century through careful and deliberate changes. Rearmed keeps the level layouts and swinging controls intact, and uses the old soundtrack as the foundation for new techno beats. At the same time, it adds new weapons, bosses and enemies, AI tweaks, and a beefier story. The entire package is dipped in lush HD graphics that perfectly convey the look and feel of the original. The result is a “new” version that plays like it did 20 years ago, with some modern tweaks that enhance without altering. There are also a few new modes and features that can be enjoyed or ignored in favor of the main game (I don’t suggest you do this).

Why it works: The original BC is a classic that is still highly playable today, but that doesn’t mean it is without its faults. Like any older game, technology limitations of the time period cause some design choices to become outdated. For instance, no one wants to have to keep track of which communication receiver to bring into a level, so Rearmed eliminates the choice. When the old team managed to capture lightning in a bottle, like they did with the swinging controls, nothing is tampered with. Rearmed is a perfect melding between old and new, recognizing the benefits of modern hardware as well as the ingenuity of classic 2d games.

Challenges: If Rearmed “gets” how to remake an old game, it is only because the people behind it “got” it. The developers over at Grin and the Capcom staff that helped them are clearly Bionic Commando fanatics. They know the original game inside and out, right down to the differences between the western and Japanese versions. This knowledge comes from passion, and that same passion is what let them make this game with painstaking care and detail. It will require both talent and love for more games to follow in Rearmed’s footsteps. As much as I rail on so many games, I actually have faith in many developers, and believe that even some of the most troubled games come from people who have both these qualities. The problem stems from the fact that they do not get the time and resources to make the game as they would like. This is where Rearmed got lucky: the game essentially exists because Capcom Japan was uninterested in western developed games, allowing the team to avoid a lot of tradition and red tape. Not all games are developed under such fortunate circumstances, where a team can make what they want without being under someone’s thumb constantly.

Mega Man 9
MM9 is a not a remake, but an official sequel. It just so happens to be one that is deliberately retro. Everything about the game is designed to behave like it would have on the NES. Old sprite graphics, chiptunes, wacky story and graphical slowdown are all deliberate and well executed features. It is a modern day companion to Mega Man 2 and 3, and it plays like a dream.

Why it works: Capcom had years of crappy Mega Man games to look back on, as well as a few of the NES games that people still hold in high regard. This allowed the developers to see what did and didn’t work. Their conclusion seems to mirror that of the fans: Mega Man 2 and 3 are timeless NES games. They still provide a fun and challenging experience, and their music and art design are so good that will still please your eyes and ears. By eschewing fancy sprites and controls and making a game that follows in their footsteps, the developers could make a game that is high quality regardless of its age. Also, due to its size and simplicity, a game like MM9 is a perfect candidate for download services.

Challenges: Like Rearmed, MM9 was the result of a very special group of people. Developer InitCreates has not only been in charge of many recent Mega Man games, but some employees also worked on the series back in the 80’s. They have first hand experience with the franchise roots, roots that originated in an era where developers used pseudonyms, so the identities of important people behind most classic games became lost to time. Getting so many developers with NES era experience is not simple. There is also the fact that making this kind of game is harder than it seems. When you write software, you always want to make it as fast and efficient as possible, and games are no exception. Having to deliberately hold back is no easy task. Thus while the costs are lower, they aren’t dirt cheap either.

Which approach is better?
It sounds like a copout, but neither of these strategies is guaranteed to work better than the other. Rather, each is more effective for different situations. The Rearmed approach works when you need the extra bit of spit shine to make an old game stand out in today’s crowd. A game like MM9 should only be made to commemorate those sterling members of the 2d pantheon, where modern design may actually be detrimental to the experience.

Will we see more?
Most people who play these two games are likely to be from the older generation of gamers. These folks would certainly like to see more games in this vein. The question is whether we actually will. Both our examples sold well among this demographic, and Rearmed also drew in some new fans, but no matter what coat of paint you put on a retro revival, the retro is still going to be there. No matter how inane they will sound, newer gamers will pounce on this fact.

We saw it with Rearmed and its lack of a jump button, and MM9 was called punishingly hard in most reviews (I found it to be on par with 3). Whether it be their lack of experience or lack of appreciation for classic game design, they simply do not have a desire to go back in time to gaming’s infancy. They want new and improved, with online co-op standard (even if the original was a single player game). To make these changes is to miss the point of the revival, but if they fail to, they will fail to appeal to a massive chunk of the market. That means your game better be of the highest quality. The retro enthusiasts won’t spend their hard earned, adult money on a piece of crap, no matter how powerful nostalgia may be.

That being said, there are and will continue to be other good retro revivals from others such as Konami and Taito – titles like Space Invaders Extreme and Galaga Legions have been very well received. It seems that the fate of this specialty market will depend on how much longer the IP owners decide to take these franchises out of the dumping grounds and into the spotlight. If sales continue as they have been, that might be a very long time. Or it might just be a fad. The only thing we can do is vote with our wallet, and beg companies like Capcom to keep listening and taking risks, so that we may reward them for it. Their decisions may seem crazy from a business standpoint, but we appreciate them all the more because of that.

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15 years ago

I must say I am partial to the MM9 version of revival. Reading reviews of it almost prompted me to write an article on how rating graphics makes almost no sense. In most cases graphics can be equated with art design, and MM9 is a very strong example of this. It’s fine to say you don’t like the design but to call the graphics bad is meaningless. The game looks exactly how the designers wanted it to look and if you take the position that it has bad graphics to its ultimate conclusion, then there is a perfect way for a game to look (I’d assume photorealistic). Once you remove artists intent from graphics you are saying there is one right way for all games to look.

Sorry for the tangent. I hope to see more retro games like these. Does anyone else find it disturbing that they are as much fun to play as new games? Though it’s not very surprising, since I do not believe technology equals progress when it comes to art.

15 years ago

First, I’d like to jump in and say that replacing “graphics” with “art design” is a fantastic idea. This is essentially what has happened with “sound”, particularly since the introduction of 16-bit digitized audio. Unless a technical limitation is perceived as hurting the game — or there are glitches/bugs — it’s become more a rating on how well the sound was produced to augment the game, rather than a commentary on the bit-rate of sampling.

That being said, while I can personally prefer the graphics of MM9 based on their retro-nostalgic appeal and validation of my childhood, I’m not sure we could say that the BC treatment is in any way inferior just because it’s more modern.