What is the difference between a video game remaster and a remake?

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Over the last several years, gaming companies have found that bringing back classic games that people love can be very profitable for them. In some cases, these games are brought back with completely revamped controls, story, etc. They can be an entirely new experience or remain faithful to the original material. Regardless, these “remakes” and “remasters” have proven to sell very well and make fans of the originals happy while introducing newcomers to popular games. What is the difference between the two, though? We see the words remake and remaster thrown around a lot. Let’s lay down a solid line to tell which is which.

A remaster is when a development studio upgrades the cosmetics of the game. For example, many games released on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have received remasters on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. All of these games received better graphics on the more powerful consoles, but the experience between the two ports remained the same. Examples of this include The Last of Us Remastered, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, and Dark Souls Remastered. Each one of these games can be played on the previous consoles, and while there may be a couple of small tweaks to gameplay, the most significant changes lie graphically.

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A remake is when a company puts more work into upgrading the overall experience. The visuals (and possibly audio) can get a big leap forward into the current day, but these games require a developer to look at other areas of the game to improve. The easiest way to explain this is to bring up the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy. When making that game collection, the developers did not have the assets of the originals at their disposal. It was created solely for the original PlayStation console. Everything in the game was 100 percent made by their hands. The environment, the physics, and more were made specifically to be run on current hardware. When it was made, moves from other Crash games were included in areas you would not see them in the original. The overall experience was upgraded.

The recently announced Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 would also be considered a remake of the original game releases. According to Vicarious Visions, the game will have “a vast majority” of the original soundtracks, plus upgraded visuals. If the work had stopped at that point, it would be considered a remaster. The same experience you would get in the originals would be playable on newer consoles.

However, when you consider that not only are all the original moves from the games returning, but they’re also adding in moves from other entries, you can tell they looked at fully upgrading every aspect of the game. They used the code from the original games to make a foundation for the layout of the maps and did what was needed to modernize it. The geometry has been completely matched with the original games, so nothing feels out of place or out of time. They had the framework for what they were building, but everything included has been built on top of to make it brand new and made from scratch. This is not a situation where they took those assets and prettied them up.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is the clearest example of a remake. In that case, the only assets that remained the same are the characters present in the story. Gameplay was ultimately changed to an action RPG, new story points were added, and the layout of the map was changed. You could forgive someone not familiar with the situation for thinking it was a completely different game.

The recent Resident Evil remakes have been another beloved revitalization of older games. What used to have asymmetric camera angles and tank controls was changed to a third-person over-the-shoulder camera with more action elements. Resident Evil had a history of games like this from Resident Evil 4, 5, 6, and some spin-off titles, but Capcom still had to completely rebuild the worlds of Resident Evil 2 and 3 to make them playable in these ways. However, these are not the first examples of Resident Evil being remade. The first game in the series was remade for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002, and that remake received a remaster on current hardware, as did many other games in the series.

While remasters do not take the same amount of work to be made, that does not mean they are an easy cash grab for a company. Of course, there are examples where a game did not need to be brought back. Examples include Burnout Paradise Remastered, Assassins Creed III Remastered, and God of War III Remastered. These are all good games, but people were not necessarily clamoring for these exact games to be brought back, as of now.

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Remasters, funnily enough, have been around for a while, although the term had not been made popular until the 2010s. Nintendo is well known for re-releasing older games on newer consoles. Super Mario All-Stars on the Super Nintendo was the first example of this; it remastered Super Mario Bros 3 on the new hardware. The Gameboy Advance also had multiple remasters of 2D Mario games. The 3DS saw 3D remasters of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The Wii U got Wind Waker HD. While most companies adopted the idea of bringing back old games in the last several years, Nintendo had been doing so for decades.

Remakes and remasters can be quite divisive among some in the gaming community. Some applaud developers and publishers for bringing back their childhood favorites (Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon). Others criticize them for doing the bare minimum and not delivering the right title being brought back (Burnout Paradise). Whatever side of the argument you come out on, remakes and remasters appear to be here to stay in a prominent role for the future.