I’ve been a bit spoilt recently. Two of my all-time favourite games have received remastered iOS conversions, one via a free update and the other for a Tier 1-tastic 69p. I am talking, of course, about Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Tomb Raider I (as reported by CVG News (opens in new tab)). But there’s a but.
Why would I be sad about having two of my favourite games made better and then tucked neatly into my pocket so I can play them wherever I go? Well, it’s the enhancements that have given me a cause for consternation.
For starters, both games add in extra content that wasn’t in their original iterations. Tomb Raider gets two new levels that were always intended to be in the game but had to be added in a re-release in 1998 (apparently solving the mystery of that damn cat statue—how many hours did I waste in 1997 trying to work that one out?).
And then, of course, there’s the now-infamous Hidden Palace Zone from Sonic 2, lovingly restored to full working order. It was actually present in the ROM of the original retail game, only with most of its graphics and collision detection stripped out and its presence only visible if you had a cheat cartridge. The iOS/Android remaster contains a new, official version of Hidden Palace Zone, which turned the old garbled mess…
…into a playable level.
Awesome, right? Well, yes. But it removes a mystery fans have been poring over for more than 20 years. Suddenly, it’s no longer a mystery. Yes, we get to play the level, but it’s just another level. It isn't particularly pretty, nor does it visibly give Sonic the ability to become Super Sonic. So now we don't have to wonder any more, which takes away some of the fun.
And that sweeping removal of all imagination is exactly how I feel about the remastered Tomb Raider. The iTunes description proudly states “We’ve not messed about with it, so it’s the full, unedited, unadulterated experience”. Unedited, eh? Well, I beg to differ. The new textures are gorgeous, yes. But there’s something lost in the translation. Remember these skulls in the original?
Crude textures that I assumed were there to give the impression that this shrine’s walls are adorned with human remains. OK, now here’s the same spot in the new remastered version:
Oh. They’re not actual skulls at all. Closer inspection reveals they’re carvings in the wall. Now, call me pernickety, but this is not simply an up-rezzed texture. It’s a new texture, with grey wall clearly visible between the skulls. And it gives the environment a completely different feel. It's not as scary, for starters. To be honest, I feel a bit robbed.
And that’s the thing with imagination, isn’t it? Tomb Raider has maintained its aura of mystery and awe because it has always been so crude. When your mind is having to fill in the blanks, it can make such workmanlike 3D wonderful. You willingly make the leap because you’re totally absorbed in what it’s trying to do. It’s not the same when everything is pixel-perfect and you can see exactly what the artist intended and all interpretation is removed.
How would the art world feel if Da Vinci’s notes for the Mona Lisa were discovered and it turned out it was in fact a playful self-portrait after all, which explained that enigmatic smile? The mystery would be gone. Wouldn't everyone feel just a little bit robbed?
That’s how I feel about these remasters. I love the conversions’ technical prowess: The frame-rates, the new save systems, the removal of all graphical compromises. But sometimes the rough original can't be beaten. Like Jimi Hendrix’s wholly imperfect take of The Wind Cries Mary that he taught the band and recorded in a spare 20 minutes that ended up being the one used for the record, sometimes a slicker version is actually inferior.
In fact, continuing the Hendrix analogy, what if a recording surfaced of The Story of Life (the song Jimi was writing the night he died)? Nobody's ever heard it as we only have the words. Maybe it's better that way. I don't think I could deal with hearing a pin-sharp recording that just set it to the 12-bar blues. That's what this Tomb Raider conversion feels like to me. So even though part of me is overjoyed my favourite old games are back and better than ever, I still think maybe some things should just be left alone.