Ask an alien to figure out what Earth year it is based solely on the last 12 months of Activision games, and they'd probably need to go and have a lie down. We've had a sequel to 1998's Crash Bandicoot: Warped, a remake of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 (1999 and 2000 respectively), and a reboot of the 2007 shooter, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. To use the phrase "blast from the past" would be both cliched and understated.
Ever since the immense success of the Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy, Activision has made a habit out of putting the defibrillator to dormant franchises, just to see what happens. The Spyro Reignited Trilogy quickly followed Crash's comeback in 2018, for instance, before Beenox's remake of Crash Team Racing landed on store shelves the following year.
We've even got a direct sequel to the original Call of Duty: Black Ops game coming this November, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, which is very much being pitched as a return to the roots of a franchise that Treyarch created almost a decade ago.
A cynic would tell you that Activision is being exploitative, riding on the coattails of its audience's nostalgia for the games of their childhood, rather than coming up with new IPs for the next generation of players. This is the publisher that has accrued much of its income from annualised releases of the same franchise for the last 17 years, after all.
And there is truth to that. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has said as much, recently stating the "enduring nature" of legacy IPs has had "a big impact on [its] bottom line", subsequently expressing an enthusiastic commitment to more remakes and remasters from the publisher's portfolio. These types of experiences make money, basically, so of course a for-profit conglomerate is going to keep rolling them out.
But in the same investor call, Kotick also spoke of the "opportunity to innovate and think about totally new content within these IPs", reflecting an important distinction between Activision's approach to franchise revival, and the sea of half-hearted video game resurrections that have proliferated over the course of this generation. In fact, I'd argue that the publisher's recent pivot towards the past has inspired its roster of developers to create their best games in years.
Let's take the example of Crash Bandicoot. For almost a decade after the release of Mind over Mutant, Activision left the property firmly shelved, with the exception of a handful of mobile ports here and there. Poor sales suggested the games industry had moved on, and the decision to fund the development of another Crash Bandicoot game likely wouldn't have been a viable one.
A slow groundswell of fan support, however, eventually led to Activision parenting up with PlayStation to rebuild Naughty Dog's original trilogy from the bottom up, led under the development of Vicarious Visions. Pitched as the classic Crash Bandicoot experience fans knew and loved, the trilogy sold more than ten million units in just over 18 months, staying at the top of UK games charts for eight consecutive weeks.
Its overwhelming success signalled two clear messages: a) that the audience of gamers who grew up playing the games that defined the early PlayStation era are very much still here, and b) that those same players would show up en-masse if the return of these franchises were treated with the proper care and respect they deserved.
Since then, Activision's support for its developers working with established IPs, from Toys for Bob to Beenox, has been one characterised by all-in investment, encouraging teams to modernise the franchise where needed, while simultaneously upholding a high standard of care for their heritage. Whereas other publishers, like THQ Nordic and EA, have brought back dozens of old titles that just about meet the baseline criteria of a re-release, Activision has yet to throw out one stinker in this relatively new push for full franchise revivals.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare wasn't a creatively bankrupt retreading of old territory, but an opportunity for Infinity Ward to think critically about the franchise that put it on the cultural map, with a mix of old faces and fresh blood creating one of the best campaigns the series has had to date. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 wasn't just an apology for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, but a genuinely forward-thinking remake that implemented a host of vital tweaks to the most refined THPS experience yet.
As for Crash 4, Toys for Bob's sequel is a ridiculously ambitious platformer emboldened by the mandate of N.Sane Trilogy's success, and a worthy follow-up to Naughty Dog's original trilogy. The diversity of that portfolio also reflects another welcome byproduct of its new publishing pattern: it's no longer just the Call of Duty company. After its split from Bungie last year, many were left wondering how Activision would fill the gap in its portfolio left by Destiny 2 – the rich annals of history, it seems, has already answered the question for us.
I don't think this is the end of Activision's flirtations with the past, even as we head into the next generation of interactive entertainment. Expect to see more canonical sequels to age-old games, more remasters (this year's Modern Warfare 2 remaster marked one of the most impressive graphical upscalings in recent memory), remakes, and soft reboots.
You're welcome to remain skeptical; Activision's history doesn't exactly offer up the most flattering insight into its corporate politics. But it's hard to deny that the publisher is currently leading the way when it comes to bringing the past back into the contemporary spotlight. Further still, in doing so, the house of Call of Duty has never felt more relevant.