Remastering a video game is a tricky thing. On the one hand, you want to preserve what made the experience so memorable in the first place. There’s usually a reason why you want to remaster a game, after all. But — and this is especially true of games that were originally released decades ago — you also want to ensure that the experience is still palatable to modern audiences. Many struggle to get either of those aspects right; very few nail both. Today sees the launch of multiple game remasters that manage to pull off this careful balancing act: Full Throttle, Wonder Boy, and The Disney Afternoon Collection. Each goes about things in slightly different ways, but they have at least one thing in common — a sense of reverence for the source material.
Perhaps the most prominent release of the trio is The Disney Afternoon Collection, which bundles together six NES-era Capcom games based on ‘90s Disney cartoons DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck. The experience of playing the collection is actually a lot like using an NES Classic Edition. The games still feature the same pixelated 8-bit visuals you remember, but they’ve been cleaned up to look bright and crisp on a modern TV. Much like on Nintendo’s diminutive retro console, you also have a handful of basic visual customization options at your disposal; you can play the games in their original format, for instance, or enlarge them to fit a modern widescreen display.
The games not only look like they used to, they play exactly the same as well. But one of the things that can make NES games hard to play now is that they’re, well, really hard. This is definitely true of the titles in the Afternoon Collection — it took me a few hours before I managed to even get past the first stage in Rescue Rangers. There are a lot of reasons for this. Older games often explain very little, forcing players to learn on their own, and they employ now-dated tools like limited lives. But the Afternoon Collection gets around all of this with the addition of a single button that lets you rewind a game at any point.
The great thing about this feature is you can completely ignore it — if you want to play these games the way you did 30 years ago, you still can. But for new players, or those whose skills have waned in the ensuing years, the rewind option lets them still enjoy the game without the frustration of dying repeatedly. It’s especially useful when you make a dumb mistake or just ran out of lives, as you can immediately skip back in time. It’s a seemingly simple addition that completely changes the experience — and opens it up to a whole new audience, one without the patience required to play these games in their original form.
The Disney Afternoon Collection is a well-done package that offers the games the way they were, while enhancing the experience with features like the rewind button. Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, on the other hand, goes in a slightly different direction. Whereas the Disney collection offers classic games in all of their retro 8-bit glory, Wonder Boy — based on the more obscure cult hit Wonder Boy III: The Dragon Trap from 1989 — has been updated with lavish, hand-drawn graphics and a wonderfully whimsical new soundtrack.
The game plays sort of like a cross between Metroid and Mega-Man, and the new version looks like an animated TV show, which is a great fit; Wonder Boy always had something of a Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, with enemies that include robotic and zombified dragons. The game plays exactly as it did 28 years ago — with the very welcome addition of a new female character you can opt to play as — but the updated visual style makes it feel surprisingly modern. (The Dragon’s Trap also has two dedicated buttons that let you immediately swap back to the original retro visuals and music whenever you want, much like in the Halo remakes.)
The new art in Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap compared to the original 8-bit style.
The process of remastering a game may seem relatively simple, especially compared to creating a brand-new game, but there’s a lot of effort that goes into these releases. And much of it is fueled by passion. In the case of Wonder Boy, Lizardcube had to first go through the complicated process of acquiring the rights to the game from Sega, before teaming up with creator Ryuichi Nishizawa to create the new version, while also going through the painstaking process of reverse-engineering the original.
Both Disney and Wonder Boy — as well as Double Fine’s remaster of 1995 adventure game Full Throttle, which also launches today — also feature a wealth of supplemental, often behind-the-scenes material. You can pore over original concept art, storyboards, and advertisements, and read stories about Disney and Capcom exchanging ideas over fax. During the time these games were originally developed, few creators were concerned about preservation, which makes the materials included here a rare and useful glimpse at the context outside of the games themselves.
According to Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, who also designed and co-wrote Full Throttle at LucasArts, part of the remastering process involved some detective work. The team had to track down the original uncompressed audio recordings and search through boxes at the Skywalker Ranch looking for old hard drives and master tapes. It was a time-consuming process, one that Schafer and the original development team were uniquely suited for. “Other people could have remastered these games,” he says, “but we’re the only ones who know where all of the bodies are buried.”
The attention to detail put into these remasters shows when you play them — you can tell they were made by people who cared about the original releases. There are a multitude of slapdash ports of classic games and bare-bones remasters that offer little more than an HD upgrade, but these collections and remasters are different. Virtually every aspect feels well thought-out, whether it’s the tightly replicated controls of Disney Afternoon Collection, the beautiful new art in Wonder Boy, or the crystal clear new voice work in Full Throttle. And those changes and upgrades are important. They not only preserve what made these games great in the first place — they also help ensure people will still be playing them in the future.