Ah, the HD collection. One of the new traditions the current generation of hardware has wrought. Prior, in days marked by the fuzzy, high-pitched glare of the cathode ray tube, resolution wasn’t such a concern, and games were not made with the understanding that five, ten, or twenty years down the line they might be plugged into a television on which their every pixel or polygon was blown up into a jagged, blocky distraction.
Once developers realized that, though, they certainly moved fast.
I don’t remember what the absolute first HD collection was anymore, but I do remember the God of War Collection being among them. It included the first two games in the series, both of which had been released fairly late into the PlayStation 2’s lifespan. Given that the PlayStation 3, past its initial shipments, was no longer backwards compatible with that earlier console and Sony was putting a lot of marketing weight behind the upcoming third entry in Kratos’ saga, a rerelease of the titles in a format PlayStation neophytes could more readily enjoy on their high-definition televisions was in order.
What began was an epidemic. The shelves, especially those of PlayStation 3 owners, are now littered with HD collections, with more on the way. There’s one for Splinter Cell, another for Devil May Cry, three for God of War (one of which actually includes God of War III), and even less popular series like Zone of the Enders.
The catch is that most of them are underwhelming.
Partly, it’s a game of nostalgia versus reality. When you’d never seen anything as brutal as God of War, especially on that scale, it was able to sink its hooks in immediately, draw you into a compelling and well-designed game. Perhaps, playing the second, the first entry was fresh on your mind and you were heavily anticipating it, chomping at the bit to jump in and see what Kratos’ revenge had wrought. Odds are it was that same fervor that led you to pick up the HD collection before God of War III released, to see your memories emblazoned upon your LCD screen in 1080p resolution.
And it was good, yeah, but it still paled in comparison to the visuals you’d come to anticipate out of your PlayStation 3.
As another example, I came into the Devil May Cry HD collection fresh off of having finished the new DmC. It wasn’t just the graphics that broke my immersion, though they play a part. Bumping up the resolution without increasing the number of polygons in models, applying new visual effects, or updating textures just makes for sharp outlines for muddy messes and, despite how badass I remembered the opening sequence of the first game being, it just seemed cheesy and janky now. Beyond that, though, the gameplay is something of a step back and, while some games hold up anyway, Devil May Cry and at least its first sequel feel like they’ve been done better since, the things that made them special since diffused amongst their genre. For a game that’s all about gameplay, that’s a harsh wake up call.
On the other hand, some collections feature games in which the mechanics and maybe even the graphics hold up, but there are technical snafus that bring the whole mess crashing down. The worst offender is perhaps the Silent Hill HD collection. It has some absolute game-breaking bugs, which will never be fixed on the Xbox 360. Additionally, the flat bumping of the resolution without reworking any other elements of the game has made the fog filter chintzy instead of atmospheric, and the increased draw distance ruins some of the earliest scares of the game. At the same time, Silent Hill 2 does do something very right in that it offers either the original or a reworked script, if you have no fond memories of the original awkward translation.
Then there are the standouts, the collections such as The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection or the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection. They often feature carefully enhanced visuals, which make the games look fresh, if not “new,” and have fairly unique mechanics, or at least some that offer an experience worth having even if one has since played newer games of a similar vein. Metal Gear Solid HD on the Xbox 360 is, in particular, a fairly unique accomplishment, in that its developers took the time to rework the control scheme to get around the controller’s lack of pressure-sensitive face buttons. This is fairly unique among Konami HD collections, which have largely been as lackadaisical as possible.
What goes into a good HD collection, then? The first is the core game: Is bringing it back a matter of fueling nostalgia, or a belief that the games catalogued within contain something worthwhile that players will want to experience, whether yet again or for the first time, with enhanced visuals?
The second element is the visual one, as this is the primary change. Increasing the game’s resolution should not make it look worse. I remember the Metroid Prime Trilogy (not technically an HD collection, since it’s on the Wii) removing the surface texture of water in the first game, one of the original version’s best visual effects. This was perplexing, since the console it was now on was essentially a more powerful GameCube. The lack of beam charge effects made some sense, since the increased mobility of the Wiimote-controlled gun arm was visually incompatible with the 2D textures that had comprised them, but the loss of the water effect remains a head-scratcher to this day.
The third requirement is that the collection be technically sound. Little conveniences, such as the ability to return to the game select menu from within any of the games on the collection, enough play-testing to ensure that features of the games are not broken by their transition to new hardware, and, of course, that they perform well. It doesn’t do to have consistent slowdown in your slightly upgraded port of a ten-year-old game.
Fourth will be a matter of some contention. I’d argue that, in addition to some sort of transition between the games in the HD collection, the presence of bonus features such as art and developer commentary really adds to the value of the package. These provide something that isn’t readily available in the original editions of the game, a value add that makes the collections potentially more appealing to players who have already purchased the games contained therein once before. Some people will never look at these, listen to them, or even know that they exist, but for those who do, they can provide greater context and an increased appreciation of the games in the collection, if done well.
This year, we’re getting an HD collection of Final Fantasy X and its sequel, X-2, on the PlayStation 3 (the Vita will be receiving them separately). Initial screenshots look good, though we’ll have to see the games in motion before it’s really possible to gauge the visual acuity. We already know that we’re getting the “International” versions of the games, which contain additional content. These editions are traditionally released in Japan following the Western release of each Final Fantasy, providing balance tweaks and extra content that made their way into those versions of the games during translation, but the International editions typically include a few extra features as well.
That leaves the question of whether the gameplay will hold up (given the dearth of quality traditional, turn-based JRPGs on the PlayStation 3, probably) and if the games will be technically sound. Here’s to hoping.
Date: April 3, 2013