Goodbye Remaster, Hello Emulation

A 4K screenshot of Red Dead Redemption running on the Xbox One X by AgentClucky

The start of this generation began not with an explosion of new IP but the retooling of established favorites. Marquee titles from the previous two generations of consoles received makeovers fueled by the additional horsepower of the new consoles. Underperforming titles and massive hits alike enjoyed a second wave of sales that sometimes surpassed their original edition’s performance. This remaster trend didn’t begin in this generation — PlayStation and Xbox bankrolled high-profile refreshes of Shadow of the Colossus and Halo: CE last generation — but defined the start of it. As we approach the end of this console cycle a new wrinkle has emerged.

Microsoft’s Xbox One X is capable of many neat tricks, but the coolest of them is its ability to shrink the gap between generations and revitalize old releases. Games dating back to the original Xbox can now be experienced in native 4K with 16x anisotropic filtering (AF) so textures look sharp and crisp no matter the distance or viewing angle. Accompanying the graphical upgrade is a performance boost as well. There are limits to what Microsoft can do on this front since their emulation method does not effect game code at all. Games with 30FPS target locks can’t be modified to run at 60FPS, but games that struggled to maintain their target frame rates benefit greatly from Microsoft’s wizardry. The future of the $60 remaster is being muscled out by algorithms to the benefit of us all.

Digital Foundry’s analysis of Xbox One X enhanced Forza Horizon

Even when PlayStation was champion of backwards compatibility the implementation was never as good as it is on the Xbox One X. This has become a core selling point of a $500 mid-generation console refresh and it’s arguably its most enticing feature. The message of “Buy an Xbox One X and you can play your old games as they were meant to be played,” stokes the flames of nostalgia in a way that standard compatibility wouldn’t. The realization that your memory of a childhood favorite is superior to its actual form is always crushing but the Xbox One X sidesteps that disappointment and requires no additional money to do so. Red Dead Redemption, which never received a PC port, now sports the image quality you would expect from one (minus the 60FPS option, of course).

Xbox has begun to sway the public back in their favor with features like this and it’s likely they will carry it into the next generation, which puts the future of the remaster in jeopardy. Why buy new versions of titles you already own when your new box can enhance them for free? Tens of millions of players bought Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but would they have if they knew their current versions would be enhanced on their new machines? Would you really pay $60 for first-person perspective? If Xbox’s army of algorithms can make Red Dead Redemption look like a cross-gen title for free, then publishers are going to have to do a bit more for that $60 because a 60FPS mode tacked on to a Game of the Year edition ain’t the wave.

Shadow of the Colossus across three console generations (PS2, PS3, and PS4)

Many journalists walked out of the E3 presentation for Cyberpunk 2077 assuming that it would be a cross generation title, but should things continue as they are that would be a precarious approach for CD Projekt Red. The audience knows what’s possible now, and while PlayStation has shown no signs of following Microsoft’s footsteps it’s guaranteed that some will ask, if presented with a new version of Cyberpunk for their next Xbox, Why can’t this be enhanced like every other title?

Cyberpunk 2077 is set to release on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4

It would be foolish to assume publishers will just give up and let platform holders snatch away this revenue stream. Until PlayStation rolls out a similar approach for backwards compatibility there’s still a gap for remasters to fill. But the bar has been raised and remakes like Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy and Ratchet & Clank (PS4) should become the new norm. These titles require significantly more resources than remasters like Sleeping Dogs: The Definitive Edition or Skyrim: Special Edition, but they are built from the ground up with new art assets, rendering techniques, and code designed to utilize the full power of the current consoles. This generation started off as business as usual but things got interesting around the midway point and next generation will be rife with new approaches for not only how games are made, but how they’re sold and distributed. Buckle up.