Monday, May 8, 2017

20th Century PC Game Remakes, Remasters, Sequels and Successors

The home computer has produced many, many classic and groundbreaking games.  Some games have been sufficiently successful to spawn a series, others have just been held to be a pinnacle in their own right without sequels.  Eventually, interest in many games and series that were once popular tends to wane and commercially many of these series were seen to have no future.  Occasionally, however, a long dormant game or series can be reactivated with a new sequel.  Since 2010, there have been quite a few new games released for the PC that are late sequels, remasters or spiritual successors of older classic PC games.  It is still somewhat rare for PC games to get remade, but those that do should be identified.  However, it is especially impressive for a game to be revived after ten years or more without a commercial release (budget re-releases don't count), so I am going to focus on those games.

In this blog article, I will try to identify games that were released during the twentieth century I will not be covering late ports or fan mods, otherwise the blog article may include too many games to manage.  Several games have been successfully ported to mobile devices, but tracking down ports is too much to manage with my ten-year rule.  I just don't have the time to track down every re-release of Dragon's Lair, Defender of the Crown or The Oregon Trail, games that always seem to be ported or rehashed.

To be on this list, a game has to have the following criteria :

1.  Originally have been released in the 20th Century, more specifically the years 1981-2000, inclusive.
2.  Had been released for the PC & compatibles
3.  For remasters, not have had an official commercial remake in at least ten years (which is why Defender of the Crown isn't on this list), ports and mobile releases don't count, must be available for the PC, and must provide some substantial improvement over the original game
4.  For remakes, at least ten years since the original game was released
5.  For Late Sequels/Prequels, not have had a release in the game's series in at least ten years
6.  For Spiritual Successors, have a successful Kickstarter and otherwise come roughly within one of the above
7.  Must be sold for a fixed, non-nominal price (no freemium pay models)

Here is what the formatting means :

Category in bold
If the game was part of a Kickstarter, its title is underlined
The italics are used for games that have not yet released as of this blog entry's publication

So, with the criteria out of the way, lets talk about some games.

Day of the Tentacle Remastered
Grim Fandango Remastered
Full Throttle Remastered
Starcraft: Remastered
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge Special Edition
Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition
Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition
Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition
Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition
The 7th Guest: Remastered
Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour (improved from Megaton Edition)
System Shock Enhanced Edition
Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded
Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition

Remasters or Enhanced Editions are essentially improved versions of the original games.  The gameplay is generally the same, although the adventure games may have a few extra puzzles and the RPGs a few extra quests and characters.  Some games have had their graphics completely redone and added voice acting and re-recorded the soundtrack.  Gabriel Knight had to have its voice work totally redone despite the enviable talent lent to the original game.

Surprisingly, relatively few remasters have been directly funded by Kickstarter.  Most often, a company headed by industry veterans has the connections to secure the rights to remaster.  The Monkey Island games were converted by LucasArts themselves before it was bought by Disney.  Tim Shafer's company Double Fine converted the games he originally designed for LucasArts.  The Bioware games were revamped by Beamdog and its Overhaul Games division, run by former Bioware employees.  Only the Sierra games remakes had to go to Kickstarter.

Some of these remasters have been criticized because they offer little over mods.  Infinity Engine mods can bring widescreen and new features to the original games.  There are ways to obtain mouselook from System Shock.  Duke Nukem had built-in support for higher resolutions, although getting them to work was not guaranteed on the older systems. The point of many of the remastered editions is to make playing the game as easy as possible for average gamers, no mods, no emulators, no install workarounds.

In anticipation of the Starcraft Remastered release, set for later this year, Blizzard released Starcraft & Brood War as free to play.  Of course, their version only installs in Windows XP or later, but has no difficulties with more modern OSes.  The original game only required Windows 95, but Blizzard has broken Windows 9x support for Starcraft, Diablo II and Warcraft III in more recent patches.

I could list Planet M.U.L.E. here, which is M.U.L.E. remastered and supports internet multiplayer, but that is a free game, so it technically does not qualify.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
System Shock (demo available)

To date, remakes of classic PC games have been few and far between.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown was released in 2012 to critical acclaim.  It was very unusual for a turn-based strategy game to be remade when real time strategy games like Starcraft 2 dominate the landscape.  It received an expansion pack in 2013 and a sequel in 2016.

Nightdive Studios is remaking System Shock.  The playable demo shows the opening area of the Medical Level as being almost identical to the original game, but I would expect the final product to diverge given the expectations of players in 2018 compared to 1994.  Nightdive also did the System Shock Enhanced Edition and made System Shock 2 available on digital downloading services like Steam and GOG.

Late Sequel/Prequel
Choplifter HD
Wasteland 2
King's Quest
Elite: Dangerous
The Bard’s Tale IV (2004 console game not considered part of series)
Descent: Underground (early access)

Late entries in a series can be difficult to pull off.  The ownership rights to a franchise may be somewhat less than clear.  Selling investors on a series that has long laid dormant is a tough sell.  What sold in the 1980s is not going to sell in the 2010s without some major reworking of the original concept.  So for most of these games, crowdfunding is necessary to build critical interest and investor appeal.  inXile Entertainment likes to appeal to its fans for startup costs, but the quality of the games that it has released has been reported to be high, so they are important victories for crowdfunding original games.  inXile was found in part by Brian Fargo, who had previously helped to found Interplay and was heavily involved with the earlier Bard's Tales and Wasteland.  Elite: Dangerous was the project of David Braben, who was co-created the original Elite and developed its two sequels.  Elite: Dangerous has also received good reviews.

King's Quest was officially revived by Activision, which had previously acquired Sierra, but developed by an external company.  Given that the new King's Quest game reinterprets some classic moments from the original games, it comes close to the previous category.  Choplifter HD was released by inXile just before the crowdfunding craze really got serious but did have the blessing of Choplifter's original designer, Dan Gorlin.

Spiritual Successor
Thimbleweed Park – Maniac Mansion & Secret of Monkey Island
Torment: Tides of Numenera – Planescape: Torment
Pillars of Eternity – Baldur’s Gate & Icewind Dale
Planetary Annihilation – Total Annihilation
Satellite Reign - Syndicate
Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues - Ultima (early access)
Overload - Descent (early access)
SpaceVenture – Space Quest
Squadron 42 – Wing Commander
Hero-U Rogue to Redemption – Quest for Glory
Underworld Ascendant - Ultima Underworld

Unlike the late sequel, the Spiritual Successor comes about when a company or a designer would like to return to or evoke past glories, but cannot afford or does not want to make a new game in an existing series.  Instead, we get games that bear the hallmark of a designer but not the prior game history.  Unsurprisingly, with only a famous name and not a series, all these projects have had to turn to crowdfunding.  Some, perhaps those with more modest goals, have demonstrated success.

Pillars of Eternity may have saved Obsidian Entertainment, many of whose employees previously worked for Interplay's Black Isle Studios.  Black Isle and Bioware collaborated freely back in the day, and several key individuals worked both on Pillars and Torment, the latter being released by inXile.  Thimbleweed looks and plays like a SCUMM game, and was developed by the developer of SCUMM, Ron Gilbert.  All three have received good review scores, and even Planetary Annihilation received mixed reviews.

As for the other games, I note that Overload has an Steam early access release, so the backers can have something to show for their money even if the game never is completed.  However, Chris Roberts' Star Citizen, of which Squadron 42 is a spin-off, received massive amounts of money since 2012 and nothing to show for it to date.  Similarly, Richard Garriott's Ultima successor has also seen a lot of money for a similarly extended development cycle.  The Two Guys from Andromeda's Space Quest and the Coles' Quest for Glory successors had far more modest fundraising success, but little has been heard regarding either game in some time.

Mobile Spinoffs
Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar
Dungeon Keeper Mobile

Finally, Electronic Arts has never been shy about exploiting past properties.  In the 1990s, it bought Origin, Bullfrog and Maxis.  Maxis and Will Wright's legacy (The Sims, SimCity, Spore) has been consistently profitable for EA, but the legacies of Origin and Bullfrog have been less than consistently impressive.  EA's mobile division has sought to bring some beloved franchises to smart devices, but both have seen harsh criticisms for hitting you up for money too often in the form of microtransactions.  The Ultima game was shut down within a year.  Ultima Online, however, has been officially online for almost twenty years, something of a record.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reducing Disks on Later PC Game Releases - What is Lost

PC games were often re-released.  Even though they may be older, a budget-friendly price can attract a surprising number of buyers.  To keep the costs down, often games are released in smaller boxes, sometimes paper manuals turned into electronic manuals.  It is not unknown for a game to be released on fewer discs/disks than it was released on originally, without being put onto a higher capacity storage medium.  In this blog entry, I will discuss several famous examples where this occurred and what the effect of the disk/disc reduction was.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Evolution of King's Quest

The original King's Quest had a long history of releases for the IBM PC and compatible platforms. The game was originally developed for the enhanced graphics and sound of the IBM PCjr.  The PCjr. was hyped to the max and many media publications were predicting that IBM's consumer-focused machine would quickly dominate the home market when it was announced in November of 1983.  Sierra Online was facing a troubling future and made good on a deal to publish an ambitious and revolutionary game for IBM's machine.

IBM bankrolled much of King's Quest's development, but the game would not be available at launch.
However, by the time King's Quest was released in May of 1984, the market had shown that it was not about to become IBM's playground.  The PCjr. was overpriced cost twice as much as the Commodore 64 with a disk drive and did not offer much to the consumer that the C64 could not.  The Apple IIe and //c computers were also strong competitors at the same price, offering a huge library of software.  The PCjr struggled with compatibility with several popular IBM PC programs and included a keyboard that was laughable for trying to get real work done with it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Realistic Portavision - Portable Television in the 1980s

About a week or two ago on this blog, I may have foreshadowed that I had acquired a new electronic item worth talking about.  Portable televisions have always been of interest to me.  Since TVs became mainstream in the 1950s, marketers have always tried to find ways to make TVs smaller and able to be used in more and more places across the globe.  My little acquisition represents the peak of its technology for its time, so let's look at it in greater detail.

The system in question is called the Realistic Portavision.  Its most notable feature is that it is a fully portable color CRT TV.  A sticker on the back of the unit stated it was manufactured in November of 1985.  During the 1980s, portable TVs were not particularly rare.  Many kitchens and campers featured one.  But these TVs were typically black and white TVs.  Black and white TVs were much cheaper to manufacture, required fewer components to make them work and consumed less energy. Black and white TVs in portable sizes were quite common by the mid-1970s and were manufactured throughout the 1980s.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Amazing Technology in the Nintendo Game Boy

Truly nothing like the Game Boy had ever been seen before by the general public when it was released in 1989.  Handheld gaming prior to that was confined to simple, single hand-held games like the Coleco mini-Arcades, the Nintendo Game and Watch series and the ubiquitous Tiger Electronics Hand-helds.  These were simple games that were driven by pre-programmed microcontroller chips and drove an LCD display that was only capable of displaying a series of fixed patterns.  Although the patterns could have a high level of detail, the limitations of the display severely limited the complexity and longevity of these games.

The Game Boy's best-known predecessor, the Milton Bradley Microsivion, used a 16x16 display.  The Microvision was not very successful and its games were put on pre-programmed microcontrollers that plugged into the main unit.  These microcontrollers operated at a very low speed of 100KHz, and provided only 64 bytes of RAM and 1-2KB of ROM for a game.  The low resolution of the display also placed severe limitations on the games that could be made for this system.  The Epoch Game Pocket Computer was released in Japan in 1984 and used a 75x64 resolution display, but it was not very successful and only had five games released for it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving the Studios the Bird : Fan Reconstructions of their Preferred Versions of Classic Films

In the past several years, there has been an increasing proliferation of the fan re-edit and the fan reconstruction of classic films.  One of the chief reasons for this was the Star Wars Special Editions.  But fan reconstructions have gone far beyond a Galaxy Far, Far Away.  Read on to discover another community increasingly devoted to reconstruction.  But before we get there, let us set the stage during the long winter of our discontent :

The Story Behind the Star Wars Special Editions and Despecialized Editions

Back in 1997, fourteen years after Return of the Jedi, George Lucas decided to reedit the original trilogy to reflect how he believed the films should be presented and enjoyed given the advances in technology between 1977, 1980, 1983 and 1997.  At first, these Special Editions (SEs) were met with some interest and were released on VHS and Laserdisc.  Given that the untouched versions (now known as George's Original Untouched Trilogy or GOUT) of these films were also available at that time on VHS and Laserdisc and the Internet was just becoming a part of everyday life, complaints were fairly muted at the time.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Your Meme for Today - Portable Console Gaming Over Time

2017 :

Courtesy of Nintendo
2002 :

Courtesy of neogaf forum
1987 :

Friday, March 24, 2017

Old Coleco or New Coleco : Nostalgia or Nothing

ColecoVision Video Game System (courtesy of wikipedia)
The Connecticut Leather Company, popularly known by its moniker Coleco, certainly had an interesting role in the history of video games.  It started by making dedicated game consoles in the Pong-era which were marketed as the Telstar series.  They also made a line of well-received hand-held conversions of arcade games, the mini-Arcades.  Finally, they turned their hands to marketing a game console, the ColecoVision, and a home computer, the Adam.  But when the video game crash wiped out all the consoles of the 2nd generation of video games, they were left to selling Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and other toys to survive for a time.  The costly failures of their video game ventures brought them to liquidation by the end of the 1980s.

In 2005, the Coleco brand was reintroduced to the general public by West River Holdings (WRH), a company that revitalizes older trademarks.  Companies like WRH look for trademarks which have been dormant for some time but had been previously been associated by the public with a successful product or service.  These trademarks could simply discontinued by the user of the mark or abandoned when the owner went out of business.  WRH typically forms an LLC to manage and promote each trademark it acquires.  In Coleco's case, it was Coleco Holdings, LLC.  In 2016, WRH and its brands were purchased by Dormitus Brands, another trademark holding company.

For the remainder of this article, where it is necessary to distinguish the two, I will refer to the original Coleco, the company that was sold in the late 1980s as the "old Coleco".  The WRH incarnation will be referred to as the "new Coleco".  Let's discuss the legacy of the old Coleco vs. the new Coleco.