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History Repeating

Are videogame remakes a good idea or a sign of creative decline?

After 11 years of travelling around the world, from Paris to London to Egypt to Area 51, last month saw Lara Croft go back to exactly where she started: in Peru, gunning down the wolves that had just mauled her native guide. Turning away from the body, Lara headed through the large stone doors into a cave system full of bats, bears, traps and puzzles, just as she did over a decade ago.

This is Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and while it is, for practical purposes, a completely new title programmed from scratch for PS2 and PC to current technological standards, in terms of the shape of the story and the environments explored its the same game as many, many people bought 11 years ago for the PS1 and other formats.

And, judging by the positive reviews, high chart positions and forthcoming Wii and 360 versions, it was a return trip that a lot of consumers thought would be worth taking.

Conversions, ports and remakes are, of course, nothing new in the games industry, from the old days of dazzling arcade games being battered and squeezed into monochrome 8-bit versions, to more recent efforts such as the GameCube remake of the original Resident Evil or Sonicâs appearance on mobile phones.

However, recent gaming remakes are becoming more high profile, and gaining more credibility. Aside from the popularity and critical acclaim of Laraâs anniversary, Resident Evil 4âs recent translation to the Wii was hailed with the kind of excitement usually reserved for entirely new titles, not ports of two-year old GameCube games.

For some consumers, as well as industry players, this trend is controversial. Videogames are still a young medium and a young industry, and there are no shortage of developers and gamers who think that the industry should be constantly experimenting, pushing forward technology and new game concepts.

From this perspective, remaking old games is a sign of creative decline, of a corporate play-it-safe mentality that recycles old brands rather than trying new concepts.

For these people, something like Tomb Raider: Anniversary is an early sign of the malaise that has already struck Hollywood, and has led to the constant string of remakes that blight cinemas and only really exist to keep valuable brands in the public eye, adding nothing creative to the original work.

While the games industry can, like any big money business, have a tendency towards creative conservatism, in this respect comparisons to the film industry donât really hold water.

While Hollywood remakes are often seen as unnecessary because the originals are usually still in circulation - the originals of Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and Psycho were all available on video or DVD when the remakes were released - games have not to date had that level of endurance.

The games industry is, in fact, the only creative industry where many major, popular works that are less than ten years old are only available through second hand channels, and cannot be appreciated on any contemporary equipment.

In other words, without remakes or ports, old games that still have creative life in them are unavailable to current consumers, only around for those willing to scour ebay and lovingly maintain aged hardware.

Giving Resident Evil 4 a life beyond the GameCube and PS2 or rescuing the original Tomb Raider from an audience of dedicated PS1 lovers and reintroducing it to new consoles is not that much different from Warner Brothers reissuing their back catalogue titles for DVD - keeping valuable properties which retain interest for consumers available.

A remake of a popular game also has advantages over that more conventional extension of a franchiseâs life, the sequel, in that it can return a series to the merits of the original title without overloading the concept with twists. A game such as the original Resident Evil appeals due to an exact combination of character and environment, a formula that cannot be exactly replicated in sequels which relocate the action.

While there are consumers out there who have yet to be exposed to the original concept, there will be merit in returning to that source material and reiterating what made the series popular in the first place.

Rejecting the idea of reviving older games not only demonstrates a poor sense of the mediumâs history, but commercial short-sightedness. The DS and Wii in particular are broadening the audience for games, and there is an opportunity inherent in these systems to draw players of Wii Sports or Brain Training into more conventional videogames.

These have, of course, to be carefully handled, especially where vastly different control systems come into play - what plays well on a conventional two handed controller or D-pad does not necessarily become more accessible, or a cleaner experience, by transferring control to a Wii remote or stylus.

Poor conversions insensitive to both the requirements of the game and the capabilities of the interface will do more harm than good, and so far for every triumphant Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition there has been at least one compromised and unappealing Prince of Persia: Rival Swords, a conversion that satisfies neither fans nor newcomers, damaging the core brand while convincing no one.

While boxed retail games provide one route to put old games back into circulation, the future perhaps lies elsewhere. The business models of Xbox Live, Nintendoâs Virtual Console or online PC game services such as Gametap offer a route that circumvents the problems of the current generation remake, allowing lower-than-retail price points.

A lower price means that the developer need not struggle to pour £40 worth of current generation pizzazz over an ancient game. In this world, older, simpler games can maintain the charm of their original simplicity.

A fine example of this is the relatively straight remake of the original Prince of Persia on Live, which even with a graphical upgrade only offers a couple of hours of gameplay. While offering too little content for a retail release, it is perfectly aimed at the Live market.

With major titles sporting larger development budgets than ever, revisiting and remaking older titles is likely to remain a lucrative revenue stream for the games industry for some time to come.