Remastering games is hard work. How do you transform classics from previous eras into games compatible with modern hardware and expectations, choosing what to improve and what to ignore, all while keeping under budget?
In recent years, Australian studios including Tantalus Media, Wicked Witch, and Krome Studios have taken on the mammoth task of bringing internationally beloved franchises such as Age of Empires, The Legend of Zelda, and Wasteland to new audiences. While they may not garner as much external acclaim as those who solely create original IP, their work is no less important.
Tantalus: the house of ports and remasters
When it comes to remastering the classics, few do it better than Tantalus Media, a Melbourne company featuring a hall-of-fame worthy list of game credits. Zelda, Sonic, Mass Effect: the Aussie team’s portfolio is impressive reading.
In addition to remasters, Tantalus port games between platforms, including bringing dense strategy games like Stellaris and Cities: Skylines to consoles. Approaching 30 years in operation, Tantalus has been published on just about every major platform during that time, from the Super Nintendo and Sega Saturn to Nintendo Switch and PC.
Remastering games for a new platform is a complex beast. The needs of any given project change depending on several factors, including the platforms involved, how the original game was made, and budget constraints.
“Every project is different, and they all come with their own set of unique challenges,” Tantalus CEO Tom Crago said over email. “The starting point is usually the game engine and toolset for the original title. That instructs our process, sending us down a prescribed path.”
The studio begins by analysing how to translate the original code to the target platform — PC, Switch, or modern consoles — and any potential improvements that can be made. Some projects need a complete disassembly of the original code; others are more malleable.
“Depending on the architecture of the original title, we may begin disabling systems and code until the project’s source code can be compiled on the target platform,” Crago added. “Graphics and sound are usually casualties at this point, leaving the game in a state where nothing appears on screen except for debug text. Next, we begin bringing the systems back online for the target platform. This may involve any combination of implementing new systems, converting between systems or even finding alternative techniques to meet our requirements. This is a period of visual evolution for the game, as graphics start appearing and evolve from simple solid colours or basic textures, and advance to the polished graphics one would expect as development continues.”
Along the way, decisions get made about how to improve performance and integrate platform-specific enhancements, such as the “massively complicated” task of figuring out how to adapt the controls and UI of a menu-heavy PC game such as Stellaris to consoles, or Cities: Skylines onto the Nintendo Switch.
The Switch’s lack of grunt in comparison to other platforms is often a challenge, one that is tricky for developers to contend with.
“On a few occasions on Switch, the addition of high-resolution textures as part of a final polish pass exceeded the memory budget of that platform, and we had to resolve this by selectively reducing the texture resolution, finding a compromise between quality and memory,” Crago said.
It’s another reminder that much of game development is a balancing act of compromise, especially when working with different types of hardware.
With Tantalus’ strong reputation for delivering quality ports and remasters, most of the studio’s work comes from publishers approaching the studio. On some occasions, that publisher just happens to be Nintendo.
“We have a long and proud history of working with Nintendo, dating back to Top Gear Rally on [the Game Boy Advance], which they published,” Crago said. “Since then, we’ve maintained the relationship, with frequent visits to Kyoto and a lot of conversations about potential work.”
Crago saw his team’s “big break” as being trusted to work on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, a remaster of the Wii launch title for the Wii U, which was viewed as a success by both Tantalus and Nintendo. The Japanese company came knocking on the Melbourne studio’s door again to help remaster another Zelda game.
This time, it was to bring Skyward Sword to the Nintendo Switch. Tantalus collaborated with fellow Melbourne interactive media firm Zero One, who assisted with remastering assets. According to Zero One’s website, their artists “repainted over 1,500 prop, character and environmental textures” for Skyward Sword HD.
Crago couldn’t go into detail about what it was like working with Nintendo, although he made clear how important the relationship was.
“Nintendo call us when they need something, and I stop what I’m doing to answer the phone.”
Such big-name relationships mean Tantalus can’t take on every project, as was the case with Age of Empires, the famous historical real-time strategy series. Crago had already committed a team of 50 to work on Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, with Zero One’s support on art.
Fortunately, there was another studio down under that could take up the challenge.
The Wicked Witch of Down Under
A gamer since the age of six, and coder since the days of the Commodore VIC-20, Wicked Witch CEO Daniel Visser counts the “masterpiece” Age of Empires II among his top three games of all time (alongside World of Warcraft and Minecraft).
The studio was founded two decades ago. It’s since grown to a staff of more than 70, working on various licensed IPs and their own properties like the AFL Evolution franchise. Wicked Witch has even been approached by Mattel to reboot Whac-A-Mole as a mobile game.
“We’re generally always looking for more projects, because games, in general, are so big, they’re usually years in the making,” Visser said. “So a lot of the challenge for me as a business owner is how do we finish one game with a team and move onto the next one, because [game projects] take months and months to negotiate, and then they take years to make, so winding them up smoothly is next to impossible.”
But early on, the big hit around the office was Age of Empires 2. Staffers played the game over countless lunchtimes, finishing up early to continue their battles in the historical RTS classic. So when the opportunity came around to remaster Age of Empires 2, Wicked Witch dropped as much as they could to support the project. All other internal projects were put on hold, with a skeleton crew assigned to their mobile release Catapult King, just so the studio could invest every possible resource into the remaster.
Given Wicked Witch’s talent skews heavily towards engineers, the Australian team took on the bulk of the programming duties, assisting the distributed overseas studio Forgotten Empires with Microsoft’s oversight. Wicked Witch spent about two years of development on Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition before launch, with an extra two years of support post-launch.
Although Microsoft and Forgotten Empires were the overseers of what made it into the remaster, Wicked Witch maintained some level of creative control over their work, especially when it came to visual effects and UI changes.
One dilemma described by Visser left the Australians with a chance to leave their own mark on the RTS classic. During Microsoft’s regular internal testing and focus group sessions, players thought the remaster was exactly the same as the original. That’s perhaps not a terrible outcome from an authenticity standpoint, but when so much work had gone into extra animations, four times the fidelity, and a massive boost to the game’s frame rate, it was difficult to not be disappointed.
“When a lot of people went and played it, they thought it was exactly the same as the original that they remember,” Visser said. “Because [at the time of testing], they were playing on an LCD 4K monitor at the same zoom –- they couldn’t actually remember what it was like playing it as 1024×768 on a CRT in their memory.”
“So we actually had a problem: we had up-rezzed the game so true to its original self that nobody noticed.”
Visser met with the team to discuss how they could make their enhancements more prominent, or as Visser put it, adding “a whole extra level of polish and bling”. More particle and lighting effects were added, cavalry units left trails, and god rays were implemented to highlight building upgrades. The UI also got a new pass too, making it shinier and more accessible at the same time.
The studio, however, still had to closely adhere to the Age of Empires II formula. Closely working alongside Forgotten Empires, Wicked Witch improved the unit pathfinding while staying true to the original, consulting with competitive players and content creators to ensure it met their expectations.
Serving Age of Empires II‘s enduring community was a top priority during development and remains a focus throughout post-launch updates and live ops support. More than simply rehashing old content, the past 12 months alone have seen Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition receive multiple new civilisations and brand new game modes including co-op campaigns and a battle royale mode.
Forgotten Empires handles the research and designs the campaigns while collaborating with Wicked Witch to see their visions come to life. Not every addition the Aussie studio made went to plan, however, reinforcing the importance of listening to feedback.
“We made a few changes like auto-scouting, where the scout would just run around and discover [the] map on his own,” Visser said. “And we thought that was cool, but everyone hated it –- they thought it changed the game too much, it took some skill out of the game, introduced too much [of a] random element.”
The team’s response to the feedback was to add a toggle option for auto-scouting, so traditionalists could leave it out, while others who wanted to try it still had the choice.
After spending roughly four years on the game, Wicked Witch is far from finished with Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. There’s more content coming, as the studio’s working relationship with Microsoft continues to prosper.
Even when working with strong source materials, doing a good remaster is tough work. Just ask the folks at Krome Studios.
With many of the company’s 20 staff having been in the game development industry for over two decades, Krome is well positioned for classic remasters like The Bard’s Tale and Wasteland, according to its CEO Robert Walsh.
“When you’re thinking about the context of somebody who has the knowledge or has been around long enough to know those games from their original days and understand how they’re put together –- that’s probably a small pool of talent around the world,” Walsh said.
Krome wouldn’t work on anything remaster-related until the mid-2010s when the studio decided to revisit their Australiana 3D platformer series Ty the Tasmanian Tiger. As the games were originally from the PlayStation 2 era, there was no easy way to play them on modern hardware.
The team set about remastering the original Ty trilogy as separate HD remasters on PC, as Krome had not yet published a game on Steam and was keen to see how the console-centric experiences would translate. Launching each game via Early Access would also allow the community of fans to join in and help suggest improvements along the way.
Parmenter added that “Steam was a great way of starting [remastering the Ty series] because of the low barrier to entry.” He also credited Valve’s work in opening up game publishing, forcing the likes of Microsoft, PlayStation, and Nintendo to catch up and make it easier for indies to get on consoles — the Ty remasters would eventually end up on Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One following crowdfunding campaigns.
Both Walsh and Parmenter believe remastering games for newer platforms is a double-edged sword because the knowledge of how older games work is just as valuable as having access to more powerful technology. The Ty remasters conjured plenty of memories for the team; for some, Ty was the first professional project they worked on.
“We’ve got staff working on the remasters who made [Ty] originally as their first game out of university,” Parmenter said.
“So it was always fun when you found a particularly bad bit of code, and then you could assign it to the same person who wrote it originally to fix their own work 20 years later,” he added with a laugh.
Community feedback formed a significant role with the Ty remasters, leading to inclusions such as a boss replay mode, and the ability to play previous levels armed with the end-game Doomerang weapon. Sometimes, workarounds for original hardware limitations were removed.
“Originally, because of the speed reading off disc and the memory access time on the PlayStation 2, we had areas where you drove through mud which slowed you down –- those were literally there because we needed more time to load stuff,” Parmenter said. “With the remaster because stuff loaded quicker, instead of slowing you down to 50% your normal speed, it now doesn’t slow you down at all but just throws up particle effects and sound effects.”
From a technical perspective, much of the Ty remasters required updating and implementing the C++ into the current software development kits, in addition to upgrading the games’ assets. That was made much easier because Ty was the studio’s own IP, and they owned and stored the original source code. For older games, the challenge is often much harder.
Krome was first given the opportunity to work on two RPG classics from the ’80s when one of the team’s lead developers was contacted about working on The Bard’s Tale Trilogy. InXile Entertainment wanted a remaster of their original Bard’s Tale trilogy after raising $US1.5 million for Bard’s Tale IV. Krome was a good fit: they were fans of the original games, and that reverence eventually led to inXile contracting Krome for Wasteland Remastered as well.
But remasters of that age have significant technical complications. When working on The Bard’s Tale, Krome’s programmers had to rewrite the original trilogy’s logic from C# into Unity. Wasteland Remastered was even trickier, with Krome forced to run the original code through a C# wrapper instead of reprogramming the game natively.
Generally speaking, the older a game is, the less likely its original source code will be usable.
But one element that can help remasters is if a game was already ported to multiple platforms at the time. The Bard’s Tale originally launched in 1985 on the Apple II, but it was later re-released to the Amiga, Atari ST, Mac, MS-DOS, Commodore 64 and even the NES. Different studios and coders worked on all of those projects. So when Krome ran into troubles working on the remaster with one version of the original code, they could simply refer to another build to figure out some of the programming quirks.
Community support can’t be underestimated, either. Parmenter described the fan support as “an absolute treasure trove of information” that helped fill in knowledge games when they couldn’t get the original code to cooperate.
“I played Wasteland a lot as a kid; our lead programmer [on The Bard’s Tale Trilogy] was a Bard’s Tale tragic back when it originally came out,” Parmenter said. “There are people out there that play hundreds and hundreds of hours a month of these games, so community involvement’s really helpful.”
Visually remastering inXile’s properties introduced a new swathe of challenges too, partly because they would be compared alongside new releases in their respective franchises, like Wasteland 3 and The Bard’s Tale IV. Wasteland Remastered was especially tough: the original game wasn’t fully animated, so the studio opted to implement a “painterly” style to freshen up its look, which had the benefit of avoiding unfavourable comparisons with Wasteland 2.
“For [The Bard’s Tale Trilogy], we had a little bit more to work with because they really pushed the envelope of what they could do back in the day with animated cameos for the characters, the combat, and things like that,” Parmenter said. “A lot of that was just getting our art style right, changing it from 16-colour to the full-colour gamut. We added a few more frames in the animation but still kept it similar because that was such a part of the feel.”
The art of the remaster
It’s something Wicked Witch’s Visser wants players to recognise to fully appreciate the work developers put into remasters: how you remember a game is likely different to how it holds up in reality, like the Commodore 64 and Sega Mega Drive games he grew up with.
“When I go back and look [at those older games], I’m actually almost horrified!” Visser said. “I can’t believe how simple they were and how few colours and few animations they had. Your mind embellishes memories over time greatly, and I think that’s something everybody forgets. So when you see the new one, at a glance you go ‘it doesn’t really look that much different’.”
“Just remember what it was really like playing it at 1024×768 on your Pentium 120 with whatever RAM you had. Just remember how clunky it actually was and how smooth and beautiful it is now!”
Chris Button is an award-nominated freelance writer based in Adelaide, who specialises in video games and technology, and co-hosts the Mobile Arcade Club podcast. His words have appeared on ScreenHub, GameSpot, Byteside and plenty more. He also uses Twitter more than he probably should.