clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Meet the Masters of Video Game Remasters

This week’s ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ release marks a precedent-setting remake—and the latest proof that Bluepoint Games’ innovative acts of creation and preservation are far more than mere mimicry

Bluepoint Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment/Ringer illustration

In the beginning, there was Blast Factor. A twin-joystick shooter played from a top-down perspective, Blast Factor appeared in the PlayStation Network Store on November 17, 2006, the same day the PlayStation 3 debuted in North America. The somewhat-simplistic title, which was designed to be beaten in a single sitting, tasked players with piloting a microscopic craft through a series of besieged living cells, excising the infection by blasting it away. The game didn’t make much money, and reviewers largely shrugged, noting its similarity to sensation Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, which one year earlier had become the most downloaded title on the Xbox 360’s online arcade. Gamespot declared Blast Factor “generic and forgettable,” adding that the title “leaves no lasting impression.”

The remarkable thing about Blast Factor was that it was finished at all. The game was the work of the two-person team of Marco Thrush and Andy O’Neil, who had spent the previous several years as developers at Austin-based Retro Studios, a division of Nintendo known for making the Metroid Prime trilogy, which had revitalized Nintendo’s dormant Metroid franchise by adding a third dimension to its traditional 2-D look. The two had grown tired of working on other people’s projects, so they’d founded their own independent developer, Bluepoint Games, in Austin earlier that year. “We wanted to go down our own path and do our own thing,” Thrush says by phone.

Working on what Thrush describes as a “really, really short timeline,” the pair completed Blast Factor quickly enough for it to launch alongside Sony’s new console as the inaugural downloadable game on the PlayStation Network. While it wasn’t destined to be one of the system’s more talked-about titles, its impact on Bluepoint is a testament to the door-opening power of finishing first. “Because we were, in Sony’s sight, somewhat reliable … and one of the few people that actually pulled through and delivered things on time, they kind of took a little bit of a risk with us,” Thrush says.

That risk became Bluepoint’s big break. In 2009, Sony Santa Monica, the studio that developed the God of War franchise—whose first two installments had both been among the best-selling titles for the PlayStation 2—was working on the last entry in the action trilogy about Spartan soldier Kratos and his quest to kill the gods. Hoping to hook PS3 players on the series and build anticipation for God of War III, Sony was planning to port the first two God of War games to its new console before the third installment arrived. But Sony Santa Monica knew it couldn’t keep its new system-seller on schedule while also updating its old ones. “Everybody on their team basically says, ‘Yeah, this can’t be done in the time that we have. Like, it’s just impossible,’” Thrush says. “And [Sony was] basically like, ‘Well, we know somebody who did something nearly impossible, so why don’t we give those guys a call?’”

A week after that call, Thrush and O’Neil—who’d completed two Blast Factor expansions in 2007 but nothing of note after that—had their hands on the source code for two blockbusters, God of War and God of War II. With a tight deadline looming, they embarked on the painstaking process of adapting that code to the PlayStation 3’s superior hardware, eking out higher resolutions and smoother frame rates and adding support for the PS3’s Trophy system, which rewarded players for accomplishments sprinkled throughout the campaigns.

“Andy and Marco are two very technical guys that love a good technical challenge,” says Bluepoint technical director Peter Dalton, who joined the company in 2011. “So when they hear that you can’t do God of War in three months from the day we give you the code to the day you actually ship it … there’s a part of [them] that wants to say, ‘Bring it on.’ And so I think when you look at a history of our products that we’ve released, there seems to be a common thread of, ‘Here’s a very difficult product, we’re not sure that you can do it justice.’ That’s a challenge, and we thrive on those challenges.” Thrush echoes Dalton’s take, adding, “Maybe we’re just suckers for punishment.”

Bluepoint Games president Marco Thrush
Bluepoint president Marco Thrush
Bluepoint Games

Bluepoint passed its second audition, delivering God of War on time. In November 2009—four months before the release of God of War III—Sony sold both remastered titles together as God of War Collection, a discounted, single-disk duology. “You may almost forget you’re playing PS2 ports,” Destructoid’s reviewer raved, while IGN told fans that the newly released versions were “the definitive way to play.” Unlike Bluepoint’s low-profile first release, God of War Collection was critically acclaimed and highly lucrative, becoming one of the PS3’s 20 top-selling titles.

The Collection’s quality and sales signaled to studios with beloved back catalogs that they were sitting on goldmines, which soon started an industry trend toward remastered material. (Sony branded its many remasters as “Classics HD.”) The Collection also established Bluepoint’s status as the masters of the remaster, a distinction that the specialist studio—which has since gone on to produce The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, and Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, as well as standalone ports of Flower, Gravity Rush, and Titanfall—still holds today.

But Bluepoint’s plans go beyond basic facelifts. Following several successful releases in the God of War remaster mold, the studio is leveling up from the now-traditional HD port. Tuesday marks the release of a much more ambitious Bluepoint project: a precedent-setting “ground-up” remake of 2005 PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 4. Shadow, which could beget clones of its own, is less a remaster than a reimagining. As such, it’s forced Bluepoint to tackle—and potentially help others solve—a problem that plagues game-makers and game-lovers alike: how to preserve past releases, and package them for today’s players, without altering what made them so memorable the first time around.

Sony

Although video games are a more modern medium than film, music, or literature, much of gaming’s past is, paradoxically, less accessible than those of other art forms. Because console games depend on platforms that are regularly phased out, every title has an effective expiration date; even backward-compatible consoles typically cover a fairly brief time frame, offering only a temporary extension of a game’s lease on life. While games may appear more permanent than products printed on paper or celluloid, cartridges, disks, and the equipment required to read them do degrade, and durability doesn’t matter whether code becomes incompatible with the devices in vogue. To avoid being left in the digital dust, a game has to stay accessible. Unfortunately, it’s not a routine task for a publisher to keep it current. A lifelong music fan may be forced to buy a favorite album via vinyl, cassette, CD, and digital download, just as a movie-watcher may own a favorite film on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray. But it’s much easier to transfer a song or album to a different format than it is to get a game to run on a new system—especially in a form that won’t be off-putting to players accustomed to a higher level of graphical fidelity. A young movie viewer in 2018 may be fazed at first by black-and-white imagery, just as a young music listener may have to learn to like dated recording or production techniques. A young gamer, though, may have an even harder time adjusting to the outmoded attempts at realism that dominated the early days of 3-D.

To revive a game designed for an obsolete system, a programmer can either emulate it or port it. An emulator is a piece of software that mimics a machine like the PS2, allowing old code designed for that platform to run without alteration. A port, meanwhile, directly tweaks that old code to suit a new system. Like any act of translation, porting is an imperfect approximation. As game preservationist Frank Cifaldi, the founder and director of the Video Game History Foundation, explained to me and Jason Concepcion last year, “By nature, a port is a derivative work.” A video game, Cifaldi observed, is an assemblage of code “that was written specifically for a system, that took advantage of its quirks, of its video timing, of its graphical limitations.” While a capable port closely resembles the original, Cifaldi says that from his perspective, “That’s not the original game. … Because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate a game exactly by porting it to a different language.”

Bluepoint’s reputation depends on losing as little in translation as possible, and it’s earned the opportunity to port some of the 21st century’s greatest games by being a careful curator. Getting God of War when it did was a stroke of luck; at that point, Thrush says, he and O’Neil were looking for work and couldn’t have afforded to decline if a publisher had approached them about porting a series they’d liked less. Years later, with a string of well-received remastered releases under its belt, Bluepoint is offered more games than it has time to take on, which gives it the luxury of picking its projects. “We only work on games that we actually want to work on,” Thrush says.

On occasion, a game that Bluepoint has to turn down gets ported by a studio that, in Bluepoint’s opinion, produces a suboptimal product. “Sometimes the reason why we work so hard on these games is because we don’t want to fuck it up for ourselves [as gamers],” Thrush says. “Like, we enjoy these games, we would want to see this game done justice. … It hurts me seeing other companies just taking it and basically doing it for the money.”

Without optimization, a remastered release can make games look and play worse, as higher resolutions call attention to a lack of detail in the original assets (much as HD cameras can expose signs of age on actors’ faces). High-definition ports of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Devil May Cry, Beyond Good & Evil, and others have drawn criticism for their low-effort implementations. The most notorious HD port is probably Silent Hill HD Collection, whose re-release introduced an unwelcome clarity that leeched a lot of the atmosphere from a horror game fueled by its foggy, oppressive ambiance.

The little things seem to bother Bluepoint as much as those major oversights. Thrush cites an unnamed game that originally ran in a 4:3 aspect ratio with black bars at the top and bottom borders of the screen during cinematics. With the weary scorn of an audiophile lamenting a muddy mix of a re-released album, he describes how the remastered edition, which added support for widescreen displays, neglected to extend the black bars all the way to the left and right sides of the screen. While shortened black bars might not be as glaring a restoration sin as, say, infamously defacing a certain fresco, Thrush regards the oversight as emblematic of an attitude that’s anathema to his team. “It’s just, you don’t even care,” he says. “It’s not respecting the original source material and all the hard work that the original developers poured into the game.”

Each new source that Bluepoint imports presents the studio with distinct demands. On Titanfall (2014), the company was charged with porting a game designed for Xbox One and Windows to the less powerful Xbox 360, recreating the core experience despite working with a weaker processor and less memory. On Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (2015), Bluepoint had to re-render every cutscene, improve performance, and cram three games onto one disk. “We have core technology and processes that we carry from game to game, but the minute you start a new game, it throws a wrench in the whole cycle,” Dalton says.

The source code Bluepoint receives when it starts a project—essentially, the final build of the game that’s sent to the publisher when a product is ready for retail—is an almost impenetrable black box, the patchwork proceeds of years of complex labor. Bluepoint’s first task, Dalton says, is “to tear it apart and figure out how it works, how it’s assembled, and reverse-engineer the entire thing, and then you look at it and say, ‘How do we fit this within our processes and our pipeline, and how do we need to modify our existing processes to fit what they were trying to do?’” While games are written in a limited number of programming languages, each developer has its own dialect, full of phrase and idioms unique to its work. In theory, Bluepoint can consult with the original architects if the studio runs into something that doesn’t make sense. In practice, though, Bluepoint tries not to pester its partners, which would eat into the time they save by outsourcing. “That’s why a lot of publishers like us,” Thrush says. “We’re pretty independent.”

Bluepoint Games technical director Peter Dalton
Bluepoint technical director Peter Dalton
Bluepoint Games

For the first several months of a project, Bluepoint’s goal is fulfilling the minimum requirement of making the game playable on the target console. Only then can the company build on the basic port, using the flexible Bluepoint Engine that Thrush and O’Neil built for Blast Factor to make nips and tucks to older code. “Under the hood, you’ve got pieces of the original source code, running in conjunction with our engine, and so our technology has to be adaptable and configurable so that we can go through and make sure that we run both game engines basically side by side,” Dalton says. “Then we take certain aspects of their game engine and we basically pipe them over into our engine to do things like get better rendering results, or areas where maybe we want to increase the bones in the skeletons, or new animation techniques.”

In the years since Sony first considered handing Thrush and O’Neil the keys to God of War, Bluepoint has peeked behind the coding curtains of several of the most storied designers of the past 20 years, including Sony Santa Monica, Team Ico, Konami, thatgamecompany, Respawn, and Naughty Dog. It’s as if the studio has studied a library of brush strokes by master painters, or shots framed by legendary directors. And not just the output, but also the process—the mix of oils on the painter’s palette, or the lighting and blocking that the director’s camera captured. “It’s eye-opening,” Dalton says.

After almost a decade of playing with other companies’ code, Bluepoint’s employees are programming polyglots. “If you just look at one approach, you just have that point of view,” Thrush says. “But having a bigger point of view of getting to see, oh, ‘Developer X does it this way, Developer Y does it this way,’ you can kind of combine the best approaches of what everyone is doing and learn from that.” When Dalton combs through the Bluepoint Engine, he says, he spots techniques that the studio picked up from each project. The company’s tech is a kind of Katamari that makes Bluepoint “bigger and stronger” every time it rolls over a Respawn or absorbs a new Naughty Dog. “You look at our technology, and it’s evolving, and it’s picking and choosing things that we feel like work really well and pulling those in,” Dalton says. “It’s part of what enabled us to do Shadow.”

Sony

Shadow of the Colossus is the creation of Japanese designer Fumito Ueda, an auteur whose three games—Ico (2001), Shadow (2005), and The Last Guardian (2016)—are known for their fragile beauty, evocative themes, and, less gloriously, awkward controls, performance problems, and production delays. Ueda’s slow-paced, contemplative work, which spurns the traditional trappings of the medium—collectibles, timed challenges, quick-twitch combat—may be gaming’s most effective ambassador to other corners of culture. In 2008, director Guillermo del Toro called Ico and Shadow the “only two games I consider masterpieces,” and when Roger Ebert inflamed the internet by arguing that games couldn’t be art, it was Shadow, he said, that dissenting respondents cited most often when trying to sway him to their side.

Generally regarded as Ueda’s best work, Shadow puts the player in control of protagonist Wander, who rides his horse, Agro, to a deserted, dreamlike land and beseeches a mysterious entity named Dormin to help him resurrect a lifeless girl. To do so, he must mount and mercilessly slay 16 stony, fur-covered Colossi that roam the stark cliffs and plains, mostly minding their business. In contrast to most of today’s quest-strewn open-world adventures, Shadow’s environments are blessedly barren; the whole world is Wander and his next target. If it seems strange that Wander doesn’t encounter any other adversaries, it’s because, as Chris Suellentrop once noted in The New Yorker, “the natural order of a video game is reversed. There are no enemies because [the player is] the enemy.”

Although Thrush and O’Neil still preside over Bluepoint as president and vice president, respectively, the original two-person team has expanded significantly over time. It temporarily swelled to 60 to tackle Shadow, although it’s since scaled down to roughly 43 upon completing the project. The studio’s increased head count while working on Shadow reflected the enormity of the undertaking: While Bluepoint has produced multiple remasters within the span of a single year, Shadow has been under construction since late 2015. “As far as comparing workflows and processes, we treated this much more like an original development than anything we’ve done in our recent past,” says Bluepoint producer Randall Lowe, who worked as a tester on Shadow’s PS2 edition during his days at Sony.

Bluepoint Games producer Randall Lowe
Bluepoint producer Randall Lowe
Bluepoint Games

To produce their previous HD remasters—including the Shadow remaster that they worked on after finishing God of War—the Bluepoint team would import the original models designed for the standard-definition game and boost their fidelity by running them through a preexisting pipeline and doing additional touch-ups by hand. But there’s a limit to how good a game designed for a system that launched in 2000 can look, and Bluepoint had already bumped up against that ceiling for Shadow on PS3, which Ueda had endorsed as the then-definitive version of the game.

A remake like the new Shadow relies less on recycled assets than the remasters did; it’s the difference between trying to fine-tune a fainter, scratchier recording of a symphony and hiring a bigger, better orchestra to rerecord it with more sensitive mics. To harness the PS4’s power, Bluepoint broke down the old Shadow’s bones and built them back up again. “The original world exists in kind of a skeleton format for us to then go back and start plugging in assets and … really just fleshing out the world to the point where what you’ve seen on screen now is something that represents a current-gen title,” Lowe says. “From that aspect, that’s completely ground up. The Colossi, the characters—we looked at the originals and said, ‘Here’s our guideline, now go build it fresh.’ And that process was repeated throughout the game for every asset.”

The result is an amalgam of cutting edge and tried and true, a state-of-the-art chassis overlaid on leftover legacy code. The logic that controls the Colossi is borrowed, with a few fixes and tweaks, from the PS2 title (via Bluepoint’s PS3 port); animations are modeled on the original movements, and PS2-era sound effects, vocals, and score are updated, remixed, or reprocessed. But the user interface, art assets, and particle effects are redone from scratch, and the Bluepoint Engine serves as MC, keeping the content flowing. The new version’s PS4 underpinnings are obvious: Shadow’s shadows, lighting, and physics are more lifelike, its vistas vaster, its streamlined controls and camera no longer as bad for the blood pressure. It looks like a brand-new game.

A pre-release email from Sony laid out Shadow’s new specs like a luxury-car commercial, trumpeting the remake’s stutter-free frame rate, “dynamically generated” fur, and compatibility with 4K HDR displays on the enhanced PS4 Pro. Polygon counts, it claimed, have increased from an average of 20,000 per Colossi to 250,000, with one Colossus spiking to seven figures. But for fans of the PS2 version, the idea of a souped-up, pristine port might sound almost heretical. The original Shadow was hazy, blurry, and bleak; the new Shadow replaces impressionism with lifelike simulation. One might wonder whether the Bluepoint Engine is unnecessarily swoll, or even actively impeding the designer’s original intent. Maybe Ueda intended for far-off objects not to be visible. Maybe the controls and camera were wonky on purpose so that the player wouldn’t feel super-powered. (Ueda did submit some requests for the Shadow remaster, although he declined to specify what they were.)

Any objection of this nature that a player could raise Bluepoint has already examined internally. “That gets discussed every day,” Thrush says. Porting isn’t a purely paint-by-numbers process, and by wrestling with whether a feature was originally inserted by choice or out of necessity, the company exerts creative control. Dalton says it’s common to encounter Bluepoint-on-Bluepoint debates, with “one side arguing that it was a design choice and the other side arguing that the existing hardware at the time did not have the power or the processing to do it.” Although Bluepoint tries not to bug its partners with coding questions, it sometimes asks creators for conceptual input. Still, the studio doesn’t always adhere to their vision. Bluepoint’s primary loyalty is to the player, and the fact that a feature may have been the intent of the original team, Thrush says, “doesn’t mean that meshes with what people out there playing the game actually have in their head.”

Bluepoint’s ports are living documents. While remaking Shadow, the studio discovered a U-shaped river that fed two waterfalls but lacked its own source. To resolve that apparent impossibility, the team added an incoming river. “As much as we can without it destroying the original game or really having a negative effect on the original game, we try to fix these inconsistencies now that we have the chance,” Thrush says. At other times, Bluepoint’s commitment to Primum non nocere demands that something strange stay put. In one Colossus encounter, forceful waves break on a beach, even though their origin is only a small lake, not an ocean. But because the waves push the player out of the water, serving a gameplay purpose, their presence is non-negotiable.

Bluepoint knows that no choice will satisfy everyone, so as part of this pioneering release, it gives the gamer more options. A sentimental player who wants the washed-out PS2 look can recreate it by dialing down the contrast. A player who prefers 30 frames per second to 60 can play that way. And if, for some sadistic reason, a player liked the classic control scheme, he or she can keep it. Modernity is mandatory only up to a point.

Bluepoint Games

Although Bluepoint often earns praise from the developers and publishers that entrust their IP to its care, the studio seeks validation from the public, not from their ports’ progenitors. “It’s more important to me how the millions of people feel who played the original version of the game and play this version of the game than the 30, 40, 50 people that worked on the game,” Thrush says.

It’s ironic, of course, that a studio formed for the explicit purpose of doing its “own thing” rather than working on someone else’s ideas has become the best-known steward of other developers’ properties. In embracing its identity as the industry’s port authority, Bluepoint has largely subsumed its ambitions to start its own series, though Thrush says “there’s been tinkering here and there on the side.” What the studio set out to do, and what it ended up doing, are two drastically different endeavors. “Original development is very much, ‘Yeah, we have no idea where this game is going to be by the time we ship,’ and so there’s a lot of trial and error,” Thrush says. By contrast, Bluepoint can always envision what the end of their port projects will look like. As Thrush explains, “We know exactly what our code has to be capable of doing by the time we finish.”

Someday, Bluepoint may return to its original objective and, armed with the wisdom gleaned from its uncommonly intimate knowledge of other games’ innards, produce an original title that makes more waves than Blast Factor—a game that will itself become fodder for remasters or remakes. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Bluepoint as the industry equivalent of a skilled cover band. Bluepoint’s ports are more than mimicry. They’re formidable demonstrations of technical prowess, yes, but they’re also innovative acts of creation and preservation.

Bluepoint’s approach to Shadow of the Colossus—faithful to its source material, but not slavishly so—has met with a warm critical reception. As of the game’s official street date, its aggregated review score is tied with that of the PS3 remaster that combined Colossus and Ico, slightly edging out that of the original Shadow release. “I think it’s a compelling way of doing things,” says Cifaldi, who sees Shadow’s blend of old and new as “a hybrid approach: remaster some of the source material, but also put a coat of paint on top of it to ‘modernize’ the game.” He adds that if Bluepoint had tried to stay totally faithful to the 2005 game by retouching old assets rather than redesigning them from scratch, “it would have been a ton of effort to make a product that would probably look exactly like the PS3 version. I think if the goal was to make Shadow of the Colossus a mainstream AAA release on the PS4, this was probably the smartest approach they could have taken.”

Opinions vary on Shadow’s revolutionary nature: Polygon’s Chris Plante argues that Shadow’s cross between restoration and reproduction “doesn’t have an obvious precedent in art other than, say Gus Van Sant’s bizarre shot-for-shot recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.” Eurogamer’s Oli Welsh concurs, calling it “an unprecedented feat in game preservation.” Cifaldi, meanwhile, cites a 2011 3DS remake of 1998 Nintendo triumph The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a similar exercise, but believes that the closest comp could be 2008’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, which replaced the 1994 fighting game’s sprite-based backgrounds with redrawn digital artwork that would scale more smoothly to widescreen, high-def displays. The list of close cousins includes Capcom’s 2002 remake of 1996 franchise-starter Resident Evil, as well as various fan-driven efforts to remake old games in new engines. Unique or not, Shadow represents the most salient example of a game given this type of treatment on consoles. Like the long-ago God of War Collection, its framework may inspire imitators, although they’ll face a much more daunting task than the copycat remaster-makers did.

Cifaldi, who hopes that more “artistic remixes” along the lines of Colossus will be made, sees the latest version of Shadow as a complement to the original rather than something that supplants it. “If someone wants to experience the artistic work that was Shadow of the Colossus, I would never recommend this version,” Cifaldi says. “This is not a judgment of it as a game; this is just reality. No remake is ever going to perfectly capture an original.”

No one who has one need discard their old copy, but after playing the PS4 version, it’s hard to feel as concerned as Cifaldi about first-timers bypassing the original game. This week, many grown-up gamers will measure the remake against the 2005 PS2 title and discover that it has the same spirit as the version they played on a tiny TV in a childhood bedroom, college dorm, or dingy starter apartment. They’ve long since sold their old systems and discarded their old screens; their new screens are bigger, their PlayStations are more powerful, and Shadow of the Colossus looks better than ever before, living up to the image in their adolescent minds’ eyes. The present has its perks. “We have to be true to what people remember about the game,” says Lowe. “That’s kind of our motto here. We rebuild the game to be the way people remember it, rather than what it actually was.”

Sound Only

Reviewing ‘Deathloop’ and Looking Ahead to Episode 100

Video Games

Is Marvel’s Video Game Takeover Inevitable?

Video Games

Video Games’ Sensory Revolution: How Haptics Reinvented the Controller

View all stories in Video Games