Monday, June 29, 2009

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Digital Remakes

Remakes are a part of the market, for better or for worse. But aside from remakes that take "retro classics" and update them for current hardware and production values, we're also used to a second kind of remake - the kind that takes a "traditional" game based in the real world, and turns it into a digital game: one with the interface, features, and conventions of other digital games. We usually don't think of them this way, but after all, isn't Madden a sort of "remake" of American football? (More accurately, I'd say Madden is a remake of the game surrounding the NFL - but I'll save that for another post). Just as younger audiences will see Transformers 2, The Taking of Pelham 123, Land of the Lost, GI Joe, and Star Trek this summer without knowing they're "remakes" in one way or another, I'm sure there's more than a handful of kids out there playing Solitaire on their Windows computer without ever having played it with a real deck of cards. They might play a "re-made" version of Texas Hold'em, which lets you play online, with fake money, and a customized avatar. I'm sure you can think of at least one game you've played digitally that has a real world counterpart.

This week I played Battle Chess on the NES for the first time since a vaguely remembered day from my childhood. I'm tempted to say that this game has not aged well, but the truth is that it was never very good to begin with. Battle Chess is based on a basic idea - Chess could be more fun if, like in the famous scene from Star Wars, the pieces killed each other after you finished your moves. Each attacker-defender combination has a "fight" animation that lets you watch your Pawns get jabbed by other Pawns, and watch as your Rook transforms into a golem and squashes your opponent's Knight. The animation's are okay, although obviously a gimmick. With this change alone, the age-old game of chess might have been slightly improved; at the very least, the novelty of the death scenes might have made for a few rounds of entertainment.

Notice, I said "might." It's shocking how boring Battle Chess can be. Each piece walks across the board in the slowest way possible. If you move your Knight, and any pieces are in its way, it will pause while they walk out of its path. The game's title screen offers no options and dumps the player directly into round 1 of a game of Chess - players with an instruction manual, of course, will discover that the Select button allows them to select AI and multiplayer options.

Still, you'd think that one of the first games in the world to be computerized would be easy to make enjoyable in digital form. It makes one wonder why we bother playing computerized versions of games we can already play in real life - Chess, capture-the-flag, baseball, fetch with a pet dog - but this question has many answers. I'm sure many players who enjoy baseball video games might find a game of "real" baseball too inaccessible or difficult to enjoy. Continuing with that example, "real" baseball requires a field, more than a handful of players (eighteen if you're a stickler), and specialized equipment. Video game baseball can be played alone or with complete strangers that are in their own living rooms, and it can be played using the same equipment as video game Chess and video game capture-the-flag.

Please take not that I'm not arguing "video game baseball is better than baseball." A statement like that might turn my family against me, and even so much as comparing the two experiences would be a vast oversimplification of the nature of each game. Every example I offered above has a counter-example - to a group of kids growing up on the same block, a bat, ball, and backyard are much cheaper and "more accessible" than a console, TV, and Internet connection. My father had my whole childhood to teach me to play baseball (and bless him, he tried), but it would probably take me the rest of my life to explain an Xbox 360 controller to him.

To me, it seems the lesson learned is that some games are "re-made" as digital games and end up being very different experiences, baseball included. Some games, such as Chess, are made into digital games, and yet the experience is nearly the same. And any "remake" is bound to be compared to the original if it doesn't manage to break new ground on its own, whether the game being re-made is Chess, baseball, or Super Mario Bros. I'm suggesting that that's why we tend not to think of Solitaire for Windows, with its "the boss is coming, minimize the window!" button and all, as a remake.

I just hope that future civilizations don't plug in a dust-covered copy of Battle Chess and wonder, "What part of this was fun?"


  1. Battle Chess is awesome. The best part was viewing the battles. Screw playing chess!

  2. I remember buying Star Wars Chess for Sega CD, and promptly finding it odd that Darth Vader was the queen.

  3. I'm currently in Arkansas for my grandmother's 85th birthday. She lives in an assisted-living place thingy, and you mentioning that it would take you the rest of your life to explain the XBox 360 controller to your father reminds me of the conversations we've had with Grandma over these past two days.

    The facility in which she lives apparently has "Wii Games" all day. Well, for some of these people, it works (I assume), but for Grandma, not so. She can't understand it for the life of her, even though it's merely physical movement (mind you, she's in a wheelchair permanently at this point.)

    What a crazy world of techno-babble and whatsuch we live in...


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