by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This is the fourth essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.
When I read my review of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D from six years ago, not only do I experience that writer’s pain that comes with recognizing the inferiority of one’s previous work, but I also find my article’s optimism for the remake hard to stomach. There is context for that optimism. The remake allowed me to play Majora’s Mask all the way through for the first time. The refashioned Moon, with its ever-present and twisted stare, stirred my anxiety throughout the game as I’m sure the original Moon would have. The remake doesn’t botch what makes the story of Majora’s Mask so affecting. But even considering these factors and others, there’s a nagging sense that my review failed to underline the disappointing reality about Majora’s Mask 3D.
Why did it take the hackneyed 3D gimmick for a game as fascinating as Majora’s Mask to reach a wider audience? Why does the remake water down the kinetic momentum one could achieve with Link’s various forms in the original (whether with Deku Link’s hopping or Zora Link’s swimming)? Why can’t there be a faithful translation of a well-regarded sequel within a storied, beloved franchise?
These questions and others didn’t cross my mind when I wrote the piece. On some level, my article dismissed the value of having an accurate port of Majora’s Mask due to my distaste for the blocky polygon aesthetic that characterized countless titles on fifth-generation consoles. This bias caused me to fall into a trap: I bought into the notion that newer technology improves old games. I threw, however inadvertently, history and artistry into the trash.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is one of my favorite games from the 2010s. It is a remake, but unlike Majora’s Mask 3D, it is a remake of a game, Fire Emblem Gaiden, that hasn’t been released in the United States. A devil’s advocate could excuse my enthusiasm for Shadows of Valentia based on the fact that I might’ve never gotten the opportunity to experience Gaiden. I also hold that the new components within Shadows of Valentia — from the rewind mechanic to the anime cutscenes — are, for the most part, well executed.
Still, I come back to the comments section of my review for Shadows of Valentia. Here, Ronaldo Villanueva, one of the most insightful game critics I know, tells me why his familiarity with Gaiden impacts his assessment of Shadows of Valentia. Ronaldo believes Shadows of Valentia has less strategic depth than Gaiden and backs up his contention with several examples.
It’s impossible for me to say whether I agree with Ronaldo. Gaiden remains elusive. But his hesitation to approve certain elements of Shadows of Valentia gives me pause, and makes me wish that the game industry cared more about broadening access to games like Gaiden, if only so we can have more provocative debates and a shared sense of the past.
Whether we’re talking about Majora’s Mask 3D, Shadows of Valentia, or Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey, many game remakes play it safe, notwithstanding their various tweaks to original works. They adhere to the basics. They admit their predecessors were special. They serve as proxies. They want to be seen as logical updates, not daring revisions. (Note, too, that even though my review for Slant says that Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey is “the ultimate version of a pop masterpiece,” the fact that I use the word “version” implies that, to some extent, I’m talking about a product, thus contradicting my goal as a critic to look at games as more than products.)
Shouldn’t a game remake actually remake more of the material? The best film remakes do, from John Carpenter’s The Thing to David Cronenberg’s The Fly to Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The best cover songs do, from Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Not only do these examples in the film and music spheres implement a number of substantial changes to their inspirations (can you even imagine Franklin not spelling out the word “Respect” in her version of the Otis Redding tune?), but they also register as quintessential representations of the personalities and styles of the artists that brought the remade things to life. The best justification for a remake lies in the remake’s overall individual quality, as opposed to any gap that the remake might fill in a market.
This last point is especially interesting to ponder when we analyze the 1994 Game Boy remake of Donkey Kong (which I will refer to as Donkey Kong 1994 from now on). Donkey Kong 1994 is the greatest game remake I’ve played both because of how good it is and because of how much it distinguishes itself from the 1981 original. The first four levels of Donkey Kong 1994 follow the lead of Donkey Kong, but in a delightful twist, the rest of the game amounts to about 100 distinct levels that go far beyond the vision of the arcade classic. Mario is a much different animal in Donkey Kong 1994. Showing off acrobatic abilities that would appear two years later in Super Mario 64, Mario had never been as agile before the Game Boy remake. In addition to adopting ideas that we just don’t see in the typical Donkey Kong or Mario game (like needing to find and carry a key to a door to advance in every level), Donkey Kong 1994 includes a way for Mario to create temporary ladders, bridges, and springs, a proposition that could be as straightforward as it could be janky. All of these elements, and others I haven’t mentioned, lend an air of experimentation and surrealism to the proceedings. Playing Donkey Kong 1994 is like entering a parallel dimension and discovering what the weirdos in another reality get to experience instead of the original Donkey Kong. The game bucks trends, stimulates the imagination, defies expectations, conjures new history. It’s neither an improved version of Donkey Kong nor a chance for latecomers to see what they missed back in 1981. Donkey Kong 1994 shows us what a remake can be made of.