Video Games

Faithful Remake vs Faithful Remake?

Recently, I put a re-play of Pokémon Shining Pearl (henceforth, BDSP) on pause to play the new Super Mario RPG remake for Nintendo Switch. A game which, I am proud to say I got basically for free, with some winnings from playing the Pokémon TCG. That was the best feeling ever! Originally, I had no plans to get the game. But I figured, what the heck, why not? It'll be fun!

I had heard Vinny Vinesauce (his legal name) make an offhand comment of "I heard this is one of the most faithful remakes". The exact phrasing of that sent my mind into a spiral as I recalled the heated discussion around Shining Pearl's use of the word faithful in promotional material. As if it was a signal to say "Hey, it's basically the same, we didn't do anything".

Trying to describe with any accuracy, Pokémon's fandom, criticism, and community is a huge can of worms. You may have seen totally different reactions and opinions from me. So, I will lay some groundwork with my own personal opinion. I speak with honesty, and do not intend to paint a picture of absolutely every Pokémon or Mario fan.

I love Raichu. Takes a while to get him in this game though.

I greatly enjoy BDSP. Shining Pearl is a great game. I was replaying it with some interest in confirming that I still felt that. There are a lot of factors that go into that. After skipping on Let's Go, and feeling fairly negative on Sword and Shield (I'll spare those details), I had a fairly neutral reaction to the Sinnoh remakes' announcement. I decided to get them eventually, and to my surprise, it was a ton of fun all over again. Playing with the good ol' top down view was nostalgic and just felt right to me. I started Pokémon on Red Version when I was very young, so it's fairly ingrained in me that Pokémon is supposed to be like that, I think. The trainer models in battles were beautiful, and I didn't mind the chibi overworld at all.

There were some improvements and features missing from Platinum. In my opinion, vanilla Diamond and Pearl are still among the weakest mainline Pokémon games. The selection of useful or interesting Pokémon to take with you on your journey is dreadfully shallow. So many "new" Pokémon were locked behind the vast majority of the journey, like new evolutions for Kantonian Pokémon. You'll spend a lot of time fighting Sturdy Geodudes and Zubats in caves and finding the Starly and Bidoof in far too many places. The Safari Zone is largely unexciting. Jigglypuff and Ponyta as rare-ish early game encounters were especially un-fun at the time because a lot of us had just played Fire Red or Leaf Green! It ran slow as hell, too. Walking around was way more of a chore than in Ruby and Sapphire. Even as a kid, I felt a bit miffed. Most of this was addressed in some way in Platinum. The overworld was largely left alone from vanilla in BDSP.

Diamond and Pearl are filled with treasures as well, though. Move variety and usability greatly improved with some truly awesome attacks, and the physical special split, one of the best things that ever happened! Gym Leaders and the Elite Four, even some Trainer battles, were well designed to show off interesting or new strategies. Cynthia is still one of the best bosses in the series, in my opinion. You need a lot of grit and strategy to take her on. Sinnoh is a wonderfully designed region with a central feature in Mt. Coronet and tons of small environmental puzzles and items littered about. This was all great, and the Sinnoh games in general start to veer into being an "expert players" Pokémon. I love that vibe a lot, and it fits with the series age at that point, this is Generation 4. It was certainly time to press a little bit of challenge on players. Much of this is still a highlight in the remakes.

Super Mario RPG, the remake, again had me feeling neutral at first. I had played through the original, and loved it, a few years back. There's really not a lot that could go wrong with a remake of almost any kind that wasn't an extremely radical reworking. Calling Mario RPG a timeless classic might not do it enough justice. With JRPG's peak development team (Square, with Miyamoto producing!) on the project, it would be crazier if it wasn't a beloved game! I'll always love the pre-rendered spritework in the original the best, it's a wonderfully realized aesthetic. But the Switch version is a very nice looking game on its own merit, while staying mostly within its source material.

The game largely played out as expected at the start. Yep, there's Mario doing the miming thing. Action commands feel great. Bandit's Way... oh, what's this meter?

Quality of Life..?

Super Mario RPG and BDSP both have quite a few additions, changes, or remixes. More than I think could be fairly labeled under uniform "quality of life" changes. Let's start with Pokémon again.

The Grand Underground is probably BDSP's greatest change that no one seems to talk about. The Underground in the original games is a largely ignorable feature (unless you really liked secret bases from Ruby/Sapphire, more power to you!). In the remakes, the grand underground is now a vast network of various biomes that house Pokémon not normally found or easily obtained in the rest of Sinnoh. Not only that, the Pokémon there are very strong, with excellent and rare moves a plenty. This is the perfect feature for replaying the game, or having fun on your first time. YOU CAN GET HOUNDOOM DOWN THERE.

It's not completely broken or unbalanced though, which Pokémon can appear and what their level range can be is gated by Gym Badge progression. That's perfect!

This adds so much, but can also be ignored if one intends to play a more vanilla style game. You could probably play the real DS game for that, but the option is appreciated and nice. The Grand Underground makes BDSP a very replayable game in an already highly replayable series, in the entry that was most begging for some Pokémon variety in the journey to the League.

It was not necessarily a given that BDSP would run smoothly, or let you run faster, but thank goodness it does. There are smaller fun, but engaging flourishes, like a few nicely rendered outfits for the player, and ball stickers to customize your Pokémon's introduction animation. Here's me playing with my beloved Houndoom. Any Pokémon can walk with you in the overworld after you reach Amity Square. I've always had the impression some are very obsessed with this feature since Heart Gold/Soul Silver, and yet it seems unappreciated here.

I mentioned that Sinnoh has great environmental design and puzzles, which it does. But with an increased number of HMs, HM Slavery was almost a necessity to get through the game. Some have an appreciation for trying to balance this out on a team that can also fight (hey, Cut isn't THAT bad!), and not without merit, but I think the shift away from this is largely a fair change. The inclusion of the HM Pokétch app, like the Underground, greatly improves replayability and team variety in Sinnoh. You no longer need to have an extra Bibarel or two in tow.

When does this stop being a faithful remake? These are not small quality-of-life improvements, these are huge things with big ramifications all over the game!

Aren't they? Am I crazy? We'll come back to that in a minute.

Birdo is one of my favorite Mario characters. Also, this screenshot was taken in portable mode, so it's slightly less crispy than normal.

Super Mario RPG, just like BDSP, adds a helping of features to the core gameplay that make big splashes. See the 100% radial in my screenshot above? That's the completely new Action Gauge. As you successfully chain together (check out my cool 28 Chain) Action Commands and Timed Hits, this gauge will fill up from 0%. It will quickly start applying buffs to your characters depending on who is in the party. Bowser will apply a Defense Up, Peach will provide Magic Defense, etc. At 100%, you can perform a new Triple Move that also varies depending on the party composition. These include powerful single strikes, spread damage, buffs, and one turn of invincibility.

Uh, hello? This alone is a big deal!! This isn't a tweak to existing gameplay, this is an entirely new mechanic to work with here! It's one that fits very nicely, of course, chaining together Action Commands is something you are going to do, and always want to do. Being rewarded even further for mastering it is a clever idea. It's so seamless, you might not even notice it or its effects right away until you get your first Triple Move. I would like to mention now that this feature cannot be disabled, you will receive the buffs as the chain goes up. I don't see this as a problem or a bad thing though. Here is an unrelated article about EXP Share from Pokémon.

There are other big changes for battles as well. When a Timed Hit goes off perfectly from one of your characters, it will create a splash-damage effect and hit all enemies on the field. This is a big shake-up for the strategy of the game. Now, when an enemy is at low health (which is now indicated when you hover over them- I can't even neatly organize how many changes there really are!), you can switch your target and take a gamble that your Timed Hit will finish off that enemy, saving you a turn. This is something that goes on in almost every battle in the game and was not a feature in the original.

You also now have the ability to switch characters on the fly, in battle, without wasting the turn. I love this change. Anyone who's played the original probably has some thoughts about party composition for particular fights or scenes in the game (even keeping in mind that it's hard to ignore Princess Peach's usefulness!). Now, you can play around with different combos much more easily. You can send in Mallow to Thought Peek, and then swap him out if he's not the best for that battle. I'm afraid of sounding like a broken record, but this is a significant, noteworthy change! Don't you think?

There's even, additional postgame bosses to face after the final battle with Smithy. They're quite challenging, and very satisfying to conquer. They push your mettle with understanding everything about Super Mario RPG. If you beat all of them, congratulations!

Again, I ask. When does this stop being a faithful remake? And why did one faithful remake get a notably colder reception than the other?

Chilly Reception

The word faithful, in a video game context, is not really meant to imply exactly the same. Any remake that would attempt to be exactly, to the detail the same would be doing a disservice to itself and the original work. How could you out-original the original work? Game remakes are always in a tricky position, in that sense. Like that scene of Muriel in Courage the Cowardly Dog, a remake that is too similar runs the risk of being derided for a lack of updates or improvements. On the other, a remake that is too different may lack the nuance, spirit, or style of the original work. And that's before you throw in scary words like "intent"!

Could a game's core gameplay be changed dramatically and still be a faithful remake? I'd argue no, but what's a "dramatic" change? I believe BDSP and Mario RPG both have dramatic changes. But they didn't, say, change gameplay to include real-time combat or change the core story. Unrelated image of Final Fantasy VII Remake.

It calls to question what a game remake is even supposed to be! What's our standard here? Why do we make remakes? Is it different for every game? Are more faithful remakes meant to replace original experiences, and do radical remakes exist as companion pieces? For some, Super Mario RPG could perhaps be seen as less of a full remake and more of an accessible re-introduction and re-release for a new audience. Old fans will be pleased in that process, most likely. Mario RPG's gameplay, storyline, and general vibe (one could nitpick that, if desired) are all in tact, with fresh new additions that do add up to significant difference. Still, the reception for Mario, in my eye, has been extremely positive, and I myself had a ton of fun playing the game.

Two years ago, it was practically the same situation for Pokémon, a revisit to a very well-liked generation and region, with almost everything intact, plus some additions that add up to some significance. I had a ton of fun playing the game two years ago. We even built teams and battled with friends. I went back to replay it again. Shining Pearl, I believe it is fair to say, was not quite as warmly welcomed as Mario RPG, despite having a similar approach in being remade and opportunity to impress. Maybe you've been recommended one of the countless video essays detailing shortcomings, or saw a few tweets on its second anniversary about how it still sucks. What did people want from this remake, and did they get it?

Great Expectations?

To some, it may be baggage, and to others heritage, but Pokémon has a history of remakes where Super Mario RPG does not. Super RPG had not one, but two spiritual successors in the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series which built on what RPG started. No immediate direct follow-up, no previous remake or re-release. Pokémon, of course, receives regular releases and remakes alongside those.

Pokémon Sword, and my beautiful babies.

The release of Pokémon Sword and Shield must have set a certain expectation for what the next remake could be like. For the first time (sort of), you were free to roam around (kinda) and rotate the camera (sometimes, and Sun & Moon was the first game to lower the camera towards a traditional third-person one). Would a Sinnoh remake follow this new style? It didn't seem outlandish at all. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were massive remakes in scope, building off of what X & Y had brought to the series. Heart Gold & Soul Silver seem to still be ghosts that cast long shadows over other games in terms of content and replayability.

Quick note. I did not have a 3DS at that time. I still don't actually. I'm currently playing catch up on the 3DS era of Pokémon games. I am aware of them, have seen footage and played through some of X, but no personal experiences beyond that.

When BDSP was revealed to be both not developed by Game Freak and a more faithful remake of Diamond and Pearl in scope, not even cooler younger brother Platinum at that, the internet seemed abuzz with disappointment. The game was still top down with chibi overworld characters, and, well, that set the tone right away. The white fade to Dawn in the reveal trailer seems to haunt some folks to this very day. We're not gonna be running around with a whole new reimagined Sinnoh, we were going to be playing Diamond and Pearl again, with some updates.

Did these updates matter to those who felt disappointed? It seems not, despite how strong I think all of them are. The core concept of a faithful remake seems like it was just too hard to swallow. I can't say I feel the same, though. We certainly did not obsolete top-down JRPG design when games like Sword & Shield or say Dragon Quest XI came out. Pokémon worked in this style for most of its life, I don't think it's aged poorly or demanded to be reimagined. Then again, I am the type who plays Red and seldom Fire Red when I'm ready to revisit the Kanto region.

Super Mario RPG, is also, the same isometric view as the original with real-time 3D graphics in place of pre-rendered sprites. You don't walk around Marrymore with a third person camera and-...yadda yadda. I just said all that. Mario RPG just did not have the re-imagining expectation laid upon it. It sort of showed up out of nowhere in a Nintendo Direct. That context can change a lot. BDSP also appeared in a Direct, but was expected to exist right down to when it would come out and what game it would be remaking.

Is that fair to Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl? Well, obviously, people are free to feel how they feel. We can't control that. And it would be silly to assume I am the only lone soldier who liked this game, I'm quite certain many enjoyed it! I don't think Pokémon fans are entitled babies or stupid idiots. Sometimes we just don't vibe with something. Disappointment doesn't always hold hands with misunderstanding, but I don't this game's reputation being repaired for quite some time. It will be reassessed in time. You could practically set a clock by when the "BDSP was always good" tweets will appear in about, say, two more years.

I do wish this kind of remake was met with warmer arms, as Mario's was. Does it go against the grain for Pokémon remakes that had come before? Yes. And that's an understandable sore spot. If Sinnoh is your all time favorite region, or Diamond & Pearl your absolute favorite games, then this was your one shot at a remake for a long time, if not forever. I like the top down style, personally. I think the BDSP style additions of an optional, wider Pokémon pool to play with in an existing, known game is really smart and thoughtful. I don't think we should never do that again. Is being a faithful remake an automatic sin? I don't think it should be, and clearly it isn't with Super Mario RPG's rave reviews.

At this time, it turned out Game Freak was working on Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which took place in a much more open world in an ancient Sinnoh region. I love that game, I thought it was an exciting innovation with a lot of cool design that still felt like Pokémon. The fact it also took place in the Sinnoh region, albeit a very different one, was pretty interesting, existing alongside BDSP. If Legends Arceus' new gameplay took place in the modern Sinnoh, with the original DP story, would that be too radical to call a remake? Or the wrong time to introduce a new style? Was that perhaps a reason behind BDSP's conception? I truly wonder how well that game would have been received, though. Would any Diamond/Pearl purists or enthusiasts be unhappy with that, and could we have heard a totally different vocal outcry? I have no idea, but it's a lot of fun to think about!

The Future & Some Concluding Thoughts

We can only guess what a Pokémon Black & White remake could be like, or what the future of any of the Mario RPGs are. For what it's worth (nothing), I think you could just leave Black & White alone for a good while longer. Having replayed both Unova games a few years back, I still love them dearly just as they have always looked and played. But they will come, eventually, and I will be forced to experience emotions of some kind. In the Mario world, the much beloved Thousand Year Door is about to receive a remake itself! I bet that'd be fun to talk about, but I am simply not in-tune with that community and have never played the original, so I'm not in any position to do so.

Likewise, I can't say I'm in the position to definitively say what kind of game remakes are good, bad, necessary or unnecessary. I don't think anyone knows what you should and shouldn't update when you decide to do one. I wanted to highlight how two remakes with seemingly similar philosophies behind their development can come out being seen so differently. Gaming media was decently kind to BDSP, whereas Super Mario RPG's media reception could be described as very kind. Or, put another way, by mainstream reviews and scores, there was not really a massive chasm between the two titles. General fandom response is harder to gauge, more subjective, but I feel that chasm exists. There are YouTube comments and some miscellaneous posts nitpicking Mario RPG's remake. And I have played favorites with the graphics too, preferring the original. But overall, I would have to say Mario RPG is getting a far less controversial reception.

It could be argued that perhaps Super Mario RPG is just a better game than BDSP, and maybe it is, but I feel the two just begged for comparison. I just cannot help but think that they are so similar. Heck, they both have chibi characters! Remakes are just tricky like that. One faithful remake can come across as a rehash, while another can be a fresh return to a classic.

Expectation seems to play a big role. Mentioning Final Fantasy VII Remake again, that's a completely different style of remake than what I've talked about here, seems to have gotten glowing reviews from nearly all walks of life. That game's development was very long and troubled, but it had an expectation that it would be a full, big-budget Square Enix reimagining in line with something like a Final Fantasy XII. The 2015 reveal of its existence confirmed as much, and it seems the Final Fantasy community was simply not in the mood for Final Fantasy VII with real-time environments and better overworld models. Final Fantasy is huge, epic, and cinematic, some of the most lavish productions that video games can get, and reality matches that expectation. The original FF7, while looking sort of lo-fi today (I love how the PSX game looks, it's amazing), was the expensive, big-budget production at the time with mind-boggling FMVs and a huge story.

Final Fantasy games pre-7 had been re-released with quite a few changes multiple times on PS1, WonderSwan, and Game Boy Advance, and then like three more times after that with more changes. Are they faithful remakes? Unfaithful remasters in the Pixel Remaster series? Are some more faithful than others, and is that a bad thing or good thing? Do any of them warrant a VII-style remake when someone thinks of "Final Fantasy remakes"? What about the Resident Evil series, which is littered with remakes? Do those supplant or replace originals? Are they meant to? Does it matter, when all of them seem to be met with delight, and Capcom confirming even more are on the way?

Sometimes, the best gift is one you didn't know you wanted. BDSP was expected to show up any day now at the time of its announcement, and ended up being seen as a party crasher. Final Fantasy VII remake though, was rumored for years, and then took five more years from the announcement to come out, and still stuck the landing! Nobody expected a Mario RPG remake, so it has the advantage of coming off like a neat Christmas gift. Wow, Mario, thanks!

A photograph of mine, playing FF7 for the first time in 2017.

The whole landscape of remakes just seems radically different depending on where you look. It seems simple when we think of it as "The same game, but updated with modern stuff", but I'm getting a headache over here! There's even more examples of remakes that have updates and changes with no uniformity in reception, like Maverick Hunter X. I also certainly wanted to take some time to defend and highlight Shining Pearl.

Original games almost always take some priority in my heart and mind, regardless of what's in a remake, if there even is one. Pokémon Red is the game that changed the world and lit a passion, not Fire Red. Final Fantasy VII is the game on PlayStation that shot Square and JRPGs into the stratosphere outside of Japan. A remake, by its nature, has no way to recapture Final Fantasy's fascinating jump into 3D, its early FMVs, or extremely charming graphics and sound. Final Fantasy VIII's bizarre but interesting "remaster" is a whole different story, though. For others, games are just begging to be updated, and titles of a certain age or style are simply obsoleted by modern ideas.

Old games represent a history and legacy, a point in time, that a remake has to play catch up with. An older game has a reputation for x years, and one just came out, regardless of how "faithful" it is or not. That's just how my mind, works though. You can also look at a game independently of all that, which is almost impossible for me to do. Doesn't every game have an equal chance, equal standing, to impress when we first hold the controller and hit Start? One example of me preferring a remake is the original Dragon Quest. I've played the game on NES, GBC, Mobile and Switch, and I truly do enjoy the double EXP and gold that with the SNES/GBC conversions. I think that takes away nothing from the experience, and is certainly something I recommend for most players.

You might have a completely different list of priorities, desires, and ideas. You might have one set of expectations for a remake in one franchise, and maybe a remake would ruin everything in another. You might be interested in history and larger cultural contexts, or are simply looking for games to play. Maybe you're begging for one of your favorites to get the FFVII/Capcom style treatment, or maybe you couldn't care less. I'd be happy to hear what you might have to say, if you'd like to write me a letter.

If I type the word remake one more time, I think I'm gonna collapse. That should lay out everything I've been thinking over the last few days, and we'll have to leave it at that for now! If you read this all the way through, I thank you sincerely. See you next article!

- James