Is GTA V the Best Example of What It Means to Remaster a Game?

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The word “master” in both film and music often refers to the definitive copy of a work. It is the copy of the best possible quality, and the original from which all distributed and sold copies are made. For a “remaster,” the sound or visual quality of the master is enhanced, thus replacing the master and becoming the new master. It’s not something you’d think would easily translate to video games, but in recent years it’s shown up more and more often.

Related: Grand Theft Auto V (PS4, Xbox One) Review – A New Brand of Crazy

It’s possible that there’s a technical definition preventing the term “remaster” from properly applying to games, but on a base level the idea is the same. Interestingly, it seems as though it can represent both a fresh coat of paint for a relatively recent release, or a complete overhaul to an older title that may not have originally debuted in high definition. The Last of Us Remastered is one of the few titles to actually use the term in its name, but I’ve seen “remaster” bandied about forums and comment sections with increasing frequency (and possibly carelessness), to the point that I’ve begun to question its actual, specific meaning as it pertains to the interactive medium of games.

Defining “Remaster”

Here’s an example. You’d think a remaster would be the most advanced form of quality-enhancement to an existing product, no? The Last of Us is less than two years old, yet a (very pretty) remaster arrived just a year after its release. The Wind Waker HD, meanwhile, reworked a more than decade-old title into a form presentable on modern HDTVs, and the word “remaster” was never mentioned once it its marketing, despite falling more heavily in line with the street definition of “remaster.” So what gives, gaming industry? What exactly is a remaster?

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Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition didn’t exactly live up to its title.

This definition will surely sort itself out over time, and by most accounts the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto V from Rockstar does in fact meet the minimum requirement for casual “remaster” branding from fans. Though not entirely re-built from scratch, the game adds impressive new systems like a first-person mode, ups the native resolution, adds detail in spades, and generally looks a whole lot better than the original game. So that’s a remaster, right? Most would say “of course it is.” But what about running San Andreas with an emulator at 1080p? Or the recent re-release of that game on PC and Mac?

Also See: HD Versions of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess Were Tested by Nintendo

Those haven’t been branded as remasters and probably aren’t considered such by gamers, but someday a publisher (probably not Rockstar) will slap the term “remaster” on a mere up-rezzed release and call it day. We called Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition “the laziest remaster we’ve seen yet,” and the fact is, it is a remaster, even if Square Enix never used those exact words. As such, it’s expected to achieve a certain standard. Calling Sleeping Dogs “remaster” or “definitive edition” is almost misleading despite an indisputable boost in fidelity, because what gamers expect from a remaster (read: value)  isn’t necessarily exactly in line with what remaster technically means. You could also argue that not branding The Wind Waker HD a remaster is also misleading. “Oh, it’s in HD now. They’ve boosted the resolution.” To me, in no way does the term “HD” imply the ample improvements to lighting and even gameplay that were included with that game.

Fitting Grand Theft Auto V into the Equation

And that’s where the confusion comes in. Grand Theft Auto V is among the best gaming remasters ever released, but it also sets some confusing precedents. Though first-person mode wasn’t my personal favorite, many have hailed it as a game-changer, and there’s no denying the massive amount of work (something like 3000 new animations) that adding such a mode requires. Say the game added first-person, but skimped on visual enhancements outside of resolution — is it still a remaster? The sooner publishers and game-makers can communicate what exactly consumers can expect from a remaster vs. an “HD edition” (whether they’re the same or drastically different), the sooner critics can assess said releases more appropriately and gamers can know what they’re getting themselves into.

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Skyward Sword looks very nice in HD, and that’s without any remastering at all.

There’s also the issue of work invested vs. end result. Rockstar’s recent efforts were massive thanks to the new perspective and the immense size of GTA V’s world, but it’s still an easier game to make PS4-presentable than something from the PS2 era would be. To continue the Zelda examples, Wind Waker’s cell-shading makes it a prime-candidate to look stellar on Wii U, while something like Twilight Princess would require a massive overhaul, likely hundreds of new textures, and possibly new NPC character models for certain characters who simply don’t cut the mustard by today’s standards. Skyward Sword, on the other hand, already contains a handful of awesome HD assets on its disc simply waiting to transcend 480p, as proven by emulation. A remaster of that game would require very little effort to look great on modern hardware — in fact, a simple up-rez would probably be enough. Still a remaster? At this point I’m confusing myself, but hopefully my concerns are clear.

Though imperfect, GTA V is probably the best gaming remaster released so far, with Wind Waker and The Last of Us right up there with it. There are certainly plenty of great games from previous generations that deserve similar treatment, though, and the sooner we know what we’re getting with remasters on a consistent basis, the better. Otherwise, I’m sure gamers will be more than happy to keep on emulating.