2021 has seen more than its fair share of video game remasters, director’s cuts, and next-gen upgrade packages—but which stand out amongst this large pack?
As the industry struggles to correct itself after the shake-up caused by the pandemic, and as studios learn how to develop for next-gen consoles, it feels like we’ve been graced with more remasters than any other year before. Game of the Year discussions are looming, and I discovered that, of all the games I played in 2021, a considerable chunk were updates of existing classics.
Remasters aren’t just cheap cash-ins, however. They’re a genuine opportunity for developers to reimagine their classics, correcting imperfections and making them accessible to new players. There are so many routes that studios can take when doing so—is it better to transplant the old experience onto new hardware, or will fans push back against changes, even if they’re for the better?
Let’s look at some of the best remasters of the year, examining how they handled their legacies and how it worked out for them.
5) Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl
One of the biggest remasters of the year arrived last week and has divided fans by sticking close to its source material. Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl take the 15-year-old DS games—not even Platinum, their enhanced successor—shine them up to a modern Switch standard for presentation, and tack on a few modern conveniences like EXP sharing, player customization, and accessing boxes without returning to the nearest Pokémon Centre. However, the core remains the same, which is either a nostalgic trip for some or a letdown for others who expected the large expanses of Sword and Shield.
What we said: “It’s difficult to screw up the Pokémon formula, and the charm that was found in the original Diamond and Pearl can still be found here.“
4) NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
If you played the cult classic NieR back in its day, you’d be forgiven for thinking that NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139… has shaken up the original game’s story. In another example of Square Enix’s inexplicable regional name changes, the game English audiences received was known as NieR Gestalt in Japan, an alternate Xbox 360 version where the protagonist is an older man fighting to save his daughter.
This latest release in director Yoko Taro’s series remasters the PS3 original, where the protagonist is out to save his sister. Back in 2010, players and critics alike found NieR was held back by its graphics and technical issues, despite its powerful story. NieR Replicant truly shines on new hardware, however, allowing new audiences to experience it in the wake of NieR Automata‘s success.
What we said: “NieR: Replicant is a much more vibrant looking game than its 2010 counterparts, with character models that put the game closer in line with the aesthetics found in NieR: Automata while still maintaining some of its darker gothic-inspired themes.“
3) Yakuza Remastered Collection
Sega and Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio bring the Yakuza series back to Xbox with Yakuza Remastered Collection, a trio of PS3-era games. Microsoft purists might have missed all of their brawling mafia melodrama but now, thanks to the Series X’s SSD, these remasters mitigate some of their awkward or outdated conventions. The Yakuza series is enjoying a resurgence lately, and this is a terrific place to jump in.
What we said: “With a brand new 1080p60 facelift, a reasonable MSRP and the opportunity for anyone with an Xbox Game Pass subscription to play all three included titles for free, there’s no excuse for anyone with an Xbox and even a passing interest in the Yakuza franchise to not check out this collection.“
2) Final Fantasy III Pixel Remaster
Other games on this list have used new technology to file down the edges on PS3-era games, but the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters take a different route: recreating NES and SNES JRPG classics in faithful 2D sprites. These PC and mobile ports preserve the original proportions of the first six Final Fantasy games while also giving the original artists a chance to add more detail. The result is the most faithful reimagining of these old-school gems to date.
The Best of the package is Final Fantasy III. This 2D version never saw a full English release until now, 31 years after its release. The Pixel Remasters took out some of its more annoying components and rebalanced its 20+ jobs, allowing fans to experience the original officially.
What we said: “Veterans will be divided by some balancing decisions, but should still appreciate the new audio/visual experience. If you’re a fan of later games in the series but have been put off playing these earliest instalments by their archaic presentation or literal inaccessibility on older platforms, the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters are a fresh opportunity to catch up.“
1) Mass Effect Legendary Edition
The Mass Effect trilogy left an irrefutable impression on the gaming industry. Although the instalments were released in relatively quick succession, there were some wild discrepancies and gaps in their battle systems. The Mass Effect Legendary Edition corrects this by giving the saga a complete overhaul, not just a facelift. The first game is nigh-unrecognizable, its janky combat redefined. And with all three games in one package alongside their DLC, there’s never been a better way to experience Commander Shepard’s journey.
The original spirit is still there, but the games play better by a huge margin, and its sprawling narrative shines in one package. It’s not just my top pick for top remaster of the year, but a contender for the all-time title.
What we said: “Mass Effect Legendary Edition is one of the finest remasters made to-date. For newcomers and veterans alike, it’s the essential version of a must-play trilogy, honouring its strengths while smoothing out most of its faults.“
We’ll likely see a good share of remasters in 2022 as well, but if they’re as solid and respectful as this crop—not rushed like the Grand Theft Auto Remastered Trilogy, or preserving glaring technical limitations like Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne HD—then we can feast well as we stroll down memory lane.