The games industry routinely does a poor job of celebrating its heritage.
Movie studios lavish care and attention on their film re-releases. They cajole creaking directors out of retirement to recollect the film-making process for warm- (or cold-) hearted commentary tracks; pull back the editor’s curtain to show off deleted scenes; present interviews with resentful, proud or bewildered cast and crew members and craft documentaries on everything from storyboards to the film’s cultural impact. Even the most seemingly niche movie titles are treated with reverence when the decision is made to re-release.
Meanwhile, the most game-players can hope for is a digital-repackaging of a seminal title, perhaps with updated textures and added achievements. In many cases, the most important titles of yesteryear are left alone, tributes paid, instead, by designers who pick over their corpses for ideas, and thread them into their own new creations.
In part this is thanks to the video games’ symbiotic relationship with technology.
Game hardware historically offers a technological upgrade every few years, a business cycle that has the side-effect of formalising obsolescence. Enabling old games to play on new machines is costly to game studios in a way that remastering a movie for a new piece of video technology isn’t.
But also the game medium believes (implicitly, at very least) in the precedence of the new over the old, the idea that sequels are functional upgrades as much as narrative continuations or expansions and, as such, the past is empirically a poorer, dumber place. That is certainly the implicit message in many publishers’ lack of care over their re-releases which represent a monetization of nostalgia and little more.
Sega’s re-release of the seminal Dreamcast title Jet Set Radio today is noteworthy then. The game certainly makes for the perfect candidate for the re-release treatment as its cel-shaded graphics – so striking, so surefooted – lend themselves to a straightforward textural upgrade. But Sega has done more than just re-paint Smilebit’s game for contemporary players. The publisher has also gone to the trouble of recording a documentary on the its creation, in which the creators talk about that particular time of their lives and the cultural environment in which the game was pieced together.
The film is fascinating not least because it offers insight into exactly why games from the past can be so informative and exciting. The game’s director speaks eloquently about Japanese youth culture in the late 1990s, its infectious rhythms, many of which made their way into the game. It shows that the context in which a game is created can fundamentally inform its expression, something we rarely consider.
In this Tokyo Game Show week where we will no doubt witness what has become an annual misery of cliches from much of the contemporary Japanese games industry, it’s a timely reminder of the importance of cultural vibrancy to the quality of our entertainment. Arguably we would be richer if it was this pursuit driving creative ambition instead of the endless quest for technological dominance.
The past is important and full of causes for celebration. Start with Jet Set Radio tonight.
Buy Jet Set Radio for 800MSP here