Waypoint Weeklies: A Video Game Port in Any Storm

Chrono Trigger was released in 1995, a year when mobile phones were still candy bar-shaped plastic bricks with LCD screens and a game-playing capacity that was regulated to prank phone calls and ill-advised games of catch. Since then, Chrono Trigger has been ported to multiple consoles. In 2011 it was even released on iOS and Android, as the game-playing capabilities of mobile phones had greatly improved since 1995. When a Windows port for Chrono Trigger was released on Steam in 2018, the negative reception was enormous, and the port faced complains regarding glitches, graphics, and UI adaptations. While these were improved upon in a series of updates, it does bring to mind the issues that surface when popular games from the past need to be adapted to contemporary technology.

It’s fair to say that games that were made in the past shouldn’t be left to collect dust, but what does it mean to port something to another system? Should ports try to capture the original feel of a game, or is that a fruitless endeavor? What makes a good port? What makes a bad one?

What do you think?

That’s such a good question, for a few reasons.

What are we defining as “port,” here? Resident Evil 2? The Vicarious Visions Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2? FFVIIR? The FFVII that got dropped onto Steam prior to that? For what follows (I’m writing this in the middle of my other thoughts), I’ll talk about Tony Hawk.

Furthermore, technology has made things weird.

I don’t know if anyone has attempted to play Parappa The Rapper lately, but that is not an experience I would recommend. The migration to LED-flavored screens has completely obliterated any sense of timing required to play that game. And there’s no sort of “calibrate” feature like modern Rock Band games have to try and bridge that gap.

To me, there’s an epsilon bubble (shout-out to my topologists out there) around where my original muscle memory of a game is: if your port lands in that bubble, you nailed it. It needs to play the way my brain thinks it does. The Vicarious Visions Tony Hawk ports nailed precisely that: it played exactly the way I thought it did. Is that the same thing as it playing exactly the same way it did? No. It’s tricky! Approach with caution!

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There are so many interesting nuances of “port” and “re-release” and “remaster”. Without trying to get too pedantic about that wording, I’d generally like older games to be presented as close to their original version as possible while making concessions for things like modern, higher resolution displays and controls. Ideally, any updates should be optional. Want to play with original tank controls or ditch mouse look? Go ahead.

Too often, as OP mentions, ports botch aspects of the original presentation - everything from lighting to fonts. Always makes me think of the infamous restoration of the painting of Christ - a bit hyperbolic, maybe, but I’m sure you get my point. And it doesn’t even have to be older games; recent history is littered with broken PC ports or games that run sluggishly on consoles (especially Switch).

Of course, if it’s a remake, then bets are off. Do whatever to modernise or reimagine it - so long as the original is preserved.

The taxonomy of game releases is such a simultaneously fascinating and tiresome topic because the only people interested in actually nailing down what distinguishes a port from a remaster from a remake are the people who they aren’t being made for.

For me, a port is a purely technical way to say you made your game first on one type of hardware and then adapted it to work on another. However, if you’re adapting a game in the technical sense, you’re also likely to be making changes that effect the overall work. There are thousands of examples of this but the closest one to my heart is Kane and Lynch 2 because the most widely played version is probably the PC port at this point, which is a terrible version imo because its cleans up the game and makes it look less fucked up.

My favourite port between systems currently has to be FFXIII from Xbox 360 to Xbox One X/Series X because they patched in all the upscale assets and movie files from the PC version into the Xbox 360 version running in backwards compatibility mode on newer hardware. A stealth remaster masquerading as a simple backwards compatible game. A portmaster, if you will.

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This is such an interesting topic of discussion because there’re tons of specific examples you could pull from, from any period of video game history, to drill into lengthy conversations about what works and what doesn’t. For the sake of not making this too long (likely impossible for me), I’m gonna speak very broadly here.

Nowadays, when I think of a port I’m thinking of a modern game that exists on different platforms with technical quirks depending on what platforms it’s on. In that context, I think that ports should really do one thing since the game experience isn’t going to be all that different no matter where you play it; the game just needs to run as best as it can. In the context of older games re-released on modern platforms, there are also plenty of ports that come out in the purely functional sense but I for one don’t think this sort of port should be what developers aim to release.

When it comes to older games, there’s no shortage of ways for a modern individual to play a platform-perfect version of a game. So instead of aiming for technical accuracy (which I should mention, is something that should be presumed in some form), I would like more developers to aim much higher than that. As many modern technical fixings and options as possible, art galleries with documents and other ephemera of the era that provides much needed context for players who would otherwise have no access to it and a presentation that lends any sort of care or reverence to the game that you wouldn’t get by loading up an emulator.

Remasters are a bit of a different matter because I think they ought to straddle the line between a purely technical/preservative/archival work (a port) and more wholly interpretive/adaptive takes on a game (a remake). Remasters, in my ideal, should be a different than the source game because any significant remastering work will inherently change the game itself. With that in mind, remasters should not be the exact same game as whatever they’re remastering but rather the modern ideal of said game. Aspects of the game should be reexamined and reworked for the sake of convenience or modern sensibilities or whatever so long as the spirit of the game remains the same.

I could go off about this for so much longer if I utilized specific examples (can you tell this is something I think about a lot?) but I think I managed to get to the gist of how I feel about all this out just now.

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This is largely how I think of it too. A port is the technical work, getting the game or software to run on a new target with changes made by necessity or desperation (such as when Rebecca Heineman, who got the job of porting Doom to the 3DO by herself in ten weeks, had a band redo the music since that was quicker than porting the music driver).

A remaster is purposefully changing the original material (master) to some degree. This can be to retain as much of the “original” experience as possible (eg. Chocolate Doom), or update assets to work better for modern display technology and conventions (Grim Fandango Remastered, Silent Hill 2: Enhanced Edition), or create something new out of the material (modern controls in System Shock: Enhanced Edition). It may or may not involve making a port.

Technically, adding entirely new assets and scenes brings us out of “remaster” territory since you’re no longer working with the original “master” assets. For example adding a vocal track to the opera scene in the new Final Fantasy 6 release.


But, like, any modern rerelease is likely a mix of porting, remastering and making new assets to varying success. And debating whether a release is a “remake”, “remaster”, “adaptation” or “new take on it” isn’t fun. It’s more fun to talk about specifics: How close is the overall experience to the original? What is gained and lost with the changed control scheme and graphics? Can I still buy and play something as close to the “classic” version as possible? Do newcomers like it? Woah, is this new Final Fantasy 7 Remake actually in dialog with the player who played the original that’s so coo–

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If I had encountered Chrono Trigger at any other time on any other system than when it came out on the Nintendo DS, I likely wouldn’t have fallen in love with it like I did. But it was perfect for me at the time, and while it’s been a long time since I played it, I think it’s still one of my favorite games!

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