Between the popularity of Nintendo Switch (a powerful portable that is easy to adapt old console games to), Xbox’s backward compatibility initiative striving to turn console generations into a thing of the past, and publishers’ enthusiasm for remastering hits of yore to tap into the nostalgia market – especially after the enormous success of last year’s Crash Bandicoot release – it feels like we’re spending more time than ever playing and thinking about old games. Or games that aren’t brand new, anyway.
To some extent this is about padding the widening gaps in the release schedule as blockbuster games get fewer and further between. But there also seems to be a genuine and very welcome enthusiasm, among players, developers and the industry, to end the cycle of obsolescence that sees so many great games fade into obscurity with their host hardware. There’s a huge curation opportunity here as well as a business one, and a chance to make old games feel new again by giving them a lick of paint or putting them in a fresh context.
That’s why we’ve decided to recognise this increasingly important strand of gaming by giving it its own end-of-the-year best-of list – unranked, just like our list of the best games of 2018. Any form of reissue is eligible, and indeed there are as many different approaches here as there are games on the list. Here’s to the shock of the old.
Burnout Paradise Remastered
- PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC
This is, if you are being charitable, an elegantly restrained update to Criterion’s 2008 open-world racer; it’s more than a basic port, boasting a few minor visual upgrades, but only just. But then again, what would you change? This glorious game has barely aged a day in 10 years, and it is an unfettered joy to revisit its sunny grid of possibilities, threading through the gaps, smashing through the billboards, breaking through your mental speed barrier until you let it go in an inevitable slow-motion crash.
Dark Souls Remastered
- Nintendo Switch (plus PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC)
Beyond a welcome chance to play the first and best Dark Souls on modern consoles, there initially wasn’t a great deal to this remaster – something which rubbed PC players in particular up the wrong way, along with some console gamers who didn’t own an Xbox One X, the only machine that could reliably lock it to 60 frames per second. It was the later arrival of the Switch version that made From Software’s 2011 masterpiece feel fresh, the move to a portable format paradoxically making it feel more accessible and less forbidding, without dimming its fierce, lugubrious character.
Diablo 3: Eternal Collection
This is essentially the same console version of Diablo 3 that’s been around for a while, bundled with all the latest expansions and updates, but it makes for a doubly compelling package on Switch where Diablo 3’s coruscating grind and infinite fiddling can swallow long journeys in the blink of an eye. The feature set is improbably comprehensive, supporting every controller configuration and mode of play you can imagine. The definitive edition of what has, since its troubled launch in 2012, finally become a modern classic.
Final Fantasy 13 series
Technically, these aren’t reissues at all. They are the Xbox 360 editions of Final Fantasy 13, 13-2, and Lightning Returns, first released between 2009 and 2013, now made available on Xbox One through backwards compatibility. But Microsoft and Square Enix’s engineers went to new lengths in what amounts to more of a bespoke remastering effort than some of the other titles on this list, and the results are stunning to behold, liberating the games’ opulent artwork, on Xbox One X especially. Even canned cut-scenes have been remastered. The games remain one of the more divisive, not to say nakedly unpopular chapters in Final Fantasy history, but you might be surprised how you’ll warm to their slick charms if you revisit them – and there’s no better testament than these sumptuous releases to the heroic preservation work being done by the Xbox back compat team.
- Nintendo Switch (plus PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC)
Another classic game that is good to have available on modern home formats but truly great to have on Switch. Unlike Dark Souls, though, going handheld is not a new adventure for Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines but a homecoming: it’s like having that indelible 2004 PSP version all over again, only on an even bigger, better and brighter screen. Lumines is one of the great arcade puzzle games, which dares to craft a narrative of sorts out of its minimalist block-matching and pulsing tunes. A fascinating precursor and accompaniment to this year’s Tetris Effect – also by Mizuguchi, of course.
Shadow of the Colossus
As great as some of these achievements in game preservation are, in both technical and artistic terms none can even come close to this extraordinary release. (Perhaps Toys for Bob’s Spyro trilogy is comparable, but even then, not really.) Bluepoint Games, undisputed masters of the remaster, moved into full remake territory for this PlayStation 4 version of Team Ico’s melancholy 2005 masterwork. It is an entirely new game, subtly but completely rebuilt, and yet it is exactly as you remember it. Some feel the original’s cloudy ambiguity has been lost in the beautiful new visuals, but without a doubt, their power to move the player to awe remains. Bluepoint is working on another ground-up remake now and we cannot wait to see what it is.
Shenmue 1 & 2
- PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC
Honestly, Sega’s long overdue reissue of Yu Suzuki’s cult epics from 1999 and 2001 is a basic, bare-bones affair. It seems that a full remake was discarded in favour of this quick port, released to beat the forthcoming Shenmue 3 to market. But Shenmue 1 & 2 belongs in this list because it is remarkable that is available at all – or rather, remarkable that it hasn’t been. Despite their passionate following and almost legendary reputation, these games haven’t been available at all for 16 years, since Shenmue 2 was released for the original Xbox. It is important, and wonderful, that they are back. And in a way, the blunt, old-fashioned presentation suits the unique, unrepeatable character of these deliberately banal odes to ordinary life.
SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
Classic compilations are often like generous ‘Best Ofs’, where you’ll hastily rifle through some old favourites before tossing the whole thing aside again, a nostalgic itch scratched. Digital Eclipse’s SNK Collection is something else entirely, though. Here’s a selection of games you’ve surely never played before and quite likely hardly heard of (if you have, well done – but also, you’re lying). This isn’t an excuse to blast through Metal Slug 3 for the umpteenth time – instead, it’s a valuable history lesson, lovingly conducted by historians with an eye for detail and backed up with a wealth of supporting material. Oh, and the games aren’t too bad, either: sometimes schlocky, often pioneering and always rich in action, they do a good job of reshaping the modern perception of SNK and re-establishing how important they were to the Japanese games industry of the 80s.
Thunder Force 4
Picking just one of M2’s Sega Ages games seems a bit unfair – the work is so consistently good from this studio we’d happily recommend any of them – but if there’s one favourite from the current bunch available on Switch, then Thunder Force 4 is surely it. This is the first chance to play this exquisite Mega Drive shooter since the 1996 Saturn release, and thanks to M2 it’s arguably the finest version yet, complete with a Kids’ Mode that blunts the difficulty and several neat filters that ensure Technosoft’s artwork looks pristine on modern screens. There’s still some debate about whether the underlying game is any good, but you can’t deny it’s a uniquely boisterous shooter, and one that’s absolutely beautiful too. How the humble Mega Drive managed to power the often painterly levels is a marvel, and one that’s just as bewildering on the Switch today as it ever was.
There is one game developer that has never stopped revisiting, re-releasing and remixing its own work, and that is Nintendo. The rest of the industry is only just catching up to value Nintendo places on its back catalogue, never mind its inventive approaches to exploiting it. For proof, look no further than this extraordinary greatest-hits package, which compiles and embellishes split-second microgames from the entire WarioWare series, originally released between 2003 and 2013. This is some of Nintendo’s most subversive, surreal and playful work, condensing the entire concept of video gaming to the point of implosion, and in its own way it’s been massively influential. WarioWare Gold treats it with the irreverence it deserves, scrambling it all up and reheating it with a few new ingredients. The result is neither a new game nor an old one. It is pure genius, though.