Like Old Hollywood Movies, Video Games Get a Polish for New Audiences

Nostalgia has always been a powerful source of revenue for Hollywood. Turns out, it’s equally lucrative for video games.

From its beginnings with the likes of Pong, a two-dimensional table tennis game, the video game industry has grown into a $120 billion business. Over the years, memorable games have garnered strong followings. Like Hollywood remakes or remasters old movies, video game publishers are overhauling and rereleasing games to tap into ready-made fan bases for popular franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and World of Warcraft.

“I think nostalgia is the major driving force for the success of a remake,” said Doug Clinton, managing partner for the venture capitalist firm Loup Ventures, which focuses on emerging technology and gaming. “Any game that doesn’t have meaningful nostalgic value isn’t likely to be successful.”

In May, Activision Blizzard, the developer behind World of Warcraft, announced that two games from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, originally released in 1999, would be brought back later this year.

The remake trend isn’t extending only to the most highly rated games either. Children (and adults) who received SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom in Christmas of 2003 can now buy a “rehydrated” remake, which hit stores in June. Though the game received decent reviews when it was first released, it was by no means a classic. But the remastering shows how nostalgia is driving publishers’ decision making.

“Because you can actually revisit those virtual spaces, it’s a more powerful type of nostalgia,” said Alyse Knorr, assistant professor of English at Regis University and author of the book “Super Mario Bros. 3.” “It’s the same when you go back to it; it’s the same as it was when you were 7.”

That sentimentality does not necessarily lead to instant sales. Some titles that have been rereleased or remastered in hopes of cashing in on cult status fall back into obscurity, like 2017’s Constructor HD or White Day: A Labyrinth Named School. Generally, games that have high review scores and strong followings tend to be safe financial bets for a second look.

“When you’re taking a game that you know has a Metacritic of 90-plus, the only thing you can do at that point is screw it up,” said Marco Thrush, president of Bluepoint Games, a studio known for developing high quality remasters and remakes.

Initially, publishers capitalized on the nostalgia trend by curating games from the 1990s on plug-and-play devices. Nintendo’s NES Classic, which offered 30 games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong packaged in a replica of the original Nintendo Entertainment System console, was a huge hit when it came out in 2016, selling out almost immediately. Other developers like Sega and Sony quickly followed suit.

But developers saw an opportunity to make even more money by investing in substantial upgrades. One of the biggest this year was the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake.

In 1997, Square Enix released the original Final Fantasy VII, a futuristic cyberpunk epic with multiple characters and twisting plotlines that became one of the most beloved titles in the Final Fantasy series.

Visually, however, the creators had to make do with the technology at the time. For example, the game had blocky-looking characters, no voice acting and no 3-D backgrounds.

After years of teasing, Square Enix remade the game to match a modern experience. Final Fantasy VII Remake used entire teams of voice actors, artists, animators, engineers and producers to create a game that could stand up to any contemporary release.

The strategy paid off: It became the best-selling game of April, according to data from the NPD Group, a research firm that covers the video game industry.

“We are writing in our reports that it will be a two-part series. Not three, not four, not 10,” Mr. Goyal said. “And the subsequent chapter will be coming out soon in the next fiscal year.”

Bluepoint revamped the game in 2011, bringing the original up to 1080p standards, then substantially reworked it again in 2018 for 4K televisions. Mr. Thrush, Bluepoint’s president, declined to reveal the costs of remaking the game.

“We revitalize an older game, somebody’s baby,” said Mr. Thrush. “New gamers get to play games they otherwise wouldn’t.”

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