Been there, played that

The gaming industry catches on to recycling

In the past month, I’ve bumped Diddy Kong off the road, cracked the whip on a fleet of vampires and buffed my warrior monk.

All things, I might add, that I also did extensively in the mid-to-late 1990s.

No, this wasn’t flashback week, where the dust mites get scraped off the Super Nintendo and PlayStation like so much calcified peanut butter. These were new, Nintendo DS versions of Diddy Kong Racing, Castlevania and Final Fantasy III.

The gaming industry’s term of preference for these beasts is “enhanced port,” which often tends to be a polite way of saying “the same thing you played in 1996, now on a new platform with extra skins and wonky multiplayer.” To be fair, some revived projects have been worthwhile. Final Fantasy III and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin are games that not only look fantastic, but offer deep game play that’s hard to put down, as well. Unfortunately, they’re the exception rather than the rule.

With five major game systems, each in a state of relative infancy, it’s only logical that we’re currently choked with repackaged versions of games we’ve seen on several platforms. Given the opportunity, game companies have proven that they’re more than willing to milk their franchises bone-dry. Call it a case of everything old becoming new again. Or, perhaps more pointedly, the gaming industry is eating itself.

Now word has leaked that even more Final Fantasy ports are due on Sony’s PSP in 2007, and that Konami is recasting the ancient 2-D Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC as a 3-D hand-held extravaganza. (In this sense, the “final” in Final Fantasy may be the biggest oxymoron since Dick Cheney referred to the war in Iraq as a “peaceful liberation.”)

To some people, this sort of thing is tremendous news. As Wired gaming columnist Clive Thompson revealed a few weeks ago, there are serious-minded people out there who still haven’t played games such as Final Fantasy VII in the first place—shouldn’t they have a chance to experience the joy and glory of classic gaming on 2007-era tech? Even if it looks different than it did 10 years ago?

The knee-jerk answer is yes. Abso-friggin’-lutely. Series like Final Fantasy, Castlevania and the dino-blasting Turok (OK, maybe not Turok) represent landmark moments in gaming’s history, and anyone who takes this hobby seriously ought to experience them, much in the same way any self-respecting film lover ought to be able to spout dialogue from Casablanca and The Godfather at the drop of a popcorn bag.

There’s a critical difference, however: Nobody, thank the gods, is reshooting The Godfather in IMAX for a modern audience. Every port or reimagining of a classic game has to be coded and developed by someone—several someones—who, instead of creating the next big and interesting gaming phenomenon, are busily porting the 2-D sprites of Final Fantasy V into the 3-D glory of a PlayStation 3 version, or jamming Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas into a portable package. I find it hard to escape the sense that while they’re offering us enhanced versions of things we’ve seen before, we’re missing out on a huge plate of what could have been.

As someone who currently owns LP, cassette, CD and MP3 versions of R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant, I’m slightly embarrassed proof of how effectively the music industry has succeeded in getting consumers to pay for the same thing several times over. Videophiles staring down the prospect of replacing their hard-earned DVD library with a big stack of Blu-ray discs find themselves sitting in the same thrice-bought boat. Why would the gaming industry act any differently?

I’ll probably continue buying and replaying old faves in new packages. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.