The latest in Sony’s stable of 90s remasters should come with a pair of rose-coloured glasses. Sam Brooks reviews the 2019 MediEvil remaster.
In this generation of gaming, we’ve seen the glowed-up return of a few of our childhood avatars. The bandicoot spins back in, looking fresher than ever. The purple dragon flies back in, more adorable than he’s ever been. They’ve been given major facelifts, and so have the games they front. They play smoother, the colours pop more, and the kinks have been ironed out. New names (N. Sanity, ReIgnited, Nitro Fueled) are slapped on them, with a slightly less than premium price point, and they’re sold as the best of both worlds – the experience you remember, just a little bit better.
But that’s the appeal of them: They’re the same games. They just look, sound and feel a whole lot better. But the bones? They were strong to begin with, don’t need to fix what’s never been broke.
So what happens when you remaster something that didn’t have great bones to begin with? (All bone and skeleton puns from here on are unintended.)
Let’s do a little history lesson: MediEvil is one of those franchises where the image sticks in your brain more than anything. Its protagonist/mascot, the armoured skeleton Dan Fortesque with his one bulging eye, standing in a green-hued Tim Burton graveyard, was ubiquitous on gaming shelves. It’s a stark image, if not an especially inventive one, and immediately set it apart from everything else on the market. This wasn’t cute, but it wasn’t dark either. It was somewhere undefinable in the middle. It’s like the goth kid who carried around a My Little Pony doll, performative darkness hiding a sweet heart.
The franchise has never received the flagship treatment from Sony. It had a warmly received sequel, then the first game had a remaster on the PSP, and the first game has been ported to as many systems possible (including whatever device you happen to be reading this review on) for a quick dollar. Dan Fortesque, arguably a better designed character than either Spyro or Bandicoot, ended up in Sony’s horrible Smash Bros clone, but the series lay dormant.
When Sony started remaking their flagship 90s games – and truly remaking with new graphics, not just remastering the old ones – MediEvil was an oft-requested and wished-for remake. How amazing would the game look on a PS4? Especially with the kind of overhaul and redesign that was given to Crash and Spyro? Little was mentioned about how the game played, which is never a great sign. I remember playing the game as a wee little child in the 90s, and while I still have a near-eidetic memory of the design, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the gameplay.
Well, fans should be pleased with one thing about MediEvil 2019: The game looks great. It stays close to the Nightmare Before Christmas design of the originals, with the greens looking as radioactive as a reactor, and the sickly ghouls and ghosts look even more so. The overhauled camera – no longer the locked top-down of the original – only helps here. By modern standards, it’s nothing revolutionary, but it goes a long way to modernizing the look and the feel of the game.
But the problem here isn’t how it looks. Sony has a great handle on these remakes at this point, and knows how to split the difference between playing to nostalgia while going full ham on the glow-up; they’re like very good plastic surgeons at this point. No, the problem here is that MediEvil wasn’t a good game in the 90s, and it isn’t one now.
We’re going to keep the Crash and Spyro comparisons going for a bit. One of the huge reasons why those games have buried themselves deep in the heads of 90s kids is that they were accessible for kids. They were platformers, with levels that encouraged you to explore every nook and cranny. Combat was a part of the games, but only as an obstacle. They also weren’t especially difficult (although the remakes did subtly up the difficulty). Through persistence and working out of patterns, you could get through anything in the game.
MediEvil is the opposite of all this, and I imagine that it felt old-fashioned even back then. The levels are incredibly linear, and not especially long – you can beat each one in a little under ten minutes, and that’s even if you’re taking your time and backtracking. The combat is ever-present, and it’s unforgiving, with inexplicable leaps in the difficulty curve every few levels. Even worse, each encounter also plays stiffly, more often than not you can get stun-locked into a near-instant death, and spend a few attempts figuring out how to exploit a monster’s programming rather than its weakness. Beyond that, it’s a short game, about six determined hours of gameplay, and the combat often feels like an exercise in extending that length, rather than a well-designed mechanic in its own right.
Beyond that, it’s all a little stiff beneath the surface. The sense of humour doesn’t reach much past the design, despite Jason Wilson’s committed, goofy performance as Fortesque, who happens to lack the bottom half of his jaw. The plot – bad guy comes back from the dead for revenge, Fortesque is the only person who can stop him – is perfunctory at best, and relies too much on the humour, deflating the stakes rather than layering them with humanity.
Rose-coloured nostalgia can make up for a lot. There’s a reason why nearly every console has a range of completely unremastered releases of old games that are digitally released for old fans to spend a nominal fee on. Players will concede a lot of technological advances, like updated graphics or ease-of-life gameplay, for a chance to play something that once gave them a rush of joy. That’s true of pretty much any artform, but especially true of video games.
These remakes are a chance to cash in on that joy, but if it’s only polygon-deep, then I can imagine the shine wearing off. The first three remakes in this unofficial trilogy – the aforementioned N. Sanity, Reignited, and Nitro Fueled – have cemented themselves as essentials in my library, because they’re based on games that were good in the first place. These remakes build on the original, they don’t just remix them. But this new remaster ends up where my memory of the original is: on the shelf, more image than game.
MediEvil is available exclusively on the Playstation 4 from October 25.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.