Electron Dance
18Oct/10Off

Was Dirk Benedict Right?

I was never a fan of Battlestar Galactica in the 70s. I was more Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I was more Doctor Who. I was more Sapphire And Steel.

But after Galactica closed its launch tubes for the last time, fans hoped for its eventual return to Earth. Richard Hatch, who played the character of Apollo in the original series, put together a trailer in 1999 for a new Galactica project, a revival dubbed The Second Coming.

Four years later, Ronald D. Moore re-imagined Galactica. Now the cylons could look human. There was a post-9/11 vibe of enemies within. And Starbuck was a woman. Fans of the original poured boiling oil upon this upstart series that had no right to take the Galactica name.

Efforts to ease the transition were made; Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck in the original, handed over a ceremonial cigar to his female replacement in the new series, Katie Sackhoff. Less than a year later, he wrote an article that made it clear he had no love for Galactica the New: "So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith, and family is unimagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction."

This is now ancient history. Moore's Galactica triumphed, carving out its own niche and driving some to make comparisons with shows like The Sopranos. Let's not talk about that whole jumping the New Caprica shark business, though.

It was its own show and made little effort to follow the lead set down by the 70s original, instead offering a gritty storyline where the good guys could not be trusted to do good things. In some sense, Benedict may have been right. Why didn't Moore just make a new show, call it something like Refugee North, about a band of ships that escape the fall of their homeworld? It's not like the "civilisation destroyed by its own mechanical creations" is some super unique plot.

Remakes can have sound reasons for being undertaken. Subtitled foreign works can be remade for an English-speaking audience that goes to a movie to watch not to read. Alternatively, maybe the original needs a remake to shake off the unpalatable cobwebs of the past: women who waited for men to save them can now kick ninja ass, black and white can now be colour.

It's even possible that the original series or movie is used as an artistic constraint that encourages creativity. This is the central thesis of Racing The Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, a book that discusses the story of the Atari 2600. It argues the serious technical constraints of the Atari Video Computer System forced programmers to be inventive and rise above the limitations of the platform.

So that brings me to Star Raiders.

MARGE, GET OUT THE RANT-MUFFS

Star Raiders was a 3D space dogfight simulation for the Atari 400/800 computers released in 1979. There was nothing out there like it at the time on any home platform; it was this title that would convince people to buy the Atari 8-bit computer, like Space Invaders did for the 2600 and Sonic the Hedgehog for the Mega Drive/Genesis. Doug Neubauer, who had designed the Atari computer's POKEY chip, developed it as a side project.

Star Raiders made such an impression that I had the box art on my bedroom wall for many years.

I fired up Star Raiders yesterday and played a full 20 minute game. Here is that game. Okay, I edited out a chunk from the middle. Here is half of that game.

Star Raiders is still fun... but now it's being remade. It sure could benefit from a modern coat of paint, but is there any real point remaking it? What made Star Raiders Star Raiders?

Being first.

There's nothing particularly unique about the original now as there have been numerous 3D space combat simulations in the 30 years that have since passed (not withstanding Neubauer's own Solaris on the 2600 which bears significant resemblance to Star Raiders).

If you want to try hard, you might be able to stress the scoring system, which ranks you on how efficient you've played. Using the targeting computer, shields and lots of hyperspace jumps all cost energy. But is this really enough to make Star Raiders stand out in a contemporary setting? A scoring system?

There are reasons for game remakes, but are they good ones? Simply reproducing an old game using modern tech feels insubstantial, yet an all-out Galactica-style reimagining is bait-and-switch. Which one Star Raiders will turn out to be remains to be seen, but as I see nothing in Star Raiders which has been lost to the present generation, then it's more likely to be a reimagining. If Incinerator Studios are making a game that can stand out in its own right, then why bother using the name Star Raiders? It can only count against their work: those who have never heard of the original won't be taken in by the name; those who do are likely to be nonplussed (hello me).

A similarly afflicted remake is XCOM. The in-development XCOM looks genuinely interesting but, even to someone who has barely played the original X-Com, it's clear that this is a tenuous successor to the original. The fans are not being won over seeing their much-loved brutal turn-based squad tactics game transformed into a shiny FPS.

Developers, please make new games. We liked the old ones for what they were and when they were. Their names are the names of our memories.

In the end, Dirk Benedict may have been right.

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  1. I was not a ‘rabid’ fan of the original BSG. But I was less enthralled with the new ‘version’. Even to someone like me, a casual viewer of the original, it should have been evident that the name and character names were only a ploy to draw attention and that little, if any, of the original show was really used. So my dislike was not only of yet another dark sci-fi show (like *that* was original) but of the obvious ploy used to hoodwink viewers. As to the new version’s popularity – even that comes into question due to media manipulation. Come back in 30 years and see if the new one still has the number of die-hard fans like the original – then we’ll talk.

  2. Hi Janelle! Even though I was pretty vague on this point, I am actually a fan of the new BSG series. But you’re right that a lot of remakes are trying to ride the coat-tails of the previous work; there are certainly artistic merits in taking an idea and shunting it sideways (there are a bunch of What If… type graphic novels out there) but I’m not convinced this is the reason foremost in a studio’s mind when a remake project is given the green light.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I remember seeing the pilot episode for the new BSG in high school. In all honesty, I was left with the impression that the show came across as being far too serious to have a (relatively) silly name like Battlestar Galactica.

    While it works for something more lighthearted and campy, it really felt slapped on when I saw the pilot. I hadn’t even seen a minute of the original when I thought this, either.

  4. @BeamSplashX – I’m with you there. I never thought the name sat well with a modern sci-fi series. It felt like it belonged to a past when we talked about “star cruisers” and “space strawberries”. Of course, having watched the whole the BSG series, you kinda get used to it.

    On the game front, there are some “reimaginings” that have not taken the name of their benefactor. System Shock 3 became Bioshock. Arx Fatalis was an attempt to recreate Ultima Underworld.

  5. XCOM makes my head hurt, because it feels so much like they had some vaguely BioShock inspired game already in production, then just slapped the name on it when the marketing department realized they owned it. What do the cartoon 50s have to do with X-COM?

  6. I can think of some pretty positive remakes/reimaginings. The first for me was Space Girafe, a tempest mash up that fried my brain. Tomb Raider: anniversary edition was also a really slick retelling of the original, retaining the atmosphere and the feel but updating the completely clunky (by modern day standards) controls.

    Then there is Far Cry 2 and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, pitched as something else but turned down as not marketable. Both then took popular franchises and attached the mechanics from the pitch. I think they both turned out wonderfully despite being very different types of game. Unfortunately for the latter, Banjo Kazooie fans were less than pleased and I don’t think the game was allowed to bloom as it should have.

    Anyway Ubisoft seem fond of this implementation as the new multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was originally pitched as its own game but again was tied in with a strong brand name and now people are heaping praise on it, something that might have failed to get the recognition it required without the high profile.

    I’ll admit almost all the examples I used were established franchises, still not sure if Star Raiders will fit in the same category. It isn’t like everyone has been clamouring for a sequel.

    @Switchbreak, certainly it makes no sense for those that remember XCom as it was will be put off. Can’t help thinking that it will still be a good game and the publicity created (both negative and positive) will help sales of what would have been an otherwise non-branded product.

  7. “Developers, please make new games. We liked the old ones for what they were and when they were. Their names are the names of our memories.”

    I totally agree with you on this. Each time I hear of a new re-imagining or “reboot” (ughhh) of some already established (or closed off!) video game franchise I have to roll my eyes. Especially for XCOM; this one is trying to hard to appeal to fans of the original– a perennial appearance-maker near the top of most “Best Of” lists– and I don’t understand why. Just make a brand new game with your own original ideas. Most of them probably will be original anyway; just because you have bases or maybe abduct some aliens doesn’t make your game an X-Com ripoff.

    Having said that, the new Battlestar Galactica sits atop my favourites list. No matter what it had been called, the content is what won me over, but maybe Dirk Benedict was right … maybe Moore and Eick should have called it simply “Post-Apocalyptic Search for A New Settlement.” (PASFANS, surely a winning acronym?!)

  8. @Switchbreak:
    I can imagine them sitting down and facing the “AAA mainstream reality” that a turn-based isometric game just isn’t going to work in the new millennium. But they’ve got to do something with this IP, it’s burning a hole in their pocket. Still, I think 2K Marin have made a rod for their own back with this one.

    @Badger Commander:
    I’m fine with a game “inspired” by another, but it’s more one trying to fill the dead shoes of an old grandmaster that irks me. Taking a name and saying “this is everything to do with the original” but isn’t really. Space Giraffe doesn’t really come under that heading – but Jeff Minter did deliver an actual Tempest remake, Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar which was hailed as brilliance at the time – the true exception here. Tomb Raider is a funny one, it’s all gone a bit sordid with the number of developer hands that have been laid on Lara over the years.

    Now I didn’t know Far Cry 2 was pitched as something else and then got absorbed into the Far Cry brand. Is there any info online regarding that?

    I had suspected that studios were just trying to exploit brand names they owned (it was the reason “Atari” was bought in the first place; the modern Atari has nothing to do with the programmer-exploiting company that filled my youth with happiness) but making use of a name to sell something else is… both clever and disappointing. Disappointing in there being little spiritual connection between the original and the new version. That said, I liked Far Cry 2. Didn’t love, but liked.

    @xtal:
    Welcome over from Tap! I don’t know which way things are going to go for XCOM. Good Old Games got lots of flak over it’s “we’ve closing operations… for 2 days” PR stunt yet now it’s all forgotten with a surge of sales activity after they came back up. Will all the negative XCOM publicity be water under the bridge if the game turns out to be pretty good?

    I put off watching Galactica for 3 years because of the name, sounding plain wrong to remake such an old show. Neither was I won over by the new elements that were touted. It was only after hearing lots of reports that “this really is pretty darn good” that I climbed aboard. Of course, in an alternative universe, there’s another a version of me who still has all his hair, moist and excited for the next episode of Pasfans.

  9. @HM
    Sadly, I cannot find the article where Mr. Hocking discussed how his open world concept met the Far Cry brand, I think it was on gamasutra and instigated by Chris Remo (I know that Remo mentioned several times subsequently on the idle thumbs podcast).

    The changing from Core to Crystal Dynamics in terms of Tomb Raider is the best thing to happen to the franchise. The last 4 games have all been really rather good.

    I actually really liked Tempest 2000, but until you mentioned it I’d forgotten it completely


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