Are "Definitive Editions" Really Definitive?

Mafia: Definitive Edition just hit store shelves, and reception is decidedly mixed. Personally, I thought half of it was a pretty winning game, and the other half was an unpolished slog. Regardless, its moniker got me thinking about the trend of so-called “definitive editions” being used interchangeably with “remasters” or “remakes” of games.

To me, the “definitive edition” of something should be, well… definitive. Whether it’s a movie, an album, or a video game, a definitive version of something should be the best way to experience a work of art. But while applying that label to remixed albums and different cuts of films makes sense, the phrase loses its meaning when it comes to gaming.

I say this because Mafia: Definitive Edition doesn’t even remotely resemble its original game. From its driving mechanics to its combat to its cutscenes, this is an entirely new thing built from the reassembled bones of the 2002 original. It’s a reimagining, a remake – not a new version of the same game.

If there was a remake of, say, Casablanca, we wouldn’t dream of referring to that as the definitive edition of the movie. If somebody rewrote Lolita, we wouldn’t call that the best version of the book. Ryan Adams’ godawful cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 isn’t the definitive cut of that album.

So, then, why are publishers so quick to erase history and refer to a new version of something as the “definitive edition”? Why are entire remakes marketed as “remasters”? It doesn’t make any sense, and it ties into an inherent problem in the gaming industry: preservation.

Video game preservation on the corporate side is, quite frankly, piss poor. Companies have left it up to intrepid preservationists and enthusiasts to pick up their scraps and reassemble them into a chronology of this industry. Much like film companies of yesteryear, today’s game industry could give a rat’s ass about preserving itself, and are instead focused on selling us shiny new toys at an alarming rate.

This, to me, represents a failure to understand the legitimate artistry of this medium. Just because a game is old, or clunky, or a bit rough around the edges doesn’t mean selling an entirely new title as the best version of the previous release is a morally honest thing to do. To say that this release of Mafia is the “definitive” one, or that the Spyro and Crash remakes are simply “remastered,” or that MediEvil is a “remaster,” is to devalue the work that went into both the originals and the remakes.

Worse yet, in cases like Mafia or Crash, these “definitive editions” and “remasters” change the originals in major ways. The former is an entirely different experience from the original, and the latter actually changes aspects of the game that result in an overall more challenging package. They’re effectively different games by consequence.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the existence of these remakes are wrong. Personally, I think remaking titles like Resident Evil 2 is a great enterprise, because it helps introduce a new generation of players to a more streamlined, modernized version of the original. Not only that, but they’re fantastic ways for fans of the originals to experience a new take on their favorites. But doing this shouldn’t erase or invalidate the existence of the originals, and these remakes shouldn’t purport to be suitable replacements for them. Tomb Raider: AnniversaryPokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver, and Final Fantasy VII Remake got it right – call these things by their name, and stop making intellectually dishonest attempts to pass them off as “remasters” or “definitive editions.”

So, when you buy Mafia: Definitive Edition, buy it with the knowledge that you’re not getting the definitive version of 2002’s Mafia. You’re buying a new take on that game. A reimagining, a remake, whatever you want to call it – it’s not the same game, and it shouldn’t be marketed as such.

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