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Bluepoint Games has put out eight titles since 2006. Compared to many developers who can spend multiple years bringing one creation to fruition, the small studio’s release track record seems, at a glance, a bit out of the ordinary. The trick (if you can call it that) is the same reason their name may not be familiar: they primarily remaster classic video games rather than creating games of their own, and are arguably the premiere outfit to do so.
The proof is in their catalogue of releases. Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, Metal Gear Solid—Bluepoint has been entrusted with modernizing some of the most revered series of the past two console generations, setting a precedent for HD remasters that other developers often struggle to match.
When Sony and Naughty Dog approached the Austin-based company in 2014 about bringing the Uncharted trilogy to PS4, a release all but guaranteed after Naughty Dog’s own success porting The Last Of Us to the console, it wasn’t a hard decision. Fifteen months later, the recently released Nathan Drake Collection looks good enough that you might mistake it for a current-gen title; it’s easily a new standard-bearer for remasters as a whole.
Bluepoint’s chief technical officer Marco Thrush chalks up the company’s beginnings and string of successes to a lot of dedication. The studio was one of only two developers to produce a digital game for the PS3’s launch in 2006, well before digital releases were common. Their debut game, Blast Factor, became something of a reliability litmus that eventually led to Sony Santa Monica, Sony’s well-liked Los Angeles game development studio, asking the team’s interest in remastering the PS2’s God of War and its sequel.
“We kind of very early on proved ourselves to be hard working people that can deliver what they promise, which apparently is not really all that common in the games industry,“ Thrush says.
Luck was a factor, too. “The internal God of War team told [Sony Santa Monica’s director of internal development], ‘there’s no way this can be ported to PS3,’” Thrush says. “He said, ‘well, why not try Bluepoint?’”
They finished the job in three months.
A JOB WELL DONE
“From that point forward it was basically just a continuing cycle of trying to make sure we do the best possible quality job we can, and publishers seem to appreciate that,” Thrush says.
For Uncharted that meant unifying the entire trilogy, both aesthetically and in the code. All three games have been boosted up to running at a smooth 60 frames-per-second in 1080p resolution, then bolstered by a host of visual improvements and design tweaks that make the whole package feel and look seamless across releases. It’s part of Bluepoint’s philosophy that old favorites revived on new platforms should equal something greater than the sums of their technical parts.
“When we approach [a project], we’re not approaching it from the standpoint of just porting it to the next platform or just up-resing [increasing the resolution of] some textures or adding density to a model,” says technical director Peter Dalton. “First and foremost we [want to] maintain the original vision and also see what things we can do to enhance it.”
Pulling off that kind of modernization can require modifying the original game significantly, from improving the graphics to tweaking actual game design elements like how aiming works.
That extended to Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake himself, whose appearance had to look as good in the first game as it did in the visually superlative Uncharted 3, which came out four years after the original. Bluepoint cobbled together a uniform look throughout by combining existing higher-resolution assets with some piecemeal additions, like dropping Drake’s feathery hair from Uncharted 3 into the first two games.
“It’s not what you quite remember sometimes,” Dalton says of revisiting older games. “We want to deliver that exact same experience, so somebody that’s not familiar—when they sit down and play something that first time, they’ll be blown away just like we were [back then].”
Before anyone started looking at code, the team studied up on forums, bug databases and Naughty Dog’s various patch notes to come up with a list of ways they could subtly revamp each game.
“We started doing evaluations, not only from a technical standpoint but from a gameplay standpoint,” he says. “Looking sort of at where the trilogy is and how it evolved over time.”
The standard practice for developers looking to “port” older games to newer hardware is to use the original source code, meaning what has been archived by the publisher or developer. In theory this is the easiest method to craft a remaster, since it may not necessarily require as extensive a programming overhaul. Source code can also contain higher-grade data than what might fit on a disc, though there’s no guarantee whatever code may be lying around the office long after a game has shipped is the same, if it’s complete at all, given last minute changes before a game is shipped and downloadable patches developers often add after a title is released.
Bluepoint’s method could be comparatively described as very thorough. Instead of relying on source code, the team ripped the Uncharted game content straight from the discs and reverse engineered that data to run on their in-house game engine, which they used to imitate the PS3 hardware.
“That is the only way that we can guarantee that we’ll have the actual assets that are on the original PS3 disc,” Thrush says.
Once the team had the original games running as they would on PS3—this took some time in and of itself because of how they had been developed using Linux, a lesser-known operating system developers sometimes prefer—they underwent side-by-side playthroughs between the actual PS3 discs and Bluepoint’s recreation, which they used to make sure the code progression was the same in both versions. Finally, each game had to be converted from PS3 to run on PS4. Of course, conversions create a whole new set of problems.
“’Up and running’ doesn’t actually mean it looks exactly the way the PS3 version did. There were still a lot of missing features from a rendering point of view,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a completely different system architecture, engine and compilers, bugs that originally existed in the code base that never showed up can suddenly show up.”
This early state is what Bluepoint refers as “first playable,” which contrary to the name is hardly playable at all. For example, most of the time the graphics look half-baked, and audio and particle effects are often wonky or missing for various reasons.
“When we brought up Uncharted 2 for the very first time there were no animations playing—Drake’s eyes were bugging out his head,” Dalton says, qualifying that these kind of glitches are typical of a first playable. “It was funny.”
The studio’s Quality Assurance team—the testers who try to identify bugs and other issues—had their work cut out for them. “It’s actually ridiculous just how many bugs there are,” Thrush says.
The team chose to start working with Uncharted 2 first, since ideally it was right in the middle between the freshman programming of the original game and the more confident, fleshed-out code of Uncharted 3, a progression that shifted in some unexpected ways.
“A lot of times when people write code, they don’t just evolve it over the time and add more functionality to it,” he says. “Sometimes they decide to just completely throw away something and start all over, which happened with some systems.”
Bluepoint did have access to the code base for The Last Of Us Remastered, giving them insight into how Naughty Dog was able to wrangle that game to work on PS4. It wasn’t an exact conversion to looking at Uncharted, but wasn’t without its merits either.
“[Naughty Dog] already brought their original engine to the PS4, so there was a lot of really, really valuable lessons to be learned,” Thrush says. “But there are a lot of things in Uncharted that don’t exist in The Last Of Us, so there wasn’t really a one-size-fits-all solution for everything. We had to create a lot of unique solutions to make sure the games played right across the board.”
This was especially true for Uncharted 3, which contained more special-case systems built for the game’s scene-stealing setpieces, particularly ones pitting Drake against environments filled with raging water. Given the increased complexity of water calculations (Drake’s third outing has a thunderous Poseidon Adventure homage, among other things) its first internal playable version was missing some vital components. Taming the system took a couple weeks.
“You really had to dig into it to figure out what it was trying to do,” Dalton says. “So, it does step A and then it does step B and then there’s a handshake that needs to happen before it can actually do step C—it’s just one piece of code that didn’t come up as smoothly as some of the others.”
For all of Uncharted 3’s unique code, the team had to streamline several elements across the series, as well–aspects like controls and user interface components such as health and ammo info that appears on-screen. Probably the most obvious change is to the first game’s grenade throw, which used motion controls in the PS3 iteration.
“We thought it would be nice and feasible to bring [the later games’] grenade throw back to the original Uncharted,” he says. “So the player’s not frustrated with something they can do in one and not in the other.”
Despite countless minute changes, Thrush believes few players will be able detect any difference.
“Our ultimate goal is always that we want to make sure that ideally nobody notices the work that we have done,” he says. “It’s just supposed to look good to them.”
Porting the series was a new record for Bluepoint. Uncharted and Uncharted 2 weigh in at 25 gigs of data each on PS3, while Uncharted 3 is another 50 gigs alone. The project was a tremendous challenge for everyone on the team.
“We had three games’ worth of game logic, gameplay, you know—whole games,” Thrush says. “So the pure scope of the project—I think that was probably the one biggest problem across engineering and art.”
Despite the enormity of the project, game preservation is important to the team.
“If we didn’t do it then somebody else would probably just screw it up,” he says, referencing the number of shoddy remasters that have been released without much effort or care.
“We’re not doing it for the money. We could be writing banking applications. There’s more money in that than making video games,” Thrush says. “We’re doing it for the fun of it—and because we truly believe the original games deserve it.”
“Every time I read a piece, the one word I’m looking for to justify that I did a decent job is that we delivered the definitive version of the game to play,” Dalton says. “That’s the benchmark for me.”
Judging by the quality of The Nathan Drake Collection, Bluepoint has nothing to worry about.
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is available now for PS4. Bluepoint’s next project, a PS4 remaster of the 2012 PS Vita game Gravity Rush, is due out Feb. 9.
Steve Haske is a freelance writer whose work appears with regularity on Vice and Motherboard. He lives in Seattle, WA and tweets from @afraidtomerge.
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