For a while, there, it looked like classic game compilations were dead. Replaced by digital archive services and supplanted by HD remasters, the catch-all anthology has been all but dead compared to the format's proliferation during the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras.
But the tables have turned this week at E3. Publishers announced far fewer remastered rereleases than anyone would have guessed, a trend that undoubtedly will be reinforced by the fact that Microsoft has announced limited backward compatibility between Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Meanwhile, two fairly major anthology releases debuted this week: Microsoft's Rare Replay and Capcom's Mega Man Legacy Collection. While both of these releases serve the same purpose on their surface — they're collections of classic games produced for current-gen consoles — a closer look reveals two decidedly different mentalities governing each one.
Rare Replay goes the value route, cramming 30 games onto a single disc that retails for a mere $30. Meanwhile, the Mega Man compilation is more of a premium project, bringing together six games in a $15 digital-only release. But the difference between the two isn't as simple as numbers, as we discussed on a recent episode of Retronauts. Though somewhat more expensive on a per-title basis than Rare Replay, Mega Man Legacy Collection exists far more as a curated archival effort. More than any compilation I've ever seen outside of the exquisite M2-developed Sega 3D Classics (and the tragically Japan-only Sega Ages series for PlayStation 2), MMLC represents a serious effort to preserve the original titles as closely as possible to the source material, along with the ephemera of their development.
Which isn't to say Rare Replay doesn't include some interesting features. On the contrary, it's stuffed with extras as well: Artwork, special challenge modes, and more. But by no means is it being built as a museum-like recreation of the original games. The disc runs the gamut of Rare's history (which we also covered not too long ago in an episode of Retronauts), from their early releases as Ultimate Play the Game all the way through Banjo: Nuts 'n Bolts and Viva Piñata on Xbox 360. While it lacks some notable titles — some unavoidably, as there's no way in hell Nintendo would licensed out Donkey Kong Country to run on Xbox One — it is, generally speaking, about as comprehensive a history of a legendary developer's output as one could hope for.
Along with its games, Rare Replay features a number of game-specific challenges. For Solar Jetman, for example, I played a standalone challenge that tasked me with maneuvering a diamond to a target destination in two minutes or less while suffering fewer than three collisions with walls or enemies — no easy feat.
However, the collection isn't 100% faithful to the source material. I sat down to demo the game at a Microsoft E3 showcase alongside Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, who spotted an interesting fact: When we booted up Perfect Dark, the loading screen made mention of the Xbox 360 version. And, sure enough: The game included here isn't the original Nintendo 64 release but rather the Xbox 360 remake — a technically better rendition to be sure, but not the "real" game. I made a quick scane of the games available in the E3 demo and realized that the missing Nintendo 64 titles — including Blast Corps and Jet Force Gemini — were the ones that were never remade for Xbox 360. (I suspect Rare Replay was made possible at least in part by Microsoft's recent backward-compatibility initiative.)
By comparison, MMLC takes a far more limited approach, but it sacrifices breadth in favor of consistency and fidelity. Digital Eclipse's Frank Cifaldi (full disclosure: Cifaldi and I worked together at 1UP.com for several years) has stated his determination to make MMLC and future projects along those lines the video game equivalent to Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays, presenting the source material faithfully and with exhaustive supplemental material. Based on what I've seen of MMLC on the E3 show floor, Digital Eclipse has made good on that ambition.
MMLC reproduces the original Mega Man NES games as accurately as I've ever seen. I've picked up practically every version of the first few Mega Man titles to date out of some sort of slavish devotion to the series, and until now the only remake or rerelease that's ever come close to properly duplicating the experience of playing Mega Man via cartridges on NES has been the Wii Virtual Console version. The PlayStation Mega Man Complete Works added lots of cool features (including live play tips and minigame support via the import-only PocketStation peripheral), but the audio and graphics were compromised in the process to fit the PlayStation resolution. Likewise, 2004's Mega Man Anniversary Collection crammed a ton of content onto a single disc, but the visuals were badly rescaled, portions of certain games were omitted, and the audio streamed and looped rather than playing natively. The Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console renditions... well, the less said the better.
The MMLC, on the other hand, presents the original games in their proper aspect ratio with razor-sharp graphics. It plays the original game audio. Specific tics are preserved, too, including slowdown and sprite flicker. You can also apply a couple of visual filters, including an RGB monitor mode that adds scanlines and a "TV" mode that adds bloom, ghosting, and a bit of color bleed to simulate playing on the low-end CRTs most of us used for NES games. The only way these games could be more accurately and cleanly presented would be to play on an RGB-modded NES through and HD upscaler.
Of course, going back to the original hardware would cause you to miss out on the collection's laundry list of features. Digital Eclipse has included tons of original character and concept sketches, a jukebox feature, and even character profiles that let you jump directly into a boss fight from that robot's profile. There's essentially no loading time when moving between modes or selecting features like boss fights, and the collection supports niceties like save states. It also includes a huge array of time-attack bonus modes that allow you to battle through chunks of game stages that have been strung together, or to take on a boss rush, or face off against specific enemies.
All of this is held together with a decidedly no-frills interface. The front-end looks nice, but it's very simple and uncluttered. Cifaldi says he even chose present the game selection menus with their Japanese box art rather than their more familiar American packaging for the sake of consistency — all six Famicom Mega Man games featured a Keiji Inafune illustration in a standard format. The result looks tidy and consistent, low on visual noise that makes it a pleasure to toggle through.
Of course, I'm excited about both collections and intend to add them to my library as soon as possible. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't far more excited for Mega Man Legacy Collection, and not just because I'm a fan of Mega Man. Rather, I'm eager to play more of MMLC because it feels like the treatment that I feel these classics deserve. It's neither a lazy nor a slapdash port job, and it features all sort of subtle touches that seem likely to elevate the package from "good" to "essential."