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In Theory: Nintendo GameCube remasters on Wii U

Digital Foundry on The Wind Waker's HD treatment, and which other GameCube classics could follow suit.

HD remasters have continued to fill release schedules over the past couple of years, leaving many console owners feeling a bit of a remaster fatigue. Despite that, we still believe in them. While the likes of Saints Row 4: Re-Elected and Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition are obvious cash grabs, we feel that a high-quality remaster can serve not only to preserve classic games but also open them up to a new audience altogether. If there's one publisher that still has a lot of untapped potential in this field it has to be Nintendo. Going all the way back to Super Mario All-Stars on SNES, Nintendo's work on remastering projects has always been first-rate.

And yet, during the packed 2013 Autumn release schedule, exactly one such release slipped entirely under our radar - The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. It's an interesting conversion of the original GameCube release that goes a bit further than your average remaster project; Nintendo EAD enhanced both the visuals and gameplay to refresh the game for a new audience while preserving what made it great to begin with. It was an exercise no doubt designed to familiarise the team with HD development in its preparation of a brand new Wii U Zelda title, but it highlights the potential in tackling more of its back catalogue. But just how good is Wind Waker HD as an example of what could be done, and what other projects would benefit from similar treatment?

Wind Waker HD isn't the first time Nintendo has returned to a classic Zelda game on a new platform; Ocarina of Time 3D was released more than two years prior with entirely revamped visuals in tow. However, with Wind Waker HD, EAD chose to stick with the original 3D meshes, instead using other means to improve the visuals. It starts with a crisp 1920x1080 output, something of a rarity on Wii U, combined with a post-process edge filter that does a reasonable job of keeping aliasing at bay.

In terms of that crucial image quality, Wind Waker HD stands above most games on the system, even giving Super Smash Bros. for Wii U a run for its money: a similar 1080p title, albeit one that lacks any sort of edge smoothing. Backing this up, Wind Waker HD also packs in a moderate level of anisotropic filtering, an upgrade that allows textures to remain sharp even at oblique angles, and much more.

A side-by-side comparison of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD against its original GameCube release. Everything from lighting to textures is upgraded, making this a shining example of what could come next from Nintendo in terms of remaster projects. Be sure to select the 1080p option for the best viewing experience.Watch on YouTube

Much of the leap in visual quality comes as a result of new lighting techniques and higher-resolution texture work. In terms of lighting, we suspect Nintendo embraces a deferred renderer here, as with many of its in-house Wii U titles. The benefit of utilising this method becomes immediately obvious with the inclusion of real-time light sourcing, allowing for proper scenery illumination across the world. The original game used an effect where light sources create a surrounding pattern to give the impression of a glow, yet in reality this didn't actually produce light. By switching to a real-time solution on Wii U, objects such as torches are now assigned point lights instead, resulting in a more dynamic environment to explore.

We also see a shift to high dynamic range lighting, plus a strong bloom component that doesn't infringe on Wind Waker's cel-shaded style. This was initially a subject of controversy as it does have a radical impact on the look of the game but, in its final state, is toned down and blends in well with the aesthetic. The wider color range also lends a dramatic punch to the earlier areas Link tackles, such as The Forsaken Fortress - a deeper shade of blue that adds a heavier sense of atmosphere across the level.

On that note, colour depth sees an expected boost to full 32-bit in this remaster. The original GameCube release runs in a 16-bit mode, and in our video comparison above it's clear the game suffers from obvious dithering patterns as a result, made especially evident at its 480p output. Even on an older CRT television this issue was noticeable, so it's nice to see the problem at last eliminated.

Shadows are also an important addition as they were largely absent in the original game. Models were shaded in such a way as to give the impression of shadows, but Wind Waker HD takes it much further by implementing true, global shadow maps. Now we see buildings and objects all cast appropriate lines of shade across the world that play off of the characters in a realistic manner. The resolution of these shadow maps isn't particularly high but the rendering method, along with its filtering, works well given the game's visual direction. As opposed to hard steps, shadows exhibit a blob-like quality to their edges that fits the colourful take on Hyrule. In addition, ambient occlusion is also implemented, adding a new depth to presentation that simply wasn't possible before.

Performance analysis of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. It's a remaster with 30fps in mind; note that this video highlights the worst case scenarios across the game, rather than an average level of performance.Watch on YouTube

The original game also used a depth of field effect on all scenery designed to give backdrops a soft focus. Unfortunately, the effect as it was used on GameCube proved overbearing and ultimately produced large, chunky artifacts that gave the impression of a lower resolution. The Wii U version thankfully does away with this approach outright, leaving behind a clearer overall image in the distance. We're fond of depth of field when done right, but the original implementation on GameCube is a definite mismatch with the HD era.

Another major point of improvement arrives in the form of its redrawn textures and HUD elements. Textures are created from the game's original designs and displayed at a far higher resolution than was ever possible GameCube - this time befitting a 1920x1080 viewing window. This comes across best during character close-ups and cutscenes where facial features now feature pin-sharp detail, while the HUD and menu system are also completely redrawn in high resolution.

But if this remaster has one problem, it's the frame-rate. While the majority of our time with the game produces a stable 30fps, as with the original, there are sequences where frame-rate drops are very noticeable. It's an issue that typically crops ups once a multitude of alpha effects are drawn, be it from your boat's cannon-fire, or when approaching certain islands. The impact of these dips is underscored by the fact Wind Waker HD's frame-rate is actually tied to its game speed, meaning 20fps lurches equate to slower, more sluggish gameplay. Such drops are, thankfully, momentary but do detract a bit from the game's polish - not a deal breaker by any means, but disappointing given the GameCube release runs free of any such problems.

Ultimately, Wind Waker HD is still a success story and one of the better HD remasters on the market today. Beautifully enhanced visuals, great image quality, and a host of gameplay improvements make for a definitive release. Sure, one can attempt to approximate the experience using an emulator but it will never feel quite as polished as this Wii U incarnation. Anyone with an interest in Zelda would do well to check it out, if you haven't already.

HexaDrive may be the best placed studio to handle Nintendo's future remaster projects, having had a small hand in the Wind Waker HD project already. Rez HD on Xbox 360 was the team's first major remaster, as compared favourably here with the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast releases.Watch on YouTube

But Nintendo's success here points to many other possibilities. Despite its excellent work on Zelda there hasn't been any other attempts to revive classic Nintendo games on the Wii U. Of course, Wii Sports received an HD update and the Virtual Console still brings original versions of classic games, but many treasures still lay buried in Nintendo's vaults that we'd love to see resurface at 1080p. Games such as Zelda: Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime are perfect candidates for this treatment, but what about some of the GameCube era's less prominent titles? Let's take a step back for a moment, and consider the potential that remains untapped.

The Little Purple Cube That Could

In 2001, Nintendo unleashed the Nintendo GameCube, a small, sleek cube-shaped machine that housed what is still one of Nintendo's finest pieces of console engineering to date. With speed and compactness on its side, it brought a level of sophistication in design that Microsoft's first console effort lacked, while still being in many ways as capable. Looking at its internals today, a perfect combination of CPU and GPU forms its backbone - Nintendo's last push for cutting edge parts before departing the specs arms race with its follow-up. Unlike the PS2 and Dreamcast of its time, the system also defines itself to developers by not being limited to a fixed function pipeline. The console's TEV unit allows programmers to effectively create custom shaders that many of its most impressive games put to great use. The media format is also well thought out; small 1.5GB discs read at constant angular velocity (CAV) to keep loading times to a minimum.

Even so, it's slowly becoming a system lost to time. While the Virtual Console represents Nintendo's older games well, and Wii titles are still fairly common at retail today, the GameCube's very best output gets little exposure overall. With no way to enjoy its top-tier games outside of owning the original discs, the system risks joining the likes of Sega's Saturn as a cult relic in gaming history - that is, unless Nintendo steps in to renovate the hits of this era. Wind Waker HD already sets an amazing precedent for what's possible in the scope of a remaster project. However, there are other key titles that bear mention.

The legendary F-Zero GX given a full performance analysis. It's a flawless 60fps arcade racing experience based on our tests, and a top candidate for a future remaster on Wii U.Watch on YouTube

F-Zero GX is, of course, one of our first choices. As a marriage between Sega's now defunct Amusement Vision and Nintendo, this match of the ages resulted in one of the fastest and most beautiful arcade racing games of all time. F-Zero GX is bewilderingly quick and still holds up beautifully today thanks to its focus on high frame-rates and eye-catching visuals. It's also exclusive to Nintendo GameCube to this day, having never received a release outside of its original format, besides its arcade stable-mate F-Zero AX.

One of the game's most important traits is this adherence to 60fps - a point we were eager to test just for the record. As our video shows, F-Zero GX doesn't disappoint with its unerring 60fps frame-rate through thick and thin. From the start there is next to no loading, and transitions between menu and races blink across at speeds surprisingly close to a cartridge game. More impressively, no matter how hard we push it, we're unable to drop the frame-rate on any stage. Couple that with a massive field of competitors, intricate track designs with busy backdrops, and high-quality effects work, you have something that feels just as fresh today as it did on release.

With so much polish already in place, what could a remastered release bring to the table? Primarily, we'd love to see the game's visuals presented at a higher resolution with an increased draw distance. The game's forest track, for instance, aggressively culls foliage from view resulting in lots of obvious pop-in that detracts from the otherwise lovely track design. The resolution bump also serves a practical function for gameplay; a higher pixel count allows players to judge turns further into the distance with greater ease. Improved textures, a la Wind Waker HD, would also improve the overall presentation, and support for proper anisotropic filtering would be a well-received bonus too. F-Zero GX remains one of the best racing games ever made, and it's a series we're eager to see return, even if just in the form of a remaster of this Gamecube release.

Super Mario Sunshine is given the frame-rate analysis treatment. With its 30fps cap, Mario Sunshine isn't as responsive as we'd expect from a modern Mario title - a sticking point that could be addressed with a hypothetical Wii U release.Watch on YouTube

Super Mario Sunshine, though perhaps still overshadowed by Mario 64's impact six years prior, is nevertheless a great example of a GameCube title worthy of redress. On the surface it lacks the wow factor of recent star-gazing Mario titles, but its tech still revolves around some interesting ideas. Chief among them is fluid simulation, with Mario's FLUDD backpack feeding into its core gameplay design - a goal to spray away the slime and graffiti slathered across Delfino's streets. To achieve this trick, EAD overlays animated textures across the world that react dynamically to bursts of water, a visual effect that makes the world feel tangible.

Elsewhere, Mario Sunshine packs plenty of effects that are easy to overlook. Water shaders are a standout, especially across the game's gorgeous ocean segments, and reflections are used heavily across the dynamic puddles created by Mario. Added to that, post-processing effects take a prominent place in its visual set-up, including heat wave distortion and a soft focus depth of field that build up the tropical tone of its setting. Anyone that played the game at reelase surely remembers these effects fondly, which alongside the game's vibrant, sun-bleached lighting, still look tremendous.

However, as nice as Mario Sunshine looks on GameCube, it's clear that it would benefit greatly with attention to some of its technical aspects. As an easy starting point, bumping the frame-rate up to 60fps would bring it in line with just about every other Mario platformer before and after its release. It would make a world of difference to controller response, and judging by the 60fps playback of this game via the Dolphin emulator, wouldn't infringe on the design. On top of that, a jump up to a 1920x1080 framebuffer would serve Nintendo's level design well too - especially given the scale of Mario Sunshine's biggest maps. At 480p, it can be somewhat difficult to see clearly into the distance, and a full HD presentation would make levels easier to read at a glance.

Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader is one of the most technically ambitious GameCube launch titles, and yet manages to turn in a relatively steady 60fps overall.Watch on YouTube

In terms of its core assets, Mario Sunshine also stands to benefit from the use of mipmaps. Typically, these help maintain a level of clarity on textures once trilinear filtering is in effect, especially across distant surfaces where a screen-door artefact starts to creep in. Adding a mipmap system on newer hardware makes sense given a boost in available RAM, and would be relatively easy to produce based on existing assets. All in all, polishing up Mario Sunshine's visuals and gameplay to the standard set by Wind Waker HD would give this game a new lease of life. Even in its current state, it persists as Mario's most underappreciated adventure, despite some quality ideas at its heart.

Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader is another interesting prospect for a remaster effort. As a GameCube launch game, Rogue Leader is a real gem with a focus on recreating the look and feel of the Star Wars universe to a level of detail that had never been experienced before. The game puts the TEV units to great use with per-pixel lighting, bump-mapping, and self-shadowing that stood out for a 2001 title. All of this is displayed at a mostly steady 60 frames per second too, with only dips to 50fps in our footage upsetting the flow to gameplay in the earlier stages. As our analysis video demonstrates, these drops are usually associated with alpha effects, but the rest of play runs without a fault.

A remastering of this game and Rebel Strike would make for a compelling release, especially given the Star Wars mania of the moment. Push out the LOD to show the already detailed structures at a greater distance, clean up its performance hitches, and project the action through a 1080p window and we're on to a winning re-release. Sadly, with the shift in license ownership and the demise of LucasArts and Factor 5, the chances of seeing this superb game revived are a slim, if still tempting notion.

Last but by no means least is Star Fox Adventures - Rare's final game for a Nintendo home console. There's no doubt that, at the time, Star Fox Adventures was a real technical showpiece. Fur and grass shading, self shadowing, bump mapped textures galore, glossy reflection effects, a smooth 60fps frame-rate, support for 480p and even a 16:9 widescreen mode. This was the full package, technically speaking, and ticked a laundry list of high technical bullet-points.

A visual treat on GameCube, Star Fox Adventures is one of Rare's only early 3D titles to deliver a stable 60fps update. Even today it's still impressive to see in motion.Watch on YouTube

Of course, the game had a notoriously troubled development, having started life on Nintendo 64 as Dinosaur Planet before shifting course to become a Star Fox title for GameCube. It's amazing that, despite the studio's troubles, Rare was able to create something so polished for release. As the game was conceived on a cartridge, the plan called for an open world that one could seamlessly navigate without loading screens. With the amount of data being streamed, combined with the console's relatively limited memory budget, it's easy to see this bait-and-switch with hardware standards causing problems.

Despite its reputation as a bit of a Zelda knock-off, the game is still a looker today - a contiguous sprawl of dungeons and lush overworlds with little pop-in between each. And save for a single drop to 48fps during its demanding in-engine opener, the performance level is already in the right place at largely 60fps. Given treatment on par with Nintendo's efforts with Wind Waker HD, this is one that would hold up well with some tweaks to its combat and pacing.

The HexaDrive Connection

While we're looking at the possibilities of new HD remasters it's impossible not to discuss one of the true masters of this art - HexaDrive. With Nintendo already tied up with other projects, this remarkable little studio situated in the middle of Osaka seems like a perfect fit. After all, this team already has a connection with Nintendo thanks to Wind Waker HD, where it served as a technical liaison between Nintendo and Imagica Digitalscape for implementing high resolution textures into the game. This connection combined with its past works certainly positions HexaDrive nicely for these projects.

We've already explored the team's amazing work in saving Zone of the Enders 2 HD and the more recent remastering of Final Fantasy Type-0, but HexaDrive's expertise goes beyond that. Many of its projects are focused on delivering accurate reproductions of games at a higher fidelity. Rez HD was their first major project and one that focused on recreating the original experience with a new level of clarity and polish. The higher resolution output and rendering lines are clean and free of aliasing in its Xbox 360 form, despite being limited to 1280x720. Rez HD's slowdown issues were also solved, with a 16:9 presentation worked in to match. Most importantly, the game's audio is now available in full 5.1 surround. In 2008 it was hard to appreciate the quality of the team's work with so few other examples of HD remasters to compare it to but, looking back, it's clear it was ahead of the game.

A comparison between Okami HD on PS3 and the original PS2 version gives us an example HexaDrive at the top of its game.Watch on YouTube

Okami HD is another amazing example of the studio's prowess. Unlike the unfortunate Wii port, which the talented Ready at Dawn had to code from scratch, Okami HD accurately retains the original look of the game while improving both textures and image quality. According to HexaDrive, the game even operates with a full 3840x2160 framebuffer downscaled to 1080p on output. The result is a game with image quality far exceeding anything else available on last generation consoles by quite a wide margin. 16x anisotropic filtering was also implemented, further improving the visuals, while textures received significant attention, employing a technique based on Super-resolution technology. Using an offline process, the team was able to re-render the game's original texture assets at a much higher resolution that seems to work particularly well within the game's design language. All in all, it's a remarkable piece of engineering.

As it stands, the works created by both HexaDrive and Nintendo stand as some of the best examples of remastering in the game industry today. Both companies treat the source material with a reverence that few other developers can match. We'd love to see the two collaborate again on remastering classic GameCube titles for a new generation. There's a lot of potential hiding within the purple cube's library that seems ripe for this sort of treatment.

Of course, at its core, this is really nothing more than a faint hope born out of the high quality work we've enjoyed in games like Wind Waker HD and Okami HD. We're certainly growing tired of lazy remasters that fail to capitalise on their promises, but examples such as this demonstrate that there is still a lot of room for great remasters in the market today. The chance to introduce these games to a new audience, while offering an enhanced version for fans of the originals, would be a wonderful prospect.