Remakes vs Remasters vs Reboots: What’s the Difference?

Things only get more confusing over time...

Yousef Zain
Yousef Zain
24 Min Read

Remakes, remasters, and reboots; can you tell which is which? If the answer’s no, that’s completely understandable. There are too many remakes, remasters, or reboots released every year to the point where I can name 10 games for each year.

What doesn’t help, however, is the games being marketed as different projects with the same prefix. Many “re”s but each “re” is significantly foreign to the other. Before you ask, yes, to the point where you can offend people by mislabeling a remake as a remaster.

But did you really mislabel it? The confusion extends past the definition or the etymology of each word. Almost makes you consider taking a deep dive into Google for 10 seconds. Your only wish is to know which is which.

Let’s start from the absolute genesis. Maybe go through the basics of what makes each of their essences. First, I’ll have you reminded that the terms are not related to gaming exclusively.

Knowing that terms like “remake” and “remaster” are used all over the entertainment industry gives you some foundation. Or at least a primitive understanding of each word. This foundation will help you in some way to differentiate between something like a remaster and a reboot.

What Makes a Remake?

Crash being Crash. From Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy
Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy

If you had a chance to access a time machine. Let’s put the laws of physics and logic aside for the moment. You may have the ability to redo something in a better way. Without any of the hardships that you had in the past. Would you seize that chance? Some developers do. That chance is called a remake.

As a verb: To remake is to go over the process of making something again, sometimes in hopes of righting some wrongs. Sometimes it’s the developer’s intent to capitalize on the nostalgia and success of the original game.

Subsequently, As a noun: A remade game is a version of the original game that was recreated entirely from the ground up. The noun doesn’t refer to the final version. Also, a remake doesn’t necessarily derive its tag from how many improvements were added to the original game.

However, while the definition is widely accepted in other fields of entertainment, the connotation of a remake is in dispute in the gaming community. Particularly the question, “does a version with minor improvements count as a remake?”

Definition of a Remake

Does it really count as such if what it adds is considered a frivolity of “fidelity” to the original?

Extolled Remasters

This problem reemerged from the past following the recent release of The Last of Us: Part I remake with the hefty price of $70. While other blockbuster remakes usually release at lower cost, The Last of Us: Part I’s remake is something that the community believes to be unnecessary.

As a matter of fact, we lack a lot of perspective about why the remake exists in the first place. Why does a remake cost $70? Demon Souls was among the list of questionable prices, but nevertheless, the remake came with a sackful of improvements.

What makes it worse for Naughty Dog’s case is that The Last of Us was previously remastered for a PlayStation 4 release back in 2014. It wasn’t a free upgrade. Instead, it was also a full re-release of the game. It makes sense as to why someone would realize that they shouldn’t buy a game they purchased two times before.

The Part I remake comes with little to no improvements on the gameplay, with added accessibility features from The Last of Us Part II. The accessibility features are the most worthful aspect of the remake, as they seek to help the story of The Last of Us reach more people through these elements.

Coupled with a visual overhaul to the gritty aesthetic of the original Last of Us, that’s about it when it comes to what it offers. The remake does not live to satisfy the definition of a “remake” to the internet.

The Problem With Remakes

Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us Part I remake

The problem with remakes is far past marketing labels, I believe. Remakes lately devolved into a gun show for every developer to show their capabilities. As we grow in an age where hardware limitations are not the greatest hindrance to developers, they are prone to putting the hardware to the test.

The PlayStation 3’s limitations were an obstacle to Naughty Dog’s primary aim. The Last of Us had its cutscenes stored as videos in the files and played at the appropriate time. In the remake, however, we can see that the cutscenes are rendered in real-time, contrary to the PlayStation 3 version.

Naughty Dog is essentially posing the remake to attest to what they can accomplish in terms of graphical achievements. Of course, thanks to the technical strength of the ninth generation of consoles. While it can be argued that this serves the purpose of a remake, I would beg to contend.

While it is always exhilarating to experience an old game with the visuals of a new one, it isn’t consistently the exclusive desire people are longing to encounter. Gameplay advancements are the essence of a remake.

Essentially asking, “what could we have done better but decided to cut due to deadlines or hardware limitations?” And endeavor to find the answers. Although remaking and remastering games unnecessarily is a popular practice, abolishing it is long overdue, or at least I believe.

To conclude this section, yes, The Last of Us Part I is still a good game, at least objectively. The remake was undue, and even calling it overpriced would be undermining the scale of the problem. A pretty remake is an adequate remake. However, a remake that is solely pretty is a petty remake, moreover, an extolled remaster.

Remade Movies

In a hopeful attempt to clear out as much confusion as possible, I chose three movies to illustrate what every term alludes to. And in this case, our term is “Remake.” Our first movie got four remakes already! A Star Is Born (2019) is the latest release of a series of remakes spanning the 50s to the present.

The second movie is, fortunately, one remake. The Lion King is a live-action readaptation of the well-known animation that coincidentally goes by the same name. The third remake is kind of a rogue one. The decision was to include either 300 or Watchmen since both are technically shot-for-shot remakes from comic books that coincidentally go by the same names. Also, Zack Snyder directed both of them.

What Makes a Remaster?

CJ, Sweet, and Big Smoke hanging out, probably. From the GTA: The Trilogy remaster
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition

Let’s say you have a time machine. No, we already used that analogy. It doesn’t get more confusing, I swear. Try to imagine that you are the developer. And you just published your game. It was successful. Later, you discover that you could’ve done something better with the game.

So you decide that you want to rerelease the game. After accessing the old files, cleaning some codes up, and adding some tweaks and visual improvements, your rerelease is ready. That’s when you know you call it a remaster [or possibly a definitive edition –we’ll come to that later–].

As a verb: To remaster a game is to release it again after performing multiple edits that are considered minor to the scale of the game but often substantial to the player. Sometimes the edits can be a visual overhaul of the game.

While as a noun: A remaster is a rereleased version of the game coming with minor tweaks or graphical refinements. The visual improvements can include adding ray-tracing or refurbishing certain assets. Other minor tweaks can be bug fixes or minor gameplay additions.

What gets people confound is the little to no distinctions between a remake and a remaster. Tweedledee, and Tweedledum, essentially. A remake is technically still a re-release, correct? Also, a remake can have little improvement over the original, so what harm does it create to mistake a remake for a remaster?

Definition of a Remaster

In reality, nothing. It’s a matter of having the canonical information. The developer is not going to smack your hand every time you misconstrue their remake for a remaster. That responsibility falls into the lap of a Reddit moderator that has a handle with the most intellectual suffix, 69.

The Problem With Remasters

As the term derives its roots from the music industry, remastering a song is essentially going back to the source to tweak the composition and improve the sound quality. The objective is not to drastically alter the sound with the intention of delivering the same experience in a refined and more delicate way.

Remasters are relatively beneficial to the source, making it more accessible and less of a headache to broader audiences. For example, With the Beatles. The album was released in 1963. And it was only available in the monophonic mix.

In 2009, The album was remastered and published on CD. Additionally, two versions were available. The newer version introduced a stereo mix, while the latter contained the original mono mix.

As it so happens, sometimes, it’s not at all beneficial for the source to be remastered. It’s either that nobody asked for it or that it was a stain of holy terror on the source’s reputation. One fantastic illustration of the latter is any remastering that the critically acclaimed GTA trilogy has ever gone through.

GTA: The Trilogy — The Definitive Edition

Rain in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Definitive Edition
Rain in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Definitive Edition (Image Source: VGC)

The “definitive” edition was built on a version that isn’t so definitive. Yes, I’m alluding to the 10th-anniversary remasters/mobile ports. Grove Street Games, previously War Drum Studios, worked on both versions, and both were met with critical responses. Some noted that the remasters were some sort of downgrade over the standard versions of the game.

The community received the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 ports with responses that were exactly on par with its successor. These versions introduced bugs and glitches that are impossibly difficult to watch, let alone experience.

However, the game recently received a large patch. The game is playable right now. But a rocky release of this sort is an indication that what we’re about to see from developers is nothing short of unholy. And the truth they don’t feel like admitting is that remakes, remasters, or reboots are not a priority project for the developers.

At least most of them. Most of the time, remasters are the product of skimpy communication between the houses outsourced to develop the re-releases and the actual developers of the IP. Regardless, what matters most is understanding the difference between a remaster or remake and a reboot. Which, frankly, isn’t as problematic as its antecedents.

Remastered Movies

This one is easy. As the definition of the term “Remaster” suggests, the three picked movies were released and rereleased at some point to include some visual refinements. The first Matrix movie was originally released in 1999. Then in 2018, Home Entertainment announced that The Matrix would be remastered and rereleased in 4k on Blu-Ray discs.

The remastered version included some different color grading options that the directors saw accurately reflected the atmosphere of the trilogy. Then, of course, comes the remastered version of Pulp Fiction, which also presented the movie in 4k resolution.

And the most acclaimed remaster. The Godfather trilogy remaster was announced to release on the 50th anniversary of the first movie. Also included visual updates and higher resolutions.

What Makes a Reboot?

Lara Croft. From the Tomb Raider (2013) reboot
Tomb Raider – 2013

Remember that friend of yours in the fourth grade? Yes, that one friend that was kind of a lovable introverted dork? Would you believe me if I told you the public speaker at your graduation party was the same fellow? First questions first, what the hell happened?

Reboots are fundamentally the same situation. Although reboots are not remotely related to whatever precedes of storylines, they will be marketed under the same name as the rebooted franchise.

As a verb: To reboot a game or a franchise is to take the essence and the identity of the game and create a totally different game based on this essence. The developer usually intends to keep only the important and distinctive features that have a strong correlation to the IP.

As a noun: A rebooted version is a re-establishment, a completely new game from scratch that isn’t in almost all ways similar to the old game. Developers reboot games to restart a game’s continuity to be able to tell more stories and expand on the basic essential gameplay features.

Good examples of popular reboots that aren’t really marketed as such are GTA 3 and GTA IV. Although Rockstar did not abandon the continuity of the past parts, they briefly edited some aspects to adjust to the new reboots. The first reboot overhauled the concept behind GTA; from a 2D, top-down view car stealer game to a 3D immersive open-world experience in the third-person perspective.

Definition of a Reboot

While things may appear most transparent and clear, a reboot is not an exception when it comes to emitting confusion, and definitely not a flawless concept. A reboot may be the most problematic of all. Allow me to explain.

The Problem With Reboots

Unlike the other concepts, the problem with reboots extends beyond execution level, demand, or even prices. You see, remakes and remasters didn’t have to suffer from the endeavor of maintaining faithfulness to the source material. Due to their nature, they are already faithful to some degree.

However, for reboots, it’s not supposed to be a release faithful to whatever the series has been doing for years, or at least with the same approach. Since reboots are an entirely new take on a movie or a franchise, they tend to keep the distinguishing traits of the product, then proceed to change nearly everything surrounding it.

One notable newcomer that outstands the others in that problem was the reboot of Saints Row. Let me tell you, I was ecstatic to hear that the Saints Row series is getting a reboot. Although I would’ve preferred a sequel, I kept asking myself, when was the last time we saw a Saints Row game?

Seeing the teaser certainly didn’t alleviate the doubt that something would go wrong. Although I realize Saints Row never trod a realistic path for the series, the comical visual style reached its climax in the reboot. And it didn’t really stop at the visuals; The cartoonish tone consumed the original identity of the series, leaving the recent release with not a fraction of originality.

I’m fully aware of the irony in calling Saints Row original. The same game that is long known as the GTA copy or parody. But although the series had presumably borrowed a lot of its essence and humor from the GTA franchise, Saints Row could still prove that it is a separate entity with a distinct identity from its primary inspiration.

Identity Crisis

The protagonist from the Saints Row reboot

With the recent reboot, what struck me wasn’t the lack of originality but the lack of overall individuality in writing. The dialogue felt cheap, something you’d expect from a cash-grab midsummer movie that targets adolescents as the main audience. And since you want to resonate with the target audience, you have to see what they’re talking about and what they struggle with.

And if you want my harsh take (clears throat), that’s probably exactly the thing that the writers googled for about four minutes before composing the dialogue. It lacks what makes Saints Row itself, even the story. Also, somebody made the creative decision for the gang members to relate more to the struggles of Gen-Z?

Alright, or maybe alright, unless you decide to oversimplify it to the point where it becomes summarizable within two words? If you may have guessed, yes, student loans and rent, a.k.a. the Freddy Krueger of Generation Z. Was Saints Row boring? Hell no. While it is pretty easy to make a boring movie, it is rather difficult to make a boring game.

That problem stretches far past a title like Saints Row. It’s not a lot that we get reboots that are as bold or daring with change as Saints Row, but to do it is a different thing than to do it right. Most of the time, it’s a failed attempt from the creators to understand what made the predecessors work and be favored by the community.

Between remakes and remasters and reboots, there is nothing more problematic than a bad reboot; a bad remaster is a bad remaster, a bad remake is a bad remake, but a bad reboot is a bad game, period. And that stems from the significance of a reboot. It’s always an individual release, not a rerelease.

Rebooted Movies

A reboot could easily be confused with a remake in the entertainment industry, but it’s not that hard to comprehend the difference. The first obvious candidate we have is The Batman. The most recent reboot of the Caped Crusader includes a brand new story for iconic characters. The Batman manages to convey a fresh story about characters that have existed for over a few decades.

Casino Royale does more or less the same. James Bond isn’t a new character, he had a ton of movies before, but they wanted to take an unexplored path with a character that had been popular for the past couple of decades. And the most infamous one, Ghostbusters (2016). I don’t think there’s any need to talk about it.


Other than remakes, remasters, and reboots, there is a sackful of terms that I intentionally omitted from the article. Either because I saw no significance in adding entire sections for small terms like the following or because I was behind schedule. However, I will give you a quick recap. A port is a form of rerelease that primarily aims to release the same game on another console.

A definitive edition, by definition, is the way the developer intends for you to experience the game, hence the name. Definitive editions can be remakes or remasters but not reboots. As I mentioned before, reboots are not rereleased versions.

Finally, nostalgia is a critical piece in this industry. Capitalizing on nostalgia is certainly not an untried approach. Sometimes it’s even welcomed. But essentially, it is an approach that will backfire if the industry keeps consistently exploiting. Remakes, remasters, and reboots are rather valuable tools on the exclusive condition that they are employed correctly.

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Ever since he was a boy of 5, he used to play games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City -don't tell anyone- and Crash Bandicoot. Yousef has accumulated more than 8 years of exp. Although he favors games with the third-person perspective, he hates writing about himself from the third-person perspective.
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