Bayonetta's arrival on Switch speaks to the reemergence of a forgotten approach to game publishing
We're gonna port-y like it's 1985.
Last week, SEGA and Platinum's Bayonetta duology (Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2) arrived on Nintendo Switch. The series seems to have fallen into Nintendo's realm following in the wake of Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS, with the upcoming Bayonetta 3 having been announced exclusively for Switch at the moment… but that's neither here nor there. Certainly it explains the appearance of the first two games on Switch, but I'm less struck by the franchise's apparent lock by Nintendo than I am by the fact that the latest port of the original Bayonetta hasn't really changed all that much since its debut a full nine years ago.
At this point, the original Bayonetta has been available at retail in some form for nearly a decade. It's a good game, sure, but is it that good? The sort of ubiquity Bayonetta enjoys used to be reserved for landmarks of the medium, like Pac-Man or Tetris. And no offense to Platinum or the irascible Hideki Kamiya, but Bayonetta (for all its charms) doesn't quite sit in that pantheon.
But that's OK, because the perpetual presence of Bayonetta speaks to a fundamental change in the way publishers have begun to handle their products. More and more game are remaining in print across a growing number of platforms. Switch has definitely benefitted from this — not only with Bayonetta, but with other last-generation games like L.A. Noire and Skyrim (the latter of which Bethesda seems determined to make available for play on any device with a screen). The trend goes far beyond that, however, and really got its start once PlayStation 4 and Xbox One debuted. An increasing number of games are being treated less as disposable, throwaway products and more like films and music: Creations worth playing and revisiting beyond the time and place of their origins.
I can come up with plenty of whys to potentially explain the trend. It's surely no coincidence that this trend began around the time the PlayStation 4 debuted, since that was the first member of the PlayStation console family in more than a decade not to incorporate any sort of backward-compatibility. On PS2 and early PS3 models, revisiting a favorite game from a previous generation was as easy as popping in the disc and pressing Start. PS4 completely cut BC out of the mix, meaning fans either needed to keep their older hardware on hand for access to last-gen software or else buy it again as a remaster or PlayStation Now stream. I'm inclined the believe Sony when they say they left BC out of PS4 in order to keep costs down — day-one affordability was a key consideration in Sony's mission not to repeat the mistakes of the PS3 — but I can't imagine a single publisher with a library of great games in their corporate vault shed any tears about the prospect of forcing gamers to buy them a second time.
There's a whole lot more to it than that, though. The trend also coincides with the advent of "living" games like Minecraft, as well as the games-as-service model that has given us, for example, Ubisoft's recent promise that Rainbow Six: Siege will live for at least a decade; no need for a sequel. Games have become more expensive to make, and the fire-and-forget model of development that demands consumers buy new sequels every year has lost its potency. This has resulted in a lot of games that cling to both good ideas (robust multiplayer modes) and bad (loot boxes and gacha mechanics) in order to squeeze more profit out of a single creation and, presumably, to help recoup development costs. But it's also caused publishers to treat some games as products to be made widely available across as many platforms as possible for years at a time — something that used to be a standard tactic in the ’80s but faded as the console wars heated up (and as PCs and consoles went their separate ways) during the ’90s.
I can only think of a handful of games that propagated the way Bayonetta has during the ’90s and ’00s, and again, most of them were pillars of the medium. Think DOOM. Prince of Persia. Street Fighter II. And even then, most of those reemerged as sequels, upgrades, or alternate editions — I mean, Street Fighter II's rapid iterations and updates within the space of a couple of years were practically the diametric opposite of Bayonetta on Switch. Aside from the addition of some very goofy amiibo-powered alternate costumes that debuted in the game's Wii U release, there's really not much to differentiate Bayonetta 2018 from Bayonetta 2009. It runs more smoothly than it did on PlayStation 3, and you can play it on an airplane, and… that's about it. It's not "Game of the Year" edition or "HD Remaster" or "Ultimate Complete DLC Included Final Version" or anything like that. Indeed, our friends at Eurogamer and Digital Foundry make a strong case for Bayonetta on Switch being based largely on the Xbox 360 version from nine years ago.
This is the way things used to be in the early days of gaming. A popular game could live on through a dozen or more releases over the space of a decade, largely unchanged except for concessions to the limitations of technology. You had big, obvious arcade hits like Space Invaders and the aforementioned Pac-Man, of course, but lesser-known works made the rounds, too. Followers of my Game Boy Works video projects should be well familiar with Thinking Rabbit's box-pushing puzzler Soukoban at this point; it hit Game Boy under the name Boxxle even as it surfaced on other platforms with titles like Shove It!, nearly 10 years after the original PC game's debut.
But even Soukoban is fairly well-known. What about games like Diablo, an obscure TI99-4/A puzzler that nevertheless hit half a dozen different computers before making its way to Game Boy in Japan as Blodia? Or Catrap, which was simply a cartoony graphical hack of a Japanese PC classic from 1983 called Pitman? Consoles and computers from that era are loaded with different renditions of the same game, perpetually resurfacing across a gamut of game devices of approximately the same power levels, often unchanged from one iteration to the next.
In the ’80s, that approach had a definitely pragmatic logic to it. PCs and consoles were still new back then. Still making inroads into homes and lives. A good game concept could be kept alive for years simply because each new iteration on each new platforms was likely to reach an audience that never had access to previous releases, or had only seen them in passing, or played them on other peoples' systems.
It's different now, of course; the majority of people have access to some sort of gaming device, be it a top-of-the-line PC, a smart phone, or a hand-me-down handheld console. Nevertheless, keeping good games in publication has value because good games have value. People enjoy revisiting a favorite, and the lower the barriers to doing so, the better things are for everyone. I've written many frustrated editorials throughout my time in the games press about the nebulous, unloved "in-between" space of gaming: Games that aren't brand new but aren't quite old yet. They have a tedency to be forgotten by core gamers, passing from the new releases list into obscurity until they're eventually "rediscovered" again and dusted off for a nostalgic hagiography. But it doesn't have to be like that. Technology doesn't make games great, and neither does age. It's OK to keep playing and returning to a favorite game over and over again, the way you watch a beloved movie every once in a while, or keep a favorite album permanently on your playlist. Any trend which makes that easier is quite alright in my book.
Bayonetta may not really be my kind of game, but I love that SEGA and Nintendo have kept it in circulation for almost a decade — and I love that it's far from the only game to enjoy this sort of evergreen status. The age of thinking of software and hardware obsolescence as one and the same are dead, baby. Put all the games on all the systems, forever.