Your favorite classic video games are getting a killer makeover. But it's not big-name game developers making the improvements: it's independent modders.
Most game updates require teams of designers and coders working for months or even years, according to a fascinating new feature in The Verge, but now many are using machine learning to expedite the process — allowing a single highly-motivated modder to refurbish a game in just a few weeks.
One extraordinary example: In March, Reddit user BearborgOne used a program called ESRGAN (which stands for Enhanced Super-Resolution Generative Adversarial Networks) to retexture the beloved GameCube classic Metroid Prime 2 into a 4k masterpiece.
ESRGAN plucks the textures from the original base game, analyzes them, and fills the gaps in the low resolution graphics, effectively smoothing and sharpening the game while preserving the original design. After applying AI upscaling, blurry clouds of pixels become detailed buildings or trees — much like an art restorationist reviving the lost faces of a neglected painting.
Takes a Village
It might sound like the AI does all the work, but it's not that simple. According to The Verge, some games can take hundreds of hours to tweak the algorithm and clean the final images by hand. Just one monster could take between five and 15 hours, depending on the complexity game's animation.
Still, AI is a powerful tool. Daniel Trolie, a teacher and student from Norway, updated The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, an RPG classic from 2002.
"It was like witchcraft," he told The Verge. "It looked like I just downloaded a hi-res texture pack from Bethesda themselves."
Still, it's understandable if you're a pixel purist. Nostalgia for old games might be fueling the movement, but there's something wonderful about enjoying vintage graphics. Anyone who played Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64, after all, knows that the scare of a giant spider dropping on your head wouldn't be the same without the gangly pixelated legs.
READ MORE: Artificial Intelligence is Helping Old Video Games Look Like New [The Verge]
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