Column: "Natestalgia!" -- Jaw-Dropping Video Game Graphics Through the Ages

The times when game graphics really stood out from the rest of the crowd


CRN newswriter Nate Ming decided to do the unthinkable, and write about things he likes and feels nostalgic about. The last time he braved this devastated wasteland, he took a look back at some classic, near-forgotten OAVs, and barely survived to tell the tale. This week, it's back to the savage world of gaming, as Nate revisits the beauty... and danger... of video game graphics.

Absolutes are rare when it comes to video games. Not all RPGs are sumptous experiences you can lose yourself in, and not all first-person shooters are intense, non-stop thrill rides. However, there is one absolute I hold to, and it's that gameplay is always far and away more important than graphics.


But every few years, there comes a time when you react exactly like the Penny Arcade guys did, when a video game's graphics are so mind-blowing compared to its contemporaries that you never forget it, even years later when it's been surpassed.



Pretty much my reaction, too


Video games as a whole have come a long way--I've already mentioned this before, but in fifty years of history they've evolved graphically from this:




to this:




Now, I wasn't even alive for the first generation of games--from text-only adventures like Zork to the minimalist black-and-white designs of Spacewar (pictured above), the first generation was the starting point where everything came from. You'll have to ask Patrick, or probably Joseph about those days--my video game experiences started in the second generation, with the Atari 2600. I'll also be lumping arcade and PC games in with their console contemporaries, just for ease of reference. Let's get started!




Pitfall! (Atari 2600, 1982)- It's easy to see how early video games can blend together visually for a lot of people, especially younger gamers, but Pitfall! really was impressive. Most video game characters only had a few frames of animation and stiff movement, but even on the Atari 2600--a gimped system that often had lackluster arcade ports--Pitfall Harry moved smoothly and quickly, unlike any other character at the time.






Mega Man 2 (NES, 1988)- Aside from being the absolute pinnacle of the entire franchise in terms of gameplay, Mega Man 2 was a real standout title visually, with huge mid-boss enemies and bright, lively level design. You saw the giant fire-breathing wolves in Wood Man's stage, and the massive platforms in Air Man's stage, and you thought you'd seen it all... and then in rolls the Guts Dozer, a boss that's the size of the entire freakin' screen. That was not a pleasant surprise, and a great "holy crap, how do I kill this" moment.



Battle Chess (PC, 1988)- Calling this a "PC" game is doing it a bit of a disservice--it ran on DOS, which I had, but the game was available for everything from the Amiga and Commodore to the Apple II, where most of my generation played Number Munchers and The Oregon Trail. So let's be brutally honest about something: chess is not a very exciting game... at least until you played Battle Chess. The slick, cartoony sprites would engage in vicious combat whenever a piece was claimed, starting my obsession with what I refer to as "playable cartoons." You'll be hearing that phrase a lot, just so you know.




Prince of Persia (PC, 1989)- Holy crap. Like for real, holy crap. Up to this point, games had nice graphics, they had large characters, they had expansive stages, but not one of them could compare to Jordan Mechner's original Prince of Persia. The smooth, rotoscoped animation was a massive leap forward, showing just what video game visuals were capable of.






Super Mario World (SNES, 1990)- The graphical jump from the Atari 2600 to the NES was a shock, but screenshots could not prepare us for the high-resolution insanity that was the 16-bit Super Nintendo. Its pack-in title, Super Mario World, made good use of the SNES' considerable horsepower to give us a Mario adventure unlike any we'd ever seen before.



Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Genesis, 1992)- Sonic was Sega's 'tude-driven response to Mario, giving us a lightning-fast hero who blazed through levels at top speed. The Genesis' limited, washed-out color palette was still capable of fun games that didn't age as well visually, but it wasn't until Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that the Blue Blur got to shine bright alongside Mario. The colors popped, enemies' distinct designs stood out more, and the levels just flew by--just check out that speed run of the Chemical Plant Zone, Act 2!




X-Men: Children of the Atom (Arcade, 1994)- Capcom's CPS2 hardware actually made its debut with Super Street Fighter II, but we didn't really notice--aside from brighter backgrounds and some smoother animation, it was still "business as usual" for the flagship fighting game. Even the stretching, deforming characters of Darkstalkers didn't blow me away as much as Capcom's surprise Marvel fighter, X-Men: Children of the Atom, which was an immediate hit with me and my friends because we were all huge X-Men fanboys thanks to the cartoon and the comics. All of you who hate the Marvel style of fighting games, you can blame it on this one--the ten-story high jumps, screen-filling super attacks, and almost over-animated characters pretty much started here. This game was broken as hell, but that didn't matter--up to this point, it was in a class all its own.






Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)- Once again, Nintendo's frontman led the charge into a new generation. It's one thing to describe Super Mario 64 and its place in gaming, codifying the basics of 3D platforming and all, but it's a completely different thing to have been there when this was new, when this was the future instead of seventeen years ago.




Guardian Heroes (Saturn, 1996)- On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for 2D, which was sadly being phased out in favor of polygonal graphics. Guardian Heroes was fast and fierce, and had all the style and energy of fantasy anime greats like Slayers, but with the relentless action and inimitable character that Treasure was known for in its games. Unfortunately, around this time, people were more interested in shitty-looking 3D than amazing 2D, so not many people got to enjoy Guardian Heroes.




Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, 1997)- Pre-rendered backdrops are taboo these days, but Final Fantasy VII introduced us to an insanely detailed world where the next part of the adventure could be anywhere! Okay, now it's easy to tell what you can interact with and what you can't, but even the multiple character models (exploring the world, in battle, and in movies/cutscenes) were novel and exciting. You got to see detailed character models and intricate summons and magic during battles, and the short, but memorable CGI movies made story events that much more special.




Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (PC, 1997)- A single screenshot can't really explain the scale of playing Jedi Knight for the first time. Levels were enormous and very easy to get lost in, and the game kept throwing bigger and bigger challenges at you from the movies, including a Rancor and the AT-AT you see here. Quake was exciting and fast, but Jedi Knight really upped the ante for PC games.




Guilty Gear (PlayStation, 1998)- Playing closer to Samurai Shodown than any fighter at the time, Guilty Gear was--as I described it to a friend--"playable anime." Detailed character sprites that looked damn cool had plenty of animations and really stood apart from each other. The backgrounds were rich and full of life (or death, depending on the stage), and to this day I still feel that the original GG has smoother animation than any of the later titles.




Street Fighter III (Arcade, 1998)- Of course, there's always Street Fighter III and its two follow-ups if you want smooth animation. Countless animation frames make SFIII the definitive 2D fighter to me, giving each fighter a life of their own with their miniscule ticks. Alex's hair moves naturally, Elena's lean muscles tense and relax, and every character whips and snaps and backlashes during combat.




Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation, 1998)- It wasn't so much the character models of MGS that grabbed me, but the attention to detail in character animation and backgrounds. Most video game characters at the time had goofy idle animations where they were constantly moving, shrugging their shoulders or heavily breathing, but Metal Gear Solid was the first time I'd seen characters that moved naturally, and in a real shocker, blood that wasn't just huge clouds of red pixels flying through the air. Getting these minor details right really made this game stand out to me.






SoulCalibur (Dreamcast, 1999)- The Sega Saturn never really caught on in the US, so "arcade perfect" was something us PS1 owners didn't hear very often. Even Capcom's solid PS1 ports of Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Strider 2 cut animation frames and used some unique tricks via insertion of polygonal effects to let the PS1's meager memory keep up with the games. With the Dreamcast--modeled after Sega's NAOMI board--you didn't just get arcade-perfect games, you got games that were better than their arcade counterparts. SoulCalibur (actually the second title in the Soul series!) turned skeptics into Sega faithful with its stunning visuals.




Shenmue (Dreamcast, 1999)- Video games can take us to fantastic places that couldn't possibly exist, or they can take us back to places we've already been. Shenmue came out in the US just after I'd left Hawaii and moved to California, and my homesickness took me back even farther--back to when I lived in Japan. Gloomy, rainy Yokosuka was nothing like hot-and-humid Okinawa, but all those small details of living in Japan were included in an at-the-time photorealistic recreation of the city--vending machines with coffee and hot chocolate, peppy convenience store clerks, chari bicycles, and parents coming home with the day's groceries for dinner were all there. Just taking a walk in the rain (with water splashing on the screen, blurring your vision) was a quiet, subtly beautiful experience that mirrored real life--something that no game had done to that point.




Jet Set Radio (Dreamcast, 2000)- On the other hand, JSR's loud, bombastic feel channelled the energy and style of street art with what I consider one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time. Sketchy, memorable characters came to life, soaring through the skies of Tokyo-to and shining like bright, blazing stars against the darkness of the drab, dreary Rokkaku Group. Can you tell just how much I love this game and its visuals?




Metal Gear Solid 2 (PlayStation 2, 2001)- I'll always be a little bitter toward Metal Gear Solid 2 for single-handedly killing the Dreamcast on hype alone. I have no idea just how many times I've typed that sentence online verbatim since 2002, but it doesn't change the fact that MGS2 is absolutely jaw-dropping. That the game is still fun to play today speaks volumes, even if its graphics have aged some.




The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2003)- It seems like Nintendo took all the good and bad of Jet Set Radio, ditched the bad, and gave us the absolutely gorgeous Wind Waker. I'm usually pretty agreeable about differing opinions, but saying a cross word about Wind Waker's art design is just cause for [Nate can't say anything about the aggravated assault charges, even though that was ten years ago].




Call of Duty (PC, 2003)- More than any other shooter before or after it, the original Call of Duty really pulled me into the game's world. I wasn't playing a generic, tough Space Marine or commando, or even a science nerd who happened to be really good with a gun--I was a terrified soldier on the European front of World War II. Characters' movements, behavior, and the overall setting and tone made a game with a simple message behind it: war sucks, so try and get as many people home in one piece as you can. You will not be proud of what you are doing. Do not celebrate killing, it's an awful thing.


So what the hell happened to the series?




Viewtiful Joe (GameCube, 2003)- While it later moved to the PS2, I've always felt that Viewtiful Joe was most at home on the 'Cube. At first appearing kind of crude, Viewtiful Joe quickly adopts the same style as Jet Set Radio, giving you some of the coolest, most heavily-stylized action you've ever had a chance to play, all while looking like some kind of insane Genndy Tartakovsky-animated movie.




Ninja Gaiden (Xbox, 2004)- Let me just put it bluntly--for a while, this was the best-looking video game around. It may not have pushed as many pixels as certain PC games available at the time, but it made the most of its hardware and presented incredibly fast and technical and fierce action, and to this day it's on the short list of great 3D action games... and its clean, stylized graphics still look amazing.




Dragon Quest VIII (PlayStation 2, 2005)- While it's not quite at the technical level of Ninja Gaiden, that's not a problem at all--under DQ8's simpler-looking hood is something much more impressive to me. Forget any Dragonball Z game you see--Dragon Quest VIII is the closest you'll ever get to a living, breathing Akira Toriyama world that you can explore every inch of. There's just something about this game that always takes my breath away.


That brings us to now... the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, with the PS3 and Wii following it in '06. This generation isn't over yet, although there have been plenty of games with blindingly awesome graphics and unique takes on familiar genres--when it's over, I'll do another look back.


Out of all your years of playing video games, which games' graphics have wowed you the most? Which titles had the best "you had to be there" moments, even in the face of advancing technology? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!




It's a return trip to the OAV Oasis, where we strap on some fingerless gloves and fight the worst scum that Southtown has to offer! And, um... a German aristocrat in gold armor, I guess?

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