Artistic Graphics VS. Cutting Edge

October 9th, 2009 -

Just about every video game made contains graphics of some sort (there are exceptions, such as text based games), and there has been a definite evolution over the years. Every generation of games have seemingly improved in terms of quality, but what determines if those graphics are of a high caliber?


Starting with the NES era, games were made in 8-bit and 16-bit. This is technically the third generation in terms of video games, but it’s what I grew up with, so it’s the first generation of gaming systems I experienced. I don’t plan on arguing what systems were better, specs of each system, and which had better games. This is purely on the evolution of art in games, mainly the visual (as the aesthetics of some games really brought about the visuals, keep in mind that this post is purely on the visuals as if there is no game) aspects that stand out among the rest, and why they are able to do so… Also, the reason this intrigues me so much is that my major is 3D modeling/animation. That being said, prepare for a long journey ahead of you… To continue to the dungeon and slay the dragon, press: I love long contrived posts that sound like rants and only have a few good points. If you would like to chicken out and give the sword to someone else, run home to your mom with the tail between your legs and suck on a bottle, click here.

Battletoads (seen above) was one of the first games I ever played. Originally all my brother had was a black and white tv, and I just thought games were in black and white. I had no idea they actually looked different until a couple years later (I started playing when I was 4)… In terms of a color palette, there wasn’t much to choose from. There were enough for basic lighting and shading, such as with the different tints of color seen above. The whites and blacks also have large roles in showing distinction depth and outline of the background and foreground. The detail in the characters for Battletoads were rather high for the time (compared to other games on the NES), but compared to a game for the Sega Genesis… a difference is notable. The image below comes from the game Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis which was released in 1994 (3 years after Battletoads). The array of colors on screen seem vast, and not in a sporadic way. The layout is bright and dark for the foreground where the action is happening, and dark and calm for the background. But it’s not so much the background where the detail is greater, whereas the character models are gorgeous. Just look at that disintegrating wolf… The highlights and shading on it are leaps and bounds ahead of Battletoads, and then the animation they did for his skin to fall off and then skeletal system to disappear into dust was absolutely amazing (for the time). Based on these two screen shots, which would you want to play (I never suggest playing a game because of the graphics… games are not all about looking pretty, although it seems some developers think it is… but that’s another topic altogether)?

The art on these earlier systems didn’t really have the option of being much different as they are today, so I won’t be bothering trying to find games that really differ on the earlier ones. There are of course the first person RPGs versus traditional top down, and that is an artistic preference, but really no difference in the way the overall game looked. Sega did manage to bring games to an isometric view though, which was a fake type of 3D. Kind of a 2.5D, if you will. Games like this were Sonic 3D Blast and Landstalker.

Looking at Landstalker, it’s hard to believe the game was released on the Genesis without any add-ons (32x which we had, or the Sega CD). While it still only had four directions to go in, the faux 3D look of it gave the player a whole new outlook on the graphics a game could potentially have. Cue next generation…

LIKE ZOMG, NO WAAAAYYYY!!!!11! Yes, the next generation brought 3D games to the consoles. Games like Mega Man Legends brought the once (and still in most cases) 2D series to 3D, and in an arguably interesting way. I guess the best way of describing it is a low-res, 3D anime style… The characters are resemblant of anime characters shown in the facial features, and the colors/style used looks very much like a Japanese cartoon. The houses and towns in general used an array of bright colors depending on the mood of each section, whereas the “darker” areas had drab colors. Is an anime style a bad thing? No. Was it used much? Not really… another game that reminds me of anime is the RPG Xenogears.

A top down RPG that allowed you to move in any direction used 3D (meaning you can see every side of them) sprites, and sprites often have an anime style. Lending to that style are the well done anime cutscenes (which are not common from Squaresoft, now Square Enix. They specialize in cutting edge CG) to progress the story throughout the game. That, and the fact that the game had huge flying mechs. What was interesting was the fact that the rest of the scenery did not follow suit. That meaning that the backgrounds had a 3D, realism to them. Almost as if the game was meant to be made in a more realistic world, and then someone decided to throw in sprites as the characters. Maybe they didn’t want to have cubes for hands? Another game (one of my favorites of all time) did this too, but with beautifully hand painted backgrounds. That being Star Ocean 2. While some of the 3D renderings in the game were pretty poor on the world map, every dungeon, town – basically anything not on the world map or battle environments – looked amazing. Now on to the other spectrum of graphics the PS1 housed: realistic, if you want to call it that. Final Fantasy could be followed in a graphical progression as a standalone post, but we’ll look at the three games that graced the system and how they improved over a difference of a couple years, and how they changed.

Starting with VII, this is the first game in the series to make the 3D leap. The transition was rough, but received good feedback. Looking at it now it seems laughable (the characters almost look like they’re made of Lego), but those were breakthrough at the time. Of course there are parts of the game that look better, but this is how about half the game looks. As a side note, it’s funny to look at FF VII and say the graphics are bad when just a few paragraphs up there are 2D games which don’t hold a candle to this (or do they?). An interesting part of the art was the style used, although not really shown in this image. That was the SteamPunk feel of the world. While not really part of the later iterations of the FF VII series, the main game held many locations and vehicles that gave it that feel. That art style alone grabs peoples’ attention that may never have even looked into the RPG scene. Next in the series was VIII, obviously…

At a glance, there is a substantial difference. Realism was very much a point they emphasized in VIII; as if it was an alternate reality that could actually exist. The characters have layers of clothing, hands, faces with more than eyes… Light even seemed to reflect off their hair and clothing, which were solid colors in the previous game. It seemed the whole visual section of the game was built from the ground up, being so drastically different. And to think that the changes this drastic were made in only 2 years of each other’s debuts. This particular one also played a bit more with the idea of having CG going as you were able to control the character. You couldn’t necessarily affect the world in any way, but you could move about a very pretty looking setting. So with the improvements between those two games, the next one (which came out a year later) should look even better, right?

IX was interesting because it went back in time… not in the sense that it played with time by any means, but the feel of the game just felt more old fashioned. The art style took a complete turn from realism to smaller characters like VII, but with much more detail. The array of characters was rather vast as well. It wasn’t limited to humans, mages, chocobos, and moogles. There was an assortment of interesting characters, including several of the playable ones. The different races and old world feel brought something new to the series once again. Which style do you prefer? We now make the leap over to the competitor of the PS1: the N64. This system seemed to have a more cartoony, child friendly feel in most of the games.

Super Mario 64 is probably one of the more memorable games from my childhood, even though I never owned a Nintendo 64. My friends had them, and I’d go to their houses constantly and play them. Many of Nintendo’s games (pretty much anything by Miyamoto Shigeru) have a very kid friendly, cartoon look to them. Very bright color palette, nothing demonic… There were only a couple games that really broke that art style on the system. And really, a good reason for Nintendo to not branch out was that their main game line-up that held those graphics worked really well.

This game was created by Rare, perhaps better known for 007 Golden Eye; this particular title was released in 2000 (three years later). Rare actually held quite a good library of games for the system, and this one (Perfect Dark) showed that the 64 wasn’t being held back by kid friendly images. This game had animated *gasp* blood in it. The picture also shows a much different type of image compared to that of the previous. While bright greens and blues are used, it is in a much different way, and the overall tone of the game is darker compared to that of the “happy days” Mario style.

Moving right along to the last iteration of the Sega platform… we have the Dreamcast. Sonic made his debut on the system in a stunning 3D presentation with Sonic Adventure, the image above from the first level you play. Gone were the days of 2D games, it seemed. With a high poly count, the game looked and moved wonderfully. I couldn’t believe the game looked as good as it did when I was playing it. The speed of the game was intact, and the environments were epic (if not a little over the top as seen above). Unfortunately, you can’t see it in a screen shot, but there was motion blur during this portion of the game. The cartoony style really helped bring the hedgehog from 2D to 3D nicely (despite his downfall after this game…).

Yes, it is hard to tell what is going on this game. If you’ve never played one of these titles, it’s from the Power Stone series. Hyperactive and zany is an understatement for the action in this game… With exotic backgrounds and almost cel-shaded characters, this game could easily give someone a seizure. Is it possible to have too much stuff happening at once? Maybe, but for some games it really just fits… sort of it’s niche. This series will always stand out in my mind for how it was presented artistically. So it’s obvious that Sega’s next-gen system for the time was going for action, trying to bring something new to the table that others couldn’t. And then the PS2 came out.

If you’ve never played this game, I don’t expect you to guess what it is, or to have any idea as to what is happening. The game is REZ, and yes, it is gorgeous. This game took what the Virtua Boy di
d (wire frame), threw in buckets of action and craziness and made the colors like an acid trip… and then gave you control of the game. Talk about fun. Even if you don’t know what’s going on it’s fun to just sit and watch all the pretty colors… Who needs hallucinogens when games can give you the same effect without harming your body?

Sly Cooper more or less took that wire frame idea, but with cel-shading. An almost fairytale like environment, all very soft looking, and then straight out of a story book characters. The movements are all very smooth and gives the sense of urgency, yet sneakiness. Even the cut-scenes have a comic book feel to them, with onomatopoeia in them. If you really wanted to compare the cut-scenes to a game, the best example would be Sega’s Comix Zone, which placed you inside a comic, going from panel to panel acting out the story. Moving onto the realistic, graphically violent style on the system…

God of War may not have done anything truly new in the sense of 3rd person action games, other than bring an alternate version of Greek mythology to the table… that, and maybe the massively epic landscapes and incarnations of those Greek myths. This game graphically showed what violence was, and that the main character Kratos was a brute. The game would feel a bit different if he handed the enemies butterflies and had rainbows attached to his arms… The style in this game is so much more gruesome than titles even like Devil May Cry which has a half demon fighting off demon lords. Now in terms of art/scale in a game… there is a team that got their title from the first game they made. That development team is Team Ico. Whether you know who they are or not, they’ve taken scale in a game to a new level.

See that little speck in the bottom left? Yeah, that’s you. And that big guy is kind of far away; he’ll get bigger as he gets closer. There is only one way to describe this game, and that is epic. Shadow of the Colossus is a work of art. If you’ve never played it, look at images or something. It’s breathtaking to ride the horse down the beautiful countryside and to come across a huge colossus that you have been searching for… The mystic feeling of being on one of the colossi, the movements of them, environment… everything about the style in this game is top notch. And from something so realistic and mystical to something more traditional in terms of art… paint.

This game honestly looks like it is a painting come to life. Okami has a very Japanese feel to it, the reason being how it looks. Aside from the scroll painting, the game doesn’t portray much of anything new. The reason I bring this game up is because I think the way it looks is the reason it got the critical acclaim that it did. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it a lot. Clover Studio did a wonderful job on the game, and continue to create innovative games as Platinum Games, but would as many people have cared about it had they kept the original 3D rendering of it? If it looked like a dark Twilight Princess, would people have given it the attention it got? More than likely not, but since it was unique, it gained a lot of press.

A game that drew me to it with the visuals alone was Tales of Symphonia. I had played other games in the Tales of… series, but this one just attracted me by how it looked. I’m not really sure how to describe how I felt when I saw it. It just sort of felt and looked perfect to me. It had this magical feeling; I guess it was massive eye candy for someone that loves anime… Anyway, this particular title was for the Nintendo Gamecube. Want something more gruesome? Denis Dyack did…

The character on the right may resemble Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, but this is far from being as cutesy or kid friendly as that game. This game has dark and demented written all over it… Although it came early on in the system’s life cycle, it was a diamond in the rough in terms of quality horror/uniqueness in the genre. The images you get in the game will more than likely make you jump at least once, possibly break your controller, and maybe give up before you ever beat it. One thing the art relies on is the sound effects. To really experience this game the sound needs to be loud and clear, because the visual impact is definitely heightened with it.

Probably one of the more unique shooters to grace a console is killer7. This game’s art style also sold me on it, and the game is just as solid as it’s art (assuming you are open to something different than the norm). The majority of the game is done in vectors (i.e. the hand and gun have shading and highlights in single colors), and the environment often has a basic outline but comes up dark as it’s further away. Oh, and did I mention the blood? There’s lots of blood. Also, if you aren’t quick enough, you get eaten.

Now we have the game that really seemed to bring FPS to the community with LAN parties. The role of Master Chief, killing aliens in Halo. Not to bash on the game itself, but are you seeing anything in particular with all these screens? Maybe it’s just personal preference, but the games that don’t try to do a realistic environment tend to come off nicer looking. Is it because we tend to co
mpare “cutting edge” graphics to real life, whereas something more artsy is in it’s own realm? It’s definitely a possibility… Anyway, onto our current generation of games.

Madworld is Platinum Games’ entry on the Nintendo Wii; the other major game that people are excited about currently which they are creating is Bayonetta. Now it’s not hard to see that this game is different than just about anything you can find on a shelf. Other than The Saboteur (which isn’t out yet), just about no modern game is done in black and white. And even with The Saboteur, the style isn’t so contrasted as with Madworld. It’s black, white, and red, with occasional yellow for the onomatopoeia. If you aren’t sensitive to extreme violence that is so over done it’s funny, then this game is beautiful in how it’s portrayed.

An FPS created by High Voltage Games which goes for a more realistic approach that has an item which manipulates the way the player sees things. For what it is, it’s alright. Nothing groundbreaking though. Honestly, looking at it, it looks like something we’d see in the previous generation. Are we beginning to fall backwards? Would it matter if we did? What if we went back to 2D…? Would that be a bad thing?

Oh yeah, fighting games have finally reverted to 2D this past year and they’ve gotten rave reviews. Not to mention they look absolutely gorgeous! Above is BlazBlue, an anime style 2D fighter that is so fluid it makes me wonder why people tried to bring the genre to 3D. Another game that did wonderful in 2D is Street Fighter 4, while the models were more or less 3D, the game as a whole is played in two dimensions. So is it that we’re going backwards, or that we are just now finally reaching the full potential of two dimensions? Let me say that honestly, it’s not dead… Proof? Here it is: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. Anyway, back to three dimensions…

If you own a 360, you no doubt have seen something like this at some point…Gears of War is known for it’s gritty, lifelike depictions of people and extreme violence (WHERE’S MY WIFE!?!?!). The colors are… well, anything dark and drab. And if its any other color, add black to it to darken it. I think the red you see in the middle of this picture is the brightest color in the whole game, other than the sky occasionally, and maybe lights. Obviously, a game like this wouldn’t have Mario in it…

Metal Gear Solid 4… what doesn’t it have? Starting in a middle east area, the scene is depicted well with sun beaten houses and tattered areas giving the player a feel for where you are… and then Kojima brings in the craziness with machines that are half organic/half mechanic. He brings fantasy into reality. Next chapter has a forest, and a war amasses as you traverse through it. The game being a year and a half old still stands as one of the prettiest games of all time. It even has a noir level, where it’s more or less in sepia, which really gives the player a feeling that they are in an old movie. I can’t emphasize just how gorgeous this game is, it blew my mind… the cut-scenes look just like the gameplay, or vice-versa is a better way of describing that! If you had to choose a game to watch, I’d choose this and Shadow of the Colossus. Interesting, isn’t it? While my preference is games that have a more artistic spin on it, the ones I choose are the realistic… but it’s realistic fused with fantasy, and they are beautifully done.

Despite my love for realism with fantasy, the moving paintings still get to me… Valkyria Chronicles is so beautiful, a picture really can’t show it’s true nature. The sketchy style that is imbued in the animation really brings this game to life; the only game that has something similar that I could relate to is Wild Arms 3, which was stroke-shaded. The best way to describe it is cel-shaded but with the colors having a colored pencil texture on top of it. It might not sound appealing, but it is very easy on the eyes and fun to watch in movement.

So really with future games, there’s obviously going to be various forms of art; but the point is that making the most cutting edge games isn’t always the best route. Some studios excel at it, whereas others can’t compete. That is when a studio looks at what hasn’t been done, and tries to go in that direction. A great example is being made by Silicon Knights (the people that made Eternal Darkness), the game being 3D Dot Game Heroes. They take the old RPG gameplay, take the pixelated graphics, and make them 3D and pretty. Not by smoothing them, but by making large pixelated characters. It’s unique and intriguing, and because of that is getting a lot of press.

Just because something is old, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded in the competition with newer games (2D, top down RPGs, side scrolling “beat’em ups”). There are tons of old games that I’d love to play compared to a lot of recent games that have come out (just recently played Sonic’s U
ltimate Sega Collection and remembered a ton of games from my childhood that I loved). Not to mention Sega has announced they are making a new Sonic game in… yes, 2D. Time to see if Sega still has it in them. And with the Wii, the main point being made with that is that despite not being able to make HD games, they are able to alter what they do with their graphical limitations and make something new and exciting. There is definitely room for both abstract art styles and more stream lined, and I have no way of changing what will come out. But I would love to see more artistic takes on games opposed to the ultra realism… Except for with Square Enix. They can make as many cut-scenes with pretty characters as they want. I mean really, who doesn’t get excited for Final Fantasy XIII Versus after seeing something like this in motion?

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