Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dated Games That Still Look Great

 It looks like it's up to me to rescue this wretched blog. Again. Ok then.

Videogames have come a long way since their inception. We've gone from two lines knocking a dot back and forth against a black background to games that can rival big budget movies in terms of visual splendor and realistic visuals. Technology constantly marches on and these days it doesn't take long for a format to become obsolete and what was once the graphical standard to look primitive.

But some games have made such effective use of the technology that existed at the time, paired with some great artwork, that even when they became outdated graphically, they remained great to look at anyway.

This list includes games from up to the fifth generation of consoles plus one PC game that uses early CD-ROM format.

5. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1993)
This hip nineties revival and reimagining of a classic eighties franchise came with some sweet cutting-edge graphics that are still pretty nice to look at. Developed by Rare, the game used pre-rendered 3D graphics - something previously unseen on the SNES or Sega Genesis (the two leading home game consoles at the time). To achieve greater graphical detail, a new compression technique was used. Nintendo and Rare promoted the technique as "ACM" for Advanced Computer Modeling.

Luckily, the game didn't just look pretty and also featured some really solid gameplay and it became the highest selling non-bundled SNES game of all time, eventually reaching over 8 million copies sold worldwide. Not bad for a game that didn't feature any direct involvement from the father of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto.

4. Myst (PC, 1993)
1993 was  a cool year, wasn't it? There was Jurassic Park, Nirvana's final studio album In Utero, a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup (even if it was the Habs), the Blue Jays won their second consecutive World Series and all sorts of girls I find myself looking at when I'm at the the mall were born.

It was also a pretty good year for videogames as the fourth generation of consoles was at its peak. But cool stuff was happening in the world of computer gaming too and there was no bigger event back then than the phenomenon that was Myst.

Often referred to as "the game for non-gamers", Myst took the whole point-and-click adventure game concept and flipped it on its ear, pretty much inventing the "graphic adventure" genre. While the game offered a very interesting story which a player navigated through clever and sometimes maddeningly difficult puzzles, I think it's fair to say that it wouldn't have been the smash success it was (best-selling pc game of all time until The Sims in 2002) without its incredibly cutting-edge graphics.

Designed and directed by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller, developed by Cyan, and created on Macintosh computers, Myst used StrataVision 3D with retouching by Photoshop 1.0 to create pre-rendered 3D environments and also employed Quicktime animation. The result was a beautifully atmospheric gameplay experience. To this day, it's still one of the most immersive gaming experiences I've ever had (this is also helped by having some truly great music) and while its graphics have long since been surpassed, it's still quite pretty to behold.

The game was remade in 2000 (realMyst: Interactive 3D Edition) with enhanced graphics that were in realtime 3D instead of pre-rendered stills plus weather effects.

3. Starfox (SNES, 1993) And Stunt Race FX (SNES, 1994)
The first 3D game for the SNES was Star Fox which introduced many gamers to those wonderful things called polygons. Harnessing the awesome power of the Super FX Chip, Nintendo, with assistance from Argonaut Software, brought a new experience to console gamers. Luckily it also featured incredibly stellar gameplay rather than just relying on the gimmick of trendy graphics.

The following year, Nintendo and Argonaut put the FX Chip to work once more, this time for a wacky racing game, Stunt Race FX. It remains one of my favourite racers of all time.

Sure, it didn't take long for their blocky and non-detailed graphics to become outdated but I still find both these games very nice to look at. And if you compare and contrast their look to other 3D games of the era on allegedly more powerful systems, it's all the more impressive. Seriously, dig up some screen shots of Atari Jaguar games (the world's first 64-bit system according to Atari) and you'll realize just how well done these games really were.

2. Final Fantasy VII (PSX, 1997)
The graphical splendor of Final Fantasy VII was such that it helped introduce an entirely new generation of gamers to the rpg genre - a genre that was previously limited to a fairly small and specific cross section of gamers - and luckily, beneath all the shiny pre-rendered environments and FMV sequences, there was an incredibly deep and affecting game. The seventh installment of this storied franchise was definitely a worthy entry and remains the favourite of many Final Fantasy fans.

Final Fantasy VI looked about as good as a SNES game could look, pushing the system to its absolute limits. At twenty-four megs, it's the largest (speaking from a graphical capacity standpoint) SNES game in existence and made wonderful use of the system's Mode 7 capabilities. But FF7 marked the first Final Fantasy of the fifth generation consoles and its leap in visuals was significant to say the least.

There was a series of commercials that aired in North America in early 1998 that only showed FMV footage that I'm sure misled quite a number of people who weren't previously familiar with the series. But even though most of the game didn't look quite as impressive as the cut scenes, it was still very pretty. For the first time ever, environments and characters were presented in 3D (fully rendered characters and pre-rendered backgrounds) and, like all Final Fantasy games, the colours were spectacular. But on the Playstation it was brought to an entirely new level.

The game is well over a decade old now but it's still very visually pleasing. Although longtime series artist and character designer Yoshitaka Amano found himself too busy with other projects to be as involved in the game as he would have liked, Tetsuya Nomura stepped in and did a wonderful job as the main artist. He would go on to be the concept artist and character designer for many later Square games including Final Fantasy VIII, X, X-2 and every entry in the Kingdom Hearts series. It was his work in Final Fantasy VII that put him on the map and even with the graphical limitations of the Playstation compared to the standard set by the current generation of consoles, FF7 still holds up extremely well and looks great.

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX, Sega Saturn, 1997)
What's interesting about this game's inclusion on this list is that its visual style was considered "outdated" (kindly referred to as "retro") even back when it was released. The late nineties were all about 3D and many developers abandoned the 2D style altogether - something many realized to be a mistake only within the last few years or so. But Konami recognized that its most popular series was best left in the 2D realm.

The result was a game that is almost unanimously considered to be the best Castlevania ever. As for its graphics, Symphony of the Night is one of the finest examples of beautiful hand-drawn art in any game. That, combined with the gameplay and soundtrack makes it nothing short of a masterpiece. The art is mostly by Ayami Kojima (no relation to Hideo - another giant of Konami) and she's gone on to work on five more games in the Castlevania series.

The game is probably best seen on the Sega Saturn because of its processor's superior ability in rendering 2D graphics  but I've only played the original Playstation version and can only say that it's absolutely beautiful. Over the past decade, Konami has tried to recapture the magic of Symphony with lots of sequels and prequels on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS but none of them can compare graphically or artistically, really.


Shane said...

Really fun list and I can agree with nearly everything on the list with the exception of star fox and stunt race. I had actually been considering writing a list of great games that are hard to look at today, and at least one of them was going to be on it. I can maybe excuse Star Fox because I love it so, but I've tried going back to to play both in recent years and not gotten far. Mostly because I feel like I'm actually damaging my eyes or I'm going to have an epileptic seizure.

In any case, I think you argue a good case for why they should be on the list. I just thought that they look great was pushing it. lol

Would you believe that I've never played Myst before? I can't even believe you've played it. From what I know of the game it always sounded like a game you'd hate and I'd love. At the time I would have been playing other PC puzzle games like The Seventh Guest or Jewels of the Oracle, both of which also create lonely 3d environments.

Great list. There could be no other number one choice.

Cole D'Arc said...

your point about Star Fox and Stunt Race is well taken and I'll concede saying they still look "great" today is somewhat pushing it.

however, i do believe you haven't played far enough into either if you really can't appreciate how good they look in some places.

the ice planet level (can't recall its name) still looks hauntingly beautiful to me and in Stunt Race the two night courses as well as the course in the canyon at sunset have some of the best lighting effects ever seen on the SNES.

you should never question my entries!

Ryan said...

Wow, I was just going to say that I thought Star Fox was definitely a worthy entry!

My reasoning is that it has a unique look. You know Star Fox the second you see it. I know the 64 was all about layered, angular polygons too, but I still think that they kept some of the look from the SNES game because it was the look of the series.

We could totally use a new, quality Star Fox soon. Nintendo, get on it!