A couple of weeks ago I was browsing around a local mall and decided to check out the 3DS selection at GameStop. It was Saturday and though the store was crowded a few specific voices rose above the rest. Huddled by the register was a small group of teenagers slowly growing louder. Half the kids thought the PS4 Totally had “Way better graphics man. Dude. Seriously.” the opposing half countered “Dude, dude, The way better graphics? The way better graphics- C’mon. it’s The Xbox One. Xbox One guys.” One kid tried to interrupt with a comment about the Wii U but got drowned out by the ever-rising noise. Not wanting to wade through that discussion, I walked right out. As I left I got to thinking that as long as there are two or more competing game consoles, there will be mobs of noise going on about “dem graphics.” But, how much of all of that matters?
There’s a difference between graphics-tech graphics-art and graphics-style. History has shown us that even if a system has the most powerful graphics hardware, if it doesn’t use what it’s got with smart design and an inspired aesthetic, it won’t matter in the end. When game developers try to mainly rely on fine-tuning tech ware and tricks and tweaks to the video capabilities more often then not their product will age faster. Visual eccentricities and poorly executed tricks become more glaring and cut corners can affect how the game plays itself. Conversely, if artists tries to ride a fad in visuals too rigidly it also risks becoming dated, and ugly with possible harm to the play style. Clear direction, realistic use of the hardware, and imaginative design are what really matter for making truly “good” graphics that stand well over time and blend with gameplay to make an important impact. This was the case with Atari and Colecovision and it will be the truth with the PS9, the DreamBox 2U and beyond.
Many of experienced gamers, like myself, will often claim that graphics don’t matter, at least not as much as gameplay, but that’s not really true. It’s really about balance. When a game is too complex for the visual output, the game doesn’t work. It’s also the same the other way around. A good example of this are interactive story based games and the FMV craze of the 1990s. Lots of people thought being able to use pre-rendered video and live action would revolutionize games in terms of story and freedom, but they were wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, FMV stilted the advancement of freedom and storytelling in games. You can only interact with pre-rendered video so much. Trying to make FMV engrossing is useless. You can’t force an adventure epic though that sort of filter. Look at games like Night Trap and Double Switch, Do you feel like a covert hero playing these? I can’t see how you would. Especially when trying to play with the grainy video being pumped out by an overworked Sega CD or Turbo CD. Nothing in this equation works!
I… I just couldn’t care less at this point.
But, that doesn’t mean an epic, story based adventure game couldn’t be done in the early-mid 1990s. In fact, several games pulled it all off back then and these game still hold up great today. Snatcher is a perfect example of this. It uses sprite based cinematics with a menu based interface to explore and investigate. This allows for far deeper player involvement with a pace that suits the player, not the other way around. Snatcher even has some active shooting segments sprinkled throughout to keep players on their toes. This game takes the best parts of a movie and mystery gameplay and the combination works exceptionally well. This is because the developers chose to use and perfect a direction and visual style that compliments the game system and gameplay design necessities. Here all of the balancing between art, design, and tech capabilities pays off.
Now THIS is cinematic adventure
It’s a shame that the FMV fad overtook the early 90s CD add-ons and early CD systems in the west. They really overshadowed how much CD technology helped systems like the PC-Engine and the Sega Genesis bring out something new. Many great examples of art, tech, and design working together to make truly great 16-bit* graphics that built up a game were from Japan in this time. In fact, the PC-Engine CD and Super CD format holds many of the systems best titles. Games like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Valis, and the Ys series graphic enhancements add to the experience because they were something new in the right direction. CDs not only allowed vibrant sprite based cutscenes. It also enabled better animated, more detailed sprites in-game, the larger data capacity allowed for a bigger canvas to allow new and more things. All of this together allowed for greatness in games when utilized properly.
CD Add-on excelence
People like to bicker and debate about graphics all the time, but they rarely go beyond the surface. The subject of visuals in games can be interesting, they are VIDEO games after all, so why spend so much time arguing if shadows are a teensy bit too dark on the PS4 or Xbone versions of a game? Make a splash, converse! Analyze. As retro gamers, we have a wealth of perspectives and knowledge to sling around. we have a chance see and compare the past and present. Visuals have evolved so much since two white rectangles booped and beeped a white square across a screen. Why argue over the poly count of an NPC in the distance on a PS3/360 game? Dive into why differences, exist in the past, and be wary for when the future looks like it’s taking a left turn. Video games can sometimes be as fun to look at as they are to play, why not look a bit closer next time?
*I know, I know the PC-Engine/Turbografx is only pseudo 16 bit. Yadda, yadda.