Graphics that made us say wow now look old

Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. In these golden ages of gaming, we're often hammered over the head with “throwbacks” to a day where everything was better, for arbitrary reasons. Pixels were better than polygons, minimalism was better than flashy effects and slow controls meant more dedicated motion. It's a trendy tactic to snatch gamers with sentimental value. Still, when actually going back to those original gems that once made us marvel, we can instantly be taken out of that rosy cloud, just by looking at the thing.

Was this game always this, how should we put it, weird?

Let's face it; even the best of titles, with the greatest story and most entertaining gameplay, can start to lose some of that sheen after a while. Even worse, it can become downright unplayable, as technology doesn't stand still. Things have moved on; perhaps it's best if we do too. Even if it once made us say 'wow', there are a bunch of games that now look old. In the words of Pet Sematery: Sometimes, dead is better.
Here's a tip: Don't go back and pick up a certain classic. There is nothing but disappointment at the end of that rainbow.

A Rough Start

It might be an abstract concept to a few generations of gamers by now, but when the first consoles were getting installed in homes, “any” graphics were impressive. Games fully made with just text were still an often used tool then. Still, what stood for visuals back then could be a strain on the young mind. There was a ton of imagination needed to make out most of the game's supposed plot.

This phenomenon's most popular example is the Atari 2600. It produced dozens of classics, but a lot of games were also nearly indiscernible, due to mashed up pixels and limited colors just not stacking up. These things were programmed on a maximum size of 4Kb. Imagine what can be stored on that today. Nothing can.

A title called Adventure was just that, but with one large pixel as the character, slaying dragons that looked like seahorses. A roleplaying game (RPG) would be hard-pressed passing that off today. Same goes for Enduro, a racer where wheel grooves had to be severed fully from the model, making the total resemble a centipede-buffalo hybrid. Even with a concept as simple as driving, Enduro is hard to get into it these days, certainly with the limited Atari sound banks.

Transitioning to 3D

When consoles mastered the 2D element, games had an overall decent time with the NES and Sega Master System. Sure, there were a few oddballs in the bunch, but the bigger hits were generally sound.

When technology started showing that 3D could be done, however, things started getting dodgy. In its first steps, 3D reverted to nothing more than basic shapes to fit platforms. For instance, Virtua Racing was one of those pioneers and while it was stunning then to see cars in full, now it's comical to display octagonal wheels, at best. It's so bad it's good, but it's still pretty bad.

Unfortunately, even that quirky aspect faded with more complex projects later on. Mario 64 took platforming to a whole new level, but a world of repetitive, rough textures just doesn't look the same as it once did. It retains bright colors to help out, but no game can come out today where an area is just one of the same blob over and over. GoldenEye 007 is nearing horror show presentation levels with its square faces, fully gray environments and terrible, flat effects. Any body part is effectively reduced to a crude block. It's hard to take serious anymore.

Playstation 1, Do We Remember It Wrong?

Worse yet, an entire generation of Playstation One games and Saturn releases all look dated with their angular 3D shapes. It's tough to imagine anyone liked the first Tomb Raider when it came out, gazing at a robot Lara floating in a brown mess. Not even Metal Gear Solid can save it. Those guys didn't even have faces. People need faces these days.

A character sketch of that can be found in the earliest of 3D fighters that released. For instance, the first Tekken has the same issues of body parts resembling segregated blocks tied to each other, more than indicating a person. This is due to the focal points of features being set on characters more and more. There is nothing in Tekken other than its people. If those don't look believable, the entire puzzle falls down.

Tomb Raider, Metal Gear, Tekken; all relied heavily on story or gameplay to come from its people and zooming in like that makes flaws more visible. If a person acts realer, it needs to look realer and that, by today's standard, has changed drastically. It's no longer doable to portray a character credibly with a rectangle for a torso and two tubes for legs.

Playstation 2 As The Perfect Control Group

During the PS2 generation, genres found their niche as budgets and popularity rose. Only the first generation releases would still feel its predecessor's flaws.

With the PS2, the dated aspect also gets its perfect test subject: FIFA. There has been a FIFA for every year, from 2001 until 2013. During that time, players switched from blocky hands to fingers; they received mouths and shirt creases that weren't just painted on, as well as getting lighting and additional effects. Each year, the new release made the previous one effectively obsolete. It's fascinating to think each year is a renewing the “wow” factor that immediately disappears in that franchise.

First Person Is The Worst Model

Going further with the zooming in model, first person view has had a rough timing trying to size up. It doesn't get closer than a personal camera angle, as this represents the players themselves. We're all aware of how the world around us looks like and for the longest time games didn't reflect that.

Still, when first-person shooters (FPS) like Wolfenstein and Doom first came out, there was just nothing like it. No other competitor allowed the player to be the person really in charge of acting inside the video game world. These might look stale now, but every progression in the FPS genre that is not the most recent pretty much falls in the “outdated” category and due to this extreme close up flaws are accentuated.

For example, before GoldenEye, the first Quake was a revelation; to have 3D models in a nightmarish environment, which now feel like triangles in a wood panel. Still, if we're honest, not even more recent Quake titles like the still popular Quake 3 can live up to modern shooters. Its few more curves and painted on faces won't make a difference We're already complaining that shooters from five years ago appear ridiculous now.

A Rapidly Increasing Standard

Where we currently stand, we can feel the bar of progress being lifted much faster. As titles push boundaries, the ones that did so previously don't appear as marvelous anymore. Blockbusters like the first Uncharted almost come off as cartoons, compared to the third iteration. Any lack of nuance in textures or effects now makes characters express themselves like puppets. Environments with the slightest amount of pixels in their surface resemble theatre decors at best.

It's come to such degrees that we've played games this year that came out dated. Particularly, a glut of Unreal Engine 3 releases look 'off' in a way. This is an engine that is still standard and yet it fails to charm us as it once did. Games such as the recently revamped Scourge: Outbreak display unnaturally jittering characters with dead-eyed faces. Last year's Deadfall Adventures suffers the same fate with oddly bobbing heads and overly pale skin tones. Four years ago, their detailed presentation would still look amazing; now the current technology is not even pleasing to the eye.

If current releases can already fall behind immediately, just imagine how we'll look back at major releases now that the new generation has begun.

Posted: 30th Apr 2014 by Daav