Weekend Hot Topic, part 2: most impressive retro graphics
Readers discuss the games that they used to think have amazing graphics but now look laughably dated, from Shenmue to Fallout 3.
The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by reader Austin, and while it could include games from any era or format the vastly majority of replies involved the original PlayStation.
Games such as Resident Evil 2 and Gran Turismo looked amazing at the time but considerably less so now, although most found this endearing and the games themselves still fondly remembered.
Room for improvement
I remember thinking the intro to Resident Evil 2 on the PS1 was the most mind-blowing thing ever. I knew it was pre-rendered (although I don’t think that was the term we used at the time) but it was so amazing I was convinced it was photorealistic and that once gameplay graphics looked that good we would have reached perfection.
Needlessly to say, looking at the intro nowadays it’s laughably low tech but I kind of like that, it shows how far we’ve come. It’s also interesting that while the Resident Evil 2 remake has graphics many times better than the PS1 intro it’s much more obvious there’s still room for improvement. I guess that’s a result of me being more tech savvy, but I don’t know whether to think it’s a shame or not.
No going back
The problem with playing Shenmue today is that it must be impossible for people to imagine how amazing it was at the time. We’d never seen anything like it in terms of the freedom and the realism. Back then it was actually quite rare to have a game set in the real world if it wasn’t a sports or racing game.
But Shenmue was completely different in terms of gameplay, graphics, and the whole concept. Of course, nowadays we have GTA and a hundred other open world games and so the novelty is lost and all you’re left with is a really-slow paced game where the most exciting thing you can do is visit an arcade to play old Sega games.
At the time though it was amazing, but there’s no going back now – as Shenmue 3 proved.
Sense of scale
I mean, there are so many possible answers to this question, but I will go with the one that has aged the worst which would be Fallout 3.
It wasn’t necessarily the best-looking game around, but for an open world game where not every frame can be carefully curated, it looked really impressive at the time. I remember emerging from the vault the first time and thinking this was something pretty special, but I think I was just duped by the sense of scale.
Looking back now it’s just a collage of horrendously low-res brown and grey textures. I won’t go into the character/facial models as that is a well-worn topic, but we all know the situation there.
Somebody at Bethesda must have still thought it looked great as however many years later we got Fallout 4 which looked more or less exactly the same. You can level all the same criticisms at Fallout: New Vegas as well, and that one had all the bugs in with the bargain as well.
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Field of views
I remember when Zelda: Ocarina Of Time was state of the art, which may be funny to think of nowadays. Hyrule Field in particular was incredible, not just because of the realism of the graphics but the huge open world area where you could go wherever you want.
That may seem silly now, considering what modern games can do, but it was such a massive step forward compared to anything at the time that I can’t think of anything else similar. Red Dead Redemption 2 obviously looks much, much better but at no point playing it did I think that I was looking at was literally impossible and like nothing I’d ever seen before.
I think in these heady, near photorealistic times it is easy to forget just how far gaming has come in a relatively short space of time. Unfortunately, with such small incremental steps from one generation to a next it is become much more difficult to impress me, in fact the opposite happens where I would notice rough textures or unrealistic effects. It has essentially made me a nit-picker.
The PlayStation 4 generation has had a number of spectacular looking games, especially from first party studios, though the only game I remember audibly gasping over was Uncharted 4. I still believe that to be the high watermark as The Last Of Us was simply too dark and oppressive, although technically more advanced.
Going back in time I always remember being astonished more often, even now I find some PlayStation 2 games visually arresting, though that’s probably because of the greater variety of visual design rather than anything more mechanical.
PS1 games are the ones that shock me the most because the majority of them are real eyesores now. One game in particular stands out for me as something I was astounded at when I first played it but looks extremely rough now and that is Gran Turismo.
I remember watching a replay for the very first time and sitting there with my mouth agape for the entire length of one. My dad, bless his soul, actually said it looked lifelike even if it was anything but. You could see why though because at the time there was nothing like it.
I am not even sure how they did it even now, but if you did a side-by-side comparison with Gran Turismo Sport it would undoubtedly be rather embarrassing to admit that was something that used to impress me, but hey that’s progress for you.
baby machine-5 (PSN ID)
The last turning point
Don’t laugh now, but I bought my Dreamcast in early 2000 and as a lifelong Sonic nerd I, of course, had to have Sonic Adventure. The opening movie of a New York style city being flooded by a gigantic water monster was jaw dropping. Of course, as the game progressed, Chaos was much less impressive outside of that intro. What Sonic Team were thinking when they thought a soggy puddle would be a fitting final boss I’ll never know.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I never thought that this was the very pinnacle of gorgeous graphics. I knew it would be beaten. So, we move ahead to 2005 and Resident Evil 4. And while there are prettier games that have come along in the years since – not least from the Resident Evil series itself – this game might well represent the last major turning point for graphics. I repeat, the last major turning point. Obviously, things like Uncharted 3 and 4, The Last Of Us, The Witcher 3, and the recent Resident Evil remakes are all quite sumptuous. But for me, they represent small, incremental improvements. While Resident Evil 4 was practically HD before the HD era.
I remember in the opening scene where Leon is in the car with two of the local fuzz and the camera sweeps underneath the vehicle where we come mud encrusted. I just thought: ‘Wow, guys! You’re just showing off now!’ The character models are still very handsome to this day and the environments, particularly Salazar’s Castle, are breathtaking.
The only thing lost in the HD transition is that the dark scenes are too dark because the contrast was never optimised for a HD television? That’s the right way of saying it, yes? You can tell that I should never be allowed to sell televisions. To anyone.
I remember being absolutely blown away by the graphics of Gran Turismo on PS1 back in the day. It was the only racing game I have ever bothered watching the relays on after the race, just to look at how stunning it looked.
I had the same feeling when Gran Turismo 3 came out on PlayStation 2. The series has always pushed graphics but looking back now they are a bit blocky.
Now playing: Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Xbox Series X) and Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch)
In my opinion, there were a lot of noticeable graphical leaps that made me sit up and take notice. The first one was Donkey Kong Country by Rare. Whilst already spoilt for choice for the Super Nintendo, Rare had pretty much made the popular console an absolute marvel for the 16-bit market.
The game was so smooth and exploding with jaw-dropping visuals and animations, I was literally in awe with it. To this moment on the Amiga, Mega Drive, and SNES I could not think of a game that looked and felt so good for crystal clear gaming mechanics. A basic platform game but did the job it was supposed to do. The music blew me away also! Talk about matching the on-screen level design with the perfect soundtrack.
With Diddy Kong’s Quest and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble taking the graphical style into other exciting locations this would always be a classic, groundbreaking series on the SNES in terms of graphics.
I remember Outcast on the PC, from the late 90s, having pretty groundbreaking graphics in terms of environmental touches and a fair-sized world to explore. I loved the water effects and the colour palette for the scenery. The skies, the gorgeous vistas, and the features which made up the landscape were something special. The gameplay was OK also, with a decent enough storyline and gaming mechanics.
I was not use to this style of gaming and it was probably my very first step into a large game world from a third person action style. It’s hard to rate this now! I’d definitely dabble with the retro platform games of years past, but Outcast has definitely had its day now, and I would not need to play this game again, but still impressive for the time. [There was actually a remake a few years ago – GC]
Games which broke into more amazing graphical territory were racing games like Gran Turismo, Formula 1, Forza, and Burnout. Not my types of games but I appreciated the near photorealistic design and fluidity.
But first person games like the Modern Warfare series with Call Of Duty 4 were great to immerse oneself in and with the realism amplified with great sound effects and gaming mechanics it was all set in a very realistic world that we are used to seeing on the news and in feature films/TV programmes.
Metro Exodus and Red Dead Redemption 2 on the PlayStation 4 though, are my current favourite games for graphical capabilities. I can only imagine experiencing them hands-on with the top spec gaming PCs now available! They blew me away on the PlayStation 4 but seriously. wow! So. so immersive and feeling so good as I explored the exciting and richly developed landscape.
The games have some of the best locations I have personally experienced in my gaming life. The environment is just a testimony to how far games and the technology involved have come, since consoles and PCs became the way of life for us.
There will be room for more graphical advancements, but with the costs of development and indie games showing that graphics are not everything there could be a limit to how far things can go currently, with this generation of machines. But I don’t doubt a new game engine could be designed and set a new bar to aim for.
For a postscript though, I still say that my first time experiencing Super Mario 64 on the N64 would still be the only time a game genuinely made my jaw drop! Just saying.
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