They say good graphics don’t make good games, and that’s certainly true, but they do help to enrich the whole experience. Whilst gameplay is the number one priority, playing a game that looks good and immerses you in another world is also very important.
Today’s new releases have often been criticised for prioritising good looks over substance, and although this isn’t always the case, it can be true. Often the technology behind a game is so heavily geared towards producing cutting edge visuals that the underlying game is left wanting, often resulting in mediocre gameplay.
However, regardless of the actual game quality, I would argue that many games have become stuck in visual rut. Games of today can, indeed, look fantastic, and with titles like Uncharted 2, BioShock, Gears 2 and MW2 all looking very attractive, there’s no shortage of visually impressive titles. How genuinely impressive are they, though?
Whilst I can’t dispute the visual quality of these games, few boast a truly unique or innovative style, and aside from character and world design changes, the actual graphical style of many games is the same 3D poly fest. Not many games actually make you think ‘wow! I’ve never seen anything like that before’. There’s so much more to making a good looking game than high res textures, cutting edge shaders and millions upon millions of polys, and bold, daring design and originality can go a very long way.
So, with this in mind, I’m going to take a brief look at a few genuinely visually striking titles. These are titles that may not be the most impressive technically, but bear a very unique and original visual flair that makes you sit up and take notice. Upon arrival, these titles looked radically different from anything else around. Some may not have been all out classics, but anyone who played them would never forget their initial experience, even if it was solely down to the visuals.
Jet Set Radio
Cel-shading is used in plenty of games these days, but the first game to make this visual style popular was Jet Set Radio. First arriving on the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, Jet Set Radio was an instant hit, and the bright, bold and cartoon-ish looks pulled in anyone who saw it.
This was a truly unique and stunning visual style that really broke the mould, pulling users away from the standard 3D visual style of the time. Jet Set Radio also had some great gameplay and a superb soundtrack to boot, making the game a classic.
Okay, I know XIII also used cel-shading, and so isn’t entirely original, but it took this visual style and turned it into a living comic book. XIII features a great implementation of cel-shading and thanks to Batman-style kapows, and ratatatats, not to mention comic book panels used in cutscenes and even in gameplay, this all helped to produce a quirky and striking style, and one that few games have managed to reproduce quite as well ever since.
The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker
This is another cel-shaded title, but again this technique was altered and adapted to produce a totally unique looking experience. Still just as impressive today, Wind Wakers visual style is gorgeous, with superb animation and some of the most well realised character designs of the series.
Everything has that super-deformed cartoon look to it, but in an attractive, cutsey way. Wind Waker is a living cartoon, and even when sailing through barren oceans you can’t help but love the soothing waves and bright and bold environments.
Held in extremely high regard by gamers everywhere, and for good reason, Ico is an epic title in many ways. I loved this game for its excellent gameplay and originality, but the visual style also took my breath away.
The environments and characters in the game are all very muted and everything has a very dark tone to it, even when in bright patches of greenery, but for some reason this often-bleak look is perfect, and suited the game to a tee. The architecture was also great, adding even more to the visual splendour.
This unique style also passed over to the Shadow Of The Colossus, which was not only as appealing visually, but a downright technical triumph for the aging PS2’s architecture.
Okami, often referred to as Zelda with a wolf, is one of the single most visually pleasing games I’ve ever played. At a time when other developers were concerned only with realism and ever more believable facial animations, Okami came along and, in my opinion, blew away the competition.
The ink on paper style of the visuals is stunning, and the quality of the animation and attention to detail is impressive. Everything about the game screams class, and you do get the feeling you’re actually running around in an ancient Japanese scroll. The idea of drawing onto the screen to attack enemies and solve puzzles was a work of genius, and this was enhanced and made possible thanks to the striking visuals.
It’s not often that you get to praise a game with terrible graphics for being an impressive visual experience, but with the Warioware series, Nintendo managed just that.
Deliberately making the visuals of the game appear crude and childish was a brave move, but thanks to the totally wacky and bizarre gameplay, it just worked, and the game wouldn’t have been the same without it.
One of my favourite games of all time, Killer7 is a visual giant, if an odd one. Also using cel-shading, but this time in a very stylised manner and removing any hint of bold outline, the game’s graphical approach is as simple as it is striking.
Character animation, especially in cutscenes, is spot on, and the environments are heavily atmospheric, even though most are made up of nothing but blank blocks of colour.
As with the bare bones gameplay, the overly simple and odd visuals just shouldn’t make for a good game experience, but somehow they do, and they work very well, indeed.
A controversial Wii release, Madworld is one of the few adult titles on the platform, and taking inspiration from the likes of Sin City, it’s also one of the most visually appealing. For the majority of the game you’ll see only three colours – black, white and red. The environments, characters and weapons are all monochrome, whilst there’s more than enough blood spattering around to bring a little bright and bold colour to the proceedings.
The violence is about as OTT as it gets and the game makes no excuses for its brutal, rude and blatantly crude approach, but for visual style, few games on the Wii can match it.
Little Big Planet
Sony’s new poster child and, some may say, the saviour of the PS3, Sackboy is one photogenic game hero. However, it’s not only Sackboy that helps LBP look the part, and everything in the game boasts a real style. From the burlap sack materials of the characters to the material and Play-Doh covered environments, this is one stylish game.
The whole world looks like the contents of Tony Hart’s work bench, and this homemade appearance is perfectly suited to a game that encourages community creation. A modern masterpiece of design.
Alright, alright! I know that as a game, Dragon’s Lair sucked the proverbials, but on release no one had ever seen anything like it. Dragon’s Lair was a cartoon, pure and simple. And, even though input was phenomenally basic, you controlled it.
Although the game was dreadful, Dragon’s Lair was a sign of things to come, and long before the polygon was an idea in a bright spark’s mind, pixels were king and this simply blew people’s minds, and so is worthy of a place here.
Prince Of Persia may have come first, and Flashback was the better game (both visually and gameplay-wise), but Another World (a.k.a Out Of This World) took the visual cake for originality. Using Delphine’s impressive rotoscoping technique, Another World‘s animation was unmatched. The actual visuals were pretty basic, with little detail, but despite this, the cast oozed personality.
Sprinkle in some stunning cutscenes to set up the various set pieces and you’ve got a memorable and breathtaking feast for the eyes.
It’s not a technology that’s survived, but on its arrival, F-Zero‘s use of the SNES’ Mode 7 was undeniably impressive. F-Zero was essentially a 2D game, but thanks to the unique Mode-7 tech and the clever visual trickery, races appeared to be full, speedy 3D.
Many, many games followed suit, including the incredible Super Mario Kart, but F-Zero was the game that set the ball rolling, and so deserves its place here.
Do you have any other examples of games that made you gaze in awe at the screen? Games that caused you to genuinely exclaim that you’d never seen anything like it? If so, post ‘em below.