As processing technology continues to improve, we’re gradually creeping towards a future where videogame environments look almost indistinguishable from reality. The phenomenon of the uncanny valley may still loom large over the characters we see in games – and the creation of a genuinely life-like human from textures and polygons may still be several decades away – but developers such as Crytek and Epic are constantly pushing the boundaries of realism in games.
And yet, while some developers continue in their quest for greater realism, there are others that head off down a different path, creating games that are beautiful in a more abstract sense. Often working within strict boundaries – sometimes financial, often technical – these developers create visuals that are artistic rather than photorealistic, and that’s what this list aims to celebrate. The games that look like paintings come to life, or like interactive comic-books – the games that provide a glimpse of something genuinely new, rather than a slavish simulation of the world around us.
You can’t compile a list of stylish videogames and ignore the frankly beautiful Okami, which surely ranks among the most stunning adventures yet to grace a console. Introducing a lavish aesthetic that recalled traditional Japanese painting, the look of Okami not only aided the storytelling process (and Okami weaves one of the very best narratives in any action adventure, even rivalling the Zelda games that inspired it), but also formed an important part of the gameplay itself.
Attempting to draw shapes with the PlayStation 2’s analogue stick wasn’t exactly intuitive, but the concept of interacting with the environment with a magic brush was (if you’ll forgive the hideous pun) a masterstroke. For once, sumptuous graphics haven’t been used as window dressing for a bland game, and Okami is a genuine classic.
Viewtiful Joe may well have been little more than a side-scrolling beat-em-up (and an extremely difficult one at that), but its familiar gameplay was lifted immeasurably by its remarkable graphics, which looked like an interactive Saturday morning cartoon. Using a cel-shaded approach to make Joe and his enemies look like hand-drawn comic-book characters rather than computer generated ones, the game never looked anything less than stunning.
Viewtiful Joe’s combat was so insanely fast-paced that it was easy to miss the huge amount of detail put into its backgrounds, and the silk-smooth movements of its enemies. Even eight years after its initial release on the GameCube, Viewtiful Joe remains a visually stunning game.
The thought of playing a petal floating on the breeze is probably enough to give some gamers an outbreak of hives, but for those who can key into Flower’s unique visual poetry, its soothing twist on what could be described as a rail shooter is truly captivating. If you can imagine a version of Space Harrier or Star Fox, where you’re blown around on the breeze, bringing life to groups of flowers instead of shooting aliens, you’ll get a rough idea of the game’s serene objectives.
Quite modest compared to the spectacular visual masterpieces on this list, there’s nevertheless something timelessly beautiful about Flower’s graphics, which only become more vibrant and beautiful as the game goes on. Perhaps one of the most visually and aurally soothing videogames ever made.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s psychedelic rail shooter is the hectic companion to the blissful Flower. If the latter is like a tranquil evocation of Sega’s blue-sky era of games like Space Harrier and After Burner, then Rez is like an 80s vector coin-op seen through the filter of an acid trip.
While music was an equally important part of the Rez shooting experience – it’s nigh on impossible not to bob your head and tap the shoot button in time to the pounding track list – its visuals enveloped you like a kaleidoscopic shroud. Reportedly inspired by the artist Wassily Kandinsky, Rez transported the player to a world of Tron-like vector lines and the sort of patterns you’d expect to see on a Persian rug.
More hypnotic than ever in its HD incarnation on Xbox Live Arcade, Rez remains one of the most unique shooters ever made. Meanwhile, Mizuguchi has created an equally unique audio-visual assault in his latest game, Child Of Eden, which looks like a cross between Tron, a Jacques Cousteau undersea documentary, and a Carlos Santana T-shirt.
Proving that you don’t need a vast budget and an art department that could fill an aircraft hangar to create a beautiful looking game, Braid is another example of a title propelled into brilliance by its visuals.
The mind-bending concept of Braid’s time-manipulation mechanics may be what lies at the heart of Braid’s appeal, and for that, we have to thank programmer and designer Jonathan Blow. But without David Hellman’s frankly lovely hand-drawn character designs and backgrounds, it’s unlikely the game would have been as memorable as it is. If you don’t believe me, just look at what Braid looked like before Hellman’s art was applied, and still used Blow’s placeholder graphics:
Hellman’s artwork puts flesh on Blow’s coded bones, hinting at larger, mysterious world that lies beyond the boundaries of the puzzles themselves.
It would be tempting to also include Fumito Euda’s remarkably Shadow Of The Colossus on this list, but if I were forced to choose between these magnificent games, I’d have to opt for 2001’s Ico as the most visually arresting of the two.
Awe-inspiring though the lonely, stomping giants of Shadow Of The Colossus are, it’s the impossible architecture of the earlier game’s castle that holds more appeal to me – there’s an ethereal silence to its corridors and shadowy rooms that has never been matched in any other videogame to date.
The largely silent relationship between its two characters – a young boy with horns and a ghost-like girl – is immensely touching. Ico’s visuals, which appear to reference the eerie paintings of proto-surrealist artist Giorgio de Chirico (the game’s cover is clearly inspired by the painter’s work), are unforgettable. That Ico’s style is still being copied and referenced a decade later is testament to its enduring brilliance.
Like Braid, Limbo is another platform game lifted by its graphics, which evoke the feeling of a much bigger world that stretches beyond what occurs on the screen. As the game’s nameless young character runs from left to right through a hazy, monochrome world, we get occasional glimpses of dark figures doing weird, horrible things. Is Limbo set in a distant past? A post-apocalyptic future? It’s never explained, which only adds to the game’s mysterious aura.
Limbo’s visuals, which lie somewhere between an early-20th century German expressionist film and a febrile fairy story, are some of the most memorable and disturbing of recent years, lifting what could have been a generic indie platformer into new, nightmarish territory.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade
Developer Vanillaware had already brought its sumptuous 2D art style to the world in the PS2 RPG Odin Sphere. In Muramasa, it brought a similar hand-painted aesthetic to the Wii, in one of the finest looking games to grace Nintendo’s humble console.
Muramasa is a game driven almost entirely by its beautiful visuals. The actual hack-and-slash gameplay is quite repetitive, but the fantastical Japanese world it creates is what makes the game so compelling. You’ll want to hack your way through dozens of identical monsters just to see what the game’s artists will throw at you next – a gigantic octopus on a raging sea, a scene clearly influenced by a Hokusai woodcut, is but one highlight.
A Boy And His Blob
Along with Muramasa, Wayforward’s platform puzzler A Boy And His Blob proved that you really could make a visually captivating game on a console like the Wii. A remake of a NES game of the same name, Wayforward toned down the difficulty of the original, and overlaid it with the kind of animation and art that you’d expect to see in a Japanese family feature. The result is a game whose central friendship (between a boy and his blob, funnily enough) warms the heart even as its puzzles occasionally infuriate.
Art director Marc Gomez employed a soft-edged art style influenced by the master of animation, Hayao Miyazaki, and the game’s whimsical, faintly melancholy atmosphere is quite reminiscent of Miyazaki’s films. The visual style of A Boy And His Blob propelled this platform puzzler into a whole other, unforgettable realm.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Years before the handmade aesthetic of LittleBigPlanet, or the gorgeous knitted world of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi’s Island pushed the capabilities of the ageing Super Nintendo to its limit to create an apparently hand-drawn environment. With cross-hatched green hills and bold, sketchy lines, Yoshi’s Island looked like a cartoonist’s doodles come to life, and the result is one of the most engaging platform games ever made.
That Nintendo should have opted for what was, for its time, an unusual style is quite brave, considering Yoshi’s Island was billed as a sequel to the extraordinarily popular Super Mario World. The game was originally intended to have a pre-rendered look similar to Rare’s popular Donkey Kong Country, before producer Shigeru Miyamoto chose the pencil-crayon look that made the game so distinctive.
Yoshi’s Island sold comparatively poorly compared to its more famous predecessor (four million copies versus the original’s 20 million), which was probably more to do with timing than the game itself – by 1995, the Super Nintendo’s reign was almost at an end, with the last first-party game for the system, Harvest Moon, released in 1996.
Now commonly regarded as one of the best Nintendo games ever, Yoshi’s Island is also one of the prettiest, and in spite of the technical limitations of the SNES, looks far less dated than its N64 semi-sequel, Yoshi’s Story, which sadly dropped the earlier game’s stunning hand-drawn visuals in favour of a shiny, computer-generated aesthetic.
In terms of its visuals, Yoshi’s Island was a bit of a trail-blazer, and anticipated the more experimental approach to videogame graphics that would later become far more common a decade or so later, in games such as Nintendo’s own Paper Mario and its sequels, as well as one or two of the other titles on this list.