Graphics in Retro Games

With older games, a common complaint is that the graphics are dated.  Usually this is followed up with “It’s just too ugly.”  Problem is, I think a lot of people don’t know what to expect graphically for various systems.  For example, Dragon Quest VI was a graphical showcase of the day, but people have said that it’s unusably ugly.   Now, you can say, for example, that you hate the Dragon Ball Z esque art style of the sprite work.   You could say that the spritework doesn’t match the tone of the game.  However, most people criticizing retro game graphics do it from the perspective of the game not being – say – Halo without any understanding of what a good or bad game looked like in the era.

Final Fantasy II (Square, 1988)

Shown above is a typical NES JRPG style graphics as showcased in Final Fantasy II.  NES games tend to use a lot of black and strong simple color palates. Due to the low resolution, the games tend to look “pixellated” and sometimes they look dithered.  Bad NES games tend to have flicker, but this rarely happens in JRPGs due to the minimal amount of moving sprites.  Clashing color choices or crude art might pop up, but mostly a bad NES game is more determined by the game play than the graphics.

"In some dungeons, you will not get any light. You'll need a lamp."

Phantasy Star (Sega, 1987 (JP) 1988 (US))

Master system games are similar to Game Gear games due to similar systems.  They both tend to have super saturated colors. This can be almost startlingly bright.  It’s hard to discuss the look of a bad Master system / Game Gear JRPG, since there aren’t that many games out there to discuss.

Green bushes, characters, water.

Phantasy Star IV (Sega, 1993 (JP) 1994 (US))

Genesis games tend to showcase parallax (two bands of moving sprites to create a sense of distance.)  Early games tend to use a lot of dithered graphics and sometimes drab color palates.  The later games tend to have strong primary color palates compared to the SNES.  There aren’t that many JRPGs again, so generalizing the graphics isn’t that easy.  The screenshot above is from a desert town, but you can still see the complexity and variety of the tiles, and some saturated colors.

Note the fire - the orange circle bobs in and out, changing the colors around it.

Dragon Quest VI (Enix, 1995)

SNES games tend to show screen rotation, zooming via Mode 7, colored lighting emulation, and occasionally a more pastel color palate compared to the Genesis.  Bad SNES JRPGs tend to be simplistic graphically.  However, one of the worst SNES JRPGS (Maka Maka, Sigma Enterprises, 1992) has large complex sprites, Mode 7 zooming on the map, and fairly pleasant color palates.

A sea of bushes on a MS-Paint quality town.

Hoshi wo Miru Hito (Hot-B, 1987)

So, let’s begin with the NES.  Above is Hoshi wo Miru Hito.  I’d define this as an ugly NES JRPG.  The color choices are glaring, the sprites don’t tile smoothly, and the characters have a lumpy look to them.  Shown below is another early JRPG called Hyakki Yakou.  I believe there’s a day / night system, so the color choices aren’t necessarily awful.  The sprites are large, but I think the game isn’t exactly exciting at all.

A brown town, with people moving around.

Hyakki Yakou (Use Co., 1989)

Let’s now look at some less attractive Genesis JRPGs. Sword of Vermilion or Vermilion came out in 1989 in Japan.  It was one of the early games out for the Genesis in 1990.  Amusingly enough, the title screen has frantic parallax in the gray clouds.  Most people agree the game isn’t that attractive.  The sprites aren’t that detailed, and the dithered grass tiles in an odd manner.  The color palate is kind of dreary.  The river at the bottom right is definitely drawn at an odd perspective.

A drab town

Sword of Vermilion (Sega, 1989 (JP) 1990 (US))

As for the SNES, the most common “ugly” game is Tecmo’s Secret of the Stars. It came out in the US in 1995. The Japanese version, called Aqutallion, is commonly called a kusoge. It came out in 1993. I believe it was originally designed for the NES, and it shows. The backgrounds in battle aren’t bad, but almost every single graphic in the game is unusually simplistic.

A pig king and a dragon thing are fought.

Secret of the Stars doesn't have terrible battle backgrounds.

The town graphics still look like they were ported up from the NES. Late in the game, most of the game is using a drab brown and black destroyed town sprite set, which frankly makes the tragedies seem more annoying. As shown in the screenshot below, areas are larger than they need to be.  The outside of this house (one step above the top of the screen) only needs to fit 3 people, but you have to  walk all the way to the end of the brown path to exit the area.  You can also see the NES like squareness of each tile used in the area.  Interestingly enough, some of the censored tiles from the Japanese version are more detailed.

Some trees and a big pond

Tecmo's Secret of the Stars (Tecmo, 1993 (JP) 1995 (US))

  1. yukie’s avatar

    A lot of people do forget that old games had extremely limited memory space on cartridges and they’d often sacrifice some graphical pretty for playability. Or for music, sometimes.

    (Random aside – the reason that CV3 in Japan sounded as good as it did was – well, the Famicom had an interface that’d allow a cartridge to use the machine’s internal sound chip too, and Konami manufactured its own cartridges and thus was able to put in its own chip -so you got MUCH nicer music… Anyhow. Yeah. A lot of companies experimented with different chips and compression, and they could make that little machine produce some decent sounds, but the graphics were still quite limited just on account of memory and etc)

    A good story will carry a game with iffy graphics FAR better than a shiny, shiny game can carry a bad story. People still play Secret of Mana and FF6 in spite of their being 16-bit. Why? The stories are good and they’re fun. it’s not all nostalgia (SKETCH. BUG.) that inspires people to keep playing these. FF7 isn’t the be all and end all of awesome gaming, but people play it still in spite of the popeye polygons because the story was fun.

    Kingdom Hearts 1 doesn’t have as good graphics as its sequel, but everyone I’ve spoken to says the first has far more replay value because – less shiny graphics aside – the story is more coherent and the game is much more fun.

    Shiny graphics are not everything, and I think a lot of modern gamers are far too willing to give a game a pass because it looks pretty. Of course, they get annoyed as hell with it later when the flaws become too obvious.

    Visual novel type games (you get static CG illustrations) prove that shiny polygons and gorgeous spell effects are not the be all and end all of what makes a game good. Like – Lost Odyssey is gorgeous as hell but those damn active time mashbutton sequences are satanic and the battle system is weird. It requires one to have good twitchy reflexes, and for people who don’t, the game is much less fun.

    …Incoherency: I has it.

  2. Rav’s avatar

    Konami’s kind of infamous for having ridiculous programming tricks. As in translators will literally say, “Can’t do that game. Konami crack.”

    The evade bug ticks off a lot of people in FF6 for some reason too. I actually never noticed it, playing as a kid.

    I think part of the old graphics thing is a “Is the game playable despite the graphics, because of the graphics, or due to ignoring them? Or are the graphics irrelevent?” There’s some SNES or Genesis games that I like that don’t show the “best” side of the systems, but the game is still worth playing. Still, some people discredit, say, a Master system game because it’s not a Neo Geo game, say, without understanding that it’d never look like a Neo Geo game in a million years.

    Then again, I like pixel art a lot more than early 3D.

  3. Alex’s avatar

    The GG was actually way more capable than the SMS in terms of palette and colors per tile. For an example, check out Royal Stone.

  4. Rav’s avatar

    I’ve never really seen that many Game Gear only games that weren’t Master system ports. So I think that’s why I associated them with being very similar. I’m surprised that the Game Gear was more powerful, though I suppose that’s not too surprising.

  5. site ontwerpen’s avatar

    I love the snes graphics over the nes graphics. Not because it’s a higher bit capacity but purely out of nostalgic reasons. I grep up with games like Secret of Mana and Harvest Moon and I thought they were brilliant.

    I was familiar with the nes and played some games but always had problems with the “static” graphics. Too serious, too dark and without any good color mix. I missed the shades and tones. Probably every generation has a different opinion but this is mine.

  6. Rav’s avatar

    I basically grew up watching Atari and TI-98 stuff. SNES stuff is beautiful though.

    I do think that a lot of people don’t really know what a “great” looking or an average looking NES game looks like. I suppose that’s me being old.

    Thanks for the comment.

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