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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.