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When are graphics good enough?

posted on December 8th, 2010 by jay

In an old Edge column, Mr. Biffo commented that he remembers thinking that at a certain point in console history graphics became good enough. Meaning that at whatever point he picked, the release of the 3DO, say, graphical fidelity in games ceased being an issue. Art could be better or worse, of course, but all in all games simply looked good enough.

This era of good enough began for me in 1999 with the release of the Dreamcast. Early 3D looked kind of terrible and even the PS1/Saturn/N64 games with “good” graphics make my eyes bleed today, but Sega’s early jump into the 4th generation (that’s 4th going by Japanese consoles I care about, starting with the NES/SMS) gave us mature looking 3D that still looks good today.

Compare a good looking PS1 game:

To a good looking Dreamcast game:

Trying to prove my subjective position is correct is less interesting though than the basic concept that to some people graphics become simply good enough at a certain point. Well, at least Mr. Biffo and I think so, but maybe we are crazy.

On a somewhat related note, a friend of mine has good taste in games but abhors old graphics (which means he has bad taste in games). He argues I have a fetish for shitty old graphics and that it’s not possible games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 have any value to people who don’t masturbate to mode 7 (not that he knows what mode 7 is).

Beyond my friend being an idiot, there is a greater concept at work here. Each of us has a limit to the crudeness of graphics we can cope with. My personal theory is that this limit is tied intimately to our first serious gaming experiences. My friend says he played some Super Mario as a kid but the first game he really got into was GoldenEye for the N64. perhaps this is why he can’t tolerate 16 bit graphics.

I grew up with 8 bit consoles but have trouble playing 4 bit games. Atari is just too basic looking. Oddly enough, C64 games, which typically look worse than NES games, don’t offend me. And by oddly enough I mean appropriately enough – I grew up playing C64 games.

This looks fine:

This does not:

These points of graphics being unbearable and graphics being good enough will vary from person to person but I am curious if there are any trends and if my theories pan out. Do you have a console that ushered in the era of good graphics, a point where from then on every game was pleasing to the eye? How primitive do graphics need to get before you can’t cope with them and is there any obvious correlation with the games you played as a kid?


  1. christian said on December 8, 2010:

    The Dreamcast holds the same place in my own heart, as the “stopping point” of sorts for graphics. It mostly came down the fact that the best games had such smooth framerates. Framerate is something which everyone seems to be putting less and less of a priority on, but it’s a huge deal for me. 60 is best, 30 is fine too, but really, all I really want is stability.

    But furthermore, that Shenmue pick says a lot. Specifically, looking at the environment, there are still plenty of modern, hi def games where buildings and boxes are no more complex than Shenmue’s, with texturing that still looks flat and lifeless. It’s the reason why very few games these days knock me off my feet visually. All the high definition in the world doesn’t do much when a game’s environments are no more intricate than something released in 2001.

    I think this is one reason why I find myself playing so much PSP – the games look “good enough”, so I don’t feel like my gaming experience is being compromised.

    Looking back, I can’t think of a single console which I struggle to play due to primitive visuals. For me, it comes down to specific games, and whether their visuals do a good enough job at conveying the game. This goes back to my musings from long ago about how certain NES games look ugly (Ninja Turtles 1 maybe?), but others look absolutely fine (Mega Man 2).

  2. pat said on December 8, 2010:

    i played NES and genesis growing up, but i wouldnt consider myself a serious gamer until the playstation 1. its been a while since ive started up a ps1 game, but im pretty sure i would find games on the console playable. dreamcast definitely so. with the exception of something like the mario games i may have trouble going back to the NES. finding something playable isnt the same as thinking the graphics are good enough, however. for that, dreamcast era, early ps2 sounds about right.

    i agree with you that early 3d was ugly as hell. in a lot of ways, chrono trigger and final fantasy 6 are better looking than ff7, but then we start getting into art style. but since ive gone that far, id stake that a few years down the road, the look of muramasa holds up better than, say, mass effect.

  3. pat said on December 8, 2010:

    and when you say that pic looks “fine” i assume fine translates to “exactly like super mario bros”?

    also, i assume you took that spanish language screen cap of parasite eve yourself? you didnt tell me you imported that.

  4. Stefan said on December 8, 2010:

    Hmm, I started on the Atari 2600, and haven’t really encountered a level of graphics that I can’t play if it’s done well. Asteroids or Space Wars on a vector machine works fine for me, and that moon patrol screenshot actually just inspired me to go download an emulator.

    I think the level of graphics you need depends in part on what you’re used to and in part on the style you want to achieve. Cartoony 2D games don’t require the same level of graphic realism as 3D cinema-style photorealism – if you shoot for one style and can’t get it good enough then that’s where it bothers me.

  5. Marie said on December 9, 2010:

    My gaming past has a lot of similarities to Pat’s. I grew up on NES and Genesis, and really dug in during the PS1 generation. It’s interesting to play older titles, and I make a habit of doing it every so often. I -love- revisiting 16-bit titles, and could probably spend the rest of my life playing them exclusively and be quite happy. I really feel like there’s a tightness to level design – no matter the game type: the action of Sonic, the exploration of an RPG, etc. – that -can- be done with the third dimension, but far too often isn’t. I loved the Metroid Prime Trilogy, which did a good job (in my opinion) of 3D level design, but if I had to make some weird choice and ask for more Primes, or more Fusion/Zero Missions, I would beg for the latter.

    My second-best “era” for graphics, though, is that of the PS2. It isn’t the PS1 era for a lot of the reasons Jay mentions above. I tried to replay FFVIII several times before I didn’t feel like my eyes were watering- these were graphics that were important to the development of the medium, but definitely didn’t age well. It isn’t the NES era, despite its delightful 2Dness, because of -something- I can’t put my finger on. I still enjoy old Mario games from that time, but RPGs and such often feel too slow. And I tried playing the original Metroid again, and it also felt too slow, or sticky, or something else I could put my finger on. So that’s less graphical, and more latency or something, but I also find myself preferring the little details of 16-bit graphics. Not necessarily extra scrolling layers of background, like you find in FFVI (though they are nice), but really just that little added bit of character and enemy detail. 8-bit Samus is…. a bit difficult to parse. 16-bit Samus is clear, to me.

    Of course, Super Mario Bros. 3 proves that the NES could provide solid detail, so I guess my problems with the NES are directly related to when a game appeared in its lifespan.

    Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking article!!

  6. jay said on December 9, 2010:

    Marie, Pat and I chatted on gchat about the difficulty of separating graphics and overall simpler gameplay in old games. Like your Metroid example, I had trouble playing it as well when I got it on VC but played Super Metroid for the first time and adored it. Some of my problem with Metroid was the graphics, some of it was the gameplay, some of it was also the fact that the graphics looked so similar all throughout the game. So old systems had problems not just in what graphics they did show you but in what they couldn’t because of all the memory constraints. Every hallway looking the same makes Metroid a real pain in the ass. So my problem isn’t simply that the old graphics look bad, it’s that there is such a limited scope of bad graphics that can be used because of the constraints of the systems/carts.

    Maybe the distinctions I’m drawing are stupid and obvious – I guess my point is that on some real level it can be tough to separate gameplay and graphics.

  7. Marie said on December 9, 2010:

    It’s not a stupid point at all. All throughout my response I realized I was starting with graphics, but ending elsewhere, especially in trying to discuss the NES.

    I do wonder with Metroid if it wasn’t just memory constraints, but how new designers were to that kind of world design. If you get lost in original Zelda, it’s your fault- either due to your newness, or to your memory. The vast majority of the screens of the overworld are very distinct. To the point that they could include gags/puzzles such at the Lost Woods, and whatever the Up Up Up hills are called.

    Final Fantasy had the boon of maps covering separate, distinct areas, but still managed to take the same hardware constraints and create maps where if you got lost, it was still fair.

    Metroid was one of the earlier NES titles, though, was it not? It may have been an important lesson in design.

    That being said, other exploration-based games have spoiled me (starting with King’s Field II US), and I still haven’t ever gotten far in Super Metroid because of the lack of progressively-filling map. That’s a ridiculously simple feature that guarantees I’ll be addicted to your game.

  8. Cunzy1 1 said on December 9, 2010:

    I think for some of the more vocal gamers who frequent forums and the such there is a tendency to draw an arbitrary line between what is acceptable or not.

    I have an idiot friend too and he won’t play the Wii on the grounds of graphics alone. DS is fine though and Xbox360 for the top end graphics. But not the best graphics (PC games or not http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2010/11/29/thanks-for-screwing-the-pc-over/).

    I think that this kind of behaviour, if it exists in the real world is as stupid as not watching films because they are in black and white or subtitled. Or both.

  9. pat said on December 9, 2010:

    marie – i am playing chrono trigger on ds right now and i go stupidly out of my way to fill up the map they added to the bottom screen. also, this isnt the first time you have mentioned kings field in the comments. not to sidetrack this discussion but have you played demon’s souls yet? i finally finished it yesterday.

    cunzy – i certainly know people who hesitate or refuse to watch black and white or subtitled movies. i agree its stupid but it also serves as a useful indicator of whose opinion i should be ignoring. and i dont think any of us (certainly not) are really arguing that we draw a line and say we wont play anything on one side of it. more like we (or i, i should probably stop purporting to speak for everyone) feel we got to a point where the graphics got good enough that we said “ok, graphics are fine now, put whatever the additional cost for improved graphics towards better writing, better voice acting, deeper mechanics, etc”

  10. pat said on December 9, 2010:

    anyone else get a different article than what cunzy appears to be linking to when clicking on his link?

  11. Marie said on December 9, 2010:

    I did, so I finally just Googled “Rock Paper Shotgun thanks for screwing the pc over” and was able to get it fine. I personally really enjoyed it as someone who cheers the lessening of the PC-as-dick-waving-platform movement.

    I started Demon’s Souls a while back, and got almost halfway through it. It being what I defined as “stressful” gaming, though, I took a break from it, got side-tracked, and haven’t gotten around to finishing it. The label is not a complaint, and the satisfaction of completing a level in that game just can’t be matched. I just don’t dig into horror-genre-like stuff very often and have a finite endurance for the style.

    Demon’s Souls is an interesting game for me. I don’t know how you guys feel about going insanely off-topic, or how much you’d want to hear about my comparisons to King’s Field though. I’ll just leave it at this: back in my undergraduate days, I spent -waaayyy- too much time on the Agetec King’s Field board. When Agetec brought King’s Field: The Ancient City to the States, one of the NPCs was named after my screen-name. It’s a small thing, but I get a huge kick out of it.

  12. christian said on December 10, 2010:

    While not being the site owner, Marie, I will say that I personally approve of all Demon’s Souls conversation, at any and all times.

  13. pat said on December 10, 2010:

    yeah, as i understand it, the whole point of the site is to have a conversation with other people who are thoughtful about games. the articles are a jumping off point, and with many of the reviews we have tried to make them about something broader than the game itself to foster this environment.

    and i hear you about stressful gaming. there are a handful of games that, to my everlasting shame, i have not finished for exactly that reason. in demon’s souls, the fact that you can level up relieves a lot of the stress for me. i know there is nothing i can’t get past (although the final boss did give me some trouble) as long as i am willing to put the time in. and i’d get a kick out of having a character named after me as well.

  14. christian said on December 10, 2010:

    Demon’s Souls was fairly unstressful for me. The story is simple, but so well established that I knew that saving the world was not going to happen overnight. I explored, failed, triumphed, and experimented as much or as little as I wanted, and it gave me the patience I needed.

  15. Marie said on December 10, 2010:

    Heh heh, it was the classic one-hit-kill-jumping-from-around-the-corner that made it stressful to me. So I would stay tense, all of the time. Though taking time out to farm earlier areas for materials and such helped.

    It’s kind of embarrassing, now, to actually type out that monsters popping out of nowhere, the old cliche, is scary to me. It isn’t always. But if you nail atmosphere, you use sound intelligently, and your enemies are a genuine threat instead of goomba-level pushovers, I definitely deal with that special anxiety that enhances the experience and lowers how long I can play at a time.

    There. I think I rationalized that one out well enough to not have to be embarrassed anymore. ;p

    Demon’s Souls is made by a lot of the same folks as King’s Field, though I’m guessing you guys already knew that. And it really did well, I think, getting rid of the idiosyncrasies that would rightly not be tolerated today – and in fact, weren’t quite tolerated in KF: The Ancient City (PS2)(I’m thinking specifically about the cruising speed, which we the fans actually went ahead and complained about vocally on the forum- a place where we normally only sang out ringing, impossibly perfect praises).

    For me, though, KFII(US) (The first game never came stateside, so it gets all Final Fantasy-like with the numbering) was a perfect storm of awesome and OCD. Part of it was that I got to know it at a highly impressionable time – it was literally my very first fully-3D game. I got to rent a PS1 at a quite random time (long, lame story as to why I was in that position), didn’t know anything about PS1 games, and rented it on a lark. So, it was my first first-person-perspective game, first time seeing fully-rendered, rotating equipment – what I’m getting at was that, initially, this game was intoxicating sparkle-factor for me. And immersion! I had literally never been immersed like that before, with any media.

    But it was also the first game that I found “scary” (I was 13!) that I went anywhere with. So the sparkly hooked me, and overcoming the scariness equaled pure exhilaration.

    King’s Field is loaded with equal parts traps and treasure. You “feel” along walls for hidden pockets of the best equipment, while making use of sound cues so that you avoid, say, spikes impaling you instead. Or the Dreaded Skeleton hiding behind a wall, which meant death if your equipment and/or level was too poor, and a difficult fight if you were strong enough to stand against them.

    You can see a lot of this in Demon’s Souls, obviously. Some of the traps are better thought out. Death has a more meaningful punishment in DS, I feel, which increases that intoxicating anxiety. But there is still the need to explore, and the hope of treasure. I think breaking up the levels as they did was simultaneously good and bad. It broke up a kind of immersion that I miss in KF, but it also puts in these awesome mini-climaxes and points of accomplishment throughout that KF in turn was less competent in doing.

    Where KFII was even cooler than DS, or even the other KFs, was the Pixie Map. There’s that classic map fill-in mechanic that had me hooked. KFs lands are more explorable than DSs, as well, and the exploration prevented me from ever feeling like I was grinding. I wasn’t grinding, I was finding cool equipment really slowly! I stop and grind occasionally in DS, stressed with the awareness that a little bit of stupid can undo a lotta bit of grinding.

    Magic in KF started out more limited, and ended up a lot less limited. Basically, once you found a certain type of fountain, you could afford to use your awesome, real-time magic. Before you had that water, magic using wasn’t very sustainable. DS may have actually improved this, though the magic wasn’t as noteworthy.

    ….anyway, I really could go on like that forever. Did any of you play any of the King’s Field entries? How did you think it compared to DS? I totally understand if you think DS is flat-out superior in every single way, most reasonable folks do.

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