Low-poly love: A tribute to a lost era in videogame visuals

Written by: Michael Spada

Your hands are blocks. The textures on surfaces around you are blurred or pixelated. There’s a constant sea of fog just a few feet away from wherever you stand.

No, this isn’t some bizarre dream or surrealist painting. This is what games looked like for over five years in the late 90s and early 2000s. People look back at games like Super Mario 64 and Metal Gear Solid and say that everything was so ugly then. They laugh at how we all thought the graphics were unbeatable. It’s an era – at least visually – that we all try to forget. The awkward teenage years of videogames.

But me? I love it.

A screenshot of Banjo-Tooie for the Nintendo 64

Banjo-Tooie was gorgeous in 2000

From a technical standpoint, of course those games looked like crap. We’re talking Nintendo 64, PlayStation One, the Sega Saturn, and of course, the Atari Jaguar. It was an era when people were starting to forget about bits because the N64 had twice as many bits as the PSOne yet the games were, for the most part, visually comparable. It was an era where the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and other 16-bit systems had accomplished all they could with 2D games. It was time to move on. Yet looking back at the era in question, some could say the big game publishers were jumping the gun.

A screenshot of Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64Technology just wasn’t ready for gorgeous 3D visuals back then. Toy Story was all the rage, making the youth of the 90s fall in love with 3D models and key-frame animation. 2D was out. Games similarly had to keep everyone’s attention by providing bold, eye-popping visuals. Super Mario 64 is the 3D game most people remember as their first. The iconic plumber who changed everything was once again a pioneer, ushering in the 3D era with, at the time, gorgeous visuals and massive worlds ripe for exploration. Many, many more classic franchises followed suit, with ranging success. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time changed the face of action games. Gran Turismo brought an unheard of level of realism to racing games. Sports games were given a new dimension, both literally and figuratively. And new franchises, like Banjo-Kazooie, Twisted Metal, and Syphon Filter showed that there was a wealth of new opportunities with 3D visuals. And we all sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Fast forward to 2012. Show a ten-year-old Nights Into Dreams and he’ll likely vomit on the controller. These games do not stand the visual test of time. Low-polygon models were incredibly ugly, almost scary in some games. Blurry or pixelated textures made the environments look cheap and induced dizziness. The fog that masked poor draw distance in so many games was confusing THEN, but now it would break the brain of a youth. Explaining these visual flaws is like explaining dial-up internet or vinyl to a youngster – we have it so easy now, why didn’t we then?

A screenshot of Nights into Dreams for the Sega Saturn

Nights Into Dreams - the art style was there, the technology wasn't

Yet I am in love with this atrociously ugly period in videogame graphics. Naturally, nostalgia plays a part for the very same reason folks ten years older than me didn’t like these visuals even THEN. I was born in 1986, so I began playing games when the NES was on its last legs and the 16-bit era came into prominence. People’s best gaming memories tend to be around the ages of 8-14, where you’re old enough to enjoy games but young enough to still feel the magic and not be bitter about the good old days. I got a Nintendo 64 in 1997, and a PSOne in 1999, but I played those consoles at friends’ houses basically from both systems’ respective launches. So yes, a part of me is attached to this unattractive generation because I experienced them at the perfect age. I got to see these visuals when they were cutting edge, so traces of that feeling are still there. I am still able to look at certain areas, character models, and moments, and recall being absolutely blown away.

It goes beyond nostalgia, though. I have a genuine appreciation for the low-poly look for the same reasons I love 8 and 16-bit music; the limitations. When you hear a tune like Final Fantasy VI’s Dancing Mad, you need to appreciate more than the excellent composition. You must consider the limitations of the Super Nintendo hardware! They were able to get an epic 17-minute song sound and feel like it was performed by a full orchestra, when the console had absolutely no right in doing so. Composer Nobuo Uematsu took the SNES’s soundchip to its absolute limit and made the very best of what he had. No, it doesn’t sound like an mp3 of a live performance, but given what the system was capable of, you had to be blown away. You still should.

Translate this mindset to low-poly visuals and you’ll see what I mean. When Banjo and Kazooie are flying through the enormous fire side of Hailfire Peaks in Banjo-Tooie, and the framerate chugs along like a freight train, that’s not a poorly designed game. That’s the N64 doing everything it can to stop this monster of a game from locking up. Rare took the visuals to the system’s limits for that game, and it shows. Similarly, if you saw real-time cutscenes over full-motion video sequences, even if they looked horrendous, that was the developers showing their willingness to get everything they could out of the system. Metal Gear Solid is a shining example. The cutscenes look like an abomination today, but in 1998, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation One

Hmmm, what is pre-rendered here and what isn't?

What’s also fascinating is the workarounds the artists would use to make the games look as good as possible, techniques that we’ll never see again because even the technology of mobile games is too good at this point. The most obvious example, of course, is pre-rendered backgrounds. This workaround was made famous with the Final Fantasy and Resident Evil games, but cropped up in loads of other titles as well. When designers’ ambition outweighed the technology, they would take gorgeous CGI environments that the hardware could never run, and render them as images for polygonal characters to traverse. Obviously these images had to stay still, but it gave players the illusion that they were traversing these amazingly detailed environments when they were merely walking on a bitmap. Final Fantasy VII took a huge risk by making these images move as full-motion video for select action sequences, something that could only pay off at a time when that seemed impossible.

Games had lots of smaller, subtler workarounds as well. Rare, the developers of GoldenEye for the N64 would not attempt to ruin Pierce Brosnan’s handsome face, among others, by using limited polygons to craft his rugged good looks. Instead, they slapped an image of his face onto a blank head. It looks amazingly dumb now, but back then, we couldn’t believe how much they got it to look like James Bond. Textures made up for a lot of shortcomings – blocks of hands could have fingers, bodies could have detailed (skin-tight) outfits, machines could have buttons and panels. Sometimes flat sprites would exist in a 3D world, masking as physical objects so they wouldn’t have to take up precious polygon space. Sometimes developers would have convenient storyline reasons to mask visual flaws, like the wintry town of Silent Hill being foggy when it just so happened to be a game with a huge town that would naturally HAVE low draw distance. Clever.

The artists would have to think outside the box for visuals, something that doesn’t need to be done now that graphics technology can surpass game creators’ visions effortlessly. Yet it’s too ugly and weird to be remembered fondly. The weirdness, though, is what I love! Games were simply not ready for 3D, yet they had no choice but to transition. The world was changing, and game developers had to as well.

A screenshot of Retro City Rampage

The upcoming Retro City Rampage goes back to the NES visual style because while it looks dated, it's still charming

And it’s an era that likely will never be revisited. After we settled into 3D for about a decade, the retro look became hip again. Now, it didn’t overtake the prevalence of 3D – certainly not – but it found a nice home in the modern era. People who grew up playing 8 and 16-bit games were finally old enough to MAKE games, crafting excellent retro-flavored titles that injected modern design into old-school aesthetics and sound. And it works, not just because of nostalgia, but because it holds up. There’s a charm to sprite art. There is a beauty in frame-by-frame, hand-drawn animation. This old look has proven that it’s aged gracefully and reclaimed a comfy, but not dominant, spot in modern games culture that will likely stick around until the end.

But the era of low polygons and poor draw distance? There’s no aged elegance to that look. I may love it to death, but I’ll still be the first to admit that it wasn’t pretty. 2D has a timeless flavor, but early 3D is a homely misfit. Why intentionally design a game with awkward, blocky models and intentionally blurry or pixelated textures? Minecraft is about the only example of an intentionally low-poly look, but it’s a deliberate art style with rhyme and reason to it. It’s still clean, and it’s not TRYING to look better than it can. Would anyone ever make a throwback car-combat game like Twisted Metal but have it look muddy and nasty on purpose? No, they’d clean it up just enough to look like a bland PS2 game, which is technically sound enough to look passable but also miss that feel. This old look will probably never be replicated, and it’s almost tragic in a way. Of course, videogame history will always keep that era fresh in our minds, but it will never be celebrated, even ironically, like the 8 and 16-bit days.

A screenshot of Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation OneAnd that’s what this is all about. A sad, solemn celebration of a forgotten era that even I can’t argue against forgetting. You may laugh at the workarounds and scoff at games looking hilarious as they attempted to be taken seriously, but you shouldn’t. Consider the time and the technology. These games, at least a good chunk of them, represent a unique and lost time. Like the awkward teenager I compared this era to earlier, it was an uncomfortable period of transition, stuck between two generations, lost. And that’s where it will likely remain.

I know these games look hideous, but there’s still a charm there; a look that cannot be replicated. To be fair, it probably shouldn’t be. Even still, I can’t help but look at the games of those times and smile.

Author: Michael Spada

Michael Spada is a gentleman who plays videogames and then writes about them on the internet. Solid Snake is his hero, but he'd just as quickly settle down with CM Punk. You can follow him on Twitter if you'd like.

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Responses to Low-poly love: A tribute to a lost era in videogame visuals

  1. shezcraftiNo Gravatar

    These damn kids today with their damn 1080p and reality synthesizers!! Seriously tho, loved this trip down memory lane. Game history needs more appreciation.

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