Let’s have a quick nibble of the retro-shroom and take a trip to nostalgia-land.
You’re a young gamer, holding in your hands the Nintendo 64′s tri-pronged controller, eyes glued to the curved, glowing surface of the CRT television. Your green tunic wearing hero has just crossed the massive green field of Hyrule, and are approaching the massive stone walls of the city. Suddenly, the skies turn black, and from the arched entryway a white horse with two riders — The Princess Zelda and her guardian Impa — gallop across the bridge and off into the distance. The look on Zelda’s face is one of fear and sadness as she turns to look at Link. They’re running from something — or someone. Standing in the pouring rain, Link turns to see their pursuer: the massive desert warrior Ganndorf with fire-like hair sitting atop an armored horse. He cracks a smile, lifts his hand, and sends Link flying with a magical shock from his fingertips.
That was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of not just my young gaming life, but many others’. It’s one of those event you hold on to and remember; the way it felt, sounded, and of course, the way it looked.
Well, as I’m sure many have done, going back to the game today, it looks like shit. No I’m serious. It’s muddy, smeary textures wrapped around sharp polygonal models in flimsy, bare environments. Now, compare that against the Zelda of the SNES era, A Link to the past: vibrant colored sprites, intricately designed maps, and charming (albeit simple) animations. It looks just a good as the first time you laid eyes on it.
Why is that? Because 2D graphics don’t depreciate in quality. They may not be quite as impressive as 3D graphics, but games like Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island, Super CastleVania IV, Street Fighter, and the early Square RPGs look exactly the same as they did when they were the height of game design and graphical power.
But 3D games? Pop in an N64, Ps2 — or hell, even an early game from the current generation — and you’ll find the experience hampered by the now-archaic graphics. Some times, games will even be unplayable. Don’t get me wrong here, I enjoy gorgeous graphics as much as the next guy. Games like Uncharted, Skyrim, and at the time Doom 3 and Half Life 2 left me floored by how gorgeous they looked. But in a few years time? They’ll be eclipsed by the next cutting-edge engine, and their experiences diminished due to a major reliance on the visual components of these games (if they haven’t been already).
I’m not advocating a return to 2D game design here. Many of my favorite genres and favorite moments happened thanks to the evolution of 3D gaming. Instead, I’m trying to point out a very common misconception: powerful, more realistic graphics do little to heighten an experience. Instead, its art design and atmosphere. In the past I’ve discussed several games I feel have great art design, most of which are 3D games. It’s their art design that make them so memorable. Metroid Prime, Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, and — the Bilbo Baggins of 3D games — Wind Waker, are all memorable because of how they looked. I use the Ocarina of Time example specifically because it was recently re-released with updated graphics — everything from the textures, to the models, to the animation and lighting has been overhauled, and it looks great, mostly due to the art direction being better realized on the new engine.
As we begin to see graphical leaps diminish, it’s really only a matter of time before we reach a plateau. My concern though is that I don’t want that plateau to be filled with games stretching for “realism;” I want games with unique and impactful art design. I don’t need any more Call of Duties, but I could certainly use more Bastions and Dust Forces. AAA development seems to be crumbling, and many developers — indie and otherwise — seem to be flocking to creative game design. Hopefully, this will mean less emphasis on graphic power, and more attention being given to gameplay, art, and atmosphere. We could full well be moving into a new golden age of video games — that is, just as long as we give up these notions of “realism” and “powerhouse graphics,” and focus on what matters and what makes this medium is so unique.