Honorable Mentions: Holding Up Like Atlas

Super Mario RPG, Jak and Daxter and Other Enduring Franchises

We continue our in-depth look at graphics evolution and gameplay in digital media by examining older system games that, despite graphic limitation, are still great to this day.


Ah, yes, the classics. No, not Vivaldi or Beethoven. I’m talking about some of the greatest games ever made for older generation game systems. There are a lot of amazing games to pick from in this category, and I could easily make several articles about each of them. However, I’m not the first person to write about these games of the “Golden Age,” so we’re going to be looking over some of the most famous and well-proven examples, alongside some personal favorites.

When you have a limited graphics engine and want to make a game that not only looks great but also plays great, you have a lot to consider. How much animation is happening on the screen at once, how detailed is that animation, how detailed you want your sprites or avatars to be, the background setting… detail, detail, detail! So, yes, with older systems that have limited graphic memory, you must pick and choose what has a lot of detail and what doesn’t. As I’ve said before, striking the balance between artistic vision and what the system is capable of handling is always a challenge, and some game designers handle this better than others. Without exception, these games show what you can achieve with seemingly limited tools when you get creative enough. 

16-Bit Superstars: Star Fox, Mario Kart, Mega Man/X

The golden age of 16-bit begins with the Super Nintendo and its amazing library of classic games—and some not-so-great games that we won’t be talking about. We’re looking at a grab bag of games of different genres from this era to showcase how good design choices can easily translate into any type of game.

The precursor of the 3-D polygon graphics and advanced chipset of mid-to-later term SNES titles, Star Fox was seminal, extending the life of the console and inspiring several sequels.

The at-the-time unexpected hit flight simulator known as Star Fox was and is a joy to play [ 1 ]. Arguably, this game’s looks leave a lot to be desired. Every ship, including your own, is composed of simple polygons with flat colors, although they do have shadows and lighting. Indeed, if you were to go back and play it on the SNES, you would notice it also has some frame rate issues, despite its relatively low level of detail. So, what’s all the hype about? Why did a game of this graphic caliber become a hit in the first place?

While the graphics and frame rates of the original Star Fox leave something to be desired, what it does have in spades is incredibly fun game play [ 2 ]. Taking control of the pilot, Fox McCloud, and blasting your way through your foes alongside your fighter team is an amazing experience. The game uses some established sci-fi tropes like flying through an asteroid belt or taking on an entire space blockade to add that feeling of being in an epic story. The controls are tight and easy to understand, and responsive despite frame rate issues. The ability to choose paths after the first stage also adds a degree of replayability, and those wanting a high score will certainly replay this game as well. Finally, running through one of the game’s paths takes roughly 30 minutes, meaning you progress quickly and can easily attempt multiple play throughs in a single session. The game’s stages reward memorization of hazards, so playing them over and over will allow those high score hunters to get a lot out of this game.

An additional bit of graphic flavor lies in the communication boxes that pop up when your wingmen appear on screen to either ask for aid or be aided by you. There are several spots throughout the game where you will have an opportunity to come to the aid of your wingmen, who have their own ship health that remains consistent on each playthrough. Keeping your wingmen alive allows them to come to your aid during certain mission spots, providing additional firepower and destroying some foes to clear the way for you. This small, but significant, dynamic of play allows you to get snapshots of the personalities of your wingmen, and adds an important dynamic to the gameplay, allowing the player to decide if they want to intentionally destroy their wingmen to make the game harder later.

The simplicity of the game’s graphics allows them to be timeless in a way. While there could have been a greater degree of detail poured into the Arwings or the various foes that would be shot down and blown up by the player, this degree of detail wasn’t necessary to make the game good. Giving the ships a simple shape with a tight hit box made their navigation and visual feedback easy to understand. You can take hits to your wings, and eventually lose them, but not lose your ship, and you learn this through the gameplay, taking damage on a wing causes the wing to flash, smoke, and eventually break off. You also learn that being short a wing makes your turning of the ship very sluggish, and you should avoid it. All that visual information is easily conveyed despite, or perhaps because of, the simplicity of the graphics.

Moving on to the classic game that spawned many imitators, Super Mario Kart was a very interesting concept for its time [ 3 ]. This was when the Mario franchise started to branch out more regularly from its side-scrolling, Goomba-stomping roots and into other genres. This one is a racing simulator. 

Using characters from the franchise as the racers, who all have different stats, supporting two player split screen, and adding in a dash of mayhem with special items, this game became an instant household hit. It’s got something for fans of racing, of Mario, and fans of chaos, as you can blast the lead racer with a seeker shell to knock them out temporarily and take the lead yourself. As graphics go, it’s about average for a Mario game on the SNES, maintaining an easily identifiable art style and the tight controls that this franchise is famous for. Its cartoon-style art direction allows for very smooth frame rates, and its game play is so slickly designed that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just an off-brand racing game. 

This game carries the visual designs of the Mario franchise and uses them rather brilliantly in this spin-off. The question boxes now appear on the racetrack, and driving over them yields items, as you might expect from the main series games. Items are also intuitive, like the seeker-shell. You may not know exactly what it does when you first pick it up, but it is demonstrated as soon as you use it. You understand that shells are an offensive weapon, and even though there are multiple shells, you know how to use them after using only one. Level hazards are easy to spot, like jumps over lava flows which promise a fiery demise, forcing those who fail the jump to wait several seconds to rejoin the race and rough off-road terrain that will significantly slow down any kart. The level design itself is rather brilliant, taking specific motifs from the franchise and translating them into fun, well-thought-out tracks. The ghost track, for example, being the second level of the 50cc Flower Cup, has no outside track terrain. If you go out of bounds you fall into the blackness below, which is exactly like the ghost house levels of Super Mario World that feature several pitfalls into nothingness. It’s a very streamlined design that is emblematic of the entire franchise, spin-offs included [ 4 ].

Mega Man X took the existing Blue Bomber’s design and upped the ante in every direction.

Our last stop here, but in no way least, comes from the beloved Mega Man and Mega Man X franchise, specifically Mega Man 7, and the first installment of Mega Man X. Both titles showcase an amazing upgrade to the classic franchise, transitioning well from the previous NES installments and making great strides in gameplay. Mega Man X was released first, in 1993, and was an all-new take on the classic Mega Man story, involving Dr. Light’s next robot, X, who had the ability to make his own choices, rather than be forced to obey the laws of robotics [ 5 ]. This game’s graphics are beautiful despite their age, showing that with proper art style and direction, it is possible to make something that will hold up visually, even when it is generations old.

The game play follows the classic Mega Man style of side-scrolling, blasting things with the X-Buster, overcoming stage obstacles, and fighting a boss.  You’ll have a hard time finding a game that introduces mechanics so seamlessly into its opening level, teaching without words how to control X based upon the obstacles he runs into. The game further introduces new mechanics, like the speed dash upgrade you get from Chill Penguin’s level (and the other upgrades), in a way that makes them easy to grasp. The design of the heart tanks, a literal heart with a metal wrapping, informs the player of their importance and their purpose: to increase X’s health bar. Obtaining these various upgrades requires some exploration of each level, and in some cases defeating a different boss Reploid to activate a level change. That’s right, the game levels have an interactive element, changing depending upon which Reploid bosses you have defeated. Defeating Storm Eagle, for example, crashes his plane into Spark Mandrill’s stage, destroying the power supply and turning it dark, but also deactivating most of the electric hazards. With buttery smooth animations, a consistently high frame rate, and a kick-ass soundtrack behind it, Mega Man X is every bit worthy of its legacy [ 6 ].

Mega Man 7 followed in 1995, as the story of the original Blue Bomber wasn’t quite over [ 7 ]. Fans who grew up with the old Mega Man would naturally be able to sink right back into his giant blue shoes, blasting apart the robot masters of Dr. Wiley with the Mega Buster. This installment went with a cartoon-style art, not unlike X or the television show. This style runs just as smoothly, if not smoother, than the direction of X, and allows for classic Mega Man to be distinct from the franchise’s newer line of games. It brings back the feelings of nostalgia in full force with Roll, Rush, and Dr. Light all having their appearances and bits of dialogue that move the story along. The gameplay is what you would expect from classic Mega Man, with all the enhancements that the Blue Bomber has gotten over the years, like his slide and buster charge up [ 8 ]. The enemy designs follow the classic Mega Man formula of quirky and memorable, with bizarre powers that will take careful strategy to overcome, even if you have their weakness weapon. This game plays beautifully, and is still easy to pick up and enjoy, even for non-fans.

The Older Next Gen: Ratchet and Clank, Jak & Daxter, Metal Gear Solid

The Sony PlayStation 1, or PS1, was a huge success at launch, with such titles as Final Fantasy VII, Crash Bandicoot, and Resident Evil in its early library. Its success led Sony to develop more consoles, and the obvious next name of PlayStation 2, shortened to PS2, is what came next. These games were the cutting edge of next gen technology for their time and showed both huge promise for gaming and 3-D technologies in general, and moreover, they can still be fun today.

While Metal Gear Solid is a PlayStation 1 game, it’s hard to overstate how important this game was [ 9 ]. MGS launched an entirely new genre of Stealth Action games by showcasing how something like an infiltration mission should behave in a video game. Older games may have had “sneaking” sections to them, where you might temporarily want to hide a character from a foe in a very simple way, like behind an object. MGS took stealth into the future with its innovative system, with every foe having a cone of sight, active hearing, and the ability to interact with environmental effects such as footprints left in the snow. Every game that has come after this that claims a stealth element to it has tried to emulate this groundbreaking game. In fact, the first Splinter Cell game was a direct response to MGS 1, with Microsoft wanting its own hit stealth game for the Xbox. While the graphics of MGS are not exactly spectacular, with minimal detail to faces and very blocky bodies, the game itself is still a thrill to play [ 10 ]. Not just because it was the first of its genre, but because it did what it set out to do so well. On top of this, the game has a complex political story that is very well written, involving the nature of war, nuclear proliferation, and the trauma that soldiers experience. It’s a game no one should miss.

Though there was some struggle during the 32-bit era to crown the new iconic platform franchises, Ratchet and Clank and Jak & Daxter eventually pulled ahead to claim their place.

Moving into the PlayStation 2, or PS2, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, more commonly called Jak and Daxter, is a much more lighthearted game from Naughty Dog. It follows the story of a young boy named Jak, a silent protagonist, and his friend Daxter, who is tragically transformed into a… meerkat… that does all the talking. This game is best described as an adventure platformer with a collectibles angle to it. This game has its own variety of cartoon art styles, which lends towards it having an excellent frame rate and control response time, without sacrificing too much in terms of overall detail [ 11 ]. The animations are silky smooth here, with Naughty Dog going the extra mile to ensure that every movement feels and looks good. The character of Jak can do a lot of interesting things within the confines of this game world.

Running and jumping is naturally present, as you might expect with any platforming game, but also more interesting moves like dive rolls and rolling jumps that can allow him to careen safely over gaps. His primary attacks consist of a dashing punch and a spinning kick, as well as mid-air dive down. Each of these movement animations is complimented by the cartoonish art style, giving Jak the freedom to partially morph his shape mid-action without it looking out of place. Indeed, emulating older cartoonish movements in this way serves to make Jak visually a lot more fun than his blue-tunic exterior would normally allow. With quirky characters in both design and behavior, a fun gameplay design that doesn’t grow stale, and a somewhat intriguing storyline, this game was sure to become a classic and hold up very well even compared to much later gen games that tried to mimic its formula [ 12 ]. Jak and Daxter became a series of games, with the sequels simply called Jak II and Jak 3, ostensibly cutting the name of the meerkat sidekick despite his constant role in the games.

The next hit on the list is Ratchet & Clank [ 13 ], by Insomniac. Coming one year after Jak and Daxter, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the two, and harder not to see this game as an attempt to capitalize on the formula that made Jak and Daxter popular. Still, imitation is the highest form of flattery, particularly when it is done well.

Ratchet & Clank is another adventure platforming, item-collecting styled game, where you take control of another duo of Ratchet, a future species humanoid mechanic, and Clank, his tiny robot companion. It adopts a very similar visual style as the previous game, giving its characters a cartoonish look that is effective in detail without being too heavy on resources, allowing it to have those smooth, polished frame rates that everyone loves. Comparing it, or Jak and Daxter for that matter, to a modern game, will show just how far we have come in graphics technology, and one might wonder how we ever saw something this low in resolution as the cutting edge of visuals. Even so, the game’s visual style retains its charm, and its gameplay, though slightly repetitive at times, is still very much entertaining [ 14 ].

RPG Legends: Diablo, Symphony of the Night, Super Mario RPG

Ah, the sweet siren call of the classic RPG. These three titles each brought something to the genre that re-defined the expectations of RPGs. These games have vastly different art styles, play styles, and core systems, but each one is an unforgettable and still extremely enjoyable experience.

The original Diablo was leagues ahead of its time, and created many modern standards for roguelike and isometric action and RPG titles. From resource management to user interface of inventory and menus, Torchlight, Shadowrun, and far, far more owe their DNA to Blizzard.

First off, our oldest entry comes from Blizzard’s Diablo [ 15 ]. An action RPG with a dark, gritty, and gruesome atmosphere, this game brought its own level of terror and darkness to the genre. The graphics are reminiscent of Claymation movies, with frames not exactly smooth in motion, but nonetheless evoking that creepiness that often comes with the disjointed frames of Claymation. The environments of Diablo weren’t all total darkness, but they did contain many grim visuals, such a blood, gore, and demonic symbols, which of course made so many parents of young gamers very happy. The gameplay is, admittedly, slow. Anyone who has played any of the Diablo sequels will be familiar with fast moving characters. The original Diablo only has walking speed, making anywhere you go quite the arduous task. Even so, it’s hard to deny the macabre charm of this classic RPG, as you battle your way into hell, slaying waves of demonic forces with swords, arrows, or spells, to eventually face Diablo, the lord of Terror.

Even though the combat is relatively simple, it offers enough variety to keep any gamer interested [ 16 ]. The nostalgic window in which one might look back upon this game belies the nature of it when it was first released. Indeed, though it is gore-laden and intended to be frightening in many respects, its aesthetic style might be considered somewhat tame compared to the most modern iteration of a game like Doom. Still, even on replay, this game manages to keep its creepiness factor with some very simple visual tricks. What you can see on screen at any time is always limited, by both your personal light radius and the many walls and corridors of the underground labyrinth that you traverse. This lack of sight creates a feeling of lonely terror, in that you know that you aren’t alone down here in the dark, you just can’t yet see what is coming to kill you.

When the minions of evil do show up, it’s usually in numbers that are difficult to handle, requiring some tactical maneuvering around the underground mazes. This is where a panicked player can end up dying quite easily, as running away into another unexplored part of the dungeon can end up pitting you against even more horrific monsters. Your character is strong, no matter what you play, but you aren’t a superhero. You are very mortal, and the game will remind you of that if you aren’t careful. This sort of visual information works in the opposite direction of most games—it’s what you aren’t yet seeing that is important. The music tracks and interspersed voice narration of NPCs and quest lines top off the grim fantasy atmosphere and firmly cement this game as a must play RPG classic.

Another somewhat dark and gothic RPG classic comes along, taking a long-beloved series and changing it into something entirely different. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night transforms the classic Casltevania franchise into what is now commonly called the “Metroid-Vania” style of game [ 17 ]. Taking the large area, side-scrolling map exploration of the classic Metroid series, and combining it with RPG elements, this game literally defined its own genre.

And as if that weren’t enough, this PS1 classic game is gorgeous. It doesn’t go overboard with its graphics, favoring an enhanced sprite style that is reminiscent of 16-bit games but outclasses them in graphic presentation. The art style is somewhere between cartoonish and classical, gothic paintings. With the stunning detail and haunting beauty of Dracula’s castle, the variety of deadly creatures that inhabit it, and the smooth moving back-dash expert himself—Dracula’s own son, Alucard—it’s hard to find something to dislike about this game [ 18 ]. The high-resolution sprite animations of the main character alone are enough to wonder at.

Alucard’s animations are given great attention, as they should be. His movements are fluid, befitting the grace of a powerful vampire. His weapon strikes are smooth, with speed depending on what is equipped, though even without a weapon Alucard can deliver rapid punches. All the staples of Castlevania games are present, like hearts representing ammunition for secondary weapons. The fading in and out effect used for his transformations is both simple and elegant, foregoing the need for any complicated animations to turn Alucard into his wolf or bat forms. All the graphic elements of the game are given at least a similar attention to detail, with each foe having a distinct look and attack pattern that the player can predict to defeat them. It can have a slightly tedious grind to it, particularly for first-time players who aren’t using any form of guide, and some of the rooms can take a long time to solve without such. Even so, there is a lot of fun to be had in battling the minions of darkness and conquering Dracula himself.

Our very last, but certainly not least entry, is the very unexpected but amazingly fun Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars [ 19 ]. I remember seeing the advertisements for this game as a kid and thinking “Wait, what?” It was a direction I never expected the Mario franchise to take, but it was one that, to my shock, picked up extremely well. The plot of it starts out in classic Mario fashion, with the Italian plumber running off to save Princess Peach. However, it quickly turns into a very different adventure, as foes from the sky descend and take over Bowser’s castle and start terrorizing the land. 

As mentioned, the art style of the Mario series is well established, and this serves to help quite a lot when trying to change your core art presentation, as this game does. While the character of Mario retains much of what he is known for, namely the ability to jump high and platform a bit, that is about where the similarities to other Mario titles end. The character sprites in this game adopt a Claymation style, though it is quite different than that of Diablo. These sprites have bright, vibrant colors, and bring a lot of life to the scenes they are in. The backgrounds are static, but also nicely detailed in their own way. The graphics are dated, to be sure, but they deliver a satisfying visual of a 2.5-dimensional Mushroom Kingdom and bring a level of detail to a franchise that had previously not been seen.

The charm of this game comes not just from its art, but in its storytelling, which is incredibly entertaining [ 20 ]. Seeing a mute Mario hop around and try to explain things to other characters never ceases to amuse, and the plot of the game itself is interesting. The battle system takes cues from other RPGs like Final Fantasy, separating into another screen for combat to take place. Mario himself retains signature abilities from the main series, such as being able to blast fireballs as a special move, and of course his legendary jump, which has several special moves dedicated to it. The translation of these seemingly simple moves from the main games into the RPG is brilliantly done and showcases how much care was put into this odd but amazing spinoff. The cast, both new and old, has interesting themes and abilities that make each of them stand out. It’s just a well-designed game all around, and a fantastic RPG.

So What Makes These Classics, Old Man?

Okay, so I acknowledge that in this article I basically got to gush about a lot of games that I really enjoyed when I was younger, and it can seem like one big, long nostalgia trip. However, it’s not just nostalgia. In the objective sense, each of these games has something that drew players in, and in some cases they have more than one thing. Well-established franchises like Mario, Mega Man, and Castlevania have name recognition, but that alone won’t keep people playing. What these games have are well-crafted storylines, well designed gameplay elements, and graphics that, while dated, still have a visceral impact to them. Each of them visually supports its own gameplay and storytelling in such a superb way as to have those things meld together, becoming a single, cohesive game, and thus earning their status as classics.

Images

  1. “The precursor of the 3-D polygon graphics and advanced chipset of mid-to-later term SNES titles, Star Fox was seminal, extending the life of the console and inspiring several sequels.” Minotti, Mike. “The RetroBeat: Nintendo’s Legendary Star Fox Turns 25, but Does It Have a Future?” VentureBeat, 25 Feb. 2018, venturebeat.com/games/the-retrobeat-nintendos-legendary-star-fox-turns-25-but-does-it-have-a-future
  2. Mega Man X took the existing Blue Bomber’s design and upped the ante in every direction.” “Capcom Is Bringing the Mega Man X Games to Modern Consoles.” Game Informer, 4 Dec. 2017, www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2017/12/04/capcom-is-bringing-the-mega-man-x-games-to-modern-consoles.aspx
  3. “Though there was some struggle during the 32-bit era to crown the new iconic platform franchises, Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Daxter eventually pulled ahead to claim their place.” Whyte, Ash. “Ratchet and Clank: Standing the Test of Time – Orange and Juicy.” Medium, 10 Dec. 2021, medium.com/orangeandjuicy/ratchet-clank-standing-the-test-of-time-192eb8ab4e81. “Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001).” IMDb, m.imdb.com/title/tt0308426/mediaviewer/rm1679888896
  4. “The original Diablo was leagues ahead of its time, and created many modern standards for Roguelike and Isometric action and RPG titles. From resource management to user interface of inventory and menus, Torchlight, Shadowrun, and far, far more owe their DNA to Blizzard.” “Diablo Hellfire Windows Game.” Mod DB, 22 Nov. 1997, www.moddb.com/games/diablo-hellfire

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