This commentary originally aired on August 10, 2017.
For as long as I can remember, graphics in video games have astounded me, and have been a major driver in the industry. Particularly, I remember how everyone was amazed when machines like the Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation started making 3D games possible. When Final Fantasy VII came out on the original PlayStation in 1997, the graphics amazed me - huge enemies and vast landscapes. Looking back, though, the graphics have not aged well. Bright, textureless polygons with some really weird proportions against mostly drab backdrops. It’s all recognizable, for sure, and still playable, but stands out as odd and ugly looking back.
Compare this to Final Fantasy VI, which came out three years earlier on the Super Nintendo. This game has what, I think, are timeless visuals - carefully drawn 2D art by experienced pixel artists that knew what does and doesn’t work with the medium. The game had very cohesive art direction, and I think is one of the best looking video games that was ever on the Super Nintendo.
This is probably an unfair comparison - comparing a very early, pioneering 3D game to a game at the pinnacle of 2D graphics - Final Fantasy VII was the first major RPG with 3D graphics, and by the time Final Fantasy VIII came out a few years later, the team making the game had learned a lot and made a much more polished looking game.
Lots of recent independent games have gone back to the pixel art style of the Super Nintendo era, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of the ease of making games like that compared to 3D models, and partly because it really can look beautiful. Even major game studios are returning to this style, with games like SEGA’s Sonic Mania helping developers remember that you don’t always need photorealistic graphics to make memorable games.