Polygons & Pixels: what makes a game look good?

Many new titles strive to push the boundaries of visuals within gaming. Whether it’s new AAA games with ground-breaking engine technology or games that boast lifelike facial and motion capture, there’s a big industry focus on how good a game can look. However, in my opinion, video games don’t need to tout mind-boggling polygon counts to look great. In fact, many of the best-looking games of the past few years take a totally different approach to graphics to what you might expect.

It’s not a controversial opinion to say that retro games can still look quite appealing, but it can sometimes feel like the visual achievements of these games are forgotten among the wave of next-gen graphical showcases. So I want to take some time to talk about those achievements, and why we shouldn’t overlook these titles when discussing games with amazing graphics.

One thing retro graphics can bring to the table is charm. This is something that often feels lost in bigger-budget games, where an increased focus on visual fidelity and realism can leave little room for players to get really invested in the character or individuality that games might offer graphically. Look at retro-inspired games like Sonic Mania; each level is teeming with personality and detail, creating a series of environments that are as full of life as any other great modern title, just doing so with refined parallax scrolling pixel art. It feels nostalgic and fresh at the same time, and it’s instantly memorable. Other games like Celeste and Shovel Knight are even more inventive, as new takes on 8-bit and 16-bit styles. Their visual design is bold and bright without losing their retro feel.

Valheim, the chart-topping Viking survival sensation, is yet another example. As nostalgic as we are for 2D sprites, there honestly isn’t as much of an appetite for the low-poly style that was cutting edge during the original PlayStation era and the late 90s. Valheim takes this particular style, where pretty much every texture is low in resolution and detail, but then brings it to life through clever use of lighting and brilliant environmental design. You barely even notice how low-detail the textures are when playing because the art style as a whole is conceived to fit the adventure perfectly. I would take Valheim’s graphical style over yet another photo-realistic tech showcase any day, simply because it complements the quality gameplay.

An added bonus of retro graphics is that these games aren’t accompanied by gigantic file sizes or anxiety over whether your system is good enough to run the game. They’re accessible for all players, and they don’t sacrifice the quality of the visuals in the process. You won’t have to worry about installing it for ages or fiddling with settings – you can just enjoy them. That’s really all that matters to me as a player.

After all, if we can’t properly enjoy a game, there’s not much of a reason to play it. And when highly-anticipated games like Cyberpunk 2077 end up looking like mud on older systems and run like lumpy treacle, it’s harder to get excited for the big titles that promise immaculate, cutting-edge graphics. I know where I stand with simple, retro visuals, and I don’t have to worry about them missing the next-gen mark.

Of course, the accomplishments of big-budget games shouldn’t be overlooked either. Whether a game strives to push boundaries or harken back to an older gaming era, creative art direction should always reign supreme. Still, when it comes to visual styles, sometimes all I really need is an 8-bit background and a chiptune soundtrack and I’m in my happy place.

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1 Comment

  1. Agreed! Lovely read that.

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