- Rapidly evolving technology has given a new look to video games.
- When the first video games on the market debuted, their graphics were blocky and basic, lacking the detail we see in games today.
- Flash forward to 2019, and classic games like “Oregon Trail,” “Doom,” and “Madden” have been intricately remade for modern consoles and eyeballs.
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Video game graphics have evolved quickly in the last few decades, taking advantage of faster processors, cheaper memory, and enormous advances in video card technology.
Early games turned lemons into lemonade by creating text-based adventure games with simple still images, since it was impossible to make the rich visuals come to life at that time.
Fast-forward to today, and many games are cinematic in scope, filled with lush images that are nearly photo-realistic.
To get a sense of just how far they’ve come, let’s compare the original version of classic video games to their most recent iteration, or modern games that were inspired by old classics. We’ve rounded up 11 games to compare how they’ve grown up.
It’s said that ‘Wolfenstein 3D’ (1992) was one of the templates for first-person shooter games.
- YouTube/World of Longplays
For those of a certain age, “Castle Wolfenstein” was a beloved top-down adventure shooter, inspired by the World War II movie “The Guns of Navarrone,” which appeared in 1981 on the Apple II. It spawned many sequels – notably 1992’s pivotal “Wolfenstein 3D,” which was a template for the modern first-person shooter.
The graphics were chunky and cartoonish, but when IGN took a look back at the game in 2012, it marveled at the little things “like Blazkowicz’ stern face peering out from the bottom of the screen. As he takes damage, his face will become increasingly bloodied.”
‘Wolfenstein: Youngblood’ (2019) gives the setting a completely revamped look.
By the time “Wolfenstein: Youngblood” was released earlier this year, BJ Blazkowicz had been a video-game star in 13 games, from top-down maze escapes, to side-scrollers, a turn-based game, and first-person shooters. In this newest installation, Blazkowicz’s twin daughters fight their way through Nazis to find their missing father.
“Youngblood” has just hit the shelves, but the last entry in the saga, 2017’s “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” won best action game at 2017’s Game Awards.
Visually, “Wolfenstein: Youngblood” features near-cinematic visuals, clearly illustrating how computer graphics have evolved in three decades, from flat cartoon foes to fully realized computer-rendered characters with whom you can connect with emotionally.
The beloved plumber Mario first appeared in ‘Donkey Kong’ (1981) but didn’t receive his name until the sequel to the game. He was originally called ‘Jumpman.’
One of the most enduring characters in gamedom, Donkey Kong got his start in a 1981’s self-titled game as the villain responsible for preventing Mario, or “Jumpman” as he was known at the time, from ascending to the top of the maze of ladders.
‘Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars’ (2015), meanwhile, maintains a nostalgic look with modern sharpness and color.
Like the good mascot that Donkey Kong has become, DK has appeared in countless games – some as the main hero, occasionally as the villain, sometimes in smaller roles, and on all sorts of platforms.
As you can see from 2015’s “Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars,” the overall aesthetics haven’t fundamentally changed since the Reagan era. But thanks to significant changes in video display tech, they’re sharper, more colorful, and more visually dynamic.
‘Oregon Trail’ was coded in 1971 by student-teachers trying to create educational software for their students — and the 1985 version seen below became an unexpected smash hit.
Few classic games are more beloved than “Oregon Trail,” which Generation X-ers may recall playing on early school computers. The game dates all the way back to 1971 when young teachers in Minneapolis created it to teach westward expansion to their pupils. But the first version most people remember was released for the Apple II in 1985.
Educational and entertaining, it taught young gamers about the harsh realities of 19th-century pioneer life – including the ever-present risk of dysentery. The graphics were limited to a mere six colors, but even so, that was a huge improvement over the text-only version from the 1970s.
The ‘Oregon Trail’ for Wii (2011) expanded the original color palette to a full shade range.
There hasn’t been a major update to “Oregon Trail” in a few years – which is disappointing – but 2011’s version of the game for the Nintendo Wii shows how far the game evolved in 40 years, despite the fact that the graphics were never a top priority for this franchise.
Not only did the graphics evolve from six colors to a full palette with shading, but game got another major update as well – motion control using the Wii’s controllers. Players can wield the controllers like whips to drive the wagons and aim them to shoot animals for food.
‘John Madden Football’ (1988) was groundbreaking for sports video games, but still clunky and slow overall.
Renamed “Madden NFL” in 1993, “John Madden Football” was perhaps the most influential sports video game franchise ever, having sold more than 130 million copies. The series was conceived in 1984, but thanks to NFL veteran John Madden’s insistence on realism and quality, the game didn’t debut for the PC until 1988.
In addition to the game’s realistic gameplay and emphasis on strategy, Madden himself voiced the game’s play-by-play commentary for the first few versions of the game. As groundbreaking as it was, the graphic were chunky and sluggish, since computers were woefully underpowered for the demands of moving 22 players around the screen.
Meanwhile, ‘Madden NFL 20’ (2019) looks like you’re watching a real-life NFL game.
The “Madden” franchise is refreshed annually, and while there aren’t dramatic graphical improvements to the game every year, this has definitely given EA ample opportunity to hone the game’s visuals as computer and console hardware has improved. Today, the gameplay in “Madden NFL 20” is so realistic that if you’re not paying close attention to the screen, it can, at times, look indistinguishable from a real game.
King’s Quest (1983) was the first adventure game to use animated characters.
Following the adventures of the royal family of the Kingdom of Daventry, the “King’s Quest” series eventually spanned 10 games and built the reputation of Sierra games. The first “King’s Quest” from 1983 put you in command of young knight Sir Graham, who was charged with recovering magical treasures in order to be crowned the new king.
It might look like it was a hand-drawn cartoon, and it might have required command to be typed in like a standard text adventure, but it was remarkable for its time. “King’s Quest” was, in fact, the first adventure game to use animated characters – prior to that, games used exclusively text and still images.
‘King’s Quest: Epilogue’ (2015) is more intricate but still looks hand-drawn — and that’s because it is.
Fast forward to 2015, and developer The Odd Gentleman rebooted the “King’s Quest” series with reimagined graphics that paid homage to the original games. Six chapters were released over two years.
The game still looks hand-drawn, but now with breathtakingly intricate, computer-rendered detail. Unlike most contemporary games, the designers achieved that effect by actually hand-drawing and painting the imagery before scanning and enhancing it by computer.
‘Doom’ (1993) helped launch the first-person shooter gaming craze.
1993 was a landmark year for PC gaming. It saw the release of “Doom,” a now-iconic first-person shooter that put you on point as a space marine attempting to hold off a demonic invasion.
“Doom” is one of the most influential games in PC history, as it helped launch the first-person shooter craze and was among a handful of games that kickstarted the evolution of 3D graphics and demand for ever-more-powerful PC graphics cards. In hindsight, the graphics are blocky and primitive. But in 1993, it was pure eye candy.
The latest ‘Doom’ (2016) is hyper-realistic, showing how far graphics have come in a couple decades.
“Doom Eternal,” the latest iteration in the franchise, is expected to arrive next year, but gamers have had 2016’s “Doom” to play with for some time.
Contemporary reviews of “Doom” 2016 don’t talk much about the visuals, and that lack of commentary says a lot on its own. Because it’s simply assumed the graphics in modern games are nearly movie-quality, it’s barely ever mentioned, giving reviewers the space to focus on observations about gameplay and story instead.
‘World of Warcraft’ (2004) has been called addictive, and the subject of much controversy over the years.
If you grew up playing “World of Warcrfat,” get ready for as shock – it was released in 2004, making this iconic game 15 years old.
The game that singlehandedly launched the massively multiplayer online role-playing genre, “World of Warcraft” had 11 million players by 2008 and playing the game has been routinely compared to a drug addiction. Visually, the game was a feast for the eyes in its day, despite the relatively low-resolution graphics and lack of realistic shading.
Only a few tweaks were made over the years to make ‘World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth’ (2018) look polished.
Unlike most games, “World of Warcraft” is a singular persistent online experience, with occasional updates issued that are akin to refurbishing an airplane while it’s in the air. The seventh expansion pack for the game was released in 2018 and represents the current state of the graphics in the “World of Warcraft” universe.
What may surprise you is that while the graphics have definitely improved – water is now dynamic, flora is more lush, and shadows are more realistic, for example – Blizzard has made only incremental changes to the game’s visuals over the years.
‘The Sims’ (2000) was originally created as a virtual dollhouse.
Inspired to create a virtual dollhouse after losing his home to a fire, designer Will Wright conceived of “The Sims” as a sort of neighborhood simulator. This wasn’t the first game of its kind – there had already been games like “SimCity,” “SimFarm,” and even “SimLife.”
But directly controlling the lives of people was compelling and novel, especially since as a sandbox-style simulation, there was no way to win or lose, and you could nurture or torture your creations.
Released in 2000, “The Sims” was an instant hit, with a GamePro reviewer writing, “the sound, graphics, and the ability to control a little Sim life hooked me almost immediately.”
‘The Sims 4’ (2014) is certainly an upgrade from the original, but maintains the same purpose and general aesthetic.
While “The Sims 4” was released in 2014, there has been a steady stream of expansion packs since then, with well over two dozen expansions in the last five years. Visually, the game is not so much a revolution as an evolution.
After all, computer graphics had already matured a lot by 2000, so in the intervening couple of decades, “The Sims” has matured with heightened “cartoon realism.” Body motions are more natural, facial expressions more detailed, and everything is bigger on-screen, since modern video cards can move pixels around more efficiently.
‘Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!’ (1987) had to be simplified from the arcade game it was based on because of the NES’ limited graphics capacity.
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“Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” (later shortened to just “Punch-Out!!”) was released for the NES in 1987. This game is instantly recognizable for its simple, cartoonish graphics – which had to be simplified from the arcade game it was based on because the NES didn’t have the computing power to animate larger, more detailed characters. In fact, the player’s character, dubbed “Little Mac,” was supposedly made short on purpose to accommodate the console’s limited graphics.
‘EA Sports UFC 3’ (2018) doesn’t include Mike Tyson, but does include some of the hyper-realistic, modern graphics esports fans have come to love.
The iconic “Punch Out” isn’t around anymore, but that’s okay – it launched the genre of boxing games, and 2018’s “EA Sports UFC 3” is one several titles that have carried the mantle in recent years.
“UFC 3” is a mixed martial arts fighting game that, while it might not look quite as cinematically photo-realistic as “Madden NFL 20,” it has to work harder, since the characters take up a huge amount of the screen and need to be very accurately modeled to represent a very physical sport.
As Forbes wrote in a review in 2018, “the game has produced a high level of visual appeal. It’s easy to take that for granted, especially when you consider most sports games look pretty good.”
‘Galaxian’ (1979) was one of the earliest arcade games to use color.
What some would call a successor to 1978’s “Space Invaders,” “Galaxian” debuted in 1979 and helped inspire a variety of “shoot ’em up” games in which a lone ship battles endless waves of dive-bombing aliens.
One of the earliest arcade games to employ color, “Galaxian” was lauded for its “beautifully drawn aliens” in a 2007 Eurogamer retrospective, which stated that the game “takes your breath away.”
The improvements featured in a similar game, ‘Galaga Revenge’ (2019), might be underwhelming in comparison to other modern smartphone games, but are clearly sharper than the original’s.
- YouTube/MaryVer Gamer
Galaxian spawned countless sequels and clones, and helped launch an entire genre.
How far have the graphics come? Look no further than 2019’s” Galaga Revenge,” released for iOS and Android devices.
The shiny, crisp graphics with intricately detailed enemy animations are pretty unremarkable among mobile games today, but a thousand light years more advanced than its 1970s predecessors.
‘Breakout’ (1976) was the evolution of the infamous 1972 Pong and designed by Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak.
“Breakout” was a bicentennial video game – it arrived in arcade form in 1976 and was ported to the Atari 2600 two years later. Since then, it’s been endlessly revised, redesigned, cloned, rebooted, and re-released.
But that first game was lightning in a bottle, a brilliant evolution of 1972’s “Pong.” The original game couldn’t be much more basic visually, with simple graphics and just a handful of colors. The game was designed by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.
‘Cyberpong VR’ (2016) is a fully immersive experience straight out of a sci-fi movie.
There are a hundred variations of “Breakout” you can play today – on the PC, on consoles, on your phone – and for the most part, they all try to offer a visual “wow” factor. But perhaps no version better illustrates the pace of graphical evolution than Cyberpong VR, a virtual-reality version of the game for the HTC Vive room-scale virtual-reality system.
In this game, you step into the game, paddles in hand, and stand toe-to-toe with the hyper-realistic bricks in a transparent play zone. Like Cyberpong, computer games of the future will no doubt continue to evolve visually, but they’ll still pay homage to the games that came before.