Although it was never manufactured, the earliest interactive electronic game with an electronic display was patented way back in 1947 by Thomas T Goldsmith. The cathode-ray tube amusement device used vector-drawn dots, which were based on radar display technology. In this article we look at The Evolution of Video Game Graphics.
Just over ten years later, in 1958, physicist William Higinbotham created the very first manufactured video game, which was the basis for the classic 1970s arcade game Pong. Video game graphics have now come a long way since the simple 2D design of the Pong tennis game.
Early Arcade Game Graphics
Today, you probably take for granted that you can play thousands of different games online, from platform games and RPGs to shooters and puzzles. But back in 1970s, that would have been pure science fiction.
Due to the lack of processing power, video games from the 1970s and 1980s used simplistic graphics to trick players into thinking they looked 3D, such as the 1983 Star Wars arcade game. The game featured lines of different colours, but there was no texture to the graphics. The 3D of the game may not be anything like today’s 3D games, but back in the early 1980s, games like Star Wars were using cutting-edge technology. Other games of the time, such as the globally-famous Space Invaders, used simple sprites to represent characters on screen. The graphic technology used in Space Invaders will soon become the staple type of graphics used in video games as they become available to play on home consoles.
Early Console Game Graphics
Early home game consoles like the Atari 2600, which was first manufactured in 1977, featured graphics that were not at the same level as those used in arcade games. For instance, with its rich colours and luscious sprites, Pac-Man looked fantastic in the arcade. But the home version was much more restrictive and less visually appealing as it had a limited colour pallet and choppy animation.
The Next Leap Forward for Home Consoles
In 1983, the Nintendo Entertainment System was launched. The 8-bit graphics of the console’s games took a great leap forward. The makers of the game found other ways to work within the programming restrictions to make the graphics more visually appealing. Certain sprites, like Mario, were created by seamlessly stitching together four unique sprites. At the time, that was groundbreaking technology.
The 16-bit Era
In the 1990s, video game graphics took another great leap forward. The 16-bit era included expanded colour pallets, and sprites were more detailed than ever before. 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo Entertainment System became available, and games like Super Mario Bros. showcased how far video game graphics had come in just a few years. Compare previous generation games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior to 16-bit games like Final Fantasy II and Chron Trigger, and you will see just how different they look and play.
Around the same time, other technologies were being utilised in video games. For instance, Nintendo racing games were entirely transformed by a technique called Mode 7, which enabled game designers to create 3D imagery by manipulating 2D objects. Furthermore, Nintendo worked out that it could add a chip to the game cartridge to enable greater graphical processing power. Due to that chip, games like Super Mario RPG became possible.
The 32-bit Era
It was not long before 16-bit graphics became outdated and 32-bit graphics took their place. The Sony PlayStation was the forerunner for 32-bit games. The console used CDs as the medium for its games, which meant developers could store more data on the discs. Many of the PlayStation’s games had some fantastic 3D graphics, but they were still not to the level of today’s games.
The 64-bit Era
The Nintendo 64 was a game-changer for 3D graphics. With the ability to pull incredible power from the new Nintendo 64 console, games like Super Mario 64, which was released in 1996, rewrote the book on how to create 3D platform games. However, the actual technology used to create 3D graphics still relied on clever sprite placement and manipulation.
The Rise of 3D Graphics
In 1999, Sega released its Dreamcast console. For the first time, 3D graphics started to resemble modern game graphics. Advances in computer hardware meant games like Sonic Adventure were truly 3D, unlike the previous generation of games that used sprites. Sega Dreamcast was ahead of its time, and games like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, and Jet Set Radio showed off some of the best graphics and gameplay ever seen in video games. Dreamcast was also the first console to contain a built-in modular modem for online play. Over time, the big three companies of today’s games, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, all followed suit, with consoles like GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Modern Day Graphics
Graphics became even more innovative in the 21st century. Today’s games are in high definition and often run at higher frame rates than they did even two decades ago. The graphics also look much more realistic. Indeed, the graphics in games like LA Noire: The VR Case Files look more realistic than anyone could have predicted just a few decades ago. Many games are cinematic in scope and filled with luscious images that are almost photo-realistic.
Every gaming studio is now working on the next generation of games, and they are sure to look even more realistic. For instance, the Frostbite game creation software suite has created games that are visually beautiful and look a little different from modern movies.
As virtual reality and machine learning technologies provide even more options for game developers, you can expect to see game graphics transform even more so over the next couple of decades. Indeed, it may get to a point where the graphics are so realistic that they almost resemble the real world.
We hope you have enjoyed The Evolution of Video Game Graphics. Fifty or a hundred years from now, you could be playing games in a virtual reality setting like The Matrix movie. You might not even know that you are playing a game!
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Also published on Medium.